By Philip R. Devlin
(February 16, 2023) — Haddam Neck historian Henry M. Selden tells the remarkable story of Revolutionary War soldier Samuel Pierson in the 1885 publication of The History of Middlesex County, a book full of interesting anecdotes. Born in 1759 in Wallingford to Ephraim and Submit (Stow) Pierson— a native of Middletown—Samuel found himself a victim of impressment, forced against his will to serve on a British man-of-war at the beginning of the conflict. Escaping from the ship, he joined the Continental Army, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. He was a member of Spencer’s Additional Continental Regiment, which fought mainly in the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania area. While still a private, however, Samuel was involved in an incident that occurred in February of 1779, 244 years ago this month, one that eventually caught the attention of General George Washington. Historian Selden recounts this incident:
“…While walking barefoot over the frozen ground, with his head inclined forward, the better to pick his way, he was reproved by an officer behind him for not marching in an erect, soldier-like manner, and who, at the same time, struck him with his sword. Pierson suddenly brought his musket back with such force, that the butt, striking the officer in the breast, knocked him down. He then wheeled and was about to pin him to the ground with his bayonet, and was only prevented by the efforts of his fellow soldiers.”
Pierson was quickly court-martialed and sentenced to be shot for assaulting an officer during war. Upon learning of the incident, Washington had Pierson brought to him and asked the prisoner if he did not know that a death sentence awaited any private striking an officer during war. According to Selden, the intrepid Pierson “replied with spirit, “ I know that it is death for an officer to strike me!” Selden continues, “Washington immediately ordered his release and a pair of shoes from his chest be given to him and told him never to be without shoes again.”
Eventually, while wearing the shoes from Washington, Samuel Pierson was captured by the British, but he escaped to fight again. While walking near the Delaware River with his two captors, Pierson tossed away his shoes, dove into the river, and swam away to safety!
After the war, Samuel married Betsey Dickinson of Glastonbury and settled there to raise their 14 children— 9 girls and 5 boys. Susan (Pierson) House lived to be 97, spending more than 70 years living in Haddam Neck. One of their sons, Ephraim, lived in Haddam for most of his life, representing the town in the state legislature for several terms.
The Pierson incident should remind us of the hardships faced by soldiers in war, especially those who fought in the 18th and 19th centuries. Other than food and water, what else could have been of greater importance to an infantryman but good shoes and dry socks? Samuel Pierson’s regiment spent the brutal winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge. Just prior to the march-in, Washington’s staff filed a report on their numerical strength on December 18, 1777. That report included a column with a heading, ”Number of Soldiers Wanting Shoes—829.” Samuel Pierson was hardly alone in needing shoes, but he was most likely the only one who had received a pair from George Washington himself!
Photo provided by Philip Devlin