On November 21, 1821 an old Revolutionary War veteran in Buckingham County, Virginia named Bartholomew Cyrus wrote a letter to the President and the Secretary of War. Missing one of his hands and living in desperate poverty, he was looking for help resolving a bureaucratic problem with his pension. It is a powerful narrative from a “poor boy” who owned nothing but his “shirt and pantaloons” when he entered the Continental Army in 1777. Like many enlisted veterans, Cyrus was barely literate. Nevertheless, he wrote to President James Monroe and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun asking for help. The tone is desperate but also dignified. Though poor, he addresses Monroe and Calhoun as duty-bound public servants and concludes familiarly by writing “no more at present but your well wishing friend” above his signature. Though he was poor, they worked for him. It is worth navigating the misspellings and missing punctuation to read an enlisted-man’s perspective that is only scarcely available from the Revolutionary War.
Annotations are given below as end-notes to preserve the flow of the text.
Nov. 21st 1821 Buckingham Cty.
Honorable presedentand secatary of warbelonging to the united states I wish to inform you of my sufferance in the revolutionary war I inlisted in the year 1776I went from Chesterfield County under Capt. James Harris a three year Soldier then inlisted some time after that for during the war I belonged to the 15 Virginia Ridgment General Woodfords brigade near Philadelphia at valy forge next summer we fought at monmouth the year following our brigade was sent off to CharlestownSouth Carrolina there almost all were taken prisoners by the Britishthen General Green took command of usand the first battle was at Gilford Courthousethe next at eutawspringsand a number of lives were lost on both sides we lay at ninety six siegenear 1 month scarcely 1 hour in the night but firing like claps of thunder many days we could not get any thing to eat 40$was cried through the camp for 1 hoecake of bread and it could not be got we were like hogs that had been wallowing when we came out of the intrenchment the next siege was at camblainnear 1 month and we suffered very much there and a great many dserted and would not stand the sufferanceI was never absent one day without liberty. I was discharged in the year 1783 July the 6 day at winchester barracksunder the command of General neulinburgCapt. kirk partrick was my Capt.I served during this time without ever being confined or one lickwhich few can say in truth sir look at your records and you’ll find this to be truth Sir I have received three draws from the pension you bestowed us then I sent my Schedule and have got no return from it proved before judge Daniel I am upon sufferance I have had the misfortune a few years since to loose one of my hands by a gun bursting and am troubled at times with reumatic pains and my wife worse off than myself I am going on 64 years of age and my wife is near 70 years of age I was a poor boy had nothing but my shirt and pantaloons when I went in to the army. I think it hard for me to suffer now after doing as much for my country as I have and without your assistance am oblige to go to the poor house and I had almost rather diedI thank you for what you have done with more thanks than my lips can express and would freely down with my nees for assistanceno more at present but your well wishing friend
I would be thankful to you to let me know at Oakville post office Buckingham County what I am to depend on
Cyrus got his pension. After his wife died, he got married again in 1833 to a younger woman named Phebe. He died in 1855 at the age of 97, and Phebe inherited his pension. A decade later, after the end of the Civil War, sheapplied for the restoration of the benefit, which had been suspended during the war. She was unable to return the old pension certificate, because it hd been “destroyed by being in a house between the lines of the two armies while engaged.” She had given the certificate to a neighbor named William Durrum to keep in his house, but during the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse “it was destroyed or taken off by the soldiery.” She stated that she had resided in the town of Appomattox Courthouse during the Civil War, when her means of subsistence had been “a small remnant of her pension fund and then she was supported by her relations and friends, except a small allowance from the pauper fund from the Overseers of the Poor of Appomattox County.” The Bartholomew Cyrus pension file contains an Amnesty Oath signed with her mark. The oath, as prescribed by President Johnson, was as follows:
I, _____, do solemnly swear or affirm, in presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the States thereunder. And that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.
[Source:Pension Application of Bartholomew Cyrus W25467, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris. Summary of Phebe Cyrus application adapted from C. Leon Harris.]
Rural Buckingham County lies between the Appomattox Court House, where the Civil War ended, and Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello.
James Monroe, now in his second term.
John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.
An error. He enlisted in 1777.
Charles Town was renamed Charleston at the end of the war.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln surrendered May 12, 1780. Cyrus evidently escaped or avoided capture.
Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, 3 Dec 1780.
TheBattle of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, March 15, 1781.
The Battle of Eutaw Springs, September 8, 1781.
The Siege of Ninety-Six, South Carolina, May 22 to June 18, 1781.
Probably a mis-transcription of “Cambdain,” or the Second Battle of Camden, better known as the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill, April 25, 1781. Though it was an American loss, Greene returned to the area after the battle so it is not unreasonable for Cyrus to recall it as a “siege.”
The actual sequence of events was: Guilford Courthouse, Camden, Ninety-Six, Eutaw Springs.
Brig. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg.
Captain Abraham Kirkpatrick.
Jailed or whipped.
He would almost rather die than go to the poor house.
He would go down on his knees to beg for help.
A post script.
is researching the history of the Revolutionary War's 8th Virginia Regiment. Its ten companies formed on the frontier, from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh.
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