An Account of Samuel Lawrence’s Military Career, and a Brief Sketch of His Subsequent Civilian Life

The following brief biography is, almost verbatim, taken from Historical Sketches of the Lawrence Family, by Robert Means Lawrence, 1888. I have made only a few edits for the sake of clarity.

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from Robert Means LawrenceHistorical Sketches of the Lawrence Family, 1888

MAJOR SAMUEL LAWRENCE

The third and youngest son of Amos and Abigail Lawrence, and grandson of John of Lexington, was born in Groton, April 24, 1754. His early life was passed on his father’s farm.

Military Career

He was a corporal in one of the Groton companies of minute-men. Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, April 18, 1775, several brass cannon arrived in Groton, having been sent there by a vote of the Committee of Safety of the Provincial Congress.

Tradition says that the minute-men held a meeting that same evening; and that nine of them set out after dark, carrying lighted torches, and, marching during the night, reached Concord very early on Wednesday morning. Having breakfasted, they joined the minute­men of Concord and the adjoining towns, and were participants in the fight at the North Bridge, and in the pursuit of the British troops as far as Lexington or beyond.

The first intelligence of the battle of Lexington reached Groton at ten o’clock in the forenoon of the 19th. Samuel Lawrence was at work ploughing in the field near his home, when his neighbor, Gen. Oliver Prescott, rode up and shouted, “Samuel, notify your men; the British are coming!”’ Mount­ing the general’s horse, the young farmer rode at the utmost speed, calling out the minute-men who lived in his circuit, which comprised the southerly part of the town, now included in the township of Ayer. After riding a distance of seven miles in forty minutes, he returned to his father’s house, and then joined his company at the church, where brief services were held. Meantime the selectmen, Gen. Oliver Prescott, Col. James Prescott, Capt. Josiah Sartell, Deacon Isaac Farnsworth, and Capt. Amos Lawrence had been distributing arms and ammunition to the soldiers. At one o’clock the two Groton companies, numbering one hundred and one men, commanded by Capts. Henry Farwell and Asa Lawrence, and the Pepperell company, were on the road, and marched with all possible dispatch to Concord and Lexington.

Owing to the distance, they were not able to reach the scene of action in season to participate in the exciting events of that afternoon; but the same evening they reported at the headquarters of the American army at Cambridge, and that night, which marked the commencement of the siege, the Middle­sex minute-men were on duty, guarding the roads which led to Boston.

And now the militia from far and near hurried to Cambridge. The farmers, in their haste, brought little beside the clothes they wore, and their fowling-pieces and powder-horns. Most of them had little or no food or money.

Capt. Amos Lawrence, soon after the eventful 19th of April, drove from Groton to the camp, carrying a wagon-load of provisions to his son and some of his neighbors, members of the Groton companies. During the ensuing eight weeks, Samuel Lawrence was, with his company, encamped at Cambridge, and acted as an orderly to his colonel.

The regiment from Western Middlesex was com­missioned May 26. At twilight, on June 16, three hundred men of this command, including the two Groton companies, and forming part of a special detail under Col. Prescott, paraded on Cambridge Common. After dark they marched by a direct road (now Kirkland Street in Cambridge, and Washington Street in Somerville) to Charlestown Neck, and thence to Breed’s Hill, which they proceeded to intrench during the night. In the battle of Bunker Hill the following afternoon, the Groton companies were stationed in the redoubt, and behind the breastwork. Samuel Lawrence, at this time twenty-one years old, fought in the former position. He was near Gen. Warren when the latter was shot. When the British made the third assault, their artillery fire raked the line of the breastwork, and the Americans stationed there were driven inside the redoubt. While some of the British battalions attacked the southern and eastern ramparts, others took possession of the deserted breastwork; thus gaining a position on the north side of the fort, where was its only entrance. Capt. Farwell was severely wounded about this time; and Samuel Lawrence received a slight wound on the arm from a spent grape-shot, and a bullet pierced his hat, cutting a furrow in his hair. He saw a British officer, whom he understood to be Major Pitcairn, scale the breastwork, and call to his men to follow. A moment later the officer fell mortally wounded, into the slight trench outside the works.

When the British at length entered the redoubt, and its defenders were forced to retire owing to lack of ammunition, Samuel Lawrence retreated across the brow of Bunker Hill, and thence over Charlestown Neck towards Cambridge.

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He remained in the army for more than three years after the battle of Bunker Hill, and was in constant active service with the exception of two brief furloughs. Of the details of his army life we have but meager knowledge; but our aim shall be to follow the movements of the Western Middlesex regiment, with which he constantly remained.

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We know that during the remainder of the year 1775, while yet a non­commissioned officer, he continued to serve as an orderly to Col. Prescott; and the experience gained in this capacity must have been of value in his subsequent military career.

In the latter part of June the regiment was with the centre division of the army, encamped at Cam­bridge. On the 3rd of July it was ordered to take possession of the woods leading to Lechmere’s Point (East Cambridge); and about the 10th of the month it was stationed at Sewall’s Point, on the south bank of Charles River, and near the present Cottage Farm railroad station. Here was built an extensive redoubt, known as “Brookline Fort,” which was of irregular shape and very strong. Connected with it were barracks for some four hundred men. On the opposite bank of the river, to the north-east, was a battery mounting three guns; and on the south, between Brookline Fort and Muddy River, on the present site of the Longwood Schoolhouse, were placed a small redoubt and a battery, —all forming part of the semicircular fortified line which invested Boston. The regiment occupied a part of the Sewall Farm including the grove to the north of the resi­dence of the late Amos A. Lawrence. Col. Prescott had his headquarters at the house of Mr. Edward K. Wolcott, a son-in-law of Mr. Henry Sewall, jun.

This house is situated on Beacon Street in Brook­line, about three-quarters of a mile west of the Boston line, and now forms part of the Stearns estate. On July 22, by order of Gen. Washington, the regiment was attached to a new brigade, commanded by Brig.-Gen. Heath. It appears to have remained at Sewall’s Point most of the time until the following March, and was now known as the Seventh Regiment of Foot. On Jan. 1, 1776, the date of organization of the new Continental army, Samuel Lawrence received a commission as ensign of one of the Groton companies, commanded by Capt. Joseph Moors. On the twenty-ninth day of March following, twelve days after the evacuation of Boston by the British, six regiments of foot, includ­ing Prescott’s, started for New York under command of Gen. Sullivan. They marched to Norwich, Conn., and thence to New London, where they embarked on the Sound. Previous to their departure, the regi­mental commanders received a special exhortation from Gen. Washington’ to “spruce up” their men, as they were about to join the troops from other colonies, and it was desirable that they should present as creditable an appearance as possible. After remain­ing a few days in New-York City, the regiment was stationed at Governor’s Island in the harbor, where Fort Columbus had been built by the British in 1684; and here they remained in garrison until the end of the summer.

On July 3, the day before the Declaration of Inde­pendence, the commissioned officers of the regiment wrote a letter to Gen. Heath, in which they expressed their determination to fight to the last in defence of their country, and urged the need of re-enforcements to their little garrison. After the battle of Long Island, Aug. 27, and the retreat of the Americans two days later, Col. Prescott withdrew his regiment from the island in excellent order, and joined the army at New York.

This manoeuvre was skillfully executed; for the regi­ment was in almost as great danger of being captured as at Bunker Hill,’ and its escape was largely due to Lord Howe’s failure to take immediate advantage of the defeat of Washington’s army. On the very day of the withdrawal of the regiment, Aug. 30, the British fleet under Admiral Howe anchored close to Governor’s Island.

After the evacuation of the city of New York by the Americans in the middle of September, the Middle­sex regiment was encamped with the army at Harlem Heights, and early in October it was posted on the bank of the Harlem River near King’s Bridge. From a return of the commissioned officers dated the 4th of the month, it appears that many of their number were off duty by reason of sickness; but we find that Ensign Samuel Lawrence was “on command.” On the 12th of the month some four thousand British troops landed at Throgg’s Point, the end of a peninsula which projects into the sound nearly opposite White­hall, and about fifteen miles easterly from New-York City. Acting under orders from the commander-­in-chief, Gen. Heath sent a detachment, including Prescott’s regiment, some riflemen, and a field-piece, to oppose the progress of the enemy. The latter attempted to push forward towards a causeway and bridge which connected Throgg’s Neck with the main land of Westchester County, but were driven back by the riflemen, assisted by Prescott’s regiment and the field piece. The British forces then encamped for five days on the peninsula, after which they re-embarked. Meantime the Middlesex regiment, strongly intrenched, had guarded the approach to the interior; and on the 17th it was ordered to Fort Inde­pendence, near King’s Bridge, and thence four days later it marched with Parsons’ brigade of Heath’s division to White Plains, where the American army remained in a fortified camp near the village until the end of the month. The enemy meanwhile occupied a position on neighboring hills, eastward of the Bronx River. On Oct. 31 the army continued its northward march, and reached North-Castle Heights near Tarry­town. A return of this date shows that more than one-half of the commissioned officers of Prescott’s regiment were on the sick-list.

On the evening of Nov. 10 the regiment arrived at Peekskill, and on the 13th was encamped about two miles above the town, at a narrow defile of the moun­tains. This position was of a great strategic impor­tance, as it commanded the southern entrance to the Highlands of the Hudson. To fortify and defend the pass, was the duty assigned the Middlesex minute-men.

On about the 10th of December, Prescott’s regiment was sent across the river into New Jersey, and four “‘days later was at Hackensack Bridge, near Bergen. On the 16th it returned to Peekskill, and remained for many weeks in that vicinity. During the month of January, 1777, Prescott’s regiment marched with an expedition under Gen. Heath to King’s Bridge, but had hardly arrived at that point when it was ordered to retrace its steps, and return to its former post at the Highlands. Here, in the neighborhood of Peeks- kill, the regiment remained until the early summer. Meantime Col. Prescott resigned his commission, and retired from the army; and the command devolved upon the lieutenant-colonel, John Robinson of West-ford. About the 1st of July the regiment was trans­ferred to Rhode Island, and stationed at North Kingston; and we learn from a muster-roll of this date, that Samuel Lawrence was now a second lieuten­ant in Capt. Nathaniel Lakin’s company.

The regiment appears to have been ordered to Cambridge for a few days in July; and Lieut. Lawrence obtained a brief leave of absence, and hastened to Groton for the express purpose of marrying Susanna Parker, a young lady whom he had known from childhood, and to whom he had been for some two years engaged. His mother, Abigail Abbott Lawrence, favored an immediate union, in view of the vicissitudes of war. “Susan had better be Sam’s widow,” she said, “than his forlorn damsel.” On the 22d of July, while the marriage ceremony was in progress, the alarm-bell was heard, again summoning all soldiers to arms. This alarm was probably caused by the continued southward march of Gen. Burgoyne’s army from Canada. Ticonderoga had fallen, and the northern States were aroused to a sense of danger. Within the hour the bridegroom was on his way to the camp at Cambridge. Col. Robinson, on learning the peculiar circumstances of his marriage, granted the lieutenant a furlough; and he was thus enabled to return to his wife for a brief visit, afterwards rejoining his regiment then at North Kingston. Here he was stationed during the autumn and winter following. On Dec. 31, 1777, he again returned to his home for a brief visit, and was present at the ordination of the Rev. Daniel Chaplin as pastor of the Groton church.

During the year 1778, Rhode Island was to be the scene of active military operations. The Middlesex minute-men, after a long period of forced inactivity, were to take part in the summer campaign of that year. On the seventh day of August, while at Tiverton, Samuel Lawrence was commissioned adjutant of the regiment commanded by Col. William McIntosh. For this position he was well qualified by more than three years of continuous military training, and also by reason of his stentorian lungs and far-reaching voice. He was for a time attached to the staff of Gen. Sullivan, and soon afterward was promoted to be major. On the 9th of August the American forces crossed the Seaconnet Channel, and landed on the north end of the island of Rhode Island. The few British troops stationed at this point thereupon retreated, and the Americans followed, expecting to co-operate with the French fleet under Count d’Estaing in an attack upon Newport. Owing to the failure of the fleet to render assistance, Gen. Sullivan com­menced a retreat on the night of the 28th, and the British pursued the following morning. On this day was fought the battle of Quaker Hill.

In an engagement at about this time, Samuel Lawrence became separated from his command, and was in imminent danger of being captured by the enemy. He was, however, rescued by the bravery of a company of colored troops, who rallied to his support and held the British soldiers at bay, while he, urging forward his powerful steed, was enabled to escape. It is probable that this company was a part of Col. Greene’s black regiment, which had been recently organized by a vote of the Rhode Island general assembly. It is a matter of history that this command distinguished itself in this battle by repelling with great gallantry successive charges of the Hessians. We quote the words of another on this point: —

“There is abundant evidence of the fidelity and bravery of the colored patriots of Rhode Island during the whole war. Before they had been formed into a separate regiment, they had fought valiantly with the white soldiers at Red Bank and elsewhere. Their conduct at the ‘battle of Rhode Island,’ on the 29th of August, 1778, entitles them to perpetual honor. Its success was owing, in a great degree, to the good fighting of the negro soldiers.”

The campaign ended with the battle of “Quaker Hill,” or “Rhode Island,” and the retreat of the Amer­icans to the mainland. The news of a battle soon reached Groton, and a fond mother remarked that she “did not know but Sam was killed,” whereat the young wife fell senseless to the floor. A few days after this, Major Samuel Lawrence returned home, having resigned his commission and left the army. The date of his discharge was Sept. 12.

Civilian Life

    His wife Susanna was living at his father’s home, his own birthplace, the present William Peabody farm, which at this time was also the residence of his brother Amos, jun., and family. Here his oldest child Luther was born, Sept. 28, 1778. Soon after this Samuel Lawrence occupied the Tarbell place on Farmer’s Row. On the decease of Capt. Samuel Tarbell, his farm was divided into nine shares, which were appor­tioned to the heirs-at-law. Between the years 1778 and 1782, Capt. Amos Lawrence purchased all these shares separately, including two belonging to Samuel Tarbell, jun., which had been confiscated by the Com­monwealth in payment of a debt. The entire estate was inherited by Major Samuel Lawrence in 1785.

The old Tarbell dwelling, in which most of his children were born, was taken down in 1796; and the oldest portion of the present mansion, where the youngest child, Samuel, jun., was born in 1801, was erected soon after on the same foundations.’ While this oldest part was in process of building, the family occupied a tenement of Capt. Farwell’s, which stood just north of their own dwelling.

After Deacon Samuel Lawrence’s death in 1827, the farm was owned by his sons till their mother’s death in 1845. It then became the property of the Hon. Abbott Lawrence, and afterwards was owned by his son James. It is now the residence of a son of the latter, James Lawrence, Esq., by whom it has been greatly enlarged and improved. The Lawrence farm has now a more than local reputation. The old elm, still standing in the front yard, was fully grown in Revolutionary times, and must be in the neighborhood of two hundred years old.

Like his father, Samuel Lawrence early became identified with the interests of the town; and we find his name, in 1781, as one of a committee to reckon with the town treasurer—a position to which he was afterwards frequently re-appointed. The same year he was a member of a committee “to receive the claims of the soldiers, and estimate the depreciation of the money.” He held nearly all the important town offices at different times, serving as assessor six years, and as “first select-man” and town clerk four years from 1795. He was repeatedly chosen a surveyor of high­ways, and twice officiated as moderator of town ­meetings. In February, 1819, he was a delegate from the church in Groton to an ecclesiastical council convened at Shirley. He was a member of the school committee three years, and occupied that position as late as the year 1823. In 1802 he was a director and inspector of the small-pox hospital. His services were frequently sought by his fellow-citizens in matters pertaining to the town finances, and in the management of schools. When twenty-nine years of age, he was chosen a deacon of the church, and retained the office for more than forty years. He was also a justice of the peace. Samuel Lawrence was by occupation a farmer, well-to-do though never affluent. Both he and his wife bad a keen appreciation of the importance and value of a sound education, and made every exertion to secure this advantage for their nine children. The latter attended first the neighboring district school, and later all were sent to the academy.

Of this institution he was one of the founders, and for twenty-seven years a trustee. In its welfare he always took a deep interest and pride. In later years it was liberally endowed by two of his sons, and it was then called the “Lawrence Academy.” Samuel Lawrence was frequently called upon to arbitrate when controversies or disputes arose among the townspeople. “Such matters were invariably referred to him.” Such is the testimony of aged residents of Groton, who speak from personal recollection.

His hospitality was proverbial; and the house was a favorite resort of his fellow-soldiers of Revolutionary times, who were wont there to meet and live over again in imagination the eventful experiences of their younger days.

The thrilling stories there often repeated were naturally of profound interest to the children of the household, and in after years were among their most vivid recollections. Deacon Lawrence was an intimate friend and associate of his former commander, Col. William Prescott; and, living in adjoining towns, they frequently exchanged visits, and always attended the old-fashioned muster together. It appears that Samuel Lawrence sometimes furnished employment to apprentices and journeymen shoemakers, probably in the winter season, or when there was but little work to be done on the farm. In personal appearance, he is described as a short and rather stout, white-haired man. His finely shaped head was well set on his shoulders, and his figure was erect and military. Genial and pleasant tempered, he was a favorite alike with young and old. “Always on Sundays in the deacon’s pew in front of the pulpit in the old church.” In all the relations of life he was faithful and conscientious, and he possessed the respect and affection of his neighbors and fellow-townsmen. He was held in good repute in the community wherein he lived, and his character did not belie his reputation. Of sterling integrity, he did not swerve from the path of duty, but guarded with jealous care the heritage of an honorable name. His sons won great distinction, and their fame went abroad; but it should never be forgotten that the corner-stone of their success was the moral and religious training received in their youth at the old homestead in Groton. Samuel Lawrence was present at the laying of the corner-stone of Bunker-hill Monument in 1825; and the fatigue and excitement attendant upon a week’s visit in Boston at that time were the apparent cause of a paralytic affection, which resulted in his death, Nov. 8, 1827, in his seventy- fourth year.

Personal belongings and other items that may have (yet) survived:

  • An old cradle, now in the possession of Mrs. Amos A. Lawrence, is one of the most interesting family relics which have been preserved. The Rev. William Lawrence writes in regard to a tradition of this cradle:
  • “When Major Sam Lawrence and family moved from the original home to the farm now occupied by James Lawrence, the cradle was found in the house which formerly belonged to the Tarbells.” It is certain that some of Major Lawrence’s children were rocked to sleep in this old cradle, whose record of useful service extends nearly to the present time.
  • The hat worn by Samuel Lawrence at the battle of Bunker Hill, and which was perforated by a British bullet, was preserved until the year 1796.  It was lost when the old Tarbell house in Groton was pulled down.
  • His musket is in the possession of Prescott Lawrence, Esq.
  • Among the Revolutionary relics on exhibition at the Old South Church in Boston, may be seen a leathern wallet (size about 6 X 3 inches) marked “S. Lawrance of Groton, 1775.” It has also the following inscrip­tion: “Pocket-book used by Major Sam. Lawrence while adjutant (1775-6) for carrying orders. The name was written by himself.”[1]
  • James Lawrence, Esq., has two old Bibles, formerly the property of Deacon Lawrence, and containing valuable family records in the latter’s handwriting.
  • Abbott Lawrence, Esq., has his toddy-stick

 

126_2650

View of the doorway to the Lawrence Homestead, Groton, MA. Constructed in 1798 by Samuel Lawrence, on the foundation of the old Tarbell house.

 

Footnote:

[1] Interesting because this implies Samuel used an “a” when he spelled his last name.

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