An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Who was Enoch Poor, and what did he do in the American Revolution?

Jul 12, 2020 by

Enoch poor.jpg
Enoch Poor

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. One of “Washington’s Generals” was Enoch Poor, who was described by Washington as “an officer of distinguished merit, one who as a citizen and soldier had every claim to the esteem and regard of his country”. Where was he born, and what do we know about his early life?

Enoch Poor was born on June 21, 1736 in Andover, Massachusetts. His father, Thomas Poor, volunteered for military service in 1745, during a conflict known in American History as King George’s War. Not long after Thomas enlisted, he became part of a colonial expedition that captured the French fortress at Louisburg in Nova Scotia.

In the peace treaty that ended King George’s War, the British government agreed to return control of Louisburg back to the French—an action that exceedingly vexed the colonies that had captured it in 1745. Ten years later, a force of British regulars and colonial militia, including Enoch Poor, captured Louisburg for a second time. After five years of service in the Massachusetts militia, Poor left the military and returned home to Andover. There, he fell in love with a young lady named Martha Osgood. By all accounts, she felt the same way about him. Unfortunately, Martha’s father did not deem Poor a suitable match for his daughter, and refused to give his consent to a marriage between the two. Indeed, he went so far as to order his daughter to stay in her second-floor bedroom. Undeterred, Poor procured a ladder, and whisked Martha away. The newlyweds then settled in Exeter, New Hampshire to begin their lives as husband and wife.

  1. Apparently one of his early skills was as a ship builder. How did this help him in the American Revolution?

As many parents did in those days, Thomas Poor secured an apprenticeship for Enoch, choosing the carpenter’s trade for his son. As evidenced by a piece of furniture that he made, now in the possession of a private collector, Poor learned his craft well. At some point in time, Poor translated his woodworking skills into a talent for shipbuilding.

By the time of the American Revolution, Poor owned a thriving shipbuilding business in Exeter, and he used that skill to offer a unique type of potential help for the Patriot cause after the battles of Lexington and Concord.

Fearing that the British might attack the port city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Poor’s firm built vessels known as “fire ships.” If the British navy ever did menace the city, the defenders of Portsmouth would light the vessels on fire, and would sail them in the direction of the British fleet. The threat of immolation from these vessels would cause the British fleet to break off its attack and head for safety out in the open seas. Due in part to this threat, the British never attacked Portsmouth.

  1. When the “Stamp Act” came along, he apparently was at the forefront of opposition. What was his involvement there?

Many American colonists resented British attempts after the French and Indian War to tax the colonies. They opposed these efforts largely for two reasons. First, no colonists sat in Parliament, which meant that the Americans had no say in the levying of taxes.

And second, many colonists asserted that they had paid taxes within their own colonies to support the British war effort, making the British taxes excessive. Poor had a third reason for opposing the British taxes, as he had risked his life for the British during the French and Indian War. For those reasons, Poor became quite vocal in his opposition to the British policies, and became a member of a number of local committees created to adopt strategies for resisting the British efforts to tax the colonies. 

Poor transitioned to opposing the British militarily in the spring of 1775, when the New Hampshire provisional government gave him command of its Second Infantry Regiment after the outbreak of hostilities. Initially deployed to defend Portsmouth, in June Poor’s regiment received orders to join Washington’s army at its encampment outside Boston.

  1. Poor spent the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge. What do we know if anything about his activities prior to that time?

After joining Washington’s army. Poor received orders to join a campaign under the command of General Phillip Schuyler that Congress had ordered to take possession of Canada. Command of the invasion force soon passed to General Richard Montgomery. This force captured British outposts, including Montreal, in the late fall and early winter of 1775. In November, Montgomery arrived outside Quebec, and found another American force under the command of Benedict Arnold already deployed there. The two generals joined forces, and attacked Quebec on New Year’s Eve.

Initially successful, the American attack lost momentum after the British defenders killed Montgomery and wounded Arnold. Retreating from Quebec, the Americans suffered another defeat at the Battle of Trois-Rivieres in May of 1776. Eventually, the remnants of the American invasion force made their way back to Washington’s army, rejoining it after it had found temporary sanctuary in Pennsylvania in December.

Assigned to a brigade commanded by General Arthur St. Clair, Poor’s men that took part in the Battle of Trenton. A few days later, Poor and his men helped Washington win the Battle of Princeton. For the outstanding service that he had provided to that point in time, Poor received a promotion to the rank of brigadier general in February of 1777.

In the summer of that year, Washington sent Poor to join the northern army commanded by General Horatio Gates. In perhaps his finest moments, Poor provided exceptional battlefield leadership at the battles of Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights, two engagements that allowed Gates to force the surrender of a British-Hessian force commanded by General John Burgoyne at Saratoga. After the capitulation, Poor and his men rejoined Washington’s army at its winter camp at Valley Forge.

  1. He was involved in the Battle of Monmouth. What leadership did he provide there?

After capturing Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, the British had soon realized that they had gained no strategic advantage from that accomplishment. For that reason, the British chose to abandon the city the following spring, and move their base of operations to New York City. Learning of the British withdrawal, Washington planned an attack on them while their force lay stretched out on the route to New York City. This attack took place near Monmouth Court House in New Jersey in June of 1778.

Almost from the first shot fired that day, Washington’s battle plan went awry, and it looked like the Americans would suffer an embarrassing defeat. But Washington rode to the front, took personal charge of the American forces, and reversed the tide of battle. In fact, he felt so confident of victory that late in the day he ordered Poor, by now a brigade commander, to use his force to assault the British right flank.

Darkness prevented Poor from engaging the British, and during the night the British left the battlefield and resumed their march to New York. Although some historians consider the Battle of Monmouth a draw, most feel that Washington should receive credit for a victory for holding the field of battle.

  1. There seems to be some disagreement about his death. What do historians know in this regard?

Poor had served under the command of General John Sullivan in the abortive Canadian campaign in 1775-1776, and in 1779-1780 he once again joined an expedition led by the New Hampshire native. During the latter campaign, Poor helped Sullivan win a decisive victory over a force made up of Iroquois warriors, Loyalists, and approximately 60 British regulars at the Battle of Newtown. After the campaign ended, Poor received orders to report for duty in New Jersey. There, he died on September 8, 1780. Accounts differ regarding the cause of his death.

At the time of his demise, the physician who attended to him listed typhus as the cause. One hundred years later, however, an alternative theory of his death emerged. According to a paper delivered to the Massachusetts Historical Society, Poor angered a subordinate officer from Massachusetts named John Porter, who challenged the general to a duel. When the two faced each other, Porter inflicted a wound that proved fatal. Most historians discount this story, pointing to the fact that there are first-hand accounts of Poor’s death from natural causes. The naysayers also point to the fact that Porter before the war had been a minister, making it unlikely that he would engage in a duel. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, however, rumors still persist regarding Poor’s death.

  1. His funeral was attended by both Washington and Lafayette: perhaps no greater honor could be afforded a soldier.

A number of generals in the American Army died during the American Revolution. Some, like the Baron de Kalb, died in battle, while others, such as John Thomas, succumbed to natural causes. While Washington mourned them all, he (along with Lafayette) seemed particularly saddened by the death of Poor.

Indeed, the eulogies that the two gave him contained words of the highest praise. Clearly, Poor impressed his peers and superiors in a way that most histories of the Revolutionary War era do not properly convey.

  1. Where is he buried? And I understand there is a statue honoring him in New Jersey?

During the Civil War, it became common practice to embalm the corpses of high-ranking officers, and then return their remains to their home towns. At the time of the American Revolution, however, the capability to preserve remains did not exist. Therefore, most generals that perished during the conflict were buried where they died. So rather than bury him in Exeter, New Hampshire, Poor’s comrades chose to make Hackensack, New Jersey, his final resting place.

Only a few feet from his grave stands a monument in his honor. The Sons of the American Revolution placed a plaque on it, recognizing that Poor “secured the respect of all who were under his command, gained for all time the esteem of his fellow officers, and the confidence of Washington and Lafayette.” This monument in Bergen County, New Jersey thus perfectly captures the essence of a general who ably served the cause, but unfortunately did not live long enough to see the nation win its independence.

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