May 2, 1779 Mary Silliman’s War

Much is written about the history of warfare.  The strategy, the tactics, and the means of supply which make it all happen.  Far less has been written about a subject, equally important, if not more so.  The very real service to the nation, provided by the loved ones, most often the women, when the warriors leave their homes.

Sometime around 1980, Commandant of the United States Marine Corps General Robert H. Barrow captured the nature of the art of the warrior:  “Amateurs think about tactics”, he wrote, “but professionals think about logistics.”  Lieutenant General Tommy Franks, Commander of the 7th Corps during Operation Desert Storm, was more to the point:  “Forget logistics, you lose.”

Much is written about the history of warfare.  The strategy, the tactics, and the means of supply which make it all happen.  Far less has been written about a subject, equally important, if not more so.  The very real service to the nation, provided by the loved ones, most often the women, when the warriors leave their homes.

Mary Fish Noyes Silliman
Mary Fish Noyes Silliman

In the early days of the American Revolution, Gold Selleck Silliman served as a Colonel in the Connecticut militia, later promoted to Brigadier General.  Silliman patrolled the southwestern border of Connecticut, where proximity to British-occupied New York was a constant source of danger.  Silliman fought with the New York campaign of 1776 and opposed the British landing in Danbury, the following year.

Mary (Fish) Noyes, the widow of John Noyes, was a strong, independent woman, of good pioneer stock.  She had to be.  In an age when women rarely involved themselves in the “business” side of the household, Mary’s first husband died intestate, leaving her executrix of the estate, and head of household.

Image21Gold Selleck Silliman, himself a widower, merged his household with that of Mary on May 24, 1775, in a marriage described as “rooted in lasting friendship, deep affection, and mutual respect”.  The two would have two children together, who survived into adulthood:   Gold Selleck (called Sellek) born in October 1777, and Benjamin, born in August 1779.

Understanding that the coming Revolution could take her second husband from her as well, Mary acquainted herself with Gold’s business affairs, as well as the workings of the farm.  Throughout this phase of the war, Mary Silliman ran the family farm, entertained militia officers, housed refugees of war violence, managed the labor of several slaves and that of her adult stepson, drew accounts and collected rent on her late first husband’s properties, all while her husband was away, leading the state militia.

Before the war, Gold Silliman served as Attorney for the Crown.  He returned to civil life in 1777 following the Battle of Ridgefield, becoming state’s attorney.

On May 2, 1779, nine Tories ostensibly under orders from General Henry Clinton, set out in a whale boat from Lloyd’s Neck on Long Island, rowing across Long Island sound and onto the Connecticut shore.  One of them, a carpenter, had worked on the Silliman home and knew it well.  Eight of them beat down the door in the dead of night, kidnapping Silliman and Billy,  Gold’s son by his first marriage.  Mary Silliman, six-months pregnant at the time, could do little but look on in horror.

Lloyd's Neck
Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island

The two captives were taken to Oyster Bay in New York and finally to Flatbush, and held hostage at a New York farmhouse.  Patriot forces having no hostage of equal rank with whom to exchange for the General, the two Sillimans languished in captivity for seven months.

Mary Silliman wrote letters to Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, to no avail.  At last, heavily pregnant, she set out for the headquarters of General George Washington himself.  An aide responded that…sorry…had Silliman been kidnapped while wearing the uniform, efforts could be made to intercede.  As it was, the captive was a civilian.  He was on his own.

Mary was left to run the farm, including caring for her own midwife, after the woman was brutally raped during a lighting raid in which English forces burned family buildings and crops, along with much of Ridgefield.  All the while, Mary herself wanted nothing more than the return of her husband, and to become “the living mother of a living child”.

download (70)
From the film:  Mary Silliman’s War

With all other options exhausted, Mary contracted the services of one David Hawley, a full-time Naval Captain and part-time privateer.  Hawley staged a daring raid of his own, rowing across the sound and kidnapping a man suitable for exchange with Gold Silliman, in the person of Chief Justice Thomas Jones, of Long Island.

British authorities balked at the exchange and the stalemate dragged on for months.  In the end, Mary Silliman got her wish, becoming the living mother of a living child that August.  Gold Selleck and Billy Silliman were exchanged the following May, for Judge Jones.

The 1993 made-for-TV movie “Mary Silliman’s War” tells a story of non-combatants in the American Revolution.  The pregnant mothers and farm wives, as well as Silliman’s own negotiations for her husband’s release, by his Loyalist captors.  The film is outstanding, the history straight-up and unadulterated with pop culture nonsense, as far as I can tell.  The film is available for download, I found it for nine bucks.  It was nine dollars, well spent.

Feature image, top of page:  Silliman house, ca. 1890

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Author: capecodcurmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. Five years ago, I began writing a daily "Today in History" story, as sort of a self-guided history course.  At some point, I committed to myself to write 365.  The leap year changed that to 366. At this point, I’ve written about 450. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories, in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

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