Thursday, January 11, 2018

52 Ancestors #2: Benjamin Jennings (c1740-1815): A Morgan's Rifleman

Continued from 52 Ancestors #1: Benjamin Jennings (c1740-1815): Beginnings and Endings

Ancestor: Benjamin Jennings, four times great grandfather
DNA Haplogroup: I-M253

The General Assembly of Virginia voted unanimously for independence on 15 May 1776 and its Declaration of Rights was published on 12 June. Article 13 of that declaration:

"That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defense of a free state, that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power."

Service in the Virginia Militia

All able-bodied men between 16 years of age and 55, who were residents of Virginia, were required to serve in the state militia when called to do so. Benjamin Jennings served in the Virginia Militia as a private with Capt. Thomas Gaddis Co. from 9 September until 2 October 1776. They were sent to what is now Beech Bottom, West Virginia, about 20 miles north of Wheeling, West Virginia, on the Ohio River. At the time this area was part of Virginia's western frontier. The company's primary responsibility was to keep the lines of communication open to Fort Henry, in Wheeling, and scouting for hostile Indians.

Fort Henry, built in 1774 and originally named Fort Fincastle; drawing courtesy
of Wikipedia

Virginia played a pivotal role in the struggle for independence. By 1777 Virginia had raised 15 regiments of infantry for service under Continental Congress Authority. These regiments were commonly known as the Virginia Continental Line. Troops recruited to serve within the borders of the Old Dominion were known as the Virginia State Line. Virginia ignored the desire of the Continental Congress, who wanted service in the war to be for the duration and instead required each man to serve three years.

Service with the Continental Army

After his service in the militia, Benjamin returned to his family until 1777 when he was drafted or enlisted in the Continental Army, likely in late winter or early spring. During this period of service Benjamin was selected to join a provisional rifle corps commanded by Colonel Daniel Morgan, which became known as Morgan's Riflemen. He served as a private under Capt. James Knox. This corps of men were an elite light infantry unit equipped with cutting-edge rifles instead of muskets, allowing superior accuracy at up to ten times the distances of typical troops of the day. The men, primarily from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, were chosen from Continental army for their marksmanship abilities.

The British strategy in 1777 was to divide New England from the southern colonies using a three-way pincer movement with troops under the command of Barry St. Ledger coming from Ontario through western New York following the Mohawk River; William Howe bringing his troops up the Hudson from New York City; and John Burgoyne's troops coming from Montreal south down Lake Champlain and the upper Hudson valley.

George Washington had placed Horatio Gates in control of the Northern Department of the Continental Army, which was headquartered on Van Schaick Island (now Green Island) at the home of Anthony Van Schaick, just a few miles from my new home in upstate New York.

Van Schaick Mansion; photograph by Ted Fischer on 7 September 2013,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Continental troops planned to prevent the three British generals from joining together and had chosen the area where the Mohawk River joins the Hudson. Extensive breastworks had been prepared, but conditions on the ground started to turn in the Colonial Army's favor. St. Ledger broke his siege of Fort Stanwix in what is now Rome, New York, and retreated in the face of Benedict Arnold's[1] force, which was sent to relieve the besieged fort. William Howe, instead of moving up the Hudson sailed to Philadelphia to pursue Washington, leaving Burgoyne to face Gates' troops alone. Burgoyne's Indian troops fled after a detachment of his troops lost at Bennington, Vermont. He, therefore, had little local intelligence about the opposing army as well as little or no ability to be resupplied.

On 22 August 1777 Gen. Gates wrote a letter to George Washington, from his headquarters on Van Schaick Island describing the situation he faced. In the letter he mentioned Morgan's Riflemen:

"I cannot sufficiently thank your Excellency for sending Colonel Morgan's corps to this army. They will be of the greatest service to it for until the late successes this way I am told the army were quite panic struck by the Indians and their Tory and Canadian assassins in Indian dressers.  Horrible indeed have been the cruelties they have wantonly committed upon many of the miserable inhabitants, inasmuch as it is not fair for General Burgoyne, even if the bloody hatchet he has so barbarously used should find its way into his own head. "

Gen. Washington came to Van Schaick Island to review the plans to meet Burgoyne. It was decided the Continental Army would move north to a point east of Saratoga Springs near the Hudson River.

Map of the Saratoga battlefields; courtesy of the Library of Congress

After moving his troops from the areas around Van Schaick Island north along the Hudson River to Bemis Heights, about 10 south of Saratoga Springs. They spent about a week building the defensive works designed by Thaddeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish military engineer. Their position was a commanding one as the only road to Albany passed through a defile between the heights and the river.

Battle of Freeman's Farm

On 19 September, Gates' army began its attack. Benedict Arnold[1] commanded the left wing and Horatio Gates, the right. Burgoyne's plan was to turn the American left flank by negotiating the heavily wooded high ground west of Bemis Heights. Morgan's Riflemen were sent on a reconnaissance mission. They spotted a British advance force approaching the farm fields of John Freeman. Morgan placed his sharpshooters in strategic positions and they proceeded to kill or wound every British officer they saw; however, they were attacked by the main body of the British force and scattered into the woods.

There was a lull in the fighting until reinforcements on both sides arrived. Morgan's men were able to regroup and resumed executing officers. They were so successful, they captured several British artillery pieces, but would lose them as the British regrouped and charged. There were several ebbs and flows during the battle at Freeman's farm that day. During the afternoon, the British made serious attacks against both sides of the Gates' line. Fortunately, for the American darkness set in and they retreated back to their defensive works on Bemis Heights. By leaving the field to Burgoyne, the battle was considered a small victory for the British, but they had suffered nearly 600 casualties that could not be replaced.

After the day's action, Burgoyne decided to wait for Howe to arrive up the Hudson, not knowing Howe had gone to Philadelphia and was not already on the march north. Despite the interlude, there was almost daily contact between the British and American forces. Morgan's sharpshooters, who understood the tacts of woodland warfare harassed the enemy continually.

Battle of Bemis Heights

The interlude in the fighting ended on 7 October 1777. Gates had relieved Benedict Arnold and assumed command of the left flank himself.  Burgoyne decided to personally reconnoiter the American left to see if an attack was possible. He went in force and reached a wheat field quite close to the American lines. The British movement was espied by scouts and reported back to Gates. He ordered his line to attack with Morgan's Riflemen on the left.

The redcoats began the shooting by firing on the right flank of Gates' line. The terrain made the attack fairly ineffective and the Continentals held their fire, opening up when the British were at close range. The fighting on this end of the line was a total rout. British generals were taken prisoner and several artillery pieces captured.

Things were not going well for Burgoyne on the American's left either. Morgan's men had engaged and foiled several attempts the British troops made to move west. When a high-ranking British officer, who was commanding the attack was mortally wounded, British soldiers retreated in a disorganized fashion towards their defensive works. Burgoyne was very nearly killed by one of Morgan's sharpshooters; three shots hit his horse, hat and waistcoat.

General Benedict Arnold, angry at having been removed from command of the left flank, rode up to watch the battle just as the British began retreating. Gates ordered Arnold to chase them and a furious battle at the British Great Redoubt, as its defensive works were called, ensued. Arnold's forces captured the redoubt just as darkness fell.

There isn't a known likeness of Benjamin Jennings, but my husband and I did visit the Saratoga National Historic Park on the 238th anniversary of the opening battle at Freeman's Farm. When the park rangers learned I was a direct descendant of one of Morgan's Riflemen, we were given a personal tour. Some of the photos I took that day may be found here:

Saratoga National Historic Park Album

Site of the British "Great Redoubt," where Burgoyne's forces were defeated;
personal collection

Since I don't often get to walk on the very grounds my ancestors did, our day at the park and these photos are treasured indeed!

After the battle Burgoyne withdrew is troops and surrendered.  When Congress learned of the victory, a national day of thanksgiving was proclaimed on 18 December 1777 -- the first official observance of a holiday with that name.

The battles of Saratoga were a turning point in the war. France decided to enter the war after news reached them of Burgoyne's surrender, allowing the revenge against their defeat at the hands of the British during the French and Indian War a decade earlier.

Return to Washington's Army

Soon after Burgoyne's surrender, Gates ordered Morgan to return to the main army. The rifle corps reached Fishkill, New York, on 31 October 1777. The men were temporarily assigned garrison duty near New Windsor, along the Hudson. It was at this location Morgan met Alexander Hamilton on 2 November and learned Washington wanted Morgan to return to him quickly. They marched so fast many men threw away their worn-out shoes along the way.

Morgan's corps joined Washington's main army at White Marsh, Pennsylvania. It was here French Marquis de Lafayette had the opportunity to lead a party of Morgan's men on a scouting expedition. They met a large Hessian picket and Morgan's men force them to retreat over a mile and a half. Lafayette exclaimed to Washington, the men were "above even their reputation."

Morgan's riflemen were busy upon their return to the main army. They were frequently conducting reconnaissance missions up and down the Delaware River, returning to camp near White Marsh on 7 December, just in time for the third and final day of the Battle of White Marsh.

Battle of White Marsh

The Battle of White Marsh was the last major engagement of 1777 and was a series of skirmishes that took place over three days, from 5 December through 8 December. After his defeat at Germantown, Washington marched his men north, established entrenched positions and monitored British positions. British General Howe (who was supposed to have marched up the Hudson in support of Burgoyne, but instead sailed his men to Philadelphia and defeated Washington) decided to engage with Washington one last time in hopes of destroying Washington and his army before the onset of winter.

As daylight broke on the morning of 8 December Morgan's Riflemen and Col. Christopher Gist's Maryland Militia, occupied a wooded elevation, a mile or so in front of the American center. British General Howe had ordered General Grey's men up Whitemarsh Church Road toward the American center. Morgan and Gist's men opened fire and sustained it as the British scrambled for the woods and some protection. The American's were severely out numbered but fought fiercely before they were flanked. Part of Morgan's men provided covering fire while the rest retreated in good order. Morgan and Gist watched the British closely but they wanted no more and withdrew to Philadelphia.

After the British withdrew back into Philadelphia, George Washington ordered his army to their winter encampment at Valley Forge. During the winter of 1777-78 Morgan's Riflemen were responsible for patrolling the area between Gulph Mills and Radnor Meeting House on the west side of the Schuylkill River. Patrolling was mainly routine and included reporting on enemy foraging parties and manning check stations on various roads to prevent Loyalist farmers from supplying the enemy. The infantry was also drilled and trained by Baron Von Steuben and Nathaniel Greene.


British General Howe was replaced by Sir Henry Clinton, who withdrew from Philadelphia to concentrate the bulk of his forces in New York. Morgan was detached from Washington's main army again to assist New Jersey militia units in the impeding of Clinton's progress. He and his men were to operate on right side of the British column while General Charles Scott hectored them from the left. For the next several days, Morgan's men sniped at the British, demolished bridges and felled trees along their path.

Because of a series of communication blunders Morgan and his men did not participate in the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse on 23 June 1778. This rankled Morgan for months. His riflemen skirmished with the British rear guard a few days after Clinton's main army had sailed from Sandy Hook to New York City. Later, Morgan and his men rejoined Washington's main army at White Plains, New York.

Morgan's rifle corps was no longer at effective manpower strength having been depleted by casualties and temporary assignment of companies to the northern frontier to help guard against Indian forays. The corps was disbanded at the end of 1778, which coincides with the last payroll record I have for Benjamin Jennings. If he served his full three-year term, he served with another unit I have yet to discover.

This is my entry for Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks. I participated in 2014 and 2015 by writing about any interesting ancestor I was researching at the time I wrote the post. In 2017, I am taking a more disciplined approach and will be writing about the ancestors in my direct line only. The theme for this week was "Favorite Photo."

Because Benjamin Jennings and his second wife did not live long enough to claim a Revolutionary War pension, his service history was pieced together researching the various units named in his service and payroll records. I have ordered his file from the National Archives and Records Administration, but it has not yet arrived.

Using the Ancestral Reference Numbering System, Benjamin Jennings is Ancestor No. 64 on my family tree.

64. Benjamin Jennings, born circa 1740[2] in Virginia; died in 1815; will written on 27 March 1815 in Powhatan County, Virginia and proved on 19 July 1815 in Powhatan County; married 1) to an unknown woman (many people believe Sally Dickerson, or Dickinson/Dickenson) before 1765 and 2) to Elizabeth McGruder, daughter of William McGruder, on 10 Feb 1796 in Powhatan County. Known issue are listed in order they appear in Benjamin's will:
      64.1 Elizabeth "Betsey" Jennings married Benjamin Waldron[3] on 11 January 1810 in Powhatan County. This Benjamin is not a known relative of Anna Maria Waldron[3], John W. Jennings' wife.    

     64.2 Dorothea Jennings born circa 1777-1779; died after 1860; married John Pemberton on 18 February 1796 in Powhatan County.

     64.3 Benjamin Jennings, Jr. born before 1762[4]; married 1) Kisiah Roper, daughter of Shadrach Roper, on 4 December 1792 in Powhatan County and 2) Sally Boles, daughter of Henry Boles, on 9 January 1804 in Chesterfield County, Virginia.

     64.4 Daniel Jennings born between 1771-1780; married Martha Watkins, daughter of Joseph Watkins, on 17 December 1800 in Chesterfield County.

     64.5 Edmund (or Edward) Jennings born between 1771 and 1780[5]; married Jemima Chappell, daughter of Ann Chappell, on 23 May 1798 in Chesterfield County.

     32.0 John W. Jennings, Sr. born circa 1776-1777; died 19 December 1858 in Amherst County, Virginia; married Anna Mariah (or Anna Maria) Waldron[3], daughter of Benjamin Waldron, Sr., on 19 January 1805 in Bedford County, Virginia.

     64.6 James Jennings married Rebecca Waldron[3] on 8 April 1811 or 1816 in Bedford County, Virginia. Rebecca is likely a sibling or cousin of John W. Jennings, Sr.'s wife, Anna Mariah or Anna Maria Waldron.[3]
     64.7 Martha "Patsy" Jennings born circa 1795 to Benjamin Jennings' second wife; died in 1854 in Amelia County, Virginia; married Benjamin Burton, son of Benjamin Burton, on 11 November 1816 in Powhatan County.

[1] Benedict Arnold had not yet committed treason and switched sides (from American to British).
[2] The birth date for Benjamin Jennings, Sr., is from another researcher and I do not know the reasoning behind it. The only document that notes his age is the 1810 census, which categorizes him as 45 and older. We do know his son Benjamin Jennings was born on or before 1762.
[3] There were three men in Virginia, who were alive at this time named Benjamin Walrond. All three used the Sr. and Jr. suffixes on different occasions. Anna Maria Waldron's father, Benjamin, Sr.,  lived in Pittsylvania and Campbell counties and her brother, Benjamin, Jr., lived in Bedford County. Elizabeth Jennings' husband was neither of these men. He lived in Powhatan and Chesterfield counties. His possible relationship to Anna Maria is not known. (See Did John W. Jennings, c1777-1858, Marry His Niece? for more details.) Waldron was most commonly spelled Walrond before the Civil War.
[4] Benjamin Jennings, Jr., appeared on the 1783 Powhatan County Tax List as a head of family. Assuming he was at least 21 years of age, then the latest he could have been born was 1762.
[5] Based on Edmund Jennings being 50-59 years of age in 1830 and 60-69 in 1840.

Sources:, Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 for Benjamin Jennings Sep 1776 (accessed 12 September 2012)., Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 for Benjamin Jennings Mar 1778 (accessed 12 September 2012).
Battle of Bemis Heights, The,, accessed 2 January 2018.
Battle of Bennington, Wikipedia, accessed 2 January 2018.
Battle of Fort Ann, Path Through History, accessed 2 January 2018.
Battle of Freeman's Farm, British Battles, accessed 2 January 2018.
Battles of SaratogaWikipedia, accessed 13 October 2015.
Battle of Monmouth, Wikipedia, accessed 8 January 2018.
Battle of White Marsh, Wikipedia, accessed 8 January 2018.
Bennington Battlefield, Path through History, accessed 2 January 2018.
Philadelphia Campaign, Wikipedia, accessed 7 January 2008
Saratoga Campaign, Wikipedia, accessed 7 January 2008., Ancestral File for Benjamin Jennings, A062263 (accessed 1 May 2014).
Doughtie, Beatrice, Documented Notes on Jennings and Allied Families, (Decatur, GA: Bowen Press, 1961), pages 637-641).
Eckenrode, H. J., Revolutionary Soldiers of Virginia(Richmond: Public Printing, 1912), page 165 (accessed on 2 May 2014)., Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 for Benjamin Jennings for Jul 1777 (accessed 12 September 2012)., Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 for Benjamin Jennings for Aug 1777 (accessed 12 September 2012)., Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 for Benjamin Jennings for Nov 1777 (accessed 12 September 2012)., Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 for Benjamin Jennings for Jan 1778 (accessed 12 September 2012)., Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 for Benjamin Jennings for Feb 1778 (accessed 12 September 2012)., Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 for Benjamin Jennings for Dec 1778 (accessed 12 September 2012)., Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 for Benjamin Jennings for 1778 (accessed 12 September 2012).
Gwathmey, John H. (Editor). Historical Register of Virginians in the Revolution, (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1979) page 417.
Higginbotham, Dan. Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Riflemen, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), pages 55-78.
Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War, (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishers, 1997), pages 1-551.
LaCrosse, Richard B., Jr., Revolutionary Rangers: Daniel Morgan's Riflemen and Their Role on the Northern Frontier, 1778-1783, (NOTE: this entry cannot be completed until my books are no longer in storage in North Carolina).
Library of Virginia, Virginia Chancery Records, Powhatan County 1806-03 Samuel Panrey v. Benjamin Jennings (accessed 14 December 2012).
Morgan's Riflemen, Wikipedia, accessed 20 September 2012.
Saratoga National Historical Park, National Park Service, accessed 17 October 2015.
Siege of Fort Stanwix, Wikipedia, accessed 2 January 2018.
Tangled Roots and Trees, 52 Ancestors #1: Benjamin Jennings (c1740-1815): Beginnings and Endings (accessed 8 January 2018)
Tangled Roots and Trees, British Surrender at Saratoga (accessed 8 January 2018)
Tangled Roots and Trees, Revolutionary War Soldier (accessed 8 January 2018)
Virginia Militia, Wikipedia, accesses 30 September 2012).
Wright, Robert K., Jr. The Continental Army(Washington, DC: Center for Military History, 2006) pages 1-471.

52 Ancestors: Benjamin Jennings (c1740-1815): Beginnings and Endings
Who Was the Original Jennings Immigrant?
Did John W. Jennings, Sr. (c1777-1858) Marry His Niece?


  1. This is a tangent, but it's sad that all most people know of Benedict Arnold can be put in one sentence. He had a whole life and career.

    1. I agree with you completely! Benedict Arnold was a fascinating historical figure, a competent general, and a complex personality.