Never Too Old:
The Story of Captain Samuel Whittemore
by Donald N. Moran
Samuel Whittemore was born in England on July 27th, 1695, and came to North America as a Captain in His Majesty’s Dragoons, fighting the French in 1745. He was involved in the capture of the French stronghold, Fort Louisburg, and there captured a decorative french officer’s sword, which he cherished for the rest of his life. About its capture, all Sam would say is that its previous owner had “died suddenly”.
After the war he stayed in the colonies, purchasing a farm in Menotomy (now Arlington, Massachusetts). He married Elizabeth Spring, and after her death remarried to Mrs. Esther Prentice. By his two wives he had three sons and five daughters. His house, on Massachusetts Avenue, in Arlington, still exists. (7)
In 1758, war again broke out between England and France. And again, Fort Louisburg had to be taken. At 64 years of age, Sam volunteered and joined a Colonial Regiment which reduced the fort to rubble. He then went on and joined General James Wolf in the successful assault on Quebec.
The 1763 Indian Wars in the west next attracted Sam’s attention. Leaving his wife, children and grandchildren to attend the farm, he rode off to join the colonial force launched against the Ottawa chief, Pontiac. He returned home some months later with a brace of dueling pistols as a souvenir, and here again, all Sam would say is that the previous owner “died suddenly.”
It is recorded that Sam believed in American independence stating that he wanted his descendants to be able to enact their own laws and not be subject to a distant king. So, it is not surprising when he again took up arms on April 19th, 1775.
That night he watched as Colonel Smith led his column of 700 soldiers through Menotomy. He was probably concerned, but the British had come out of Boston before and there had not been any serious trouble. Later that morning he heard rumors that there had been fighting at Lexington and Concord. But, when General Percy marched through the town with an additional 1,400 soldiers, Sam’s military experience told him there was serious trouble – – ‘why else would the British be sending reinforcements?’ , he probably asked himself.
Word had come to Menotomy that the combined, heavily engaged, columns of Smith and Percy were retreating toward the town, and were burning homes along the way, so the aged warrior decided to take action in spite of his being eighty years old! He strapped on his captured french sword, stuck his brace of dueling pistols in his belt, put on his powder horn and shot bag, took his musket from its place on his fireplace mantle and went to war!
Sam selected a position that gave him a excellent view of the road from Lexington, and sat down to wait. His fellow minuteman from Menotomy pleaded for him to find a safer position, but he choose to ignore them.
His fellow minuteman started firing at the oncoming British Grenadiers of the 47th Regiment of Foot, falling back to reload, then firing again. Sam waited. Finally, when the column was directly in front of him, he stood and fired his musket. A grenadier fell dead. He drew his two pistols, firing both at almost point blank range. Another grenadier fell dead, a third fell mortally wounded. The British soldiers were on top of him, he had not the time to reload his musket or pistols, so drawing his sword, he . started flailing away at the bayonet wielding soldiers. A soldier leveled his Brown Bess musket, at point blank range and fired. The .69 calibre ball struck Sam in the cheek, tearing away part of his face and throwing him to the ground. Sam valiantly tried to rise, fending off bayonet thrusts with his sword, but he was overpowered. Struck in the head with a musket butt, he went down again, then was bayoneted thirteen times and left for dead.
The British continued their fight through the streets of Menotomy, which turned out to be the costliest action of the day. They left forty of their soldiers dead in the town and another eighty wounded, half the casualties of the day.
After the British column had fought its way clear, the town’s people and minuteman started to search for their wounded compatriots. Several had seen Sam Whittemore’s “last stand” and approached to remove his body. To everyone’s astonishment Sam was not only still alive, but conscious and still full of fight. Laying there, he was trying to load his musket!
Using a door as a makeshift stretcher, Sam was carried to Cooper Tavern, which was being used as a emergency hospital. Doctor Nathaniel Tufts of Medford attended to Sam. He cut off his bloody clothes, and exposed the gaping bayonet wounds. Sam’s face was horribly injured. Doctor Tufts knew the injuries were fatal, stating it wouldn’t do any good to even dress the wounds. Sam’s family and friends insisted and Dr. Tufts did the best he could. He tried to make the old man as comfortable as possible. After his wounds were attended to Sam was carried to his home, to die surrounded by his family. To everyone’s utter amazement Captain Sam Whittemore lived! He recovered and remained active for the next eighteen years. He was terribly scarred, but always was proud of what he had done for his adopted country. He is quoted as having stated that he would take the same chances again.
You can question the old soldier’s tactical judgment, making the stand in the manner he did, but you can never question his bravery. He also proved you are never too old! Sam died on February 3rd, 1793, age 98 and is buried in the town’s cemetery.