Sarah Osborn's Story
by AJ Berry
When in Washington DC at the National Archives and Records Administration, I copied the pension application for Sarah Osborn. It's transcribed in a different format than the others, it was one of the early ones I did and it's paraphrased in many places. There are contradictions in the story.
W.4558 (Widow of: William Reed, Aaron Osborn, and John Benjamin. All of her husbands served in the Revolutionary War.)
Women participated actively in a variety of ways during the War for Independence; some traveled with the Patriot army. For some it was a way of protecting their families while the men fought, for others it was a way to keep their lives somewhat comfortable. It was a great asset to have a woman along who could cook, wash and generally be useful while her man was occupied with the business of war. There are stories about women picking up the gun if her husband was wounded or killed and continuing the battle for him.
<- Sarah Osborn at 109 years.
Sarah Osborn was a servant in a blacksmith’s household in Albany, New York, when she met and married Aaron Osborn, a blacksmith and Revolutionary War soldier, in 1780.
When he re-enlisted as a commissary sergeant without informing her, Sarah agreed to accompany him to war. They went first to West Point, and Sarah later traveled with the Continental Army for the campaign in the southern colonies, working as a washerwoman and cook.
Her experiences include a meeting with General Washington and memories of the surrender of British forces at Yorktown.
Sarah applied for a pension by filing a deposition in 1837, at the age of eighty-one, as part of a claim under the first pension act for Revolutionary War veterans and their widows.
This is the story of a true survivor, a lady who knew what she had to do to survive and then went about to do it. She changed what she could, coped with what she could and didn’t complain in the meantime.
Sarah Osborn was an acute observer. In 1837, at eighty-one, her memory was remarkable; most of the details that could be verified are accurate with historical accounts of the incidents.
Here are some of the stories which can be verified in her account.
Capt. James Gregg had been scalped on June 25, 1777 at Fort Stanwix; the two bargemen's story of Arnold's invitation to join him in treason agrees with the most credible narrative; a man named Burke was court-martialed and his execution delayed because of popular support, the British did drive Negroes out of Yorktown when food became scarce, and many were killed between the hostile armies.
Sarah’s accounts of proudly riding on horseback through Philadelphia, of exchanging quips with George Washington in the trenches, and of meeting Governor Thomas Nelson in what is now called "the Nelson House" in Yorktown are very interesting. Her narrative of the surrender at Yorktown, where General O'Hara surrendered his sword, is as fine an eyewitness account as is available.
She was a remarkable person in many ways. Although her husband was an irresponsible character, very selfish and a bigamist on top of it, she accepted it, went on with her life and remarried.
In 1854 she was pictured as the subject of an article in the American Phrenological Journal (20, no. 5 (November 1854:101-2). She claimed to be 109 years of age, although her deposition indicated she was 98. In the article she also spoke of an earlier husband, one even before Osborn, who was not mentioned in the pension application. However, she was still spry, and her recollections of the Revolution in no way contradict her earlier statements.
Here is her story in her own simple words from the pension application.
Deponent says she had married said (Aaron) Osborn. He informed her that he was returned during the war, and that he desired deponent to go with him.
Deponent declined until she was informed by Captain Gregg that her husband should be put on the commissary guard, and that she should have the means of conveyance either in a wagon or on horseback.
Deponent had only three other women for company during this time, the wives of Lieutenant Forman and Sergeant Lamberson and a colored lady named Lenna. They had little chance for talk and gossip. She also had to contend with Captain Gregg's mental condition. She testified he had turns of "...being shattered in his mind", during which he would ask Sarah, "Did you ever see where I was scalped?", bowing his head and showing the circle of flesh and hair missing from the top of his scalp.
Deponent said she had to listen to the story time after time of when Capt. Gregg was scalped. She could recite it word for word. He and two friends were pigeon hunting away from the fort when they were jumped by Indians. (One man, Corporal Anson Ball accompanied the Captain) His companions were killed. Gregg escaped death because a tomahawk strike to his head glanced off a button on his hat, (side of his head) but he was knocked unconscious. When he came to, he crawled next to one of his dead friends. His little dog, Cricket found them and barked in alarm. Cricket ran to the river and three miles from the fort found two off-duty soldiers fishing. Cricket led them to Capt. Gregg and the two fishermen carried Gregg back to the fort.
In the same winter season she rode in sleighs accompanying her husband and the forces under command of Captain Gregg on the east side of the Hudson river to Fishkill, then crossed the river and went down to West Point. There deponent remained till the river opened in the spring thaw, when they returned to Albany. Captain Gregg’s company was along, and she thinks Captain Parsons, Lieutenant Forman, and Colonel Van Schaick, but is not positive.
Deponent, accompanied by her said husband, Osborn, and the same forces, returned during the same season to West Point. Deponent recollects no other females in company but the wife of Lieutenant Forman and of Sergeant Lamberson.
Deponent further says that she and her husband remained at West Point till the departure of the army for the South, a term of perhaps one year and a half, but she cannot be positive as to the length of time. While at West Point, deponent lived at Lieutenant Foot’s, who kept a boarding house. Deponent was employed in washing and sewing for the soldiers. Her said husband was employed in work about the camp.
She remembered the day word came that a British officer had been captured as a spy. To her recollection, Major Andre was brought to the opposite side of the river where he was kept until executed.
She also remembered when the barge man, who had helped Benedict Arnold to escape, returned to the Point. Sarah saw two men, one named Manteca, the other named Clark. They claimed Arnold told them to "...hang up your dinners! I have to be in Stony Point in the hour."
When Arnold arrived at Stony Point, he hoisted his white pocket handkerchief on his sword and said, "Row on, boys!", and they soon arrived in Haverstraw Bay. There they found a British ship anchored. Arnold jumped on board and invited the men to follow. They were given their choice to go or stay. Some stayed but most returned to the Point.
When the army were about to leave West Point and go south, they crossed over the river to Robinson’s Farms and remained there for a length of time to induce the belief, as deponent understood, that they were going to take up quarters there. Whereas they recrossed the river in the nighttime into the Jerseys and traveled all night in a direct course for Philadelphia. Deponent was part of the time on horseback and part of the time in a wagon. Deponent’s said husband was still serving as one of the commissary’s guard.
They continued their march to Philadelphia, deponent on horseback through the streets, and arrived at a place towards the Schuylkill where the British had burnt some houses, where they encamped for the afternoon and night.
Being out of bread, deponent was employed in baking the afternoon and evening. Deponent recollects no females but Sergeant Lumberton’s and Lieutenant Forman’s wives and a colored woman by the name of Letta.
The Quaker ladies who came round the camp urged deponent to stay, but her said husband said, no, he could not leave her behind.
Accordingly, next day they continued their march from day to day till they arrived at Baltimore, where deponent and her said husband and the forces under command of General Clinton, Captain Gregg, and several other officers, all of whom she does not recollect, embarked on board a vessel and sailed down the Chesapeake. They continued to sail until they had got up the St. James River as far as the tide would carry them, about twelve miles from the mouth, and then landed, and the tide being spent, they had a fine time catching sea lobsters, which they ate.
They marched immediately for a place called Williamsburg, as she thinks, deponent was alternately on horseback and on foot. When they arrived, they remained two days till the army all came in by land and then marched for Yorktown, or Little York as it was then called. The York troops were posted at the right, the Connecticut troops next, and the French to the left. In about one day or less than a day, they reached the place of encampment about one mile from Yorktown. Deponent was on foot and the other females above named and her said husband still on the commissary’s guard.
Deponent took her stand just back of the American tents, say about a mile from the town, and busied herself washing, mending, and cooking for the soldiers, in which the other females assisted her. Some men washed their own clothing. She heard the roar of the artillery for a number of days, and the last night the Americans threw up entrenchments, it was a misty, foggy night, rather wet but not rainy. Every soldier threw up entrenchments for himself, as she understood it, and she afterwards saw and went into the entrenchments. Deponent’s said husband was there throwing up entrenchments, and deponent cooked and carried in beef, and bread, and coffee (in a gallon pot) to the soldiers in the entrenchment.
On one occasion when deponent was thus employed carrying in provisions, she met General Washington, who asked her if she “was not afraid of the cannon balls?”
She replied, “No, the bullets would not cheat the gallows,” that “It would not do for the men to fight and starve too.”
They dug entrenchments nearer and nearer to Yorktown every night or two till the last. While they were digging, the enemy fired very heavily till about nine o’clock the next morning, when they stopped.
The drums from the enemy beat excessively. Deponent was a little way off in Colonel Van Schaick’s or the officers' marquee and a number of officers were present, among whom was Captain Gregg, who on account of infirmities, did not go out much to do duty.
The drums continued beating, and all at once the officers hurrahed and swung their hats, and deponent asked them, “What is the matter now?”
One of them replied, “Are not you soldier enough to know what it means?”
Deponent replied, “No.”
They then replied, “The British have surrendered.”
Deponent, having provisions ready, carried the same down to the entrenchments that morning, and four of the soldiers whom she was in the habit of cooking for, ate their breakfasts.
Deponent stood on one side of the road and the American officers upon the other side when the British officers came out of the town and rode up to the American officers and delivered up their swords. The deponent thinks the swords were returned again. The British officers rode right on before the army, who marched out beating and playing a melancholy tune, their drums covered with black handkerchiefs and their fifes with black ribbons tied around them, into an old field and there grounded their arms and then returned into town again to await their destiny.
Deponent recollects seeing a great many American officers, some on horseback and some on foot, but cannot call them all by name. Washington, Lafayette, and Clinton were among the number. The British General at the head of the army was a large, portly man, full face, and the tears rolled down his cheeks as he passed along. She does not recollect his name, but it was not Cornwallis. She saw the latter afterwards and noticed his being a man of diminutive appearance and having crossed eyes.
After two or three days, deponent and her husband, Captain Gregg, and others who were sick or complaining, embarked on board a vessel from Yorktown. It was not the same one they came down in, and set sail up the Chesapeake Bay and continued to the Head of Elk, where they landed.
The main body of the army remained behind but came on soon afterwards. Deponent and her husband proceeded with the commissary’s teams from the Head of Elk, leaving Philadelphia to the right, and continued day after day till they arrived at Pompton Plains in New Jersey. Deponent does not recollect the county.
The main body of the army under General Clinton’s command joined them, and they set down for their winter quarters. Deponent and her husband lived a part of the time in a tent made of logs but covered with cloth, and a part of the time at a Mr. Manuel’s house near Pompton Meeting House. She busied herself during the winter in cooking and sewing as usual. Her said husband was on duty among the rest of the army and held the station of corporal from the time he left West Point.
In the opening of spring, they marched to West Point and remained there during the summer, her said husband still with her. In the fall they came up a little back of New-burgh to a place called New Windsor and put up huts on Ellis’s lands and again sat down for winter quarters, her said husband still along and on duty.
The York troops and Connecticut troops were there. In the following spring or autumn they were all discharged. Deponent and her said husband remained in New Windsor in a log house built by the army until the spring following. Some of the soldiers boarded at their house and worked round among the farmers, as did her said husband also.
Deponent and her said husband spent certainly more than three years in the service, for she recollects a part of one winter at West Point and the whole of another winter there, another winter at Pompton Plains, and another at New Windsor. And her husband was the whole time under the command of Captain Gregg as an enlisted soldier holding the station of corporal to the best of her knowledge.
In the winter before the army was disbanded at New Windsor, on the twentieth of February, deponent had a child by the name of Phebe Osborn, of whom the said Aaron Osborn was the father. A year and five months afterwards, on the ninth day of August at the same place, she had another child by the name of Aaron Osborn, Jr., of whom the said husband was the father.
Sarah reported her daughter Phebe later married William Rockwell and moved to Dryden, New York. She was widowed and now lives in Enfield. (At the time of the deposition, 1837) Aaron Osborn, Jr. lived in Blooming Grove, New York. Sarah reports, "...he had fits and was crazy. He became a charge of the town and died there at the age of about thirty years."
About three months after the birth of her last child, Aaron Osborn, Jr., she last saw her said husband, who then left her at New Windsor and never returned. He had been absent at intervals before this, and at one time deponent understood he was married again to a girl by the name of Polly Sloat above Newburgh about fifteen or sixteen miles.
Deponent got a horse and rode up to inquire into the truth of the story. She arrived at the girl’s fathers and there found her said husband, and Polly Sloat, and Polly’s parents. Deponent was kindly treated by the inmates of the house but ascertained for a truth that her husband was married to said girl.
After remaining overnight, deponent determined to return home and abandon her said husband forever, as she found he had conducted in such a way as to leave no hope of reclaiming him. About two weeks afterwards, her said husband came to see deponent in New Windsor and offered to take deponent and her children to the northward, but deponent declined going, under a firm belief that he would conduct himself no better, and her said husband the same night absconded with two others, crossed the river at Newburgh, and she never saw him afterwards. This was about a year and a half after his discharge.
Some time later, she heard that Osborn, who was up on the Mohawk River, had married again. After hearing this, Sarah married John Benjamin of Blooming Grove, New York.
In 1817, Sarah received word that Osborn had died. Having seen his discharge from the army, she knew Osborn drew a bounty of lands in the lake country beyond Ithaca. Osborn had told her he sold his discharge and land to a merchant in Newburgh. Her son-in-law, William Rockwell, went to see the land and said it was a "handsome piece of property". She regrets she never did anything about it.
Some forty years ago, Sarah was told Osborn's second "wife", Polly Sloat had died. She reportedly died dead drunk, with liquor running out of her mouth after she was dead. Sarah had no knowledge of what happened to Osborn's supposed third "wife".
After Osborn left her, Sarah moved from New Windsor to Blooming Grove, New York. After thirty-five years, she and John Benjamin then moved to Pleasant Mount, Pennsylvania where she lived the rest of her life.
After deponent was left by Osborn, she moved from New Windsor to Blooming Grove, Orange County, New York, about fifty years ago, where she had been born and brought up and having married Mr. (John) Benjamin . . . she continued to reside there perhaps thirty-five years, when she and her husband Benjamin removed to Pleasant Mount, Wayne County, Pennsylvania, and there she has resided to this day.
Her said husband, John Benjamin, died there ten years ago last April, from which time she has continued to be and is now a widow.
Letter of inquiry included in the pension file.
I have to advise you, that from the records of this Bureau it appears that Aaron Osborn, or Osburn of Goshen, New York, enlisted, date not stated and served as a Drummer in Captain James Gregg’s Company Colonel Gansevoort’s New York Regiment, he was transferred to and served as a Corporal in Colonel Goose VanSchaick’s New York Regiment. He was at the battles of Peekskill, Fort Stanwix, whose during General Sullivan’s Campaign and at Paramus and also at the Siege of Yorktown. He was discharged in June 1783, having served six years and six months.
He was allowed pension on his application executed May 18, 1818, while living in Amsterdam, Montgomery Co., New York, aged seventy-four years and he died June 27, 1819.
On November 22, 1837, Sarah Benjamin of Pleasant Mount, Wayne County, Pennsylvania, applied for pension on account of the services of said Aaron Osborn and her claim was allowed.
She stated that she was born at Bloomingrove, Orange County, New York, and that she was eighty-one years old on November [?]7, 1837, that she married Aaron Osborn in January 1780, at Albany, New York and that her name before said marriage was Sarah Read, (but did not state whether she was Miss, or Mrs. Read.)
After her marriage she accompanied Aaron Osborn during his services in the army and the winter before the army was disbanded, on February 22, at New Windsor, New York, was born their daughter Phebe (who married William Rockwell, or Roquel) and then a year and five months later, on August 9, at the same place, was born their son Aaron, who died about 1830. About three months after the birth of said Aaron, her husband left her and never returned. About twenty years before 1837, she heard that he died up the Mohawk.
She stated that she married in April 1787, John Benjamin of Bloomingrove, New York, who died in April 1827. It is not stated whether they had children.
She also stated that John Benjamin was out in the militia for more than two years during the Revolution, but gave no details of his services, nor does it appear that pension was ever claimed on account of his services, or on account of the services of a William Read, who died of wounds received while serving in the Revolution.
Still another interesting letter was in the file.
Monmouth Ill, March 1, 1897.
To the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington D.C.
Do the records of your office show that Mrs. Sarah Benjamin of Mount Pleasant, Wayne Co., Pennsylvania, ever received a pension? Her maiden name was Sarah Matthews. Her first husband, William Reed, a Revolutionary soldier, her second husband, Aaron Osborne, was also a soldier of the Revolution. Both of these men were from Goshen, Orange Co, New York, which was also her native place. She was married a third time to John Benjamin. We understand here, that she was pensioned, and that this pension was because of her own personal service during the war. We have much evidence that such was the case, but desire that if it is possible, the records of the pension department confirm the testimony. She died in 1861, aged 116 years.
End Notes & Additions, James F. Morrison
Aaron Osborn enlisted Feb. 3, 1777 as a drummer in Captain James Gregg’s Company of the Third New York Continental Regiment. He was a private in December of 1777, and promoted to corporal November 26, 1780.
Battle of Peekskill was March 22, 1777.
Siege of Fort Schuyler August 3, 1777-August 22, 1777.
Battle of NewTown August 29, 1779.
Paramus N.J. There were two battles. March 22 & April 16, 1780.
Siege of Yorktown was Sept. 28 to Oc. 19, 1781.
Captain James Gregg was shot through the body, tomahawked and scalped June 25, 1777.
Corporal Samuel Mattison was killed June 25, 1777.
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