Colonel Benjamin Church in the “Great Swamp fight,”
Colonel Benjamin Church in the “Great Swamp fight,”
Governor Joshua Winslow, offered (Colonel) Benjamin Church command of a company, an offer he did not accept. He did offer to wait upon the General as a volunteer.
The Church’s state that the Narragansets where looked upon with suspicion at this time. They go on to say the tribe started an offensive in the winter of 1675. I find this strange, the American Indian fought with stealth, hit and run, they would be at a decided disadvantage in the winter, not the best time to employee their form of warfare.
I would also note that when the battle was fought, the General seems to have sent in the Massachusetts troops, first, the Connecticut troops next, and the Plymouth troops last. I can not help but wonder if the Governor or someone counseling him, was not looking past the Indians to a time when the other Colony’s might be brought to armed conflict. By holding the Plymouth men in reserve, an advantage might be obtained should colonial war break out. I have no evidence that this was the case, but am simply raising the possibility that the united colony’s may not have been all that united. That each saw themselves as a country unto their own, and the potential of conflict existed, and could possibly have been planed for.
Be that as it may, the General brought his army to the Narraganset territory by land, while (Colonel) Benjamin Church made the trip by ferry. Having fair wind he arrived before the General at Major Smith’s garrison in the Narraganset territory. Having obtained some intelligence as to the where abouts of some of the enemy. took some men on a raid to obtain some prisoners. These to be present to the General, hoping to provide information that would help with the expedition. (Colonel) Benjamin Church was able to capture about 18 , the General was pleased to have them, sent two, most likely boys, to Boston as presents. And warmly thanked (Colonel) Benjamin Church telling him that he had no doubt but he would provide boys in plenty before the war was over.
Imagine, if you can, an army 1000 men strong, large by the days colonial standard.
Comprised of what might as well be units from three different countries, never having trained together, in fact perhaps, with little training at all. Farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths, lawyers, Doctors, and even friendly Indian Chiefs, Men not trained or equipped for war, leadership at best, with military experience in the battles of Europe, with different rules, fought on different ground. Their reasons for being there as different as their occupations, perhaps one has lost a family member to the savages, or has been convinced that he does gods work, perhaps some coveted the Indian land, perhaps some where motivated by civil duty, some may have been there because they had no other place to be. They marched against an enemy, in some of their minds, devoid of compassion or conscience, who would not only kill you, but kill you slowly, delight in your torment. An enemy devil spawned, evil ungodly heathens.
They march through what the Church’s call a exceptionally cold December, guild by men of the same race they went to kill, into a swamp they would be lost in with out their Indian guilds, lost to starve or die of exposure, they came without enough supplies, with little besides an intent to eliminate a threat, real, invented, or perceived.
They march against the Narragansett nation, to a stockade fort on high ground some 5 acres , surrounded by a swamp river moat that in less sever weather would make approach very difficult if not impossible. The only entrance, a log fallen across the moat, guarded by a single block house, from here the enemy commanded what the believed was the only way in. Here awaited some 700 warriors, and at least 2 English men from Rhoda Island. They knew the English where coming, could hear them for miles and hours before they arrived. This was the winter retreat of the Narragansett’s the woman and children must have listened with fear, hoping the warriors could win the day, that the fort would hold, that slavery or death would not be their lot, under these circumstances they
waited, the men ready to defend some 2300 woman, children and aged, against an enemy they know to be untrustworthy, vindictive, greedy, and savage in victory.
The “Great swamp fight” opened with a mindless frontal attack at the log bridge, it appears that the Massachusetts troops took the led, some 527 men and officers, running through deep snow, up hill, to a snow covered log bridge into the face of enemy fire. I would think the blockhouse would have been filled with the best warriors, with woman and the less skilled reloading weapons, the chosen warriors pouring round after round into the advancing English, handing the smoking rifles back and taking one with a fresh load, to fire again, and repeat the action, the log would have been a killing field. The rattle of musket fire, the smell of smoke, a cloud would have built around the blockhouse, and those returning fire as they advanced, striving to make it across the bridge now covered in bodies and blood. Screaming men, the cries of the wounded, woman and children crying out in fear and despair, this puritan Sabbath would be remembered by all who survived, for the rest of their earthly lives, the 19th of December 1675.
The men of Plymouth would most likely have been with General Josiah Winslow.
When the Army set out for the Narragansett fortifications in the swamp, it seems that (Colonel) Benjamin Church rode with the General as part of his guard, instead of taking the point with his friendly Indians. The battle was well underway when (Colonel) Church begged leave of the General to join his friends in the heat of the conflict, permission was granted, provided he take men in sufficient numbers with him. He was followed by about 30 men and made his way to the fort that had by this time been breached.
He spied Captain Gardner of Salem and made for him, but the Captain suddenly, while looking at Church, went down. (Colonel) Benjamin Church saw the blood running down his cheek and lifted his cap. The Captain looked at him but spoke not a word, he had been shot through the head, The wound had come from the upland side, where the English where, and after seeing that someone did what they could for the Captain, Church sent word to the General. Your best and bravest, those that have faced the muzzles of the enemy to gain the fort, where shot and killed by those behind. (friendly fire?).
The fort now held by the English was being fired upon by Indians from without. Church and his men now took up the bloody trail of the fleeing enemy. Soon they came upon an Indian, who clapped his rifle to his breast and beckoned to Church. (Colonel) Benjamin Church now order that no one was to fire upon the man. But to his great disappointment and grief a late arriving Englishman shot the man down.
They then heard a great commotion behind them, between them and the fort, and saw a number of the enemy going from tree to tree in and effort to get a shot at the English within the fort.
Now the small bands greatest danger was to inform those in the fort of their position, so they would not meet the same friendly fire that had taken poor Captain Gardner. Using several inventions to this end (Colonel) Benjamin Church finally got the attention of a sergeant. At about the same time the group came within range of a number of the enemies and took cover behind some brush. Church ordered his men to await until the enemy rose to fire upon the fort, but the sergeant yelled to them not to fire as these he thought to be friendly Indians. (This may have been an honest mistake or the “sergeant” may have been an Englishman fighting with the enemy, my research leads me to believe there was at least 2 of these. One would be the only Englishman from the colonies to be “drawn and quartered” for treason. The other would have been the Elder (this was a term for preacher) John Crandall who’s family history reflects that he died in 1676 from wounds received as he fought with the Indians during the “Great Swamp Fight”. This touches on my own family history, John Badcock, (the family name was changed on his will to Babcock due to a clerical error and adapted from that point forward by my family) was allegedly marching with the Connecticut Militia, His brother Job had married Jane Crandall, making the Elder John Babcock’s Brother’s Father- in- law. Consider those dynamics at the family reunion.)
At any rate the Indians’ seemed to be gathering and some how Church and his men went undiscovered. “Now My brave boys,” (Colonel) Church. “If we mind our hits, we may have a brave shot, and let our sign to firing on them be their rising to fire on the fort.”
Not long did they wait before the Indians rising as one made to fire on the fort, Church and his men let loose a volley that so surprised the enemy they scattered, they themselves not knowing where. About a dozen of them went across the log into the fort and took up hiding in a hovel. (Colonel) Church and his men followed these, with Church calling our to some in the fort to join in a charge against this position. According to the Colonel’s own words he saw the muzzle of and enemy rifle pointing at him through a hole in the hovel, yet he ran on, encouraging his men, till he was caught by three bullets, one ripped through his thigh, glanced off his hip bone, his thigh being thus half cut off. The second through his breaches and drawers leaving a flesh wound, the third in the pocket, wounding a borrowed pair of mittens. The brave (Colonel ) Benjamin Church managed to keep his feet long enough to discharge his peace, his men would have then carried him from the field but he forbid it. Telling them to storm the hovel as the Indian’s now had no charged weapons. But these where not Europeans they fought but Native American’s who fell back on their bows and arrows, let loose a buzzing storm of these missiles, one striking and Englishman who held (Colonel) Benjamin Church upright in the arm. This so discouraged the English that the charge evaporated. At this point the Battle would seem to have been winding down, the English in the fort set to burning the Wigwams and (Colonel) Benjamin Church set to arguing against such an act, stating the army would need the stores and shelter for the winter, but was told that they had orders from the General. He prayed he stay thy hand until he could converse with the General. He hastened off to do so.
The Church’s do not speak of the actions of the Connecticut troops as (Colonel) Benjamin Church was with General Winslow and did not come on the scene of battle until after the fort had been breached. Depending on who’s account you read the picture of this battle is very different. In one account the fire was an accident, fanned by wind until it claimed every wigwam within the fort. The Church version as you have seen is very different. When you shift through the propaganda, possible hidden agendas and the guilt men feel when they know what they have done is wrong you begin to form a picture. By putting together accounts from different sources researched, it may have gone something like this.
As the Massachusetts troops attacked at the log bridge the Connecticut men had found passage through the frozen swamp to a section of the fort that was not as strong as most. The defenders perhaps putting to much faith in the protection of nature. This would seem to be likely as it was with these troops that the Indians marched and some of these may have had first hand knowledge of the fort. At this weak point Connecticut militia and Friendly Indian fought their way up a steep grade under heavy enemy fire, finally gaining the palisade and with hatchets hacked their way in, this seemed to be closely timed with the Massachusetts troops second attack at the log bridge. This time the Massachusetts men broke into the fort. Whether this was due to their efforts, or if the Connecticut troops had enter via the weak point and where attacking the log bridge defenders from the rear, I can not say. Attacked front and rear the brave defenders of the Narragansett nation must have seen the end, some would have found refuges within the wigwams, here to make their last stand, fighting on until the wigwam was set ablaze and they faced the terrible choice , stay and burn or exit into the deadly fire of English Mercy. How much worse this choice to the defenseless woman and children, and the old that really had no choice but to lay where they where and die.
It would have been a mad scene of chaos. English and Indian running through smoke filled air firing at unknown shapes as they strained to see. The yells of woman and child as they ran from the burning wigwams must have been heart wrenching. English men firing at shapes exiting the burning shelters not knowing if they where men, woman or children. Indians fire at Englishmen with the anger and frustration of a man watching the last days of his people at the hands of an enemy, knowing that regardless of what they
now did, they could not protect their own.
As seen by (Colonel) Benjamin Church’s account some of the Indians made it out, out into the forest where they would have the advantage of their woodland skills. Perhaps with the hope of regrouping and retaking the fort before the supplies they and their families need to survive the winter where totally consumed . As time past these men would know, this was the end, their families where doomed, as fire passed from building to building, as the smell of gunpowder, burning wood, corn, dried fish and flesh filled the air, they would know. In the end they would have drifted off into the forest, the wounded would not have lasted long, even the hardy would have been hard pressed to survive without shelter in the harsh conditions. Then would have come the starvation, those that survived, perhaps driven by an overpowering desire for revenge.