Bachelor Uncle – “Best Blood of the Revolution”

Every chance I get to write about my Dixon and Cochran families, I do! As they were the focus of my master’s thesis, I am overwhelmed with interesting material about them. When I saw that the prompt for this week was “bachelor uncle,” I couldn’t think of a better example of an exciting than Robert Dixon.

Background

So how is uncle Robert Dixon related to me? Sankey Dixon is my 5th great grandfather on my paternal side, and Robert is his older brother, making him my 6th great uncle. Robert and Sankey were the sons of John Dixon and Arabella Murray, both of Scottish and Scots-Irish extraction. John Dixon was a successful farmer in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Arabella was the sister of wealthy merchant Robert Murray and aunt of the grammarian Lindley Murray. John and Arabella were the parents of at least 9 children: Robert, Isabella, Richard, James, Sankey, Mary, Anna, John, and Arabella.

Silhouette of Robert Dixon

Rumblings of Revolution

Robert was about 25 years old when on 4 June 1774 the inhabitants of Hanover gathered together to discuss the current political climate. The meeting resulted in 5 resolves in response to the oppressive “recent action of the Parliament of Great Britain.” The final resolve was the establishment of a committee consisting of 9 men from Hanover “who shall act for us and in our behalf as emergencies may require.” Robert had the great distinction of being one of the men elected to this committee.

When the Revolutionary War began, at least 4 of the Dixon brothers enthusiastically enlisted to fight. Robert, Richard, and John joined Captain Matthew Smith’s company in June 1775, followed by Sankey who joined the Pennsylvania Line a year or two later. The Dixon boys were quite famous in Lancaster County for their eagerness to fight the British. A neighbor, Robert Strain, made a shot pouch for Richard with “Liberty or Death” inscribed on the front. The brothers’ passion and courage so impressed Strain that he recalled “the whole of the four brothers of the Dixon family were in the service until the war was ended, and were the truest kind of Whigs and Patriots.” Although four of the Dixon brothers were well known for their service, it was the oldest brother, Robert, who acquired early fame as the “first martyr of the Revolution” as result of his participation in the Quebec Campaign.

Quebec Campaign

I was very fortunate to find that a friend of Robert Dixon’s, John Joseph Henry, kept a journal during the Quebec Campaign and later published it with clarifying notes and remembrances. Robert features in two anecdotes: crossing the Dead River and his death in Quebec.

Crossing the Dead River

The Quebec Campaign was notably led by Benedict Arnold, and the march from Pennsylvania to Maine to Quebec was arduous. Desertion was common especially as the frequent river crossings in leaking boats spoiled food and ammunition. Robert and his companions reached the Dead River, a tributary of the Kennebec River in Maine, in October 1775. The soldiers climbed the hills next to the river while boatmen polled and rowed the boats against the current. The river was already fast, but when it rained heavily on 19 October, the waters rose dangerously, the land became boggy, and the water fetid. Below is John Joseph Henry’s account of the disaster that awaited him, Robert, and the other soldiers on 23 October when they crossed the Dead River: (Please excuse spelling; original spelling has been kept)

Oct. 23 – When morning came, the river presented a most frightful aspect: it had risen at least eight feet, and flowed with terrifying rapidity. None but the most strong and active boatmen entered the boats. The army marched on the south side of the river, making large circuits to avoid the overflowings of the intervale or bottoms lands. This was one of the most fatiguing marches….But having no path, and being necessiated to climb the steepest hills, and that without food, for we took none with us, thinking the boats would be near us all day….Alas! all the boats of the army were on the opposite side of the river….We sat down on the bank sorely pinched by hunger, looking wistfully towards our friends beyond the torrent, who were in possession of all the provisions, tents, and camp equipage, convinced that the most adventurous boatmen would not dare the passage for the sake of accommodating any of us. We were, however, mistaken. There were two men…who had skill and courage to dare it….

The river was about 150 or 200 yards in breadth, counting on the increase of water by the rains. The force of the central current naturally formed considerable eddies at each side of the river….Quick, almost in a moment, Simpson was with us. He called in his loud voice to Robert Dixon, James Old, (a messmate,) and myself to enter the boat. We entered immediately. He pushed off; attempting the start by favor of the higher eddy, which was the main thing, we failed. Returning, to the shore, we were assailed by a numerous band of soldiers, hungry and anxious to be with their companions. Simpson told them he could not carry more with safely, and would return for them. Henry M’Annely…jumped into the boat; he was followed by three or four older inconsiderate men. The countenance of Simpson changed; his soul and mine were intimate. “O God,” said he, “men we shall all die.” They would not recede. 

Again we approached the pitch; it was horrible. The batteaux (boat) swam deep, almost ungovernable by the paddle….Simpson, with his paddle, governed the stern. The worthy Tidd in the bow. Dixon and myself, our guns stuck in the railing of the batteau, but without paddles, sat in the stern next to Simpson. Mr. Old was in the bow near Tidd. Henry M’Annally was adjoining Mr. Old. The other men sat between the stern and bow. Simpson called to the men in the bow to lay hold of the birch bushes: the boat struck the shore forcibly; they caught hold…but…their holds slipped at the only spot where we could have been saved; for the boat had been judiciously and safely brought up. Letting go their holds, the bow came round to the stream, and the stern struck the shore.

Simpson, Dixon, and myself, now caught the bushes, but being by this time thrown into the current, the strength of the water made the withes as so many straws in our hands. The stern again swung round: the bow came again ashore. Mr. Old, Tidd, and M’Annaly, and the rest, sprung to the land to save their lives. Doing this at our cost, their heels forced the boat across the current. Though we attempted to steady it, the boat swagged. In a moment after, at thirty feet off shore, being broad side to the current, it turned, borne under, in spite of all our force, by the fury of the stream. The boat upsetting, an expression, as going into the water, fell from me, “Simpson, we are going to heaven.” My fall was head-foremost. Simpson came after me….The art of swimming, in which I thought myself an adept, was tried, but it was a topsy-turvey business….We should have there died, but for the assistance of Edward Cavanugh….

Lying on the earth perhaps twenty minutes, the water pouring from my mouth, a messenger from the camp came to rouse us. Roused, we went in. But all eyes looked out for Dixon, all hearts were wailing for his loss.It was known he could not swim, but none of us could recollect whether he had dropped into the water or had adhered to the boat. After a while we had the inexpressible pleasure of Dixon in our company. He had stuck to the side of the boat, which lodged on a vast pile of drift wood some miles below, and in this way he was saved.

Arriving at camp, our friends had a large fire prepared, particularly for our accommodation; heat, after such an occurrence, is most agreeable. My two friends in distress (Robert and Simpson), whose clothing was principally woolen, felt none of my private disaster.

Quite the story! Luckily, Robert survived the ordeal as well as his friends, despite the fact that he could not swim!

Robert’s Death

The Quebec Campaign in 1775 was particularly disastrous for the patriots, and the meddling of a French spy about a month before the Battle of Quebec cost Robert his life. Below is the account given by John Joseph Henry, Robert’s friend and comrade:

Nov. 16th – In the afternoon a distressing occurrence took place here, notwithstanding our vicinity to [the nunnery]. Towards the evening the guard was relieved. Lieutenant Simpson commanded it. This guard was composed of two-and-twenty fine fellows of our company. When the relief-guard came, a Frenchman, of a most villainous appearance, both as to person and visage, came to our Lieutenant with a written order from Colonel Arnold, commanding him to accompany the bearer, who would be our guide across the river St. Charles, to obtain some cattle feeding beyond it, on the account of government. The order, in the first instance, because of its preposterous, was doubted, but, upon a little reflection, obeyed.

Knowing the danger, our worthy Lieutenant also knew the best and only means of executing the enterprize. The call “come on, lads,” was uttered. We ran with speed from the guard-house some hundreds of yards over the plain to the moth of the St. Charles, where the ferry is. Near the ferry there was a large wind-mill, and near it stood a small house resembling a cooper’s shop. Two carts of a large size were passing the ferry heavily laden with the household-stuff, women, and children of the townsmen flying from the suburbs of St. Roque….The carts were already in a large scow or flat-bottomed boat, and the ferrymen, seeing us coming, were tugging hard at the ferry-rope to get off the boat, which was aground, before we should arrive. It was no small matter…to outdo people of our agility. Simpson, with his usual good humor, urged the race, from a hope that the garrison would not fire upon us when in the boat with their flying townsmen. The weight of our bodies and arms put the boat aground in good earnest. Simpson vociferously urging the men to free the boat, directed them to place their guns in my arms, standing on the bow. He ordered me to watch the flashes of cannon of the city, near palace gate.

Jumping into the water mid-deep, all but Serjeant Dixon and myself, they were pushing, pulling, and with handspikes attempting to float the scow. One of the carts stood between Dixon and myself – he was tugging at the ferry rope. Presently, “a shot,” was called; it went wide of the boat, its mark. The exertions of the party were redoubled. Keeping an eye upon the town, the sun about setting in a clear sky, the view was beautiful indeed, but somewhat terrific….Out boat lay like a rock in the water, and was a target at point blank shot about three-fourths of a mile from palace gate, which issues into Saint Roque….It was plainly observable that many persons were engaged in preparing the guns for another discharge. Our brave men were straining every nerve to obtain success. “A shot,” was all that could be said, when a thirty-six pound ball, touching the lower edge of the nob of the cart-wheel, descending a little, look the leg of my patriotic friend (Robert) below the knee, and carried away the bones of that part entirely. “Oh! Simpson,” he cried, “I am gone.” Simpson, whose heart was tender and kind, leaped into the boat: calling to the men, the person of Dixon was borne to the wind-mill. Now a roar of triumph was heard from the city, accompanied by some tolerably well directed shots. The unfortunate man was borne at a slow and solemn pace to the guardhouse – the enemy every now and then sending us his majesty’s compliments, in the shape of a 24 or 36 pound ball. When the procession came into a line with the town, the guard-house, and nunnery, the firing ceased. At the time we were most busily engaged with Dixon, at the wind-mill, the vile Frenchman, aghast and horror-stricken, fled from us to the city. If his desertion had been noticed in time, his fate had been sealed; but the rascal was unobserved till he had run several hundred yards along the beach of the bay of St. Charles. He turned out to be a spy, purposely sent by government to decoy and entrap us, and he succeeded but too easily with the vigilant Arnold.

Dixon was now carried on a litter to the house of an English gentleman, about a mile off. An amputation took place – a tetanus followed, which, about nine o’clock of the ensuing day, ended in the dissolution of this honorable citizen and soldier. There are many reasons for detailing this affair so minutely to you. Among these are, to impress upon your minds an idea of the manners and spirit of those times: our means and rude method or warfare; but more particularly for the purpose of introducing to your observation an anecdote of Dixon, which is characteristic of the ideas and feelings then entertained by the generality of his countrymen. Before we left our native homes, tea had, as it were, become an abomination even to the ladies. The taxation of it by the Parliament of England, with design to draw from us a trifling revenue, was made the pretence with the great body of the people, for our opposition to government. The true ground, however, with the politically wise, was that that law annihilated our rights as Englishmen….Hence it was, that no male or female, knowing their rights, if possessed of the least spark of patriotism, would deign to taste of that delightful beverage. The lady of the house, though not one who approved of our principles of action, was very attentive to our wounded companion; she presented him a bowl of tea: “No, madam,” said he, “it is the ruin of my country.”

Uttering this noble sentiment, (Nov. 17th), this invaluable citizen died, sincerely lamented by every one who had the opportunity of knowing his virtues. Dixon was a gentlemen of good property and education, though no more than the first sergeant of our company. His estate lay in West Hanover township, in the county of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was an agriculturist, which, in the vagueness and and uncertainty of our language, is called “a farmer.” In fact he was a freeholder, the possessor of an excellent tract of land, accompanied by all those agreeables which render the cultivator of earth, in Pennsylvania, the most independent, and, with prudent economy, the most happy of human beings.

The following morning, Simpson was the first to give me an account of Dixon’s death, which affected us much. His corpse received the usual military honors. Duty compelled my absence elsewhere. The blood of Dixon was the first oblation made upon the altar of liberty at Quebec, and Merchant was the first prisoner. The latter (Merchant) was a brave and determined soldier, fitted for subordinate station; the former (Robert) was intuitively a captain. 

According to the tale told by one of the Dixons’ former tenants, William Darby, an express rider delivered a letter to his father, John, informing him of Robert’s death. John was inconsolable.

Thoughts

I know that I quoted quite a bit from each story, but I wanted to include as much as possible to provide some context to the anecdotes. The river crossing story sounded just terrifying; it just shows how dangerous being in the army in the 18th century truly was, even when they weren’t in battle. Traveling from place to place had its own problems, including food shortages, weather, and malfunctioning equipment. Fortunately, Robert survived the river crossing, though he would not live much longer.

Robert’s death is such a tragic story. Not only did the actions of a spy directly lead to his death, but he sustained a horrendous wound and suffered through an amputation and infection before he finally died. The fact that he received full military honors at his burial has been commented on by historians. Although he was a non commissioned officer, he was treated like one. Some speculate it was because of he wealth or standing in his community, or because he was the earliest casualty of the campaign.

For me, however, the most amazing part of these anecdotes is the inclusion of personal details about Robert. For one, he couldn’t swim! I thought this was incredible, as his father’s land bordered a river, at a place called Dixon’s Ford. But perhaps the river was not very deep and he had no need to learn to swim. If Robert couldn’t swim, then I assume his younger brother Sankey couldn’t swim either. Henry also included details about Robert’s background – from a wealthy family, well-educated, and an “agriculturalist.” These details are supported in other documents and other sources, but it is so amazing to read the words that a contemporary wrote about a close relative. I am sure he was quite a character, and his actions and character left such an impact on Sankey that he named one of his sons “Robert” in his brother’s honor.