Bernard Drew | Our Berkshires: Meet Amos Stoddard, the eyewitness to the last Shays' Rebellion battle in 1787
It was winter 1787 and insurgents inspired by Daniel Shays were on the rampage in Western Massachusetts. The farmer rebels had protested commonwealth taxes for a year; many had returned from fighting the British in the Revolution to find themselves impoverished and in debt. And angry. They attacked but failed to secure the armory in Springfield. Many of their numbers descended into outright pillage.
Gen. Benjamin Lincoln hastily assembled militiamen to rendezvous in Stockbridge. Amos Stoddard (1762-1813) was among them.
"Their object was to seize some of the most influential characters in Stockbridge, particularly Mr. Sedgwick, and to liberate friends confined in the at Great Barrington," Stoddard recalled in a vivid account written several years later.
Born in Woodbury, Conn., Stoddard migrated with his father Anthony Stoddard and family to Framingham (Lanesborough). Father Stoddard had served in the last French and Indian War and the American Revolution. He and his wife, Phebe Reade, eventually had nine children, some after the family relocated to Lenox in 1773.
He joined the army in 1779. Ordered to West Point, Amos mustered-in and was inspected with the other recruits by Prussian Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Fearing he would be turned away for being undersized, he gathered dirt up under his heels to increase his height. The inspector general approached him in line, looked him over intently, and finally said, "Perhaps you may do!"
LETTER OF PRAISE: Thomas Jefferson to Amos Stoddard, 10 January 1811. Read it here.
Assigned to the 12th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, he initially served under the general command of Gen. John Patterson of Lenox. He later transferred into an artillery company for the remainder of the war.
While on duty at Stoney Point at the end of September 1780, he witnessed the escape of Benedict Arnold.
A few weeks later, stationed at Orangetown, he was an eyewitness to the hanging of British spy John Andre.
Assigned to an artillery unit in 1781, he served under the overall command of the Marquis de Lafayette.
In 1787 he interviewed agrarian rebel Daniel Shays. ("I did not much relish this visit, as I was fearful of detection," Amos said.)
His service over, he became a teacher in Lenox and studied law in Boston, entering the bar in 1796. But he ached for the military life.
In 1802, he led an artillery company to St. Louis in advance of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
In 1804, he became the first civil commandant of Upper Louisiana and was closely involved in the transfer of that mammoth land purchase from France to the United States.
In 1809, he took command of Fort Dearborn.
His whirlwind career ended in 1813 when he died of tetanus. Fortunately, by then he had put pen to paper to record his experiences.
A descendant, Robert Stoddard, of California, located the manuscript treasure in the archive of the Missouri Historical Museum in St. Louis. He transcribed the pages and they became a 272-page book: "The Autobiography Manuscript of Major Amos Stoddard" (2016).
Of great interest to Berkshire readers is Amos' telling of the final encounter of Shaysites and militiamen in a cornfield in Sheffield on a cold February day — a field today marked by a stone memorial and crossed by the Appalachian Trail.
Here's one paragraph: "Soon after we entered the road, we perceived thirty or forty Sleighs approaching us, with about four men in each sleigh. We immediately dismounted and waited for them in an advantageous position. A man of our party, rather of a delirious disposition, fired on them as they approached, and wounded Hamblin, their leader, in the ankle."
The rebel leader was Perez Hamlin of Stockbridge.
Stoddard continued: "Several other were then fired by us, while they were endeavoring to disengage themselves from their Sleighs, and to form in front of them. Three or four others were slightly wounded — and Hamblin received another shot, which passed through his body. They then placed about 20 prisoners in their front most of whom they had taken from Stockbridge, expecting by this means to check our fire. The prisoners, finding themselves between two fires, suddenly started for us, when one of them by the name of Gleason with whom I boarded in Stockbridge, was shot dead by one of the Insurgent. The rest joined us when the insurgents gave way — they had not time to rescue their horses and Sleighs — but precipitated themselves into the snow up to their middles, and finally disappeared in the woods. Those prisoners, whom they had liberated from, escaped with them. We immediately secured their horses and Sleighs, and returned to Great Barrington."
Stoddard describes the further roundup of insurgents; he had charge of a company of artillery that for six months kept watch for further flickers of rebellion in Western Massachusetts. General leniency was accorded to most Shaysites at trial.
The soldier respected the beleaguered farmers in one way: They "tried every means to provoke us to fire at them — they were unwilling to spill the first blood — they wished us to do it, and then they resolved to destroy our whole party."
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.
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