Peter France in the Battle of New York


Peter France  enlisted in the Maryland line, in a regiment commanded by Colonel Moses Rawlings, in August 1776, shortly after the Declaration of Independence and before the first major battle of the war in New York.  There had been hostilities before, notably at Lexington and Concord in 1775 and skirmishes earlier in 1776 in South Carolina and at Montreal. 


The British General William Howe, landed on Staten Island on July 2, 1776, in ships commanded by his brother Admiral Richard Howe.  They occupied the island without resistance and in the next few weeks were reinforced by several thousand troops, including hired German troops from Hesse.  George Washington's troops were gathered in Manhattan (then known as New York) and on Long Island, in what is now Brooklyn.  They were ill-clothed, ill-trained, and many were sick.  Desertion was common.


It was unclear whether the British attack would come on Long Island or on Manhattan.  On August 22 they landed on Long Island at Gravesend Bay, at the south end of Brooklyn.  Of course, at that time most of Brooklyn was fields and forests, with a few villages and an occasional isolated house or tavern.  Part of the British forces moved straight north while others moved northeast.  Running east-west through the middle of Brooklyn is a ridge, part of which is now in Prospect Park.  American forces were deployed along the ridge.  On the night of August 26, the British troops who had moved east surreptitiously out-flanked the Americans, guided by  Loyalists from Brooklyn.  On the 27th the British attacked from both the east and south.  The fighting was fierce, in fact it has been characterized as the largest battle of the Revolution.  The Americans were thrown back into a corner of Brooklyn next to the East River.  Remarkably, General Howe chose not to destroy them completely.  Had he taken that opportunity the war would have been over and we would all still be British.  Both sides dug in.  Then on the night of August 29th Washington managed to stealthily extract his troops across the river to Manhattan.


On the 15th of September, Howe crossed the East river, invading Manhattan at Kip's Bay, where 40th Street is now.  The city of New York was pretty much confined to the area below what is now 10th street, with farms covering the rest of the island.  Howe drove north, up the east side of Manhattan.  On October 12 Howe crossed into the Bronx at Throgs Neck, a little east of the point the East River meets Long Island Sound.  Washington withdrew his forces to the area around White Plains.  Howe marched north and on October 28 engaged Washington's forces at White Plains.  The Americans comported themselves very well and the battle was indecisive. 


Washington had built a fort, named Fort Washington, on the far northwest side of Manhattan, on Mount Washington in what is now Bennett Park in Washington Heights.  The British had bypassed this fortification on their way north (they had crossed into the Bronx further south).  After the battle of White Plains, the British came back south, intent on capturing Fort Washington.  General Washington had placed a contingent of troops at Fort Washington and there was debate among his generals as to whether or not to try to hold it.  Washington was skeptical, but his commanding officer at the fort, Major General Nathaniel Greene,  wanted to try to defend it.  The fort was quite primitive, but was on a height that seemed to be impenetrable.


Three-quarters of a mile north of Fort Washington, at the north end of Mount Washington, was another height, in what is now Fort Tryon Park (named, ironically, after the British Governor of New York, William Tryon).  There was a small redoubt on this height and at that redoubt the forces of Colonel Rawlings were deployed, including Peter France.  I have been unable to find a full  account of the Rawlings regiment.  A Maryland contingent was heroically involved in the battle of Brooklyn, in Prospect Park, and suffered severe casualties, but it does not appear that Rawlings was in that group.  A Maryland contingent was also at the battle of White Plains.  The Rawlings regiment was encamped on the New Jersey shore on November 13, 1776 (commanded by Major General Green, source: American Archives, Peter Force, ed., 5th series, v. 3, p. 663).  By the 16th of November they were at the Fort Tyron redoubt.  It was on that day that the British and their Hessian allies attacked Mount Washington, from the north, east, and south.  The Hessians engaged the Americans first, scaling the rocky heights at the northern redoubt. 


The Marylanders fought bravely, against heavy odds, holding the redoubt for a couple of hours.  Finally, they had to fall back to the main fort.  Also at the redoubt was Margaret Corbin, the first heroine of the war, who took her husband's place at his artillery piece when he was killed.  She was severely wounded.  The road in Fort Tyron Park is named for her.


General Washington watched the action from across the Hudson River (then known as the North River) at Fort Lee in New Jersey.  Fort Washington fell, 2,000 men were captured, including 200 in Colonel Rawlings' regiment, and including Peter France.  All of New York now belonged to the British.  They were not to leave until the end of the war, in 1783. 


Officers who became prisoners were usually exchanged or pardoned, a practice followed by both sides.  Evidently, Colonel Rawlings was released quickly, since he is recorded as being at Trenton on December 1 with a very small group in his regiment, only 36 rank and file present and fit for duty (Ibid., p. 1035).  He was also at the encampment on the banks of the Delaware in Pennsylvania on December 22 (Ibid., p. 1401).  Regular soldiers did not fare so well. 


In the Battle of New York and subsequent actions in New Jersey the British took over 4,000 prisoners.  They overwhelmed the capacity of the British to take care of them.  The non-officer prisoners were taken to prisons in sugarhouses (warehouses for rum and sugar that were converted for this purpose) and churches in lower Manhattan or on a number of old ships anchored in Wallabout Bay, now the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  It is not clear where Peter France was taken.  His pension application says that he was on a prisonship while his grandson says that he was in a sugarhouse.  It is possible that he spent time in both.   We do not know any details of Peter's experience in prison, but a fair amount is known about these places, so we can infer something of what he went through.


Conditions in both the land and ship prisons were horrendous.   Of course, the toll on  prisoners in any war is extreme, both physically and psychologically.  One is dependent on jailers for sustenance and shelter and one never knows how the day is going to end.  If one survives physically, there is a good chance one will go mad.  Generally, the British did not torture their prisoners physically, but there was much verbal abuse, including threats of hanging.


The man in charge of prisoners in New York was Joshua Loring, a New York Loyalist who got his job in return for allowing General Howe to sleep with his wife.  Loring was quite corrupt, stealing a substantial proportion of the meager funds provided for the upkeep of the prisoners.  Prisoners were supposed to be fed two-thirds of the rations provided to British troops, which were minimal already, however the troops could augment their diet from the land, taking crops and livestock from local farmers.  But the prisoners were often fed even less that the two-thirds allotment, often only wormy bread and old meat.  Sanitary facilities were inadequate, particularly on the ships, where there was a continual overwhelming stench.  Peter's grandson says that he got water from under the floor and had to strain it before drinking.  I am not sure that this is true, since in the sugarhouses most prisoners were kept on upper floors and it is hard to imagine getting water from under the floor on a ship.  But in any event, the water was foul.  Clothing and bedding were in very short supply.  The prisons were extremely overcrowded, on the ships there was barely enough room for everyone to lie down.  Ventilation was inadequate.  In the summer the prisons were extremely hot and the prisoners were not protected from the cold of winter.  Disease was rampant.  Many died, in the sugarhouses a detail came through every day to collect the dead.  Meanwhile, the British officers and colonial loyalists spent the winter partying in New York.


Behind the city Municipal Building on the walkway to Police Plaza in lower Manhattan there is a small monument containing a barred widow from one of the sugarhouses.  It is possible that Peter France looked out that window, or at least one like it.  In Brooklyn, overlooking the site of the prisonships is the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument. 


Some of the surviving prisoners were held until the liberation of New York in 1783. Peter was evidently released earlier than that, but we do not know when.  In his pension application he says only "that he continued some time a prisoner in a Prisonship at New York."  His release was probably part of an exchange of prisoners that happened occasionally.  Over the years the number of prisoners held in New York dwindled considerably, due to death and exchange.  He says that he was stationed at Fort Frederick in Maryland and "some time afterwards was moved to Pittsburg where he continued until he was discharged."  His award of a pension says that he was discharged in August 1779 (his grandson says that he served for four years).  His grandson says that he "served in a campaign  against the Indians in southeastern Ohio."  This is possible.  In August 1778, Washington wrote to Congress commending Colonel Rawlings and his troops for their activities at Fort Washington and suggesting that they might be deployed against the Indians, apparently because this would be less onerous service than against the British (Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor, USGPO, 1934, vol. 12, p. 346-48).


Peter France went to Ohio after his service in the Revolutionary War, where he moved around a bit, ending up in Stark County.  He was a poor farmer. He married twice after his discharge.  We do not know his first wife's name.  His second wife was Elizabeth Smyre.  He is said to have had 14 children, 7 by each wife. 


Veterans of the Revolutionary War were promised much and given little, at least at first.  A principal compensation for their service was supposed to have been land in the new nation.  Veterans were supposed to have been provided for by the states.  A few states, notably Virginia, responded minimally.  National provisions were made for officers.  Finally, in 1818 Congress began to enact a series of laws providing for veterans' pensions. 


Peter France was in a backwater of Ohio.  He was illiterate.  He did not know of the benefits that were available to him.  Finally, in September 1827 he applied for a pension under the Act of 1818, saying he was 76 years old, claiming near poverty and assets of $46.12.  He signed the application with an X.  He was given a semiannual allowance of $48, to end in March 1829.  Peter died in 1836.  It is not known whether his pension was renewed.  Subsequent to his wife's death, his son David made application for arrears of pension.


A Note on Sources:

Of course, there are hundreds of books on the Revolutionary War.  I have depended heavily on Barnet Schecter, The Battle for New York, (New York: Walker Pub. Co., 2002), which has a fairly detailed discussion of the battle for Fort Washington and the role of Colonel Rawlings' regiment.  The book 1776, by David McCullough (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2005) discusses the battle a bit more briefly, and mentions Colonel Rawlings' men.  Both books have far more detail than I have given about the battle, the thinking of the men on both sides who planned for it, and the preliminary maneuvers.  Schecter discusses conditions in the prisons.  For a scholarly and measured discussion of the prisons, see Larry G. Bowman, Captive Americans: Prisoners During the American Revolution (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1976).  A more inflammatory and extreme view of the prisons is in Henry Onderdonk, Jr., Revolutionary Incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties (New York: Leavitt & Co., 1849).  For another description of the prisonships, see

For a list of those confined on the Jersey, perhaps the most notorious of the prisonships (not including Peter France), see  Membership of Rawling's regiment as it stood May 31, 1777 (not including Peter France) is recorded in W. T. R. Saffell, Records of the Revolutionary War, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Charles C. Saffell, 1894), p. 240.


Peter France's service in the War is recorded in several places:


1. Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files, Vol 2, p. 1254 (from National Archives):

France, Peter, Elizabeth, W7328 [I believe this is a film number in the Archives, I have not examined this film], Cont Line, sol appl 17 Sep 1827 Stark Co OH Aged 76 Sol m Elizabeth Smyer in the spring of 1793 at Woodsbury in Frederick Co MD where she was visiting a bro-in-law sol d 26 Apr 1836 & wid d 19 Feb 1851, in 1827 she had been aged about 50, surviving children in 1856 were, Henry b in 1800, Lewis b in 1806, David b in 1811, Daniel b in 1813 & James b in 1815, on 8 Nov 1853 the son David appl in Summit Co OH in 1856 Mathias & Elizabeth Glass aged 79 & 75 stated that in 1793 they lived on a farm adjoining the farm of wid's father & the said Elizabeth Glass stated her sis (not named) m a bro of Elizabeth Smyer on 6 Jul 1806.


2.  Official Roster of Soldiers of the American Revolution who Lived in the State of Ohio, Vol. 2, DAR of Ohio, No date (1938?).  Vol. 1 is titled "Soldiers of the American Revolution Buried in the State of Ohio,"  Vol 2, p. 144:

France, Peter, Stark co Enl Aug 1776 Md Line; discharged Aug 9 1779; pvt Md Mil; served 3 yrs (dertf).  Was ae 76 in 1827 (appl). Mar Elizabeth S Myers (?); chldr: David (made appl for arrears of pens); Henry; Daniel; James (by aff of David); sol d Apr26 1836 (aff of son); wid d Feb 19 1851 (aff of son).  Appl for pens Sept 17 1827 Stark co O. Ref W7328 Cont Md. Rept by state DAR.


3.  Archives of Maryland, v. 18 Muster Rolls 1775-1783, p. 111 shows members of the regiment of Col. Moses Rawlings, including France, Peter, pt [private], [no enlistment date is shown], discharged 9 August 79.


4. Cemetery Inscriptions of Stark County, Ohio 4 vols, 1982. Vol 5 (?) at end are lists of Revolutionary War Veterans: "Peter France 1751-26 Apr 1836. Pvt MD Pension W7328 1829; wife Elizabeth S. Myers (?), Elizabeth Snyder; Burial place unknown."