General Jacob Bayley remains one of the most obscure figures of American Revolutionary War leadership. Yet in our present age of debilitated moral strength, feeble character, and flexuous purposes, the details of his life and deeds are both instructive and edifying.
He was born in Newbury, Massachusetts on July 19, 1726, the son of Joshua Bayley and Sarah Coffin. Those familiar with New England history may recognize the name Coffin as one that enjoyed prominence on the island of Nantucket. Bayley’s ancestors can be traced back to Chippingham in England; the general’s great-great-grandfather emigrated to Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1635. Around 1746 Bayley relocated to Hampstead, New Hampshire. As did so many military commanders of the Revolutionary War, Bayley received his baptism of fire during the French and Indian War.
A remarkable exploit is related about him during this period. He was stationed at Fort William Henry in 1757, serving as a unit commander for New Hampshire militiamen under one Lt. Col. Goffe. When the fort surrendered to the French under Marquis de Montcalm, the prisoners were promised safe passage; but the Indian allies of the French either were not aware of the promise, or deliberately broke it. The Indians treacherously killed or abused their captives, forcing some of them to run the gauntlet. But Bayley staged an incredible escape by slipping out of his bindings and, while being chased by Indian scouts, running barefoot for seven miles through forests and streams to Fort Edward. The fact that he was able to both outrun and outmaneuver his Indian pursuers testifies both to his incredible physical condition and his knowledge of New England terrain.
In 1763 Bayley received a charter from the governor of New Hampshire for a township in the territory of Vermont. He relocated to the town of Newbury, Vermont in 1764. His home there has been described as “that most beautiful of all the valleys of New England, comprising the Great Ox Bow and other intervals.” Leading men in the colonies in those days often held multiple offices; a man was expected to handle his own profession, as well as a few others if exigencies so necessitated it. Of course, it went without saying that every man was assumed to be able to bear arms as well. Bayley was appointed a brigadier-general of militia in 1776; the following year, he was made commissary general of the northern division of the Continental Army.
As the colonists faced the daunting task of fielding and equipping an army, they encountered a thousand obstacles. There was never enough food, weapons, money, or ammunition; Congress did what it could, but in many places, local commanders were on their own. Bayley was an ardent patriot, and believed that the colonies must become an independent nation. But he also needed to equip his men. As he had no funds to work with, he mortgaged his home and sold many of his possessions. Many times, both during and after the war, did Bayley petition Congress for compensation for his personal expenditures; but he never received anything, and died a poor (but not destitute) man in 1809 at the age of 84. So much did this great man sacrifice for his nation. A fellow veteran said this about General Bayley:
I well recollect seeing him writing petitions to Congress for relief; but he never obtained any, nor have his heirs, although the claims were ascertained after his decease to have amounted to about sixty thousand dollars [a huge sum at the time]. Republican gratitude—or rather American ingratitude, was in this, as in thousands of other cases, strongly exemplified.
It was said that Bayley never asked his men to do anything that he himself was unwilling to undertake. In Vermont he faced a considerable loyalist presence that sought to undermine the rebel cause. Bayley’s intractable devotion to the revolution was seen by the British as a major hindrance to their plans in northern New England, and they made a special effort to capture him. One historian notes that Bayley was “closely watched by Tories in his vicinity [of northern New England].” In a letter written after the revolution, Bayley himself explained:
I thought I could be of more service to our cause by securing an extensive frontier from the depredations of the Indians, which, by making friendship with them, I effected for at least two hundred miles. My exertions were such that I was watched and waylaid night and day, by the enemy from Canada—my house rifled, papers destroyed, son carried off captive, and maltreated only because he was my son, and would not discover to them how his father obtained intelligence of their movements. To the close of the war I was employed by [General] Washington to keep friendship with the Indians, and gain intelligence of the enemy in Canada.
In June 1782, the British made a coordinated effort to capture Bayley that came within an ace of succeeding. As part of this scheme, they used as bait a paroled prisoner of war named Col. Johnson, a man known personally to Bayley. Johnson was actually Bayley’s neighbor at the Ox Bow, where both of them resided. Bayley was in his house. A British officer named Capt. Prichard, along with a detachment of eighteen men, brought Johnson into the Ox Bow and planned to use this familiar face to lure Bayley into the net. Johnson was in a difficult position. He was required to obey his captors as part of his parole, yet had no desire to betray his fellow officer and neighbor. Had Johnson not done precisely as he was told, his own home would have been burned and his possessions carried off.
Johnson employed a clever ruse. As the British detachment approached the Ox Bow, Johnson saw Bayley working in a field. He scrawled this sentence on a piece of paper: “The Philistines be upon thee, Sampson!” This cryptic message was passed to Johnson’s brother-in-law, a man named Dudley Carleton. Carleton was instructed to drop the note in Bayley’s view as he walked by him; this he did. Bayley picked it up, placed it casually in his pocket—as he knew he was being observed by the British—and walked slowly to his house. Bayley’s sons alerted American guards who were posted at Bayley’s house.
But Prichard and his men stormed the house, while Bayley made a quick exit out another door. He barely managed to dash into the woods under a hail of musket fire. Bayley’s wife also managed to evade capture by leaping out a window and slipping into the woods. Bayley’s guards, several of which were wounded in the scuffle, managed to tie down the British detachment just long enough to permit him to escape. An amusing footnote to this story is that a maid-servant named Sarah Fowler managed to distract the British soldiers for precious minutes by following them around Bayley’s house, shrieking and cursing at them. Loaded muskets and gleaming bayonets deterred her not at all.
Bayley returned to domestic life after the war. He did not seek national offices. There is a wonderful anecdote that has survived from this period, conveyed to posterity by a Revolutionary War veteran, that is revelatory of his character and humorous wisdom. Plutarch’s old observation, that sometimes a minor incident can be more illustrative of a man’s character than nearly anything else, cannot be doubted.
Despite the hard circumstances which the war brought him, Bayley never lost his good cheer. Sometime in 1784, an elderly, neatly-dressed gentleman dismounted from his horse at an inn located fifteen miles east of New York City. He was lodged in the only remaining available room on the premises. As evening approached, a crowd of young ne’er-do-wells, the sons of local elites, entered the inn for a night of drinking and partying. They asked the innkeeper for a room, but were told that it had recently become occupied by an older gentleman. Someone came up with the idea of inviting the old man for a drink, where they might be able to persuade or coerce him into giving up his room. The old man readily agreed, with the utmost courtesy.
As the night wore on, one of the youths proposed that “dares” should be stated, and anyone who refused to perform the dare would have to pay the drinking bill for all, and then depart the inn. Everyone was amazed when the old gentleman readily agreed to this proposal. The first dare was that each man should burn his hat; so all present tossed their hats into the fireplace. Then someone suggested they burn their coats; this transpired also. The young rowdies, now unnerved by the tough-as-nails exterior of an old man they assumed to be frail, became alarmed when the polite old man called over the innkeeper, and had him send for a doctor and dental instruments.
“I propose,” said the old man, “that the doctor shall extract every tooth from the mouths of those present. I will begin with myself.” There was only one tooth in the old man’s mouth, and the doctor removed it. The old man looked over the faces of the shocked youths present, and said, with a twinkle in his eyes, “Now gentlemen, submit to my proposal, and ascertain whether you have turned the flanks of an old soldier.” The youths realized they were in the presence of a very different man from those they were accustomed to. He then revealed that he was General Jacob Bayley. The young men apologized profusely to him, paid all his costs and, in the words of one historian, “learned a valuable lesson for their future government.” Bayley left the next day for New York, wearing a finer set of clothing than he had worn the day before.
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