SPENCER, JOSEPH. (1714–1789). Continental general. Connecticut. Born in East Haddam, Connecticut, Joseph Spencer was a prominent farmer, merchant, and attorney in the lower Connecticut valley. He was first elected as a deputy to the General Assembly in 1750, and served until he was elected to the governor's council as an opponent of the Stamp Act in May 1766. Major of the Twelfth Militia Regiment in October 1757, he served as a major (1758) and lieutenant colonel (1759 and 1760) in Connecticut's provincial regiments during the colony's years of maximum effort during the final French and Indian War. Appointed lieutenant colonel (1764) and then colonel (1766) of the Twelfth Militia, Spencer led a militia company from East Haddam to Boston after the Lexington alarm, and stayed for two weeks. The Assembly appointed the sixty-year-old politician and veteran as first brigadier general of Connecticut troops in April 1775, and he recruited and led the Second Regiment (of which he was simultaneously colonel) to Boston to join the New England army besieging the town.
On 20 June 1775 Congress ignored his Connecticut seniority by making him as a brigadier general while appointing Israel Putnam, his Connecticut subordinate, a major general. Incensed at this affront, Spencer went home. His conduct provoked a storm of criticism. Silas Deane, one of Connecticut's delegates to the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, wrote on 20 July that "the voice here is that he acted a part inconsistent with the character either of a soldier, a patriot, or even of a common gentleman to desert his post in an hour of danger, to sacrifice his country, which he certainly did as far as was in his power, and to turn his back sullenly on his general [Washington]." Connecticut's senior leaders, not wanting to lose the services of an important political figure or further divide a cause whose only hope of success lay in unity, had already acted. On the morning of 13 July, Governor Jonathan Trumbull and his council sent two of their number (Samuel Huntington and William Williams) to talk to Spencer at Gray's Tavern and persuade him to reconsider. That afternoon, they all met with Spencer "on the subject matter of his being superceded by the General Congress,… which he thinks very hard of and resents," and persuaded him "to return to the army and not at present quit the service." Spencer served through the rest of the siege, and then went south with the army to New York City. On 9 August 1776 he was promoted to major general.
At a council of war on 8 September, Spencer voted with George Clinton and William Heath not to evacuate the army from New York City, at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Events proved that the trio was too sanguine about the possibility of holding the city. When the British subsequently landed at Kips Bay, on the east side of the island several miles north of the city, the American troops remaining in New York were lucky to escape. But Alexander McDougall was too harsh, when, years later, he labeled the trio as "a fool, a knave and an honest, obstinate man." In December 1776 Spencer was ordered to New England and established his headquarters at Providence, Rhode Island, where he worked to contain the British who had just taken Newport. In September 1777 he organized an amphibious attack from Tiverton against the island of Rhode Island, but canceled the operation after the troops had loaded into boats, when he learned that the plan had been compromised. Indignant about a proposed inquiry by Congress into the cause of this failure, Spencer requested a court of inquiry and was exonerated. He resigned his commission on 13 January 1778 and returned to Connecticut. He immediately became, again, a prominent figure in state government. He was named to the Council of Safety, elected to the Assembly (May 1778), re-elected to the governor's council (May 1779), and elected by the Assembly to Congress, where he served from June through September 1779. Historian Douglas Freeman's comment that neither William Heath nor Spencer "had done anything more than discharge routine duties without displaying such scandalous incompetence or sloth as to make their removal a public necessity" (Washington, IV, p. 367) overlooks the extent to which the war was directed from the American side by local politicians whose appreciation of military realities was limited.
SEE ALSO New York.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington. Vol. IV. Scribner, New York: 1948–1957
Lossing, Benson J. The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution. Vol. II. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1860
revised by Harold E. Selesky