Sunday, March 30, 2014

People: Colonel Alexander Scammell

Colonel Scammell

Second to None

This blog is about one of the last senior officers to fall in the campaign that ended the war:  Alexander Scammell. There are numerous First Patriots in what I call the "second tier" of fame (but not importance).  The "first tier" comprises those most Americans learn(ed) about in school and in popular history: Washington, Greene, Knox, Von Steuben, Lafayette, Marion, Hamilton, etc. But as in all wars, the American War for Independence had numerous lesser knowns, many of whom played highly significant but less heralded roles essential to the war's ultimate success.

Accomplished in Peace

John Sullivan

Alexander Scammell was born in 1744 in Milford, Massachusetts. Scammell's father died when he was six and he and his brother went to live with a minister until he went to Harvard. After his graduation from Harvard in 1769, he taught school near Plymouth Massachusetts. In 1772 he moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where he engaged in surveying and exploring the lands of the Royal Navy Timber. He also taught  school at Berwick, and occasionally assisted  in making surveys for his Topographical Map of New Hampshire. One can speculate that such activities gave Scammell an eye for the land.  Something that would come in useful in the military. Despite these widespread interests, Scammell eventually decided to read the law (go figure) and in 1774, went to Durham where he studied under John Sullivan, a prominent attorney.

A Call to Arms

But New England had war fever by that time and Sullivan became a part of it as did Scammell. Scammell took part in a raid Sullivan organized against the British outpost Fort William and Mary in December 1774. This likely whetted him for an active role in the coming conflict. He was commissioned a major in the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment, part of Sullivan's Brigade, and served at  the siege of Boston and later  in the failed invasion of Canada where Sullivan played a co
Arthur St. Clair
ntroversial role. Sullivan's brigade returned to Fort Ticonderoga by mid July 1776, and Scammell became the fiery general's aide de camp. But in September he was sent to New York City and fought at the Battle of Long Island. With Washington's army regrouping after losing New York, Scammell became Assistant Adjutant General for (the even more controversial) Charles Lee's Division. A month later, in November 1776, Scammell was promoted to colonel and  was soon given command of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment. But the regiment was still being formed so Scammell accompanied the 1st and 2nd regiments under Colonel John Stark (another Tier 2 First Patriot)  south to join Washington's army huddled on the west bank of the Delaware. Scammell crossed the Delaware with Washington and took part in the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton. At Princeton he helped Washington  rally the troops and turn a near defeat into victory.

Battle of Princeton

From  Line Officer to Staff Officer to Counter-Spy

June 1777 found him in command of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment at Fort Ticonderoga under Major General Arthur St. Clair. But St. Clair abandoned the Gibraltar of the North to the advancing forces of British General Burgoyne. However, the regiment's escape enabled it to fight at Saratoga, where Scammell led it with distinction at Freeman's Farm and Bemis Heights. Just two days after Burgoyne's surrender the regiment marched south to winter quarters at Valley Forge.  Here Washington appointed Scammell Adjutant General of the Continental Army. Scammell clearly showed unique military and organizational skills to receive such a key appointment when the army's fortunes were at their nadir. In an interesting Yankee Doodle Spies twist,  Scammell was appointed as executioner to the British spy, Major John AndrĂ© in October 1780. Scammell became so distraught with the task that he requested and received another field command.  Besides the espionage link,one of the themes in Yankee Doodle Spies is protagonist Jeremiah Creed's desire to get out of espionage and back into a line command.  The connection is purely coincidental, however.

Fall of Duty

Banastre Tarleton
In early 1781 Scammell was appointed commander of the 1st New Hampshire Regiment.  But in the spring of that year he was assigned command of a light infantry detachment that became known as Scammell's Light Infantry.This elite unit  fought at  King's Bridge (The Bronx), and formed the vanguard for the Continental Army's historic march  to Yorktown.  On its arrival there it became part of the  The Light Infantry Division. As the decisive campaign of the war approached its closing chapter, Colonel Alexander Scammell seemed destined for glory.  But on the morning of September 30th, Scammell was serving as Field Officer-of-the-Day. This made him responsible for sentries, scouts and passage of lines or anything requiring immediate action.  The trapped General Cornwallis had decided to tighten his defense lines by abandoning his outer defense works around Yorktown. In the mists of that day's dawn, Scammell's pickets discovered an abandoned redoubt near the road to Williamsburg. The former surveyor Scammell recognized potential opportunity with regard to advancing the siege and led a reconnaissance of the recently abandoned British fortifications. It cost him his life. Advancing on the outpost he became separated from his scouting party. Then he spotted a cavalry patrol.  In the mists he thought it to be American.  But they turned out to be Tarleton's dragoons. Banastre Tarelton was a notorious British officer whose men were known to give little quarter. The horsemen surrounded Scammell and somehow during or after his surrender, the gallant New Englander was shot in the back. His men could only watch as their wounded officer was taken to captivity at Yorktown. The British surgeons treated Scammell as best they could. Due to the seriousness of the wound Cornwallis soon paroled him.  He was sent to Williamsburg  (now in American hands) to recover, but died on the 6th of October, just weeks before Yorktown fell to the Allies.

Legacy Denied

Scammell was over six foot
A little personal background to fill out the noble patriot. Scammell was tall for his times, over six foot with pale eyes. He had an easy manner that endeared him to his troops, his peers and most of all - to George Washington. Scammell had a great sense of humor and famously entertained the commander in chief with his tales. Up until the end, Alexander Scammell served his nation selflessly.  He had given up property and a promising law career to join the glorious cause.  A few years earlier, then in his mid thirties, Scammell lamented in a letter of ever finding a wife because of the length and nature of his service. Where others like Alexander Hamilton went in and out of service as fit their needs, he had stayed in service throughout the eight year conflict.  Scammell had an almost Forrest Gump-like knack for being at the pivotal events of the war and serving with some of its key figures.  Had he lived, the gallant Colonel Alexander Scammell might have been the officer leading the Light Infantry against Redoubt Number 10 at Yorktown instead of Alexander Hamilton. And who knows what greatness his character and leadership might have brought to the new nation after the war? Many with fewer war time accomplishments went on to important political and diplomatic posts. But something tells me Alexander Scammell would have been happy back in New England with his law books and a loving wife.

Scammell might have led the assault on Redoubt 10 had he lived


  1. This is a fantastic series; very timely and will re-educate Americans on the founding of our country! Love it :)