Wednesday, November 4, 2015

"His enterprising disposition and thirst for honor led him beyond the bounds of true bravery or conduct." Captain John Flahavan of the 1st New Jersey

John Flahavan was an officer in the 1st New Jersey regiment of the Continental Line.  He was an Irish catholic (born in County Waterford) whose family settled in the American Colonies prior to the Revolution.   He began his service in the Revolution as 2nd Lieutenant in Captain Daniel Piatt's company of the 1st NJ.   John Adams records an early encounter with Flahavan in a December 10, 1775 diary entry:

"1775. Decr. 10. Sunday. Rode from Bristol to Trenton, breakfasted, rode to Princetown, and dined with a Captain Flahaven, in Ld. Sterlings Regiment, who has been express to Congress from his Lordship.

Flahaven's Father lives in this Province. He has lived in Maryland. Says that the Virginia Convention granting the Scotch Petition to be neutral has done all the Mischief and been the Support of Lord Dunmore. He says the Scotch are in some Parts of Virginia powerfull—that in Alexandria he has heard them cursing the Congress and vilifying not only their public Proceedings but their private Characters. He has heard them decrying the Characters of the Maryland Delegates particularly Chase and the Virginia Delegates particularly Lee, Henry and Washington.

Flahavan was not, at this time, the holder of a Captain's commission, and various 19th century compilations of his service record tend to be confused and misleading.   It appears that he remained a 2nd Lieutenant when the 1st NJ d began to reenlist men for its 2nd establishment in late November, 1776.   He may have been on recruiting duty for the 1st NJ when Washington selected him to lead a forty man detachment at the head of Sullivan's column during the attach on Trenton.

"Captain Washington and Captain Flahaven, with a party of forty men each, to march before the divisions and post themselves on the road about three miles from Trenton, and make prisoners of all going in or coming out from Town."It is not possible to determine whether any of the men under Flahavan at Trenton may have also belonged to the 1st NJ, but Washington's order amounted to a promotion in the field for Flahavan.  It was an honor for Flahavan but may have created some difficulty in the regiment which already had its full compliment of company officers.  Historian Larry Schmidt believes that Flahavan's was essentially a 9th company in Ogden's 1st NJ in the first half of 1777. 

"Flahaven's company was essentially a ninth company from January 1777 to mid-1777. I think the remaining men (if any) were reassigned. According to documents in Piatt's orderly book, Flahaven commanded the fifth company (after D. Piatt, Longstreet, Baldwin, and Morrison) in late 1777/early 1778. Another roster states Flahaven's company is sixth, the difference being the addition of Polhemus as being senior captain, Piatt 2nd, etc. Cyrus DeHart was Flahaven's 1st lieutenant (presumably company commander during Flahaven's absence), Jesse Baldwin the 2nd lieutenant (Larry Schmidt: Personal Communication)."

In February, 1777, Captain Flahavan was definitely on recruiting duty.  Washington's General Orders of February 24th given at Morristown, NJ state: 

"The troops of Genl St Clair’s Brigade are, as soon as the weather will permit, to be drawn together and quartered as near this town, as possible: All the Recruits of Col. Ogden’s Regiment, now quartered at Troy, and elsewhere, to be immediately called together, armed and accoutred; they are to join Genl St Clair’s Brigade, and to be quartered with them. The strictest Attention must be paid by the officers, to the Arms & Ammunition belonging to their different Corps, to see them frequently examined, and kept in good Order, for Action. All Recruits raised by Capts. Morrison & Flahaven to join Col. Ogden’s Regt ’till further orders."

This was during the period known as "the Forage War" in New Jersey, in which both Continental detachments and militia units regularly harassed British outposts and forage parties.   Elements of the 1st NJ from time to time were involved in these skirmishes, and on the night of April 24th, Captain Flahavan lead a force against a piquet post near the British garrison at Amboy.  Accounts of the action vary, but the result was the capture of Flahavan and nearly all the men in his command. 

Plan of Perth Amboy 1777
Col. Israel Shreve of the 2nd NJ Regiment recorded in his diary: "Thirsday the 24th at night Capt. Flahaven of first Jersey Regt. with upwards of 20 men were Taken or kiled within the Enimy Pickets All but one that were Left Alone to tell the News..."  Surgeon's Mate Ebenezer Elmer of Shreve's Regiment offered his own assessment of the affair:  "Thursday night Capt. Flahaven went out with 20 men, but unluckily getting, as was supposed, within their lines in the dark and rain, not so much as one escaped to tell the fate of the rest...some commended him as being a very brave officer, others disapproved the action and his conduct upon the whole.  I believe his bravery was indisputable, but his enterprising disposition and thirst for honor lead him beyond the bounds of true bravery or conduct."

Major General Adam Stephen wrote to Washington on April 26th:

"Capt. Flahen of Col. Ogdens Regimt, was orderd on a patrol the night before last - He pickt up Some pensylvanians, & Voluntiers, it is Supposd to the Number 25, for I can get No Certain Acct from [Lt.]Col. Dehart [of the 1st NJ] or Othrwise - Made an imprudent Attempt it is Supposd, wt. more Courage than Conduct; & is lost, with all his party, killd or taken, or how he Managd utterly unknown - I have orderd that no project Shall be Undertaken without the Approbation of the Officer Comma[n]ding the Corps; & that the partisan shall not keep roads leading to the Enemys post - Nor patrols go Constantly the Same Way -"

Stephen was clearly trying to distance himself from Flahaven's action, knowing that Washington had forbidden independent initiatives of this sort by junior officers.  It would be interesting to know the identify of the "Pennsylvanians" with Flahavan.  The Jersey Brigade would soon be in Stirlings, rather than Stephen's Division, and their sister brigade by June, 1777 would include the 3rd, 6th, 9th and 12th Pennsylvania under General Conway.

An anonymous American prisoner released on parole gave the following account on June 20, 1777:

"Capt. Flahaven was taken within 200 Yards of the Barracks at Amboy - He had attacked the Picketts and after firing 15 rounds each Man, had near taken the whole Party, but unluckily a Scouting Party on their return, came on their Back & took the whole of them."
The British accounts of the affair, while stressing the bravery of the picket, indicate that the engagement continued for some time. The Scots Magazine (Vol. 39) reprinted a letter from an unidentified officer in the 46th Regiment who wrote to a gentleman in Dublin;

"A very spirited action happened here on the [2]5th of April last.  Lieut. Stanley, of the 55th regiment, being detached with a part of the 4th Brigade, consisting of thirty men, as part of the picquet of that brigade, Was early in the morning attacked by a party of the rebels, near double his number, under the command of one Flahavan, who is a captain in the rebel-army.  Lieut. Stanley stood his ground, and after some minutes close engagement, totally routed the rebels,  killed an ensign and several men, and took captain Flahavan and twenty-seven men prisoners.  On the first of May Leit. Stanley received the thanks of the Commander in Chief.”  

Lieutenant Edwin Thomas Stanley, a young Irishman in Captain Trevor's Company of the 55th Regiment of Foot, had recently been commended
on April 20th Major General Vaughan for a similar action.  This time he and several other officers were singled out by General Howe for special mention -

"Head Qrs:  Amboy 30th: April 77 ...
         The Commander in Chief Desires His Thanks may be given to Leiut: C Millan Acting Majr: of Brigade Leiut: Stanley 55th Regt. Ensign Angus M'Donald of 71st Regt: Capt: Albertie & Leiut: Albertie of the 3rd Regt: of Waldeck, and the Soldiers under their Command for their Spiritd: Beheavour and good Conduct near perth Amboy in the Jerseys on the morning of ye 25th: Inst: -"

The earlier commendation from General Vaughan also acknowledged these same officers.

Captain Flahavan might have expected to be housed on parole in decent quarters while awaiting exchange, but the circumstances surrounding his conduct during the fight lead to a very different outcome.  He was accused of deliberately breaking the thigh of one of the sentries whom his force had captured before they, in turn, were overwhelmed.  Colonel Ethan Allen, himself a prisoner held in close confinement in New York, references Flahavan's plight in his subsequent narrative of his captivity:

" was nevertheless at the option of a villainous sergeant who had the charge of the provost, to take any gentlemen from their room, and put them into the dungeon, which was often the case: At two different times I was taken down stairs for that purpose, by a file of soldiers with fixed bayonets, and the sergeant brandishing his sword at the same time, and having been brought to the door of the dungeon, I there flattered the vanity of the sergeant, whose name was Keef, by which means I procured the surprizng favour to return to my companions; but some of the high mettled young gentlemen could not bear his insolence, and determined to keep at a distance, and neither please or displease the villain, but none could keep clear of his abuse; however, mild measures were the best; he did not hesitate to call us damned Rebels, and use us with the coarsest language. The captains Flahaven, Randolph and Mercer, were the objects of his most stagran (sic) and repeated abuses, who were many times taken to the dungeon, and there continued at his pleasure. Captain Flahaven took cold in the dungeon, and was in a declining state of health, but an exchange delivered him, and in all probability saved his life...."

The American Commissary General of Prisoners, Elias Boudinot, wrote to Washington on June 26th, 1777, about the plight of Flahavan and several other officers who were prisoners in New York:

"...there is Evidence of the greatest Cruelty being used towards several of our unhappy Prisoners, and particularly to Capt. Van Zant, Major Pain, Capt. Flahaven, Capt. Vandyck, all of whom are confined in close Goal together with the Honble John Fell Esqr. lately taken from Bergen County—That several of our Officers who have lately had the small Pox in the Goals, have been suffered to languish (one of whom died) with out the least aid either as to Physick, Provision or other necessaries—That in general the daily Rations are not sufficient more than barely to keep the Prisoners from starving...."It was not until February, 1778 that Boudinot was able to do anything about Flahavan's situation.   During a visit to New York, he recorded in his diary:

"The charge against Captain Flahavan, that he broke the thigh of a soldier with the butt of a gun, after he was shot, is positively denied by him, and Mr. Loring acknowledged the man's leg was broken by a ball...Captain Flahavan was surrounded and did not surrender, and was constantly fighting for fifteen minutes after the soldier was struck by the ball."Boudinot was able to secure parole for Flahavan, who remained in British hands until he was exchanged in November, 1778.  He resigned a few months later.

John Flahavan began a very different kind of Revolutionary service in 1779 in Philadelphia, where he and his brother Thomas went into partnership as investors in a number of privateering enterprises.  The firm of John Flahavan & Co. outfitted the Pennsylvania Schooner "Hope" of 6 guns on August 18th, 1779 with a Letter of Marque under Captain Thomas Ward, and the following year on March 3, 1780 the Pennsylvania Schooner "Sally" with 2 guns and a crew of 10 under Captain Uriah Smith went privateering with Flahavan's backing.  Fellow catholic John Walsh was captain of another Flahavan vessel, the 50 ton Schooner "Dolphin" with 6 guns and 11 crew, that made two cruises in 1781.   John and Thomas Flahavan also owned and bonded for 8 gun privateer Brigantine "Betsey" on December 28, 1781, with a bond of $20,000 and a crew of 20 men under Captain George Fleming.

Flahavan belonged to St. Mary's church in Philadelphia and several of his family members are buried there.  Neither he nor his brother Thomas ever married.  Near the end of the war, John Flahavan made a voyage to Holland to advance the mercantile interest of the family firm.  On January 1783 he embarked on his return yoyage to America, but the vessel vanished without a trace.  The following year, a letter from the firm, now called  Flahavan and Willcox with the addition of his brother-in-law to the partnership, records the family sorrow at his loss:

"It grieves us to inform you that our dear brother John Flahavan sailed from Ostend Jan. 25th, 1783, & since then have no acct. of him; therefore we gave him over for lost, as there is no account from the vessel or crew..."

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