Eyewitness to Battle:
The Pension Depositions of Frederick Van Lew and Isaac Childs

John U. Rees
©1999, 2002

Published in The Brigade Dispatch, vol. XXIX, no. 3 (Autumn 1999), 18-20.

The breadth of service experienced by some Revolutionary soldiers was remarkable. Unfortunately, some records were lost or scattered, while the details of many an individual's military service were never set down on paper. In some few cases, pension narratives provide a venue by which the soldiers themselves can still tell their history in their own words.

In 1833 Frederick Van Lew told his story in order to receive a pension. Van Lew had served in the New Jersey militia, a unit of "standing troops" (possibly state troops), and a Continental regiment, and participated in the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Trenton, Princeton, and Monmouth. Isaac Childs gave his deposition in 1834 and claimed service in Forman's Flying Camp Militia at Long Island and White Plains, and aboard the ship "Retaliation" later in the war. Both men were at the Battle of Long Island and both served in 1778 as nine-months levies in the 2nd New Jersey Regiment. These levies were volunteers or drafts from the states' militia enlisted to augment Continental regiments for a short term. During 1778 eleven states were authorized to enact a nine-month levy, Georgia and South Carolina being the exceptions. In the end, four of those states (New Hampshire, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) failed to gather any levies, while Rhode Island decided to enlist free blacks or slaves as an alternative measure. The remaining six states, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, effected a levy; all except Virginia were relatively successful.

Another thing Van Lew and Childs had in common was their both being listed as deserters during their short career as Continental soldiers. The first man returned to the regiment before his enlistment expired. The fact of his being considered a deserter seems to have hung on Isaac Childs' conscience, and he claimed to have been innocent due to a misunderstanding as well as extenuating circumstances. Be that as it may, soldiers listed as deserters who could not prove otherwise were not eligible to receive a pension for any of their war service.

New Jersey pension depositions and a study of the 1778 nine-months levy can be found in '"... in reduced circumstances': Pension Papers of the Soldiers of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment;" '"from thence to the Battle...': Gleanings From the Pension Depositions of the Soldiers of the New Jersey Brigade;" and "The new Leveys are coming in dayly...': The Nine Month Draft in the Second New Jersey Regiment and Maxwell's New Jersey Brigade", all appendices to the author's work, '"I Expect to be stationed in Jersey sometime...' An Account of the Services of the Second New Jersey Regiment, December 1777 to June 1779" (unpublished manuscript, The David Library of the American Revolution, Washington Crossing, Pa.).

Frederick Van Lew

Frederick Van Lew [VanLue] was 23 years old at the time of his service in 1778 as a nine-months private soldier. He joined the 2nd Jersey Regiment on 28 May 1778, deserted 20 November, returned in December, and was discharged 28 February 1779 from Captain Phillips' Company. From the 1778 levy lists we find that he was 5 feet 9 inches tall, a weaver by trade, and had enlisted as a substitute from the 3rd Battalion, Middlesex County Militia.

Van Lew related that

in the year 1775... he was living in the town of Jamaica in the County of Queens (on Long Island) in the State of New York... [after serving with the New York militia for one month] deponent went to Long Island, after being home a few days deponent went on a visit to see his brother & sister living in the State of New Jersey in Montgomery Township, there deponent Enlisted again in the five months service under one Captain Low... as a private in the standing troops, (enlisted at a place called Reddin town, the Company met at a place called Laslens Ridge at Abraham Van Homes tavern, this was in the year 1776, in the fore part of the season the Company marched to the City of Newyork & there we joined Washingtons Army, in Kings Street we lay there about two weeks, until the British landed on Long Island, and then the whole Army except the guard which was left, went over to Long Island, marched up... about one mile, and there was met by the Brittish, and there we had a tight engagement and there we had to swim a tide mill pond and many of our men drowned in crossing the pond, deponent lost his rifle & coat in swimming the pond, after crossing the pond we went to Cobble hill Fort about half or three quarters of a mile distant from the pond, and there joined the army again, there deponent remained about four days, and then was Called to New York, and there deponent bought him another Coat, stayed there about one week and then went to Fort Washington 12 miles from New York, the whole Army was then stationed at Fort Washington, remained at Fort Washington about two weeks or twenty days, and then Marched to White Plains, leaving in the Fort about twenty one hundred men, when we arrived at White Plains we dug an entrenched [line] all around the town, after the entrenchment was dug we took about twenty or thirty tories and brought them in, the Brittish went up the East river and landed above us, and built a Fort and attempted to bomb us out from that place but they failed in that attempt, and we drove them out of their Fort, (these were Hessians) After that we stayed there one night, the next morning we marched to Kings Ferry, and Crossed the North River, And marched to Fort Lee, we remained there about three days, we could see Fort Washington from Fort Lee, and the Brittish took that Fort without firing a gun, a flag of truce was sent from Fort Washington to Fort Lee to General Washington... [who] went down to the River and brought word that the Brittish threatened if the Fort [Lee] was not given up in three days, they would come over and take it / deponent within one or two days afterwards was made second Sergeant, and sent out with a guard up the river about three miles, About day break deponent discovered the River full of the boats of Brittish and as they landed deponent with his men fired and immediately run for Fort Lee, when we came to the Fort Washington had left the Fort with his Army, for Hackinsack in New Jersey, and only about seventy men remained at the Fort of struggling appearance drinking liquor that was left by the sutlers, deponent and his men filled their Cantines & left the Fort and went after the Army, and overtook them on the hights near Hackensack town, and remained their over night, the next morning we set off for Trenton and made no halt until we got over the delaware River into the state of Pennsylvania, the Brittish being about three or four miles behind in pursuit of us, when deponent got as far as New brunswick on this march, his five months service expired, but Continued on his march with the Army to Pennsylvania, and remained with them, that while Washington lay in Pennsylvania he recruited and got fresh men and on the 26th of Decr deponent crossed over with the Army to Trenton and took nine hundred and thirty six Hessians (as was reported at the time) and took them over into Pennsylvania with us, the Brittish soon after sent an Army to Trenton and a small army at Princeton six miles distant on the third day of January thereafter Washington sent an Army to Princeton surrounded the Town and took & killed the most part of them, after the battle was over, deponent left the Army and went to his Brothers in Montgomery Township [New Jersey]... After deponent returned to his Relatives in New Jersey he became attached to the Militia... which was Classed One half went out for one month and then was relieved by the other half, and so Alternately until the Close of the War, but deponent Enlisted for nine months during the latter part of the war in the State [Continental] troops and joined Washingtons Army... he served under Captain Jonathan Philips, in the second Jersey Regiment under Colonel Shrieves, that during the said nine months service, in the first place deponent was taken to Princeton and his name was taken down and he measured / his height was then five feet eight inches, then the Company he belonged to went to Mount Holly and joined the main Army, and lay there he supposes two or three weeks, the Brittish at this time lay in Philadelphia and was Crossing to go... to New York, Washington Attacked them at Monmouth, and gain[ed] the victory over them it was on Sunday the hotest day he ever knew / [they] remained there two days after the battle, and then left there for Elizabeth Town, where the whole Army remained... deponent says he. was in several Skirmishes while there, and a little engagement at Springfield.

In May or June of 1778 Captain Jonathan Phillips informed Colonel Israel Shreve from Fostertown, New Jersey, "I received yours two days ago, (but two Late) as the Greates part of my Recruts has marched, the bearer Fredrick Van-Lew & three others who are with him are Compleat with armes and Acqutomets [accoutrements]..." (Phillips to Shreve, Israel Shreve Papers, Alexander Library, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, transcription 307.)

Van Lew also described several incidents which occurred when he was out with the New Jersey militia, including several skirmishes with Loyalists, an attack on a party of "Brittish light horse," and the capture of British "Waggons and... plunder" near "Van Ness Mills" on the Raritan River.

Isaac Childs

Isaac Childs was 33 years old at the time of his 1778 enlistment in the 2nd Regiment as a nine-months soldier. Though he claims to have been present at Monmouth, he is listed as having joined on 1 July. The muster rolls show him to have deserted from Captain Bowman's company on 2 March 1779. On the levy rolls his age was given as 29, his place of birth Woodbridge, New Jersey, and his residence as Dover. His unit of origin was Forman's Regiment, Monmouth County Militia.

Childs described his experiences:

enlisted in April or May 1776 under Captain Wicoff a Low Duchman Lieut. Samuel Conn Ensign John Hutch [in the regiment of] Col. David Foreman in the state of New Jersey / went from there to Long Island was in the battle on Long Island when the brittish took it, and saved myself from being prisoner by swimming to the yellow mill; about one thousand were drowned in attempting to swim... the remnant of the army went to New York from thence to Kings Bridge, from thence to the White Plains, tarrying some time on our way, we had a severe battle at the White Plains... we retreated into New Jersey and were let go home: General Washington took Trenton from the Brittish; he ordered the troops together. Col Forman and the troops he had left met at Trenton Captain Wicoff and Lieut. Conn were with us, we went from there to New Brunswick had a battle, went from there to Short hills had a battle which lasted part of two days. I had a brother killed there and another at Quebeck under General Montgomery... I suffered every thing but death in these places being cold naked bearfooted, and half starved, I served this enlistment threy years. [When he was next drafted as a levy in 1778 Childs may have misunderstood the terms of his service.] I then enlisted under Captain Bowman of Col. Israel Shreaves Regiment who stated that General Washington expected to have a battle with the Brittish and perswaded many of the men whose times had expired to continue for nine months longer... I did not enlist but consented to stay, in a few days we were marched to Monmouth stayed there through the battle... then we marched to Elizabethtown from thence to Newark & there we went into winter Quarters where we continued untill Spring when our times were about out / I was solicited by Col. Shreave to Join in an expedition which was expected to go against the western Indians [he] gave me a furlow to go home to Thorns river in New Jersey and see to my family and then return... I objected to receiving the furlow without the knowledge of Capt. Bowman, who was not present / the Col. told me that the Captain's consent was not necessary that he commanded and that was enough - I then... went home the Col. told me I must not stay more than ten or twelve days or they should be gone... soon after I got home I was taken sick with the small Pox / before I was able to travel, the expedition started and my nine months were out I did not return, some time after I was home Col. Shreave wrote to me that he would give me a discharge & the residue of my pay if I would come to Elizabethtown but as the money was so much depreciated I thought it would not bear my expences there and back / I did not go & I was returned a deserter... [in 1779] I went on board of the ship called the retaliation Captain Decater from Philidelphia she carried 2 double-fortifyed 12 pounders in her bow 1-14 pounder in her waist and two swivels aft / cruised on the coast between new York and Philadelphia we took a schooner call'd the Yankey Wich and another call'd the Polly Sly; We took a merchant ship from England and put a prize master on board of her at that moment a Brittish man of war hove in sight and bore down upon us and we made our escape - Wilkinson was Lieut. of Marines... Decator was on board a short time but [then] went on shore...