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COLONEL RICHARD PLATT TO COMMODORE VALENTINE MORRIS.
New-York, January 27th, 1814.
In reply to yours of the 20th of November last, requesting to be informed what was the reputation and services of Colonel Burr during the revolutionary war? I give you the following detail of facts, which you may rely on. No man was better acquainted with him, and his military operations, than your humble servant, who served in that war from the 28th of June, 1775, till the evacuation of our capital on the memorable 25th of November, 1783; having passed through the grades of lieutenant, captain, major, major of brigade, aid-de-camp, deputy adjutant-general, and deputy quartermaster-general; the last of which by selection and recommendation of Generals Greene, McDougall, and Knox, in the most trying crisis of the revolution, viz., the year 1780, when the continental money ceased to pass, and there was no other fiscal resources during that campaign but what resulted from the creative genius of Timothy Pickering, at that crisis appointed successor to General Greene, the second officer of the American army, who resigned the department because there was no money in the national coffers to carry it through the campaign, declaring that he could not, and would not attempt it, without adequate resources, such as he abounded in during the term of nearly three years antecedently as quartermaster-general.
In addition to the foregoing, by way of elucidation, it is to be understood by you, that so early as from the latter part of the year 1776, I was always attached to a commanding general; and, in consequence, my knowledge of the officers and their merits was more general than that of almost any other in service. My operations were upon the extended scale, from the remotest parts of Canada, wherever the American standard had waved, to the splendid theatre of Yorktown, when and where I was adjutant-general to the chosen troops of the northern army.
At the commencement of the revolution, Colonel Burr, then about eighteen years of age, at the first sound of the trump of war (as if bred in the camp of the great Frederick, whose maxim was to hold his army always in readiness to break a lance with, or throw a dart against, any assailant), quit his professional studies, and rushed to the camp of General Washington, at Cambridge, as a volunteer from which he went with Colonel Arnold on his daring enterprise against Quebec, through the wilds of Canada (which vied with Hannibal's march over the Alps), during which toilsome and hazardous march he attracted the attention and admiration of his commander so much, that he (Arnold) sent him alone to meet and hurry down General Montgomery's army from Montreal to his assistance; and recommended him to that general, who appointed him an aid-de-camp, in which capacity he acted during the winter, till the fatal assault on Quebec, in which that gallant general, his aid McPherson, and Captain Cheeseman, commanding the forlorn hope, fell. He afterwards continued as aid to Arnold, the survivor in command.
Here I must begin to draw some of the outlines of his genius and valour, which, like those of the British immortal, Wolf, who, at the age of twenty-four, and only major of the 20th regiment, serving on the continent, gave such specimens of genius and talents as to evince his being destined for command.
At the perilous moment of Montgomery's death, when dismay and consternation universally prevailed, and the column halted, he animated the troops, and made many efforts to lead them on; and stimulated them to enter the lower town; and might have succeeded, but for the positive orders of Colonel Donald Campbell, the commanding officer, for the troops to retreat. Had his plan been carried into effect, it might have saved Arnold's division from capture, which had, after our retreat, to contend with all the British force instead of a part. On this occasion I commanded the first company in the first New-York regiment, at the head of Montgomery's column, so that I speak from ocular demonstration.
The next campaign, 1776, Colonel Burr was appointed aid-de-camp to Major-general Putnam, second in command under General Washington at New-York; and from my knowledge of that general's qualities and the colonel's, I am very certain that the latter directed all the movements and operations of the former.
In January, 1777, the continental establishment for the war commenced. Then Colonel Burr was appointed by General Washington a lieutenant-colonel in Malcolm's regiment, in which he continued to serve until April, 1779, when the ill state of his health obliged him to retire from active service, to the regret of General McDougall, commanding the department, and that of the commander-in-chief, who offered to give him a furlough for any length of time, and to get permission from the British general in New-York for him to go to Bermuda for his health. This item will show his value in the estimation of Generals Washington and McDougall.
During the campaign of 1777, Malcolm's regiment was with the main army, and commanded by Lieutenant-colonel Burr. For discipline, order, and system, it was not surpassed by any in the service; and could his (the lieutenant-colonel's) and Wolfe's orderly-books be produced, they would be very similar in point of military policy and instructions, and fit models for all regiments.
This regiment was also but led at the Valley Forge in 1777 and winter of 1778, under General Washington, and composed part of his army at the battle of Monmouth on the 28th of June, 1778, and continued with it till the close of the campaign of that year, at which time it was placed in garrison at West Point by General Gates; but, upon General McDougall's assuming the command of the posts in the highlands in December, Malcolm's, Spencer's, and Patten's regiments were together ordered to Haverstraw. The three colonels were permitted to go home for the winter on furlough, and Lieutenant-colonel Burr had the command of the whole brigade, at a very important advanced post.
At this period General McDougall ordered a detachment of about three hundred troops, under the command of Lieutenant-colonel Littlefield, of the Massachusetts line, to guard the lines in WestChester county, then extending from Tarrytown to White Plains, and from thence to Mamaroneck or Sawpits, which last extension was guarded by Connecticut troops from Major-general Putnam's division.
In this situation of affairs a very singular occurrence presented, viz., that neither Lieutenant-colonel Littlefield, nor any other of his grade, in the two entire brigades of Massachusetts troops composing the garrison of West Point, from which the lines were to be relieved, was competent, in the general's estimation, to give security to the army above and the lines of those below; and, in consequence, he was compelled to call Colonel Burr from his station at Haverstraw to the more important command of the lines in WestChester, in which measure, unprecedented as it was, the officers acquiesced without a murmur, from a conviction of its expediency. At this time I was doing the duty of adjutant-general to General McDougall.
It was on this new and interesting theatre of war that the confidence and affections of the officers and soldiers (who now became permanent on the lines, instead of being relieved every two or three weeks as before), as well as of the inhabitants, all before unknown to Colonel Burr, were inspired with confidence by a system of consummate skill, astonishing vigilance, and extreme activity, which, in like manner, made such an impression on the enemy, that after an unsuccessful attack on one of his advanced posts, he never made any other attack on our lines during the winter.
His humanity, and constant regard to the security of the property and persons of the inhabitants from injury and insult, were not less conspicuous than his military skill, &c. No man was insulted or disturbed. The health of the troops was perfect. Not a desertion during the whole period of his command, nor a man made prisoner, although the colonel was constantly making prisoners.
A country, which for three years before had been a scene of robbery, cruelty, and murder, became at once the abode of security and peace. Though his powers were despotic, they were exercised only for the peace, the security, and the protection of the surrounding country and its inhabitants.
In the winter of 1779, the latter part of it, Major Hull, an excellent officer, then in the Massachusetts line, was sent down as second to Colonel Burr, who, after having become familiarized to his system, succeeded him for a short time in command, about the last of April, at which time Colonel Burr's health would not permit him to continue in command; but the major was soon compelled to fall back many miles, so as to be within supporting distance of the army at the highlands.
The severity of the service, and the ardent and increasing activity with which he had devoted himself to his country's cause, for more than four years, having materially impaired his health, he was compelled to leave the post and retire from active service. It was two years before he regained his health.
Major Hull has ever since borne uniformly the most honourable testimony of the exalted talents of his commander, by declaring his gratitude for being placed under an officer whose system of duty was different from that of all other commanders under whom he had served.
Having thus exhibited the colonel's line of march, and his operations in service, I must now present him in contrast with his equals in rank, and his superiors in command.
In September, 1777, the enemy came out on both sides of the Hudson simultaneously, in considerable force, say from 2 to 3000 men. On the east side (at Peekskill) was a major-general of our army, with an effective force of about 2000 men. The enemy advanced, and our general retired without engaging them. Our barracks and storehouses, and the whole village of Peekskill, were sacked and burnt, and the country pillaged.
On the west side, at the mouth of the Clove, near Suffren's, was Colonel Burr, commanding Malcolm's regiment, about three hundred and fifty men. On the first alarm he marched to find the enemy, and on the same night attacked and took their picket-guard, rallied the country, and made such show of war, that the enemy retreated the next morning, leaving behind him the cattle, horses, and sheep he had plundered.
The year following, Lieutenant-colonel Thompson was sent to command on the same lines in WestChester by General Heath, and he was surprised at nine or ten o'clock in the day, and made prisoner, with a great part of his detachment.
Again, in the succeeding winter, Colonel Greene, of the Rhode Island line, with his own and another Rhode Island regiment, who was a very distinguished officer, and had with these two regiments, in the year 1777, defeated the Hessian grenadiers under Count Donop, at Red Banks, on the Delaware, who was mortally wounded and taken prisoner, commanded on the lines in WestChester; there receded to Pine's bridge, and in this position Colonel Greene's troops were also surprised after breakfast and dispersed, the colonel himself and Major Flagg killed, and many soldiers made prisoners, besides killed and wounded.
On the west side of the Hudson, in the year 1780, General Wayne, the hero of Stony Point, with a large command and field artillery, made an attack on a block-house nearly opposite to Dobbs's ferry, defended by cowboys, and was repulsed with loss; whereas Colonel Burr burnt and destroyed one of a similar kind, in the winter of 1779, near Delancey's mills, with a very few men, and without any loss on his part, besides capturing the garrison.
Here, my good friend commodore, I must drop the curtain till I see you in Albany, which will be on the first week in February, where I can and will convince you that he is the only man in America (that is, the United States) who is fit to be a lieutenant-general; and let you and I, and all the American people, look out for Mr. Madison's lieutenant-general in contrast.
I am your friend,
- Richard Platt
- Project Gutenberg's Memoirs of Aaron Burr, Volume 1., by Matthew L. Davis, 1836