Forgotten Warrior Brigadier General John Nixon by Harry Schenawolf

Brave, Humble, Firm, Dedicated

There are two Revolutionary War soldiers of merit who share the same name. Colonel John Nixon of Pennsylvania and Brigadier General John Nixon of Massachusetts. Colonel Nixon of Pennsylvania has received far more attention than General Nixon. Colonel Nixon, along with his father Richard, were shipbuilders and prominent citizens of Philadelphia who were active in politics. Colonel Nixon lead a battalion of Philadelphians labeled “Silk Stockings.” He was a member of the Pennsylvania Committee on Correspondence, and, when it was decided that the Declaration of Independence should be publicly proclaimed on July 8, 1776, Colonel John Nixon was chosen to read it. His portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart and an extensive memoir was written by Charles Henry Hart, published in 1877.

Brigadier General John Nixon
Brigadier General John Nixon

General John Nixon, for whom little has been written, was very different from the illustrious and flamboyant Colonel Nixon. The son of a pioneer farming family from Framingham, Massachusetts, he was humble in bearing whose active military record was far more noteworthy than his Philadelphian namesake. At seventeen years of age, John Nixon participated in the fall of the French citadel Louisbourg. Ten years later, he answered the call to fight in the French & Indian War. Captain Nixon fought in several northern battles along the Canadian border. Colonel Nixon lead a regiment of minutemen against the British at Lexington and Concord and commanded the last American regiment to leave the field at the Battle of Bunker Hill (for which he received a severe leg wound). Brigadier General Nixon was present throughout the Battles around New York in 1776 and fought at the Battle of Saratoga where his hearing and eyesight was permanently damaged by a near-miss cannonball. He devoted five years to the American cause before retiring in 1780.

Early Life

John Nixon was born in Framingham, Massachusetts on March 1, 1727, the eldest of seven children. His mother was Mary Seaver and his father, Christopher Nixon of Huguenot descent, was a pioneer farmer who was the first settler of Framingham, incorporated in 1700. Christopher Nixon cleared fifty acres of land in the northern part of the town where he built his home and raised his family. Young John Nixon helped his father on the farm while receiving a rudimentary education in the town’s district school. Nothing else is recorded of Nixon’s boyhood until 1744 when he reached the seventeenth year of his life and gained his first experience in war. He answered the British call for colonialists to assist them in dislodging the French at Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island. After the French fortress capitulated, he remained in camp until 1746. Twelve years later, from 1758 – 1761, he would serve three terms during the French and Indian War. Accepting the rank of lieutenant, he rose to captain of his own company and fought in the militia assigned to the British army.

In the years since his first military experience at Louisbourg, Nixon was a frequent visitor to his neighbor’s farm, the Berrys, who lived on one of the oldest and best kept farms in Framingham on the west side of Nobscot. Nixon courted and married Thankful Berry (1735-1776) on February 7th, 1754 and spent one year in his new life with his wife when war broke out between England and France. Between his three terms fighting with the British army, he had built a house and farm on some acreage north of Nobscot over the line from Framingham in the township of Sudbury and began raising a family.

Thirteen years passed between the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. In that span, Nixon assumed the humble role as farmer and respected member of his community. Within the years 1757 to 1775, Thankful gave birth to ten children: John, Sarah, Hephzibah, Mary, Joseph, Keziah, Anne, Artemas, Benjamin, and Betsey. Although they lived over the line in Sudbury, the Nixon family were members of the Framingham Church where all their children were baptized.

Siege of Louisbourg (Early March – June 28, 1745) and the French & Indian War (1754-1763)

Siege of Louisbourg 1745
Siege of Louisbourg 1745

            During the winter of 1744 – 45, Sir William Pepperell called for volunteers to capture the French citadel Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island which was in defiance to England’s trade and supremacy in her colonies. The call was met by eleven volunteers within a mile of Nobscot Hill in Framingham. Among them was John Nixon, Robert Seaver (John’s uncle through his mother) and his two sons, cousins and Shears Berry, Nixon’s future brother-in-law.   Captain Ephraim Baker was Nixon’s commanding officer in the regiment commanded by Colonel Pepperell.

The Massachusetts men participated in the fall of Louisbourg on July 17, 1745, and remained throughout a hellish winter, scantily clad, unsanitary conditions, and enduring an outbreak of small-pox. They returned home the following year in 1746. It is recorded, somewhat romantically in the Nixon genealogical notes by Framingham resident, Rev. Josiah H. Temple, that John Nixon deserted with a group of older men during the winter of 1744-45. He was captured, court-martialed, and sentenced to be shot. Reality toys with the fantastic when the story relates that when Nixon was taken to a place to be shot, because of his young age, secret orders were given to the firing squad to miss him. When the squad volleyed, Nixon fell with the others, but rose unscathed. Nixon was permitted to live “to redeem his fame as the hero of many campaigns and battles.” There is evidence that Nixon was arrested and furloughed to the care of his captain, Ephraim Baker. Nixon is mentioned in a letter by Baker, found in the Pepperell and Belknap papers, that states that Baker will furlough Nixon and return him home.

Nixon returned to his family’s farm and there is no record of him until his marriage to Thankful Berry in 1754. On March 7, 1755, Nixon enlisted as a lieutenant in Captain Newell’s Roxbury Company, but was placed in Captain Jonathan Hoar’s Company of Concord. Nixon was made captain in place of Hoar on September 8, 1755. Nearly a year later, by August 26th, 1756 (muster call in Nixon’s own hand), Nixon was company commander in Colonel Timothy Ruggles regiment of Hardwick, Worcester County.

Nixon participated in the Crown Point expedition from the summer of 1756 until December 17, 1756 and fought in the Battle of Crown Point on September 8, 1756. In early 1757, there was another expedition in the Crown Point region, however Colonel Ruggles was taken sick and Nixon’s company escorted him home to Massachusetts. Nixon enlisted again in September 1758, this time in Colonel Ruggles’ regiment. They were assigned to the British army under James Abercrombie in the attack against Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. Their trek north was slow as written by Nixon, “On the roads at work at Half Moon.”

Batle of Ticonderoga 1758
Battle of Ticonderoga 1758

The Battle of Ticonderoga, July 6-8, was a dismal failure for the British whose casualties were ten-fold that of the French. Renowned historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Henry Gipson wrote of Abercrombie’s campaign that “no military campaign was ever launched on American soil that involved a greater number of errors of judgment on the part of those in positions of responsibility”. Nixon was present during the Battle of Ticonderoga, but this researcher can find no written record of his role. He returned home shortly afterwards, but on March 31, 1759, Nixon again joined Colonel Ruggles regiment. He served only one month with Ruggles, the respected lawyer who was considered an officer of cool bravery, excellent judgment, and knowledgable in military warfare. Nixon’s company was transferred to the regiment of Colonel John Jones of Hopkinton and placed under the command of Lord Jeffrey Amherst for service in Canada. His enlistment ending on December 20th of that year and he returned home. He settled down with his family, but a year and a half later he answered the call to duty a third time. He commanding a company of militia from April 18th 1761 to July 28th, 1762. This time he returned home for good.

Revolutionary War (April 19th 1775 – Sept. 3, 1783) and

Battle of Lexington & Concord – April 19, 1775

Hostility between the colonies and England became grave. Open violence seemed imminent. John Nixon was called upon to organize a company of minutemen from Sudbury Massachusetts. At the time Sudbury had the largest number of French and Indian War veterans in the state, over 250 experienced soldiers. Because Nixon was a captain of militia during the French and Indian War, he was selected as captain of The Sudbury West Side Company whose roster included fifty eight men. They were very dedicated, meeting once a week for four hours of training with an average of only one absent per drill. Early in the morning on April 19th, 1775, the cry that British troops were invading the countryside went out. Nixon and his men met at the West Side Meeting House and rushed toward Concord. Sudbury’s other five companies, numbering a total of 249 (including Nixon’s), were under Nathaniel Endworth, Aaron Haynes, Isaac Locker, Joseph Smith, and Moses Stone.

Supreme British Commander General Gage decided to confiscate military supplies that they were told were stored at Concord. Eighteen hundred British troops in eight regiments would ultimately be involved in what became known as the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The British were lead by Colonel Smith and Major Pitcairn. They met resistance at Lexington leaving eight Americans dead on the green. After their confrontation with the militia at Lexington, they again met resistance at the north bridge at Cambridge. After a brief exchange of fire, the British destroyed what stores they found and began their march back to Boston.

The south bridge leading from Concord was on the line of approach from Sudbury. “The brave Nixon,” as historian Bancroft referred, arrived with fifty of his men at the bridge before the exchange of fire at Concord. Nixon found the bridge held by the British. Colonel Barrett had issued orders for the Sudbury men to halt at the bridge. Under no circumstances were they to fire upon the British, for fearing the Americans would start the fight. [Note: Some internet articles write that Nixon arrived after the battle began, but this counters Barrett’s specific orders that they were to hold their fire so “not to chance starting the fight.”] Nixon’s men, especially Deacon Josiah Haynes, then eighty years old, urged that they attack. Historian John Merriam romantically writes that Haynes turned to Nixon and said, “If you don’t go and drive them British from that bridge, I shall call you a coward.” Nixon then replied, “I should rather be called a coward by you, than called to account by superior officers for disobedience of orders. We are ordered not to fire until we are fired upon.” Once it was clear that the fight had indeed started, Nixon’s men were foremost throughout the day as they doggedly pursued and fired upon the British during the redcoat’s frantic march back to Boston. The outspoken Deacon Haynes was caught unawares by flanking British and was among those killed during this pursuit.

The Middlesex County minutemen, with whom Nixon’s company were part of, remained in Cambridge until April 24th, 1775, when commissions were issued and enlistments sought for longer service in what was becoming the Continental Army. That same day, John Nixon was commissioned a Colonel by the Massachusetts Assembly and a regiment, the 6th Massachusetts, was placed under his command. His brother, Thomas became his lieutenant colonel and John Buttrick of Concord was chosen as major. His captains were Micajah Gleason and Thomas Drury of Framingham, Joseph Butler and Abishai Brown of Concord, William Smith of Lincoln, and David Moore of Sudbury. The regiment was officially mustered by the Provincial Congress on June 5th, 1775. Nixon’s regiment was put under the command of General Artemas Ward and in May of that year saw their first action; joining forces with other commands in a raid on Noodles and Hog Islands to seize and bring off the stock of cattle grazing there.

During this time, Colonel Nixon’s military experience and eye for detail was evident among an army of amateur commanders whose rank and file consisted mainly of farmers and merchants. Justin Winsor writes in his Memorial History of Boston that, “A good deal of the military spirit of the camp was derived from a veteran of the French and Indian Wars, John Nixon.”

Battle of Bunker Hill – June 17, 1775

Grenadiers attack entrenchments at Bunker Hill
Grenadiers attack entrenchments at Bunker Hill

            Nixon was field officer on June 17th, the day of battle on Charlestown Neck. Though his regiment was not part of the original party that constructed the redoubt and entrenchments the night before, his regiment was among the first to rush to Charlestown Neck and Breeds Hill to help fortify the American position.

The American line was as follows: The extreme right lead along a fence that curved west and north from the central redoubt that was dug the previous night at the summit of Breed’s Hill. Further to the east were entrenchments that formed a V which were also dug that evening. A rail fence reinforced with haystacks sloped down Breed’s Hill from the entrenchments and ran east toward the water where it ended on a small bluff. From here, stones and pulled rail fencing were lined along the beach to the water. The far right was held by companies from Colonel Doolittle’s, Reed’s, and Woodridge’s regiments commanded by Wheeler and Crosby. Just to the right of the redoubt were Warners Company, a company from Col. Little’s regiment, and Capt. Nutting’s company who had been in the Charlestown until the British landed. The redoubt at the summit of Breed’s Hill was principally commanded by Colonel Prescott with portions of additional units overlapping as reinforcements arrived just prior to the battle. The breastwork to the left of the redoubt was manned by Colonels Brewer, Nixon, Woodbridge, Little, and Moore’s regiments. According to Frothingham on pg. 136, Colonel Swett states that each of these regiments (except for Little’s) were approx. 300 strong. The rail fence was manned by Colonel Knowlton’s Connecticut troops and further along the fence to the beach and shoreline were the New Hampshire regiments of Reed and Stark, Stark’s being the largest regiment present.

Judge Needham Maynard, aide to General Warren who was present in the redoubt, confirms that Nixon’s regiment was stationed at the hay breastwork that ran below the redoubt and along the fence to the east. Fleming writes that General Warren, while making his way to join Prescott in the redoubt, stopped and talked to Colonels Nixon and Brewer indicating that they were positioned close to the redoubt. Ammunition was scarce all along the line; Nixon’s men answered the call to reinforce Breeds Hill with only thirteen cartridges per man.

After the first repulse, the British reformed and came on a second time. A battalion of Grenadiers along with the 5th and 52nd regiments attacked the entrenchments and fence. As normal for advancing infantry, they were not trained marksmen and usually fired high. After the battle, it is written that upper branches of trees along the American line were ripped apart while the trunks remained unscathed. Field officers, standing upright behind their men, were much more exposed to this high-flying fire. Colonel Nixon and Brewer, including Nixon’s Lt. Colonel William Buckminster, were wounded in this second advance. A ball went through Buckminster’s shoulder crippling him for life. Nixon fell severely wounded in the thigh and had to be carried off the field. Lossing writes that he never fully recovered from the wound. Colonel Swett later wrote that Colonel Nixon was badly wounded and peppers his story by stating that he was saved by a dollar coin in his pocket. It is reported that Nixon’s regiment were among the last to leave their post when the British over-ran the redoubt.

Peter Salem, freed African American who, at the Battle of Bunker Hill, shot and killed Major Pitcairn, served in Captain Drury’s Company of Colonel John Nixon’s 6th Mass. He remained in Nixon’s brigade as a Continental regular until 1779.

Siege of Boston Summer of 1775 – March 17, 1776

Peter Salem of Nixon's Brigade kills Pitcairn
Peter Salem of Nixon’s Brigade kills Pitcairn

Nixon recuperated from his wound and was well enough to be in command of his regiment when George Washington arrived on July 3, 1775 to take command of the forces around Boston. Washington immediately began establishing military order and one of his first acts was to appoint a General Court Martial. It was organized on July 12th and Colonel John Nixon was made its president. This was the first major court martial of the Revolutionary War and it’s interesting to note that the proceedings were overseen by its president, a Middlesex farmer.

During the Siege of Boston, Nixon’s regiment was stationed at Winter Hill in Somerville. They, along with Colonels John Stark and Enoch Poor’s regiments were assigned to General John Sullivan’s brigade which was part of the left wing under divisional commander Major General Nathaniel Greene. Congress reassigned regimental numbers when men were ushered into the Continental Army. Nixon’s regiment was now the 4th Continental Regiment Infantry.

New York City and Garrison Duty

            The British forces evacuated Boston for Halifax on March 17, 1776. Washington decided New York City would be England’s next objective. On march 18th, General Heath’s brigade was ordered from camp around Boston to New York City. General Sullivan soon followed. General Greene’s five regiments, including Nixon’s, departed on April 1st. Washington left for New York on April 4th.   Washington told Greene that he must “hasten his march” to New York. Irregular columns wound their way through the countryside and tiny hamlets of New England. Five to six miles of ground was covered before breakfast, fifteen to twenty miles were covered by day’s end. The typical spring weather, cold and wet with the frost just leaving the ground and making the dirt roads a muddy quagmire at times, was grueling. Solomon Nash with a company of Massachusetts artillery complained, writing in his diary of the “wet weather” and “very bad traveling.” All in all, It was quite a spectacle for these quiet New England towns and farms, witnessing the largest army ever to march through the colonies. Most of the forces marched as far as New London, Connecticut, at the mouth of the Thames River. There they boarded transports to sail down the Long Island Sound to the city, however precious days were lost waiting for favorable winds.

Washington arrived in New York on April 13, 1776. Greene’s brigade, including Nixon’s regiment, set sail on April 11th in a blinding snowstorm. By April 17th, Washington had heard no word and reported to Congress that he feared they may have been lost. Later that same day, Greene’s brigade arrived. Nixon’s name does not appear on record until June 15th when he was president of a court martial in New York.

June 29th, 1776, Statin Island signals that General Howe’s fleet from Halifax had arrived. On July 1, Nixon was ordered “to proceed as soon as possible in the morning to Governor’s Island in New York harbor and take command.”   Governor’s island was considered the most heavily fortified position in and around the city. General Sterling writes to Nixon, “Governors Island is more strong and better guarded than any other post of the Army…” While on duty at Governors Island, Nixon was commissioned a Brigadier General on August 9, 1776, and given Major General Greene’s old brigade. Nixon’s brigade consisted of Colonels James Mitchell Varnum and Daniel Hitchcock of Rhode Island, Moses Little of Mass., Jacob Bailey [later replaced by Prescott, renowned for Bunker Hill], and Thomas Nixon, brother leading John Nixon’s old Massachusetts regiment. Varnum and Hitchcock were learned men graduating from Brown and Yale College. Little and Bailey were from Newbury. Bailey would later serve the northern army as Commissary General.

Within two days of Nixon manning the post at Governors Island, British troops began landing at Statin Island which would eventually house over 32,000 British and Hessian troops. The stage set, by August 22nd, British General Howe, after failed attempts at negotiating a peaceful settlement, landed his invasion force on Long Island at Gravesend Bay across the Narrows from Statin Island.

Battle of Long Island August 27, 1776

            In early May, Washington had begun moving troops over to Long Island where over two thousand men began building a series of redoubts and entrenchments. Fort Stirling stood to the west of the small village of Brooklyn heights and to the east, three redoubts were constructed. Fort Putnam, named for engineer Rufus Putnam, cousin of Israel Putnam, was the furthest north. Fort Greene, named for the commanding officer, Nathaniel Greene, was slightly southwest of Putnam, and Fort Box, named for Major Daniel Box, was a little southwest of Fort Greene. Each was surrounded by a large ditch and connected by a line of entrenchments with a total of 36 cannons, mostly 18 pounders. Fort Defiance, southwest of Fort Box, was under construction when the British struck.

Washington was convinced that the first blow would fall on Manhattan, however Greene and his aide-de-camp, Colonel Reed, believed it would be Long Island. Washington decided to play it safe and split his 19,000 force army by keeping a large portion in Manhattan and the rest to man the defenses on Long Island. Greene was put in charge and moved his division there, including Nixon’s regiment minus his brother Thomas and Prescott’s regiments who remained on Governors Island. On August 20th, Greene became ill and moved to a house in Manhattan. General Sullivan took over, however once the British landed on the 22nd, four days later on the 24th, Washington turned the helm over to General Putnam.

When Washington learned that Howe had landed but eight to nine thousand troops on Long Island, this convinced him that the main British army was held back for an invasion of Manhattan. He reinforced Long Island with only 1,500 troops. When Putnam crossed to Long Island to accept command, he brought six battalions with him including Brigadier General Heard’s brigade, the rest of General Stirling’s brigade (including General Stirling), and a special until of rangers commanded by Colonel Thomas Knowlton of Bunker Hill fame. That same day, Howe landed five thousand Hessian troops bringing his total force to 20,000. Washington decided to keep the bulk of his force, 6,000 men, behind the defenses at Brooklyn Heights. He thought to conflict great harm on the attacking British by assigning Generals Stirling and Sullivan to the south of Brooklyn Heights at Guan Heights, stringing them out along a line from Gowanus to Flatbush and Bedford to the east. Only 500 men under Stirling was expected to hold the American right and another 1,800 along the line to Bedford.

Nixon’s name first appears with operations on Long Island as field officer of the day with orders “to take command of the outer line and post his men in the edge of the woods next to the enemy.” [Sullivan’s orders Aug. 24th . On the day of the battle, Aug. 27, General Parsons was field officer]. Besides his own Rhode Island and Massachusetts troops, Nixon also commanded the Long Island militia who were normally under Colonel Woodhull.

As per Greene’s general orders on August 16th, Nixon’s brigade was stationed in the entrenchments between Fort Putnam and Fort Box. This would indicate that they were part of the 6,000 troops that were stationed along the defenses on the day of battle, August 27th. However, Johnston writes that two of Nixon’s regiments, Hitchcock’s and Little’s, were surprised at Flatbush Pass and almost captured when General Howe and Clinton circumvented the American line and attacked from the flank, collapsing the entire American position whose men fled to the safety of Brooklyn Heights. This is supported in a detailed report of all casualties, prisoners, and missing in action from General Nixon’s brigade from August 27th to November 16th of 1776. The report was made by Gen. Nixon while at Camp Phillips Manor, outside White Plains, on November 18th, 1776. In it, only Hitchcock and Little’s regiments sustained casualties and missing in action at the Battle of Long Island.

Battle of Harlem Heights September 16, 1776

After the disaster on Long Island, three new divisions were organized on September 1st.   Nixon’s brigade was placed in the Central Division under General Spencer (acting division commander while Greene recuperated from his illness). The Central Division was to man three lines of entrenchments along Harlem heights, about eight miles north of New York City. General Putnam was to command the division that remained in the city, and General Heath commanded the division that protected the northern approaches to Manhattan including Westchester County and Kings Bridge.

Nixon was present at a council of war on Sept. 12, 1776 that was held at General McDougall’s quarters. At that council, it was decided to abandon New York City and move all troops to defensive positions north on Manhattan and Kings Bridge. Nixon’s troops were stationed along Harlem Heights the morning of September 15th when the British invaded Manhattan Island at Kip’s Bay. They played no defensive role in halting British General Clinton’s advancing forces. However, they were key to what is considered an America’s victory the next day at the Battle of Harlem Heights.

Early in the morning of September 16th, Colonel Knowlton, commander of a special unit of intelligence gathering rangers, probed the British line. They came under fire and exchanged volley for volley in a heated skirmish that last nearly an hour.   When the British brought up more troops, Knowlton’s men retreated. The British light infantry followed. From Point of Rock on Harlem Heights, Washington could see the pursuing British. He could also see that they were not supported. He devised a plan to entrap the light infantry. To work, he needed to bait the British into a trap. He choose a detachment from Nixon’s brigade. Lt. Colonel Crary, acting Colonel of Varnum’s Rhode Islanders while Varnum was out with the fever, led his force of volunteers down the slopes from the heights and offered to do battle with the pursuing British. Meanwhile, Knowlton’s men, having gained their lines, joined forces with a company from the Virginia second, Major Leitch commanding. The plan was for Nixon’s men to keep the Light Infantry occupied while Knowlton & Leitch flanked the British, hoping to come up from behind and force them to surrender.

Nixon’s men handled their role convincingly, drawing the British into what was called Hollow’s Way, a flat plane between opposite slopes. According to Lt. Joseph Hodgekins of Nixon’s brigade [a cordwainer from Mass.], “they [British] stood in open field before a thick stretch of woods.” John Chilton, a tobacco planter from Virginia, was among the volunteers who formed the feint. He writes, “I believe they [British] expected we should have ascended the hill to them, but finding us still, they imputed it to fear and came down skipping towards us in small parties.” The light infantry took possession of some fences and bushes [the overgrown fence was the boundary of the Hoaglandt farm]. The British started firing when they got within 250 yards. The Americans were ordered to hold until the light infantry got closer and opened up at about 70 yards [Capt. John Gooch (Mass.) in a letter dated Sept. 23]. The adversaries spent the better part of an hour volleying with little damage to each other; beyond 40 yards, the musket’s accuracy is poor. While the two forces volleyed, Washington sent the rest of Nixon’s brigade, part of Maryland’s independent companies under Major Price, the 1st & 4th Maryland Flying Battalions commanded by Colonels Griffith and Richardson respectively, and three companies of riflemen from the 2nd & 3rd Maryland Flying Battalions commanded by Major Manz. Nine hundred men in all, under the overall command of Brigadier General Razin Beall of Maryland, roared down the hill to further the appearance of battle.

Unfortunately, Knowlton’s men sprung the trap too soon. Several rangers ran into a group Light Infantry who were strung out along their line. The British volleyed, thereby alerting the rest of the light infantry that they were being flanked. The British pulled back with Varnum’s men and Knowlton’s in close pursuit. This first round of fire from the British struck both Knowton and Leitch within a few minutes of each other. Knowlton died within the hour and Leitch succumbed to his wounds a few days later.

Rather than call his men back, Washington saw an opportunity to inflict damage on the British while raising the moral of his men. He ordered more troops to the fray including many of the same men who, the day before at Kip’s Bay, ran terrified from the invading British. These men, seeing the British retreating, drove down the hill and raced to get into the fight. The light infantry was driven into a buckwheat field and, with the addition of the 42nd Highlanders, another battalion of light infantry and company of Jaeger including two fieldpieces, they made a stubborn stand. For two hours, from noon to two in the afternoon the two sides slugged it out. Ranger Oliver Burnham wrote that he fired sixty rounds in the buckwheat field alone. General Greene and General Putnam were on the field along with over two thousand American troops. They continued the pressure and the British began to retreat. The Americans drove them past an orchard where Knowlton first encountered the light infantry and beyond, stopping at Hoyland Hill. General Washington saw that additional British and Hessian reinforcements were arriving and called a general retreat. Nixon’s brigade, along with all the Americans who fought that day, proudly walked off the field crying Huzzah.

The heaviest American losses were from Nixon’s brigade: Officially: Brother Thomas’ reg. 4 killed, Varnum 4, and Hitchcock 4. However, Lieutenant-Colonel Henshaw, of Little’s regiment, simply writes to his wife in regard to the action, “I was there,” and adds “our loss was one hundred.” He puts the casualties in his brigade alone [Nixon’s] at seventy-five. This included the deaths of Captain Micajah Gleason of Thomas Nixon’s regiment. A friend and neighbor to Gen. Nixon.

The evening of September 16, 1776, general orders read that “General Nixon, Col. Sergeant, Col. Weedon, and Maj. Price’s regiments are to retire to their quarters and refresh themselves, but to hold themselves in readiness to turn out at a moment’s warning.” Three days later, in general orders on Sept. 19th from Harlem Heights, Nixon’s brigade is ordered into Jersey.

Retreat from Harlem Heights, Throngs Neck, White Plains

            General Howe decided against a frontal attack against Harlem Heights. Perhaps the memory of Bunker Hill was too fresh. He had witnessed his troops mowed down as they tried to scale Breeds Hill in the face of weapons ably handled by farmers and hunters. Howe decided to flank Washington’s army by way of Westchester County and trap the Americans on Manhattan. Leaving Lord Percy with three brigades to hold the line at Harlem Heights, on October 12th, in thick fog, he sailed north through Hell’s Gate and landed a large force at Thongs Neck [referred to as Frogs Neck at the time]. Frogs Neck was actually a small island separated from the land by a creek and marshy borders. Previously, General Heath had posted Colonel Hand’s riflemen and Colonel Prescott’s regiment at Frog’s Neck. Hand’s men had drawn up the planks on the bridge that crossed the creek and Colonel Prescott’s regiment were dug in on the mainland side of the marshes. When the British and Hessians landed, these troops were successful in halting the enemy’s progress.

Word spread quickly among the Americans. General Greene, then at Fort Constitution (later named Fort Lee in honor of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee) wrote to Washington offering three brigades to march to Frog’s Point; “I am informed a large body of the enemy’s troops have landed at Frogg’s Point.   If so, I suppose the troops here will be wanted there. I have three brigades in readiness to reinforce you. General Clinton’s brigade will march first, General Nixon next, and then the troops under the command of General Roberdeau. These troops were soon on the road to cross the Hudson.”

On Oct. 14th, Maj. General Heath wrote to Nixon from King’s Bridge. He informed Nixon that Washington had put all troops on the Westchester side of King’s Bridge under his command, including Nixon’s brigade. He orders Nixon to proceed directly to Frog’s Point to offer support. He also informs Nixon that if the attack should be made at East Chester Landing, further north from the Point, his brigade is to repel them. Thomas Nixon and Varnum’s Rhode Islanders arrived at the Point and posted men at the bridge and causeway through the marshes. They were joined by Malcom’s regiment including Grahman’s and Ritzema’s New Yorkers. A total of 1,800 defenders prevented Howe’s forces from gaining the mainland. Howe’s army was unable to cross the creek and went into camp, remaining stagnant for six days.

Meanwhile, Washington called a council of war on October 16th at the headquarters of Major General Lee who had recently arrived from Charleston, South Carolina where the Americans had repelled a recent British invasion (though Lee arrived too late to have any effect, he showed up in time to take the credit for the American victory). Nixon attended this meeting in which Greene argued favorably that Fort Washington on Manhattan Island was to be retained and fully garrisoned as long as possible.

Howe finally moved his forces further north to Pell’s Point where he encounter stiff resistance from Colonel Glover. Glover was gradually driven back by superior numbers and Howe was able to push inland, doggedly making his way north towards White Plains. All these delays allowed Washington time to remove his main force from Manhatten (keeping the garrison at Fort Washington and the line at Harlem Heights) and reposition his army on the heights north of White Plains.

In the Battle of White Plains, fought on October 28, 1776, there is no mention but one in all the records on the battle that Nixon’s brigade participated in the conflict. It is agreed that Nixon’s men were present, but not on the American right where the action took place. The one discrepancy was penned by Josiah Temple, in his History of Framingham, pg. 302. In it, he states that “Captain Micajah Gleason and his company of Col. Thomas Nixon’s regiment were in the battle at White Plains and that Captain Gleason was killed.”   However, this is refuted by General Heath in his Memoirs of Major General Heath, 1798, where he states emphatically that Capt. Gleason was killed on September 16th at Harlem Heights: “The Americans had several officers killed and wounded; among the former Lt. Col. Knowlton, of the Connecticut line, and Capt. Gleason, of Nixon’s Massachusetts regiment…”

Peekskill

            After the Battle of White Plains, the American army moved north a short ways to North Castle heights and began digging new defenses. There they sat waiting for British General Howe’s next move. Officers busied themselves with never ending court martial duties. Nov. 4th, Capt. Garrish of Colonel Little’s Regiment and Nixon’s brigade defended himself successfully from accusations made by Colonel Hand that he had left his post. The same day, general orders reassigned Col. Read in Glover’s brigade to Nixon’s brigade and Nixon, in turn, gave Glover, Bailey’s regiment. Also, that night, Nov. 4th, the British army was on the move, heading southwest.

Washington called a council of war on Nov. 6th, in which Nixon was present, to discuss where the British might strike next and their options. Washington thought that Howe might split his forces sending a large detachment to strike Fort Washington and the other hitting Fort Lee on the Jersey side of the Hudson. It was decided that it “would be proper to throw a body of troops into the Jerseys immediately.” The detached troops “should be from those raised from the western side of Hudson’s river.” Three thousand men would be left to take post at Peekskill, New York and the passes to the Highlands (northern NY). Washington would accompany the troops into New Jersey leaving Generals Lee, Heath, and Putnam commanding those remaining at Peekskill.

Nixon’s brigade stayed at Peekskill under the command of Major General Heath. On Nov. 17th, Nixon wrote to Heath from Camp Philip’s Manor (also called Camp Philipsburg), New York informing him “of the reduction of Fort Washington by the Ministerial troops.” This occurred on Nov. 16, 1776. A return of all brigades in Lee’s division on Nov. 24th lists Nixon’s brigade containing the regiments of T. Nixon, Varnum (RI), Hitchcock (RI), Little (Mass.), and Lippett (RI).

Washington’s army retreated across New Jersey one step ahead of British General Cornwallis’ troops. They crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania and were not pursued. Instead, the British set up outposts along the Delaware on the Jersey side that were garrisoned by Hessians and British. Washington sent word to Gen. Lee to leave a strong force under General Heath and reinforce his position north of Philadelphia. Gen. Lee, who had little respect for Washington’s abilities to command, believing that he, Lee, should have be put in charge, did not respond to Washington’s request with zeal.   He dragged his feet and only after continued urging from Washington did he finally put his division in motion. Lee’s division, as of returns on Nov. 24th, consisted of the following brigades: Nixon, Glover, McDougall, Chester, Fellows, and Wadsworth, a total of 9,217 men (however the active duty roster differed immensely from the number fit for duty from sickness).

Nixon remains in Peekskill. His regiments reinforce Washington at Trenton and Princeton

Nixon's Brigade at Battle of Princeton
Nixon’s Brigade at Battle of Princeton

Nixon was posted to Major General Lee’s division under General Heath and stayed in Peekskill, New York, while his regiments marched to reinforce Washington in Pennsylvania. His regiments were assigned to Rhode Islander Colonel Hitchcock who had led a regiment in Nixon’s brigade. Why did Nixon remain in Peekskill? The historian Merriam who, in 1926 wrote the most extensive biography of Nixon penned, writes on page 50, “I have not found the reason nor the authority for this assignment with Lee.”

After sifting through timely letters, orders, and dispatches, this writer has come to the conclusion that the most probable reason, as alluded to in a letter from Maj. Gen. Heath to Washington on December 26th, 1776, was the fact that more than half of Nixon’s brigade also remained at Peekskill with Nixon. This was due to sickness, fatigue, and convalescence. The brigade was split and Hitchcock took only those soldiers deemed fit for duty to make the trek to Pennsylvania. According to the Nov. 24th return listing brigade strength, there were 1,957 men in Nixon’s brigade. However, only 822 were present during the battles at Trenton and Princeton. In the Dec. 26th letter, Heath writes, “The case of the regiments of General Lee and Sullivan’s divisions, which are divided, partly at your Excellency’s camp and partly here, will be very difficult. The naked (naked, in the 18th century meant poorly clad with shoddy clothing), convalescents, and sick, were left here. They constitute the greater part of the regiments… Colonel Read and Colonel Little are here (both in Nixon’s Brigade), with such of their regiments as were left behind…” Nixon was active in arrangements for the sick as indicated in the court-martial proceedings on Dec. 30th, 1776 in which Captain Hamlin of Nixon’s brigade is accused of wrongfully sequestering supplies for the sick. Hamlin gave evidence that he attended the sick in Nixon’s brigade mentioning he was under orders from Nixon mentioning Colonel Varnum’s sick.

This raises another question. Why would Nixon who, from all indications was in good health, remain in Peekskill and send Hitchcock to command the strong detachment from his brigade? Hitchcock was in poor health suffering from tuberculosis. In fact, during the battle of Princeton, Hitchcock was dealing with dysentery and within a week of the battle, he was on his death bed in Morristown, NJ, dying on Jan. 13th, 1777. Was Nixon worn out, tired of campaigning, seeking to stay closer to home. His wife had just died leaving his children in the care of relatives. He may have been devastated and felt he could not command his troops in the field at that time. There is also another possible reason. He may have been asked to remain behind to help in recruiting. By years end the army, because of enlistments expiring, would basically dissolve.

The Continental Army was desperate for recruits. By the end of the year, most of the army was scheduled to head home. General Heath writes on December 26th, 1776,   There are to be paid off here five regiments of General Parsons’ s brigade, five of General George Clinton’ s, one of General James Clinton, General Wadsworth’ s [entire] brigade, and Colonel Read and Little, who are here with the greater part of their regiments.” Nixon had been working with the Massachusetts General Assembly and Heath with recruiting and was possibly deemed more useful to the army’s purpose by continuing this work than commanding his brigade in the field. Nixon may have been aiding General Lincoln who was put in charge of the promised six thousand militia from Massachusetts. Also, Nixon was aiding Gen. Heath in selecting the leaders of planned Massachusetts battalions. The selection of officers was finalized on Dec. 1, 1776, in Peekskill, NY and made official on Dec. 5th; Shepard, Wilson, Bailey, Thomas Nixon, Rufus Putnam, and Michael Jackson.

On December 13th, General Lee, while slowly making his way across New Jersey to reinforce Washington’s army, was captured by the 16th Dragoons under British Colonel Banastre Tarlton. Lee, who always had a fancy for prostitutes, had stopped for an evening’s pleasure at Widow White’s Tavern in Basking Ridge. Tarlton got word of Lee’s presence from a local loyalist and apprehended the general while he was still in his night dress. The detachment from Nixon’s brigade, along with the rest of the reinforcements, continued on to Washington’s position in Pennsylvania.

Nixon’s brigade under Colonel Hitchcock did not participate in the Battle of Trenton, having been assigned to cross the Delaware River below Trenton and attack from that quarter. Due to icy conditions, they never made the crossing. However, they were actively engaged during the Battle of Princeton where they, lead by Washington himself, helped stem an initial rout of American forces and exact an important victory. The regiments under Hitchcock during this campaign were: Thomas Nixon 158 men, James Varnum 138 men, Israel Angell (leading Hitchcock’s regiment since Hitchcock was leading the brigade) 114 men, Little’s Regiment 168 men lead by Lt. Col. William Henshaw (Little was sick in Peekskill), and Christopher Lippitt’s Rhode Island forces of 171 men. [David Fischer’s text on Washington’s Crossing lists Lippitt’s force as militia, however army author Wright listed this unit as regulars].

After Colonel Hitchcock died, what had been his brigade dissolved. Colonel Little’s regiment as well as Joseph Read’s regiment (both commanders had remained in Peekskill) were disbanded after Princeton. Colonel Angell lead Hitchcock’s Rhode Islanders and Colonel Christopher Greene, distant cousin to Major General Greene, commanded Varnum’s old regiment. Both stayed with the main army and wintered in Morristown [Later in 1777, these regiments would play a major role at the Battle of Red Bank which inflicted the largest number of casualties upon an attacking force in the Revolutionary War]. Varnum was made a brigadier general and was sent back to Rhode Island to recruit African American slaves for a new regiment. Colonel Lippitt spent the winter in Morristown. His regiment was disbanded and he went home to Rhode Island to command states militia. Thomas Nixon’s regiment was the only one to return to General Nixon’s brigade at Peekskill.

Battles of Saratoga, Sept. 19th & Oct. 7th

Fog lifts at Saratoga
Fog lifts at Saratoga

In July, 1777, Nixon was at Peekskill, NY, assigned to Major General Israel Putnam’s Division. The four regiments making up his brigade were all from Massachusetts: Colonel John Greaton – 3rd Mass., Colonel Rufus Putnam – 5th Mass., Colonel Ichabod Alden – 7th Mass., and Colonel Thomas Nixon – 6th Mass. Later that month, General Israel Putnam sent Nixon’s brigade north to Albany to strengthen the Northern Army against an invasion from Canada by British General John Burgoyne. Washington wrote to Congress on July 2, 1777, stating that he feared Burgoyne and Howe were planning “a junction of their two armies by way of the Lakes and the North River [Hudson River].” He further wrote, “On receiving these accounts, I wrote immediately to General Putnam to embark Nixon’s brigade for reinforcing the northern army; to wait, however, the arrival or near approach of General Parsons’ and General Varnum’s brigades for this place… to supply their place before they sail.”

Nixon’s men boarded transports and set sail up the Hudson on July 8th. Washington wrote to Congress on July 10th that a gentleman came to camp and told him that he had seen, “the vessels [containing Nixon’s brigade] in which it was embarked, standing up the evening before with a fair wind.” By the time Nixon’s brigade sailed, Ticonderoga had already fallen on July 5th. American General St. Clair abandoned the fort before Burgoyne arrived, but he had escaped with his men and critical supplies. St. Clair was criticized for retreating without a fight, but as he put it, “[I] lost a post, but saved a province.” History proved him correct.

Major General Schuyler, commanding the northern army, was feeling the pressure of General Burgoyne’s steady approach. He hadn’t the manpower nor ammunition and supplies to stop the British army’s advance south. In Lossing’s “Life of Schuyler”, he states that Schuyler ‘called earnestly upon General Nixon to push on by forced marches from Albany with the troops he brought up from Peekskill’, “The least delay,” Schulyer wrote to Nixon, “in marching up your brigade will certainly be attended with most fatal consequences. Let me therefore entreat you to march night and day to come up with me.” Schuyler, tired of what he saw as Nixon’s dogged approach, wrote to Washington, “From the slowness with which he moved, I was led to conclude that he was at the head of a formidable body, but to my great mortification, I find the whole to consist of five hundred and seventy-five rank and file fit for duty… several of them are negroes and many of them young, small and feeble boys.”

As soon as Nixon’s brigade arrived at Albany on July 12th, Schuyler ordered them to Fort Ann to assist in putting obstacles in the way of Burgoyne’s advancing forces. Schuyler, in his general orders to Nixon wrote, “You will immediately march your brigade to Fort Ann. On your arrival there, you will dispatch two scouts, one on the west and the other on the east side of Wood Creek, to discover if the enemy are approaching either by land or water… Having dispatched the scout, you will proceed to burn the sawmills which are near Fort Ann, and then fall the trees growing on the banks of Wood Creek into the same… In retreating, you are to break up all the bridges in your rear, that the enemy may be as much obstructed in their march as possible… You will find Brigadier General Fellows, with a body of troops, on your march. You are to take him and the troops under his command with you.”

Evidence of Nixon’s and Fellows brigades good work is contained in a diary by British Lieutenant Anburey, serving with Burgoyne. In it he refers to the army’s slow advance from Fort Ann, made tenfold more difficult by trees cut down and cast into the navigable waters of Wood Creek.

Roads were broken, the cattle driven away, and the forage destroyed, “the enemy [had] felled immense trees, and various other modes, that it was with the utmost pains and fatigue we could work our way through them.”

Nixon’s scouts were attacked with some dire results, this from a report made by Nixon on July 21st, “I had sent out a Scout yesterday under the command of Capt. Lane of my brigade, consisting of 32 men, officers included, from which this moment returned a corporal and four men.” As they neared Fort Ann, Captain Lane’s men were attacked by a party of 400 indians and was cut off, their situation unaccounted for. Also, Nixon was informed that 2,000 additional indians had arrived at the Fort Ann block house the evening before.

These hit and run delaying tactics continued through the end of July and all of August. Schuyler repeatedly appealed for more men, however Washington was dealing with Howe’s main army that had sailed for Philadelphia and the Chesapeake. After sending Generals Lincoln and Benedict Arnold, he wrote that he could do no more. On top of all this, Congress’ darling, General Horatio Gates, convinced Congress that he could do a better job and arrived in early August to relieve General Schuyler.

Though Burgoyne’s progress south continued, a Hessian defeat at Bennington by American forces under General John Stark began to turn the tide for the Americans. Atrocities by Burgoyne’s Iroquois against non-combatants, especially women, rallied the populace throughout New England and men from towns throughout the regions were marching to the aid of the American army confronting the British army’s advance. Gates began receiving much of what was denied Schuyler and he and General Arnold prepared for a confrontation at Bemis Heights, a commanding position near Stillwater, NY. Gates took personal command of the American right wing of which Nixon’s brigade was a part.   The following is from Nixon’s orderly book: “Sept. 9 – headquarters at Stillwater. Sept. 16 – Gen. Burgoyne’s army is marching this way. Sept. 18 – The commissary is to deliver half a gill of rum to every man in camp tomorrow morning. Sept. 19 – This day a battle was fought from three o’clock till a quarter after six in the evening.”

The first battle of Saratoga, called the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, was considered a draw, though it succeeded in stopping Burgoyne’s progress south. The British attacked the American left where General Benedict Arnold defended. Unlike Gates, who preferred to stay behind defensive lines and wait for the British, Arnold attacked. For three hours Arnold drove his forces forward. Back and forth the combatants pressed their attack over the same ground. At times the fighting was fierce and remained heated until the Americans pulled back in darkness, leaving the field to the British. Nixon’s brigade, along with Glover’s and Paterson’s, held the right wing and were not engaged.

The second battle of Saratoga, called the Battle of Bemis Heights, was fought on Oct. 7h and proved to be a decisive victory for the Americans. The American numbers had been swelling since the first battle and by Oct. 7th. Men continued to pour in from all over New England with the same cry, “Burgoyne must be stopped.”   Soon, the American force was double that of the British, 15,000 compared to 6,600 British and Hessians. When an attack by the British seemed imminent, once again Gates chose to remain behind his defenses allowing the British to attack the American left. Like the first battle, Nixon’s brigade was stationed on the right at Bemis Heights and saw not action that day. At a critical moment in the battle, General Arnold, who had been removed from duty after a heated confrontation with Gates, arrived upon the field and drove his men forward. The British were routed and fell back, but not before Arnold was hit in the leg which was broken when his horse was also hit and fell on it.

Five days later, Nixon’s men had a close call with disaster when unknown to them, they were advancing to attack what they thought was an army in column retreating. In fact. they were advancing upon the main British army who were entrenched in a strong position.

Gen. Burgoyne had sent General Sutherland upriver to Fort Edwards to build a bridge over the Hudson so the army could cross on their way back to Canada. With him were the 9th, 47th, some Canadians, and a corp of artificers. He was told by scouts who saw Sutherland’s movement up river that it was the main army in retreat. Gates uncharacteristically grew bold and ordered an immediate attack at dawn.

On the morning of Oct. 11, Generals Nixon’s & Morgan’s men (Nixon in the lead) were advancing along the Fish Kill River in a dense fog. Concealed in the fog was the British position strongly held by 27 guns with a clear field of fire. Glover’s brigade was next in line. His scouts happened upon a British deserter and learned the truth.   The man’s report was confirmed by a Hessian deserter that was captured soon after. Glover immediately sent word to Nixon who had already crossed the Fish Kill and had captured pickets at a redoubt called Fort Hardy. Nixon halted, but within minutes, the fog lifted exposing the British position as well as Nixon’s. The British immediately opened fire and Nixon men hurriedly withdrew to the south side of the river. Nixon’s rear guard was galled by the fire killing several men while Nixon nearly had his head taken off by a cannon ball that passed within inches of his head. The force had damaged his eyesight and hearing which plagued him for the rest of his life. James Wilkinson, one of General Gate’s aides, told Colonel Learned what he was facing as the regiment was advancing up a slope in the fog. Learned made a hasty withdrawal. Had Nixon, Morgan, and Learned attacked, they would have surely been mangled and defeated.

General Sutherland’s detachment that was sent north to build a bridge across the Hudson returned to camp and reported to Burgoyne that they were blocked by Americans. Burgoyne’s army was surrounded by a force that continued to grow in strength with each passing hour. On the morning of October 14th, he sent a flag of truth to Gates and offered surrender.

Nixon returns home and the “Conway Cabal’s” proposed invasion of Canada – Spring 1778

            After the surrender of Burgoyne, Nixon’s brigade was ordered to Albany. The diary of William McKendry [Lt. in the Mass. 7Th, Colonel Alden’s reg. that was decimated at the massacre at Cherry Valley – he was reassigned to Nixon’s brigade] includes the entries: “Oct. 30, 1777 Albany Committee sent to provide barrack for General Nixon’s brigade; Oct. 31, The brigade moved into the town and billeted in the houses.” With the surrender of Burgoyne’s army, there was the problem of what to do with the British and Hessian rank and file soldiers. General Brickett’s brigade was detailed to escort them from Saratoga to Cambridge. Generals Nixon and Glover decided to accompany Brickett.   They arrived Cambridge by Nov. 25, 1777 as evidenced in a letter written on that date by British Lt. Anburey who was held captive.

Nixon gained a furlough from November 1777 to June of 1778 and settled into his affairs at home. His wife Thankful had died the year before leaving in his care the children, the youngest three years of age. Nixon’s subordinate and friend, Captain Micajah Gleason, had died at Harlem Heights. His widow, Hannah Gleason (1744-1831), continued to run their tavern near Saxonville. Nixon spent time at the tavern and on February 13, 1778, he and Hannah were married. While on furlough in Massachusetts, Nixon continued with matters that concerned his brigade, receiving necessaries such as shoes and clothing delivered to him at Boston in April 1778 which he forwarded to Albany.

While Nixon was absent from his brigade, the officers of his regiments had been drawn into what became known as the “Conway Cabal,” named for Irishman Brigadier General Thomas Conway. Washington had his detractors who believed that the country would be better served if he was replaced with General Horatio Gates, the darling of Congress and now ‘hero’ of Saratoga. This first materialized in November of 1777 through correspondence between Conway and General Gates in which Conway blatantly expressed his desire to serve under Gates rather than Washington. The list of those of similar opinion included, Gates, Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Benjamin Rush, Thomas Mifflin, Johann DeKalb, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and James Lovell. Though there was no proven conspiracy, many, especially Mifflin, Lovell, and Conway, were bitterly opposed to Washington remaining at the helm of the Continental Army. To embarrass Washington at the expense of his loyal friend, General Lafayette, an invasion of Canada was planned and pushed through Congress without Washington’s knowledge which from the start, proved to be a fiasco.

General Lafayette was put in command of the invading force with General Conway as his second. Lafayette insisted he have another officer of equal rank accompany him and General De Kalb was selected to participate. Congress instructed that Lafayette make good use of the officers under Nixon’s command because of their familiarity with the territory to be invaded by way of their former service. Lafayette made the trip to Albany in midwinter along with his friend General De Kalb. When he arrived, he did not find a fighting force waiting for him. General Stark, who was to have burned the British Fleet on Lake Champlain wasn’t even informed of Lafayette’s coming nor of the enterprise in general. There were no supplies nor ammunition waiting. The few men who were present in Albany were ill clad and hadn’t been paid in months.

Nixon’s brigade was under the command General McDougall and stationed in the highlands (northern NY just south of Albany). They were to accompany Lafayette in the invasion, however after receiving letters from Generals Schuyler, Lincoln, and Arnold that the entire enterprise was impossible stating “in the most expressive terms that, in our present circumstances, there was no possibility to begin now an enterprise into Canada.” Everyone that Lafayette turned to for advice told him that “it would be madness to undertake this operation.” Lafayette soon realized that the entire operation was a “fraud and a foreordained fiasco from the beginning.” He believed he would be laughed at and his reputation tarnished if he proceeded under present circumstances. Congress finally saw the foolishness of the plan and on March 2, 1778, they called it off. On March 13, Congress urged Washington (who was against the operation from the moment he was informed) to order back Lafayette and De Kalb.

Posted to New York and Resignation

            Nixon returns to his brigade in June of 1778. Records through July and August of 1778 show his presence at White Plains under the command of Major General Heath. He had three regiments in his brigade lead by Colonels Greaton, Rufus Putnam, and Thomas Nixon. Colonel Alden of Nixon’s brigade had been assigned to General Sullivan’s expedition against the Iroquois and was killed at the Battle of Cherry Valley. In Sept. of 1778, Nixon was a member of General Schuyler’s court-martial that failed to convict the former commander of the northern army of any wrongful actions while in command. In October, Nixon was a member of a council of war to decide the disposition of the army during the coming winter. On October 19th, he offered his opinion and recommendations in a detailed letter.

Soon after serving on the committee, and only five months after returning to duty, Nixon requested another furlough in a letter dated October 28, 1778; “The circumstances of my family are such as require my immediate attention, which lays me under the disagreeable necessity of soliciting a furlough for a reasonable time… Colonel Greaton, who is an able good officer, would command the brigade in my absence. The furlough was granted and Nixon returned home the winter of 1778-79 to aid his wife in family and financial matters between the farm and tavern. Nixon was recalled to duty on February 26, 1779.

Nixon’s brigade remained in the New York City area, mainly Westchester County and the Highlands. The spring of 1779 was a period of watchful anticipation of British activity. Though the war, for the most part, had gone south, Washington remained with the army stationed in the highlands.   Nixon’s brigade was in the division of Major General Heath. On June 24, 1779, there was a general order anticipating an attack from the British that still held New York City. Nixon’s brigade was to be on the watch and his artillery would warn of any attack, which never came. In the fall of 1779, Nixon was under the immediate command of Washington at West Point. Though the war in the south intensified, the need to keep troops posted along the Hudson continued. Nixon remained at his post another year. By then, Nixon’s health had declined to the point he thought of resigning. He penned his resignation to Washington on September 8, 1780 stating “The present state of my health is such that I am constrained by a necessity that by on means corresponds with inclination to beg leave to resign the command I have the honor to hold in the army…”

After the Revolutionary War

First Weybridge Cemetery
First Weybridge Cemetery

Nixon received an honorable discharge on September 12, 1780. A receipt is recorded for 9 horses, 1800 pounds of hay, 4 bushels of oats and 6 ½ bushels of wheat “for family use.” Nixon and his wife who had joined him toward the end of his commission, returned to his farm in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Within two weeks of Nixon’s departure from the West Point region, Major Andre was under arrest and Benedict Arnold’s treason exposed.

Nixon and his wife separated their time between the farm and the tavern. He was an original member of the old Middlesex Lode of Free Masons organized under charter from Paul Revere. For reasons of his own, Nixon sought land in what was known as the New Hampshire Grants and became Vermont.   He bought a farm in Weybridge, Vermont and his family moved there in 1806. For the remaining of his life he received a pension of $150 dollars a year for the wound he received at the Battle of Bunker Hill.   This was paid to him from a government agency in Burlington, Vermont. Nixon lived an unassuming life as a farmer and when visiting his son in nearby Middlebury, Vermont, he fell ill and died on March 24, 1815 at the age of 90.

He was buried at a cemetery on his farm which was later incorporated into what is now the First Weybridge Hill Cemetery, Weybridge, Vermont. The cemetery is off route 23, about 1/5 of a mile south of the Congregational Church, 225 yards west up a footpath through the woods. The path starts near a mailbox for 2546 Weybridge Road. There are many fieldstones with broken, buried, or missing markers. The land is privately owned, but the owners allow visitors as long as nothing is removed.

Sudbury Memorial to Revolutioary War Soldiers
Sudbury Memorial to Revolutioary War Soldiers

A quote from Temple’s text on Framingham is a fitting closure to Nixon’s legacy. “By those who remember him, General Nixon is described as a man of middle stature, quiet and affable, but firm and decided in his convictions, fond of the society of the young, never happier than when recounting to his grandchildren the stories of his campaigns and the lessons of life taught by his varied experience.”

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

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