Parsons, Samuel Holden

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Parsons, Samuel Holden

PARSONS, SAMUEL HOLDEN. (1737–1789). Continental general. Connecticut. Born on 14 May 1737 at Lyme, Connecticut, Parsons was the son of a clergyman whose support for George Whitefield made him so unpopular with his congregation that he moved to Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1746. The son graduated from Harvard College in 1756 and returned to Lyme, where his mother, Phebe Griswold, had important family connections. He studied law under his uncle, Matthew Griswold (later deputy governor and governor of Connecticut), was admitted to the bar in 1759, and settled in Lyme where he became a prominent figure in Patriot politics. He was repeatedly elected to the General Assembly after 1762 (he served eighteen consecutive terms) and was appointed king's attorney for New London County in 1773, the same year he became a member of the assembly's committee of correspondence. He moved to New London in 1774.

An early advocate of independence, he was one of the first to suggest holding an intercolonial congress. As lieutenant colonel of the Third Militia Regiment from October 1774, he led a company to Boston on news of the Lexington alarm (19 April 1775). He figured prominently in the plan to capture Fort Ticonderoga (accomplished on 10 May) and was named colonel of the Sixth Connecticut Regiment on 1 May 1775. He remained on duty at New London until 17 June, when the governor's council ordered his regiment to Boston where, stationed at Roxbury, it took part in the Boston siege until the end of its enlistment on 10 December. From his old regiment, Parsons recruited the Tenth Continental Regiment for 1776 and was ordered to New York City in April. Promoted to brigadier general on 9 August 1776, Parsons was heavily engaged in the fighting on the American right (William Alexander's wing) at the Battle of Long Island on 27 August and distinguished himself by holding his position until almost completely surrounded. His letters of 29 August and 8 October 1776 to John Adams provide some of the best descriptions of the battlefield; the historian Douglas Freeman has called his 8 October 1776 letter "a model of lucid and simple explanation" (vol. 4, p. 158). At Kips Bay on 15 September, his brigade of Connecticut Continentals proved it could run as well as militia, but he himself joined Washington in trying to stop the rout. After the Battle of Harlem Heights, he was posted in the Highlands until December 1776, when he was detached to reinforce Washington's troops in New Jersey.

Parsons spent the rest of the war recruiting in Connecticut, commanding troops in the Hudson Highlands, and orchestrating the defense of the Connecticut shore against British raiders. From his recruiting post at New Haven, he was unable to oppose William Tryon's Danbury raid in late April 1777. In late September he warned Israel Putnam that three thousand British reinforcements had reached New York City, but he could do little in response when these troops were employed in Clinton's expedition up the Hudson in October. He spent the winter of 1778–1779 in charge of construction at West Point. In July 1779 he finally managed to deploy 150 Continental recruits to attack British raiders at Norwalk, but he could not help other towns along Long Island Sound that were attacked at the same time. In December 1779 he succeeded Israel Putnam as commander of the Connecticut division, always stationed in or near the Highlands, and on 23 October 1780 he was promoted to major general. He devoted most of his energy to keeping the Connecticut Line in good order, a difficult job amid privation and inaction. He organized occasional raids into the Neutral Ground, the most successful of which was Lieutenant Colonel William Hull's attack on Morrisania on 22-23 January 1781, for which he received the thanks of Congress.

As early as December 1777, Parsons had been alarmed by the depreciation of Continental currency, which was wiping out the small fortune he had invested in government securities when he entered the army. A year later he was increasingly impatient to be released from military service, but Congress would not approve his resignation because his efforts were too valuable. During this time he dealt with the double agent William Heron on espionage matters, and Heron thought the discontented general might be won over to the British cause, but according to the historian Carl Van Doren, Parsons "never showed himself disloyal or treacherous" (p. 400).

Retiring from the army on 22 July 1782, Parsons practiced law in Middletown, Connecticut, and was elected several times to the legislature. He was quick to see the advantages of getting government land in exchange for his pay certificates and undertook to get an appointment that would enable him to evaluate western lands. This opportunity came when Congress named him an Indian commissioner on 22 September 1785. He then became a promoter of the Ohio Company and on 8 March 1787 was chosen one of its three directors. In October he was named the first judge of the Northwest Territory and in April 1788 moved to Adelphia (later Marietta, Ohio). At the age of fifty-one he embarked on the life of a frontiersman and undertook to recoup his fortune. He drowned on 17 November 1789 when his canoe capsized in the rapids of the Big Beaver River while he was returning from a visit to the Western Reserve, where he also had an interest.

SEE ALSO Clinton's Expedition; Kip's Bay, New York; Long Island, New York, Battle of; Morrisania, New York; Ticonderoga, New York, American Capture of.


Buel, Richard V., Jr. Dear Liberty: Connecticut's Mobilization for the Revolutionary War. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1980.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington. 7 vols. New York: Scribner, 1948–1957.

Hall, Charles S. Life and Letters of Samuel Holden Parsons. Binghamton, N.Y.: Otseningo Publishing, 1905.

Sibley's Harvard Graduates. Vol. 14. Boston, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Van Doren, Carl. Secret History of the American Revolution. New York: Viking, 1941.

                               revised by Harold E. Selesky

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