Historical and biographical sketches/11 Samuel John Atlee



SAMUEL JOHN ATLEE.[1]




The family of Atlee reached distinction very early in the history of England. Contemporaneous with Richard Cœur de Lion was Sir Richard Atte Lee, who appears conspicuously in the ballads of Robin Hood, and who is represented in the “Lytell Geste” as saying —

An hondreth wynter here before
Myne Aunsetters Knyghtes have be.”

Antiquarians mention others of the name who lived later, and were of almost equal note. As to what was the connection between these ancient knights and the Pennsylvania hero, whose career I have undertaken to sketch, genealogists give us no certain information. His father, William Atlee, of Fordhook House, England, married against the wishes of his family Jane Alcock, a cousin of William Pitt, and being, perhaps for that reason, thrown upon his own resources, obtained, through the assistance of Pitt, a position as secretary to Lord Howe. He came with Howe to America, landing in Philadelphia, in July, 1734.[2]

Samuel John, the second child of the runaway couple, was born in the year 1739, at Trenton, New Jersey, during the temporary residence of his parents at that place.[3] His father died in Philadelphia in 1744, and his mother, persuaded by the friendship and acting under the advice of Edward Shippen, removed with her five children to Lancaster, Pa., where the earlier years of his life were spent. From the Reverend McGraw, a man of note, who united the two congenial occupations of a Presbyterian divine and a pedagogue, he received as thorough an education as could well be obtained in those days, and afterwards commenced the study of law.

This pursuit, adopted in extreme youth, was abandoned at the breaking out of the French and Indian War, when an ardent temperament and a sense of duty induced him to enter another field, more brilliant and more active, in which he was destined to perform services of great benefit to the cause of his country, and well worthy the remembrance of posterity.

He was commissioned an ensign in Col. William Clapham's Augusta regiment on the 23d of April, 1756, having then only completed his sixteenth year, and was promoted to a lieutenancy, December 7th, 1757.[4] The testimony of Major James Burd, at about that date, is that he was sprightly, spirited, possessed of culture, and attentive to his duties.

In the summer of 1757, he narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Indians. He and Sergeant Samuel Miles, long companions in arms, went together about half a mile from Fort Augusta to gather plums. The trees stood in a cleared space near a spring which has since borne the name of “The Bloody Spring.” While they, heedless of danger, were busily engaged in plucking and eating the fruit, a party of the wily foe, under cover of the wood and brush, had succeeded in getting almost between them and the fort. As it chanced, however, just at that time a soldier of the Bullock Guard came to the spring to get some water, and the Indians, unable to resist the temptation or fearing discovery, fired at and killed him. His misfortune saved Miles and Atlee, who forsook their banquet of plums and hastened with all speed to the fort.[5]

Atlee participated in the Forbes' Campaign against the French and Indians, and was engaged in a battle near Fort Du Quesne, September 15th, 1758, and in another at Loyal Hanna, October 12th, 1758. He was commissioned a captain. May 13th, 1759, and was in the service altogether eleven years, during which time he was taken prisoner, once by the French, and another time by the Indians. From a letter written to Major Burd, June 6th, it would appear that he was then in command at Fort Halifax.

On the 19th of April, 1762, he married Sarah Richardson, the daughter of a reputable farmer in the neighborhood of Lancaster, and, at the close of his protracted term of military service, retired to a farm near that city in the expectation of passing the remainder of his life in the enjoyment of domestic happiness and tranquillity. He was not, however, long to remain undisturbed. But a few years had elapsed before the constantly increasing difficulties between Great Britain and her colonies had culminated in a resort to arms, and Atlee was one of a very small number in Lancaster county who possessed military experience. During the year 1775, he was constantly engaged in organizing and drilling troops. In the spring of 1776 the Assembly of Pennsylvania determined to raise a force of fifteen hundred men for the defence of the State, to consist of two battalions of riflemen and one of musketry.

The musketry battalion comprised eight companies, each having a captain, lieutenant, ensign, two sergeants, two corporals, a fifer, drummer, and fifty-two privates. The uniform of the men seems to have been blue coats faced with red, white jackets, and buckskin breeches. The two battalions of riflemen were consolidated into one regiment under the command of Samuel Miles, the old friend of Atlee, and John Cadwalader was chosen as the colonel of the musketry. Cadwalader, however, declined, because his request for the command of the other battalion had not been complied with, and on the 21st of March, Atlee was selected to fill the vacancy in preference to Col. Daniel Brodhead and Major Coates, who had made application for the position. Caleb Parry, a descendant of one of the Welsh families of the Chester Valley, was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel, and James Potts, Major. The ranks of the other officers were fixed in the following order: —

Captains. Lieutenants. Ensigns.
Patrick Anderson, Walter Finney, James Lang,
Peter Z. Lloyd, Matthias Weidman,   Wm. Henderson,
Francis Murray, Morton Garret, Alex. Huston, Jr.,
Abraham Marshall,  John Davis, John Kirk,
Thomas Herbert, Joseph McClellan James Sutor,
Abraham Dehuff, Robert Caldwell, Henry Valentine,
John Nice, Barnard Ward, Michael App,
Joseph Howell, Jr.,   Peter Shaffner, Joseph Davis.[6]

Atlee left his wife and her family of young children without any other attendant or assistant than John Hamilton, a man hired to do the work on his farm, who was in consequence excused from the performance of military duties, and hastened to his command.

Some empty houses at Chester and Marcus Hook were rented for barracks, and the work of recruiting and drilling commenced. Money, however, was scarce, equipments were scanty, and the services of the troops were in demand to assist the Continental Army almost immediately. Parry took four companies to Philadelphia on the 13th of June, and the remainder of the battalion soon followed.

Its strength was as follows: —

July 1st. August 1st.
Anderson'  Company,  56 49
Lloyd's 61 38
Murray's 52 49
Marshall's  44 (Now Jos. McClellan's) 50
Dehuff's 64 59
Herbert's 57 55
Nice's 55 50
Howell's 55 47


444   397[7]

On the 3d of July, Congress made a requisition upon the Council of Safety for as many of these battalions as could be spared, to be placed under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, and receive Continental pay and rations.

About half of Atlee's battalion were then without firelocks but the necessity for their presence was so great that they were ordered to march on the 5th, and they arrived at Amboy on the 21st. Though inadequately equipped, they, according to the testimony of an observer, “alarmed the enemy not a little.” On the 2d of August, Atlee wrote, from Perth Amboy, that many of the men were without either shirts, breeches, or stockings, in their present state they could not be kept clean, and, if it had not been that they were in the face of the enemy, he would consider the maintenance of strict discipline a cruelty.

On the 11th of August he marched to New York, bearing a letter of introduction to Washington from Gen. Hugh Mercer, but with his troops “in a disgraceful situation with respect to clothing.” They encamped with the rest of the army on Long Island.

Before light, on the fatal morning of the 27th of August, word came that a picket on the lower road leading to the Narrows, had been attacked, and with the first dawn, Stirling's brigade, consisting of the battalions of Smallwood, Haslett, Lutz, Kichline and Atlee, in all about twenty-three hundred men, were sent to repel the enemy. About half after seven o'clock they met the left wing of the British army, consisting of nine regiments of infantry, with artillery, advancing under command of Gen. Grant. Atlee was sent forward to check the enemy at a morass, and he sustained a severe artillery fire until the brigade formed upon a height. He then filed off to the left, and seeing a hill about three hundred yards ahead, advantageously situated to prevent any flank movement, be marched toward it to take possession. When within fifty yards of the summit he was, however, received by a heavy fire from the enemy, who had anticipated him.

At first his detachment, consisting of his own battalion and two companies of Delaware troops, wavered, but they soon recovered and charged with so much resolution that the British were compelled to retire from the hill, with a loss of fourteen killed and seven wounded. The men, flushed with their advantage, were eager to pursue, but Atlee, perceiving a stone fence lined with wood about sixty yards to the front, and thinking it might prove to be an ambuscade, ordered a halt. His conjecture proved to be correct. A hot fire was poured into them from behind this fence, but was returned with eo much vigor that the enemy retreated. In this engagement, lasting for fifteen minutes, the brave Parry, long lamented as the first Pennsylvanian of distinction to lose his life in the Revolutionary War, was struck on the forehead by a ball and instantly killed.

The British afterwards made two successive efforts in force to gain this eminence, but were both times repulsed with severe loss, including among their killed Lieut.-Col. Grant. After the failure of their last attempt, however, Atlee discovered that the American left and centre had been driven back, and that the enemy had swept around to his rear. He sent word of his successes to Stirling and asked for orders, but getting no reply he concluded to retire and join the brigade. Much to his astonishment, he found that it had withdrawn without his having been informed. He still had time to make good his retreat, but perceiving the rear of the Americans in the act of crossing a body of water, and a force of British grenadiers advancing against them, with the instinct of a true soldier he led his fatigued troops to the attack, and, by a determined effort, succeeded in holding the enemy at bay long enough to enable his friends to escape, and to prevent all chance of his following their example.

fter several other struggles, wearied and worn out with hopeless and continued fighting, and not having eaten or drunk for twenty-four hours, he, with the remnant of his force, about forty men, was compelled to surrender.[8] He might well claim, as he afterwards did, that to the exertions of his battalion the preservation of the American army on that disastrous day was largely due. On the 5th of September, Col. Daniel Brodhead wrote: “poor Atly I can hear nothing of. Col. Parry died like a hero.” And the next day, Jos. Reed, in a letter to his wife, said: “I am glad Atlee is safe, because everybody allows he behaved well.”[9] The battalion lost in commissioned officers: killed, Lieut.-Col. Parry and Lieut. Moore; prisoners, Col. Atlee, Captains Murray, Herbert, Nice and Howell, Lieut. Finney, and Ensigns Henderson, Huston, and Septimus Davis; and missing, Ensign App. There were prisoners and missing among the non-commissioned officers and privates: —

 Sergeants.   Drummers.   Privates. 
Anderson's; Company,  1 0 9
Murray's 0 0 10  
Herbert's 0 0 8
Dehuff's 0 0 6
Nice's 0 0 9
Howell's 0 0 7
McClellan's 0 0 12  
Late Lloyd's   0 1 14  



1 1 75[10]

The shattered condition of the battalion is attested by a letter from Capt. Patrick Anderson, who took command, to Franklin, on the 22d of September, in which, after referring to the losses in the battle and subsequent discouragements, he says: that the number remaining for duty was only eighty-three, and that “want of necessarys Sowered the men's minds. Deficiencys in their Stipulated Rations hath Increased it.” Atlee was held as a prisoner until October 1st, 1778, about twenty-six months, and was for a part of the time confined on a prison ship. He was one of a very few who possessed sufficient courage to continue wearing the rebel uniform after finding that it led to insult and abuse. He and Miles, still companions, made strenuous efforts to relieve the wants of those prisoners who, as winter approached, suffered from the lack of clothing and provisions. Houssacker, a Major of Wayne's battalion, who had deserted to the enemy, came among them to endeavor to persuade them to pursue the same course, saying that Washington was compelled to pay enormous bounties to keep any force in the field, and that the war was virtually ended, but his efforts received no encouragement.[11] Shortly after Atlee's exchange, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, through their President Joseph Reed, recommended him to Washington for promotion to the grade of a Brigadier-General; saying, that “his merit and sufferings rendered him worthy their Regard & Attention,” but without success, there being no vacancy. At this juncture, however, his old friends of Lancaster county, proud of his career, transferred him from the field to the council, electing him a member of Congress, November 20th, 1778.

He took his seat December 24th, and served in this capacity until October 28th, 1782, omitting one year. In Congress he was at once awarded a prominent position, and his name is associated with the principal measures coming before that body, especially with reference to the conduct of the war. He was one of two members appointed to attend the board of war, and one of five to visit the New Hampshire Grants. He was a member of the committees to which at various times were referred Washington's plan for a western expedition in 1779, the attack upon the fort at Paulus Hook, Brodhead's Expedition against the Mingo and Muncy Indians, the revolt in the Pennsylvania line in 1781, the court of inquiry as to Gen. Gates' conduct of the war in the South, “the late murderous and wanton execution of Col Haynes” in 1781, the victory at Eutaw Springs, the advancement of Knox and Moultrie to be Major-Generals, and the raising of troops. Just before the close of his last term he participated in a scene which, though the actors were our revolutionary forefathers and the subject the dry details of a mathematical calculation, nevertheless provokes a grave smile. $1,200,000 had to be raised to pay the interest on the public debt, and the committee, having the subject in charge, made a report, apportioning the amount among the different States. Delegates from no less than eight of the thirteen were on their feet immediately trying to get their respective allotments reduced. Maryland wanted to transfer part of her burden to Connecticut, and Connecticut thought she was overloaded already; Rhode Island tried to give a part of her quota to New Jersey; Massachusetts and Pennsylvania a part of theirs to Virginia; New York, New Hampshire, and Georgia, more modest, only asked to have their respective proportions diminished, the last “because of the ravages of the war.” As however, each motion was supported by the delegates from the interested State alone and opposed by all the others, the report of the committee was finally adopted.[12]

Atlee served as Lieutenant of Lancaster county, a position of much labor and responsibility, in 1780; and in 1783 was elected a member for that county of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. On the 23d of February, 1784, he, William Maclay, and Francis Johnston were appointed commissioners to treat with the Indians for the unpurchased lands within the limits of the State.

They met the chiefs of the Six Nations at Fort Stanwix, N. Y. (Rome), on the 24th of October, and these transactions, which secured to Pennsylvania the title to land now forming fourteen entire counties and portions of others, are worthy of a brief reproduction. Atlee, on behalf of the commissioners, said to the Indians, that the young men who were now numerous required more territory, and that they, according to the customs of their forefathers, had come to purchase, so that the settlements might be made in peace; that for this purpose they had brought a valuable and suitable cargo as a compensation, but that since the lands were remote a great consideration ought not to be expected. The Indians took a day to deliberate, and replied through a chief of the Senecas that it was not their wish to part with so much of their hunting-grounds, and they pointed out a line which they hoped would prove satisfactory.

This proposition the commissioners rejected, adding that the privilege of hunting might be retained, and that they had an assortment of goods of the first quality valued at $4000, which certainly ought to convince the Indians of the many advantages flowing from trade with their brothers of Pennsylvania. The chief then replied, that, since they wanted to keep the way smooth and even and to brighten the chains of friendship, they would agree, but as lands afforded a lasting and rising profit, and as Pennsylvanians were always generous, they hoped to receive something further the following year. An additional $1000 was promised, and the deeds were signed. The commissioners went from there to Sunbury, and thence to Fort Mcintosh, Pa. (Beaver), where they met the Wyandots and Delawares, who had a claim on the lands. These tribes confirmed the sale after vainly endeavoring to retain a small reservation.[13] By lying on the damp ground during this journey, Atlee contracted a cold from which he never recovered. He was elected a member of the Assembly in the years 1782, 1785, and 1786, and, while attending the session in Philadelphia in 1786, ruptured a blood vessel during a paroxysm of coughing, and died on the 25th of November.

So past the strong heroic soul away,
And when they buried him, the little port
Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.”

His remains, attended by two celebrated divines, and followed by the Supreme Executive Council, the Assembly which had adjourned for the purpose, the magistrates of the city, army officers, and a numerous concourse of citizens, were borne to Christ Church-yard and there interred. The newspapers of the time, recognizing his worth and services, published warm eulogies upon his character, and his death at the early age of forty-eight years was universally deplored. There is, however, a darker side to the picture. The public service of Atlee, requiring the abandonment of home and family, and attended by exposure and deprivation, was performed not only at the expense of his health and comfort, but of his private fortune. In 1780, 1782, and again in 1783, he suggested to the Assembly the propriety of some remuneration. A few days after his death, a petition from a number of citizens, accompanied with vouchers, was presented to the Assembly, setting forth his labors in the cabinet, and in the field, in the cause of the State, and of the United States, and asking that his family receive some adequate compensation. So far as I have been able to ascertain, the matter was permitted to slumber without action.

It is now too late to repay in any way these debts to the worthies of the American Revolution, but we can at least see to it that ourselves and our children preserve a lasting sense of gratitude for their services, and that in the hurry and bustle of our present growth and prosperity their courage and sacrifices, from which we derive the benefit, be not permitted to fall into forgetfulness.

Dr. Wm. P. Dewees, of the University of Pennsylvania, said of Atlee, that he was a very handsome man, of faultless manners. He had a fresh and ruddy complexion, brown hair and blue eyes, and his military bearing set off to advantage an erect and full figure.

His “personal respectability” impressed President Madison. That he could be moved to anger is proven by the fact that he inflicted personal and public chastisement upon a very celebrated man of the time who said something derogatory to the character of Washington. He left nine children, one of whom married the daughter of Anthony Wayne, and from this union the only living descendants of that great captain derive their origin.

  1. This paper was written at the request of the Committee on the Restoration of Independence Hall, for the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the passage of the resolution respecting independence, and the original was deposited in Independence Hall, July 1st, 1876.
  2. For materials for this sketch I am much indebted to Samuel Yorke AtLee, of Washington, D. C, and to the article of John B. Linn, in the American Historical Record, vol. iii, p. 448.
  3. “William Atlee and Thomas Hooton, of Trenton, having left off Trading in Partnership ever since December, 1739, and having affixed up Advertisements for every Person Indebted to them to come and settle the accounts, and to give Bonds or pay such Ballances, But few having complied therewith, This is to give Notice (by Reason of the Distance of many such Debtors) that every such Person who shall neglect or refuse to pay the Ballance of their several Accounts, or clear off such Bonds or Penal Bills owing to the said Atlee and Hooton on or before the first Day of May next, 1741, may expect to be sued for the same, the said Atlee and Hooton having agreed after that Time to deliver their Books to a Lawyer, to recover for them, the said Debts then outstanding without Distinction of any Person whatsoever or further sending after them.

    N.B. The said William Atlee (until he can clear all Affairs relating to Partnership with Thomas Hooton), proposes with John Dagworthy, jun., to continue Store in Trenton, to sell cheap, and buy and sell only for ready money.” — American Weekly Mercury, February 26th, 1740-41.
  4. Penna. Archives, vol. iii, pp. 89, 336.
  5. Amer. Hist. Rec, vol. ii. p. 51.
  6. Votes of Assembly, vol. vi, p. 702.
  7. Penna. Archives, vol. iv, p. 780; vol. v, p. 4.
  8. Atlee's Journal, Penna. Archives, sec. series, vol. i, p. 511.
  9. Reed's Reed, vol. i, p. 231.
  10. Penna. Gazette, Sept. 11th, 1776.
  11. Graydon's Memoirs, pp. 205, 218.
  12. Journals of Congress.
  13. Minutes of Assembly, 1784, p. 314.