THNMilitary History

A veteran long before the War for Independence, Sam Whittemore was America's oldest, bravest soldier.

By Patrick J. Leonard

On April 19, 1775, approximately 1,800 British troops marched from Boston to Concord to capture a reported store of Colonial munitions and hopefully to bag such advocates of rebellion as John Hancock and Sam Adams. At Lexington Green, they were confronted by about 50 haphazardly garbed militiamen carrying a variety of weapons, some decades old, some manufactured by village blacksmiths and gunsmiths, some as modern as the guns carried by the Redcoats, but all in working order and capable of killing. When ordered to disperse, the Minutemen did not obey, and firing began that resulted in eight Americans killed; the rest hastily left the scene as ordered by their officers. The British then reformed their ranks and continued marching to Concord.

On their arrival in Concord, where alerted citizens watched their every move, the British troops searched for but did not locate any of the munitions, which were cleverly concealed in a variety of ingenious hiding places. Hancock and Adams were miles away, fully aware of the British column, thanks to Paul Revere and his assistants.

Learning that the Minutemen were swarming toward them from as far away as Worcester, and realizing that the munitions were too well secreted to be found without a lengthy search, the British began an orderly retreat toward Boston. Soon, guerrilla bands were firing from the woods and stone walls at the beleaguered marching troops. As British casualties increased, their ranks became somewhat disorganized. The Americans then struck even harder at their hated red-coated foes.

While all that excitement was going on, 80-year-old farmer Sam Whittemore was placidly working in his fields at Menotomy (now Arlington), Mass. He knew nothing of the British invasion and the deaths at Lexington. In younger days, Whittemore had been a soldier, and a good one. He became a captain in His Majesty's Dragoons stationed in America, and fought against the French, the Indians, and renegades of all types. He even spent a brief period on board a ship that was hunting for a pirate. He was always ready to drop his farming tools, pick up his weapons and march off to battle.

Most men below the rank of general have had their fill of war by the time they reach their 50th year. Not Whittemore! In 1745, he was among the forces that stormed the French fortress at Louisburg, Nova Scotia, where he captured a fine, albeit gaudy and overdecorated, French saber that he would treasure the rest of his long life. As legend has it, taciturn Sam said that the former owner of the saber had "died suddenly," but furnished no further details.

For some inexplicable reason, Britain returned Louisburg to the French, who diligently spent years and a fortune rebuilding and rearming the fortifications. Then, in 1758, the British decided to retake and forever demolish Louisburg. Whittemore, now a hearty 64, buckled on his French saber and, as peppy as ever, joined the expedition. The fort was conquered again, and he remained with the wrecking crew until Louisburg was leveled. A year later, Sam marched away again, this time winding up in Quebec, where he fought for General James Wolfe against the French General Louis-Joseph, marquis de Montcalm.

In 1763, Ottawa Chief Pontiac led an uprising in the wild, distant lands that would one day become Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Whittemore was then 68 and still looking for action.

The sons and grandchildren were ordered to stay home and work on the farm. With his saber and other weapons, Whittemore rode creakingly away on a rickety horse. He returned in triumph months later, astride one of the best stallions ever seen in Menotomy, and carrying a matched pair of ornate dueling pistols. The former owner of the dueling pistols, an enemy officer, had "died suddenly" according to laconic Sam.

Throughout his lengthy life, "Captain Sam" was as active in civilian life as he was in his military career. He served on important town committees as an assessor, a selectman, and in other capacities.

As a young married man Sam built his own home, which he and his wife Elizabeth (Spring) soon filled with three sons and five daughters. The Whittemore home still exists, on Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington.

Whittemore proved to be just as aggressive in private life as in war. During a heated election contest in January 1741, he loudly declared that one of the contestants for public office, the proud and haughty Colonel Roderick Shipley Vassal, was no more fit for the office than Sam's elderly horse, Nero, whose value he assessed at less than 5 pounds.

The infuriated colonel promptly but illegally had Whittemore jailed, and while Sam was fuming in his cell, Vassal sued him for defamation of character. The ensuing trial was a heated and well-attended one. Dauntless Whittemore, who made an admirable witness for himself, won his case. He then promptly sued the arrogant colonel for false arrest; after another sterling performance, the court awarded Whittemore the equivalent of $6,000 to soothe his pride.

After Pontiac's War, Whittemore tended to his endless chores on the farm, but he also became interested in the prospect of the 13 Colonies gaining independence from Britain. He believed that his descendants should have their own country, be able to enact their own laws and not be subject to the whims of a distant king and government.

Whittemore somehow learned about the British action at Lexington at midday on April 19 (the sound of distant gunfire may have alerted the aged warrior), and he immediately stopped working and hastened to his house. There, before the eyes of his astonished family, Sam methodically loaded his musket and both of his famed dueling pistols, put his powder and ball inside his worn and well-traveled military knapsack, strapped his French saber around his waist, squared his grizzled jaw and, as he strode briskly out the door, simply informed his worried family that he was "going to fight the British regulars" and told them to remain safely indoors until he returned.

Whittemore walked to a secluded position behind a stone wall on Mystic Street, near the corner of what is now Chestnut Street in Arlington, and calmly settled in. Some of the Minutemen pleaded with Whittemore to join them in their safer positions, but he ignored their admonitions. Soon the 47th Regiment of Foot, followed by the main body of British troops, appeared in view. On both sides of Whittemore, Minutemen were shooting at the approaching Redcoats and then sprinting away to where they could reload in safety.

Waiting until the regiment was almost upon him, Whittemore stood up, aimed his musket carefully and fired, killing a British soldier. He then fired both dueling pistols, hitting both of his targets, killing one man outright and mortally wounding another. Not having time to reload his cumbersome weapons, he grabbed his French saber and flailed away at the cursing, enraged Redcoats who now surrounded him. Some of those infuriated soldiers were probably less than one quarter of Sam's 80 years; few, if any, were even half his age.

One Englishman fired his Brown Bess almost point-blank into Whittemore's face, the heavy bullet tearing half his cheek away and knocking him flat on his back. Undaunted, Whittemore attempted to rise and continue the fight, but received no less than 13 bayonet wounds from the vengeful Redcoats. They also mercilessly clubbed his bleeding head and drove their musket butts into his body as they ran by.

When the last Britisher had left the scene and was far enough away for them to come out in safety, the villagers who had seen Whittemore's last stand walked slowly toward the body. To their astonishment, he was still alive and conscious--and still full of fight! Ignoring his wounds, he was feebly trying to load his musket for a parting shot at the retreating regiment.

A door was used as a makeshift stretcher and Whittemore was carried to the nearby Cooper Tavern. Doctor Nathaniel Tufts of Medford stripped away Sam's torn, bloody clothing and was aghast at his many gaping bayonet wounds, the other numerous bruises and lacerations, and his horrible facial injury. According to every medical text Tufts had ever studied and all of his years of experience treating injured people, the old man should have bled to death from internal injuries.

Tufts sadly remarked that it was useless to even dress so many wounds, since Whittemore could not possibly survive for very long; the deep bayonet thrusts must have pierced many of his vital organs. The horrified bystanders, however, persuaded the reluctant doctor to do his best, and Tufts bandaged Whittemore. He did what he could with the frightful facial wound in an age when plastic surgery was unknown. When the bandaging was finally finished, old Sam was tenderly carried back to his home to die surrounded by his grieving family.

To the surprise of everyone but indomitable Captain Samuel Whittemore, he lived! And continued active for the next 18 years, dying on February 3, 1793, at age 98, proud that he had done his part and more in America's fight for independence. When asked if he ever regretted his heroic deed, which had left him disfigured and somewhat lame, Whittemore would proudly reply in ringing tones, "No! I would take the same chance again!"

One might question Captain Whittemore's tactical military skill and his judgment in his last battle, but certainly not his sheer courage and bravery. *