Jacob Bottomer

Jacob Bottomer (b. no earlier than 1756 - d. August 28, 1818) was a soldier in the Revolutionary War, a settler in western Pennsylvania, and the patriarch of the Buttermore family of Connellsville, Fayette County, PA, and of almost all, if not all, Buttermores in America today.

His ancestry

Jacob's ancestors are unknown.

His life

We don't where Jacob was born, but it was no earlier than 1756. His first appearance in the public record was his enlistment in the Continental Army on August 16, 1776, in Berks County, PA. He was 20 years of age or younger. Congress had authorized the stand-up of an ethnic German regiment, with four companies from Pennsylvania and four from Maryland. Jacob would serve for almost five years during the Revolutionary War. Most of what we know about his life took place during his service. Therefore, his life story is necessarily a story of war.

Early Service

At the time of the revolution, the population of Pennsylvania was about one-third English, mainly in the east; one-third German, mainly in the center; and one-third Scotch-Irish, mainly in the west. Recruitment for the Pennsylvania companies of the German Regiment took place among the German Lutheran and Reformed populations, mainly around Philadelphia, but also around Lancaster county and the Reading area of Berks county. Recruitment of the more pacificist German congregations -- the Amish, Brethern, Dunkards and Mennonites -- was notoriously difficult, but by focusing on these other congregations, Pennsylvania was able to raise the four companies of Germans called for by Congress. Some of these recruits spoke English, but many did not. Some enlisted for three years; some for the duration of the war. Confusion on this issue would cause problems on several occasions.

We don't know how well Jacob spoke English. All we know is that he was illiterate, since he attested to later documents not with his signature, but with his mark.

As far as we know, the German regiment had no distinctive uniform. Many probably wore civilian clothes. Uniforms and boots for the troops of the Continental Army would be a long-standing problem. We don't know whether the standard firearm of this unit was the musket or the Pennsylvania long rifle.

Jacob Bottomer was a private in the company commanded by First Lieutenant Peter Boyer. The German Regiment remained in Philadelphia, awaiting equipment, and guarding the city. Meanwhile, the rebel army suffered a series of defeats: the battle of Long Island, Aug 27, 1776; the battle at White Plains, Oct 28, 1776; the loss of Fort Washington, on Manhattan, on November 16, 1776; and Fort Lee, in Hackensack, New Jersey, on November 20, 1776. With these latter two defeats, the Americans had lost 3,000 men dead or captured, 150 cannon, 12,000 rounds of shot and shell, and 2,800 muskets and 400,000 cartridges, along with tents, clothing and other gear. On 7 December 1776, George Washington and the Continental Army concluded a long retreat across New Jersey, arriving in Philadelphia. The next day, the German Regiment joined the rest of the Contintental Army. Their initial duty was to guard Coryell's Ferry (now New Hope), on the Pennsylvanian bank of the Delaware.

The First Battle of Trenton

George Washington had problems. He faced a larger, better-trained, better-equipped, more professional army. The British had just taken thousands of his troops prisoner. He was about to lose many more when their enlistments elapsed. The only thing keeping the British out of Philadelphia, the rebel capital, was the Delaware river, and the Delaware was about to freeze solid. If he went into winter quarters now, after suffering a string of defeats, the Continental army could vaporize, and with it, the American revolution. He needed a victory.

The commanding officer of the German Regiment was Colonel Nicolas Haussegger. On 10 December 1776, his regiment was subordinated to the brigade of Brigadier General Mathieu Fermoy, a French mercenary. Also part of the brigade was the First Pennsylvania (Rifle) regiment, commanded by Colonel Edward Hand, a professional military leader from Ireland. These three officers would play noteworthy roles in the battles to come.

On Christmas morning, Haussegger received orders to prepare his troops for action: three-days of cooked food; 40 cartridges; blankets and other provisions. After the men assembled and waited, Thomas Paine's new tract, "The Crisis", was read to them:

"THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated . . . " (Opening passage of "The Crisis" taken from the transcription by Project Gutenberg.)

We don't know how much, if anything, Private Jacob Bottomer understood of these English words. Perhaps a bilingual comrade provided a loose translation for standing in the ranks near-by. We can hope that Jacob did understand the meaning of these famous words, because they speak so directly to the significance of his contribution to the birth of our nation, and the value of his not-distant suffering.

The troops moved down to the riverside at McKonkey's landing. Many were barefoot or dressed in rags. The German Regiment, fresh from Philadelphia, was probably better dressed against the cold than many of the veterans. They stood, looking across the river, nearly choked with ice floes, at the distant riverbank. Big Durham boats, built to haul ore, arrived at the embarkation point. From the ranks, our ancestor, Jacob Bottomer, could see General Washington, mounted, and other officers such as artillery Captain Alexander Hamilton and a slim, teenaged lieutenant named James Monroe. Colonel Henry Knox, the chief of artillery, was in charge of the crossing. His booming voice could be heard over the grinding of the ice floes and across the expanse of the river.

The first troops embarked in the boats, and Colonel Glover's Marbleheaders, watermen from Massachusetts, began to ferry them across. The work was slow, though, because of the ice.

By the time it was the German Regiment's turn, it was midnight. The weather worsened; the bitter wind grew to gale force, driving sleet. When they arrived at the Jersey bank, bonfires were burning. The rebels were tearing down fence posts for fuel.

Wrapped in his cloak, General Washington sat down on an abandoned bee hive box, and waited for the rest of the army to cross. Two other rebel detachments upriver would fail to make the crossing, returning to the Pennsylvanian side. Their mission was to have been to prevent the enemy from escaping.

It was four in the morning before the crossing was complete. As the troops formed up, the weather worsened again: hail began to fall on their heads, shoulders and the icy ground. Two thousand, four hundred men began to march in the darkness along the river road, eastward toward Trenton, nine miles distant. Two men who dropped out of the march froze to death. They were hours behind schedule; they could not arrive at Trenton by dawn, as planned.

Some four miles into the march, they came to a crossroads. After a brief rest, General Washington split his forces into two: the right wing continued along the river road. He accompanied the left wing, commanded by General Greene, which included the German Regiment, as it turned north away from the river. Snow continued to fall. The march was slow. Some men took sips of rum against the cold, and passed the bottles. The bitter wind blew in their faces. The artillerymen struggled to keep the heavy pieces rolling on the icy road. Washington encouraged his men in a deep, solemn voice, "Soldiers, keep by your officers! For God's sake, keep by your officers."

Around dawn, in the distance through the falling snow, they could see a group of soldiers. After some anxious moments, they discovered that the group of 30 men was not Hessians, but rather some Virginia rebels. This group had just attacked the Hessian outpost, without Washington's foreknowledge. General Washington was incensed when he heard of this attack, which could rob them of the element of surprise, and endanger the entire expedition. The troops near enough to the General saw him unusually angry. Nevertheless, the march continued, with the Virginians falling in on the vanguard.

Around eight AM, in broad daylight, the left wing arrived at the northern outskirts of Trenton and the first enemy outpost. A Hessian solder emerged from the outpost, saw the Americans, and began shouting in German and waving his hands. Several other Hessians ran out of the house and two began firing, but too high. Some Americans rushed forward and captured the two. The other Hessians turned and ran towards a larger guard house, where their Captain tried to rally them, but in the face of the larger American force, most turned and ran toward the village.

The left wing set up its artillery at the heads of King Street and Queen Street, which where the main roads in the village. In the inclement weather, the artillery pieces were more reliable than muskets. The cannon began to fire round shot, grape and explosive shells down the main thoroughfares, breaking up a Hessian counterattack.

The Hessians tried to bring some three-pounders into action, but these were overpowered by the heavier American pieces.

From both the east along the river, and from the north, the Americans advanced quickly into Trenton. Surprised, the Hessians retreated, trying to use houses as cover, but the rebel musket fire chased them from these positions.

In an assault on a Hessian artillery position, future-president James Monroe received a musket ball that passed through his chest and shoulder. He was carried from the field, while other rebels captured the artillery.

About 600 Hessian troops managed to rally. They retreated to an orchard on the eastern edge of town, and, with their mounted officers in the vanguard, tried to break out north toward the Princeton road. General Washington saw the attempt to break-out and ordered Colonel Hand's Pennsylvanian riflemen and the German Regiment "to throw themselves before them; this they did with spirit and rapidity and immediately checked them." (Source: First draft of George Washington's letter to the Continental Congress, December 27, 1776, available at American Memory, The Library of Congress.

Some of the Americans advanced within fifty paces of the Hessians, maintaining a steady fire. Washington ordered Lord Sterling to advance on the Hessians. Finding themselves surrounded, they surrendered.

In the mopping up action, the rebels found the Hessian commander, Colonel Rall, fatally wounded. In his pocket was a note warning that the Americans were coming. He had put the note, unread, into his pocket, the night before, while playing cards.

1. General Greene leads the main American force along Pennington Road.

2. General Sullivan leads the rest along River Road.

3. The American army lines up with the apex of the road as its center.

4. The first attack on the Hessians goes up King (Warren) Street.

5. The second wave goes up Queen (Broad) Street.

6. The Hessians surrender in an orchard.

7. About a third of the Hessians, however, escape over this bridge.

Map and legend courtesy of The Old Barracks Museum, Trenton, New Jersey

In the first battle of Trenton, the Americans captured almost 900 Hessians and wounded or killed over 100. They also seized six pieces of artillery and over a thousand muskets.

By the afternoon of December 26, 1776, the Americans, with their prisoners and seized materiel, had redeployed successfully across the Delaware to Philadelphia.

We can imagine our ancestor, Jacob Bottomer, relieved, weary and still cold, standing on the Pennsylvanian bank of the river, perhaps exchanging a few words in German with a stunned and depressed Hessian soldier.

The victory at Trenton would have an electrifying effect on the American people. It would have international ramifications, giving the British pause, mortifying German princes, and bolstering French confidence in the fledging rebel army. It was a turning point in long and bloody struggle. It would also set the stage for the next encounter between the British and the Americans, at the second battle of Trenton, which would prove nearly-fatal for our ancestor, Private Jacob Bottomer.


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