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The Chainbearer; Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts By James Fenimore Cooper Characters: 29683

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"The steady brain, the sinewy limb,

To leap, to climb, to dive, to swim:

The iron frame, inured to bear

Each dire inclemency of air;

Nor less confirmed to undergo

Fatigue's faint chill, and famine's throe."

-Rockeby.

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My father was Cornelius Littlepage, of Satanstoe, in the County of Westchester, and State of New York; and my mother was Anneke Mordaunt, of Lilacsbush, a place long known by that name, which still stands near Kingsbridge, but on the Island of Manhattan, and consequently in one of the wards of New York, though quite eleven miles from town. I shall suppose that my readers know the difference between the Island of Manhattan and Manhattan Island; though I have found soi-disant Manhattanese, of mature years, but of alien birth, who had to be taught it. Lilacsbush, I repeat therefore, was on the Island of Manhattan, eleven miles from town, though in the City of New York, and not on Manhattan Island.

Of my progenitors further back, I do not conceive it necessary to say much. They were partly of English, and partly of Low Dutch extraction, as is apt to be the case with those who come of New York families of any standing in the colony. I retain tolerably distinct impressions of both of my grandfathers, and of one of my grandmothers; my mother's mother having died long before my own parents were married.

Of my maternal grandfather, I know very little, however, he having died while I was quite young, and before I had seen much of him. He paid the great debt of nature in England, whither he had gone on a visit to a relative, a Sir Something Bulstrode, who had been in the colonies himself, and who was a great favorite with Herman Mordaunt, as my mother's parent was universally called in New York. My father often said it was perhaps fortunate in one respect that his father-in-law died as he did, since he had no doubt he would have certainly taken sides with the crown in the quarrel that soon after occurred, in which case it is probable his estates, or those which were my mother's, and are now mine, would have shared the fate of those of the De Lanceys, of the Philipses, of some of the Van Cortlandts, of the Floyds, of the Joneses, and of various others of the heavy families, who remained loyal, as it was called; meaning loyalty to a prince, and not loyalty to the land of their nativity. It is hard to say which were right, in such a quarrel, if we look at the opinions and prejudices of the times, though the Littlepages to a man, which means only my father and grandfather, and self, took sides with the country. In the way of self-interest, it ought to be remarked, however, that the wealthy American who opposed the crown showed much the most disinterestedness, inasmuch as the chances of being subdued were for a long time very serious, while the certainty of confiscation, not to say of being hanged, was sufficiently well established, in the event of failure. But my paternal grandfather was what was called a whig, of the high caste. He was made a brigadier in the militia, in 1776, and was actively employed in the great campaign of the succeeding year-that in which Burgoyne was captured, as indeed was my father, who held the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the New York line. There was also a Major Dirck Van Volkenburgh, or Follock, as he was usually called, in the same regiment with my father, who was a sworn friend. This Major Follock was an old bachelor, and he lived quite as much in my father's house as he did in his own; his proper residence being across the river, in Rockland. My mother had a friend, as well as my father, in the person of Miss Mary Wallace; a single lady, well turned of thirty at the commencement of the revolution. Miss Wallace was quite at ease in her circumstances, but she lived altogether at Lilacsbush, never having any other home, unless it might be at our house in town.

We were very proud of the brigadier, both on account of his rank and on account of his services. He actually commanded in one expedition against the Indians during the revolution, a service in which he had some experience, having been out on it, on various occasions, previously to the great struggle for independence. It was in one of these early expeditions of the latter war that he first distinguished himself, being then under the orders of a Colonel Brom Follock, who was the father of Major Dirck of the same name, and who was almost as great a friend of my grandfather as the son was of my own parent. This Colonel Brom loved a carouse, and I have heard it said that, getting among the High Dutch on the Mohawk, he kept it up for a week, with little or no intermission, under circumstances that involved much military negligence. The result was, that a party of Canada Indians made an inroad on his command, and the old colonel, who was as bold as a lion, and as drunk as a lord, though why lords are supposed to be particularly inclined to drink I never could tell, was both shot down and scalped early one morning as he was returning from an adjacent tavern to his quarters in the "garrison," where he was stationed. My grandfather nobly revenged his death, scattered to the four winds the invading party, and recovered the mutilated body of his friend, though the scalp was irretrievably lost.

General Littlepage did not survive the war, though it was not his good fortune to die on the field, thus identifying his name with the history of his country. It happens in all wars, and most especially did it often occur in our own great national struggle, that more soldiers lay down their lives in the hospitals than on the field of battle, though the shedding of blood seems an indispensable requisite to glory of this nature; an ungrateful posterity taking little heed of the thousands who pass into another state of being, the victims of exposure and camp diseases, to sound the praises of the hundreds who are slain amid the din of battle. Yet, it may be questioned if it do not require more true courage to face death, when he approaches in the invisible form of disease, than to meet him when openly arrayed under the armed hand. My grandfather's conduct in remaining in camp, among hundreds of those who had the small-pox, the loathsome malady of which he died, was occasionally alluded to, it is true, but never in the manner the death of an officer of his rank would have been mentioned, had he fallen in battle. I could see that Major Follock had an honorable pride in the fate of his father, who was slain and scalped by the enemy in returning from a drunken carouse, while my worthy parent ever referred to the death of the brigadier as an event to be deplored, rather than exulted in. For my own part, I think my grandfather's end was much the most creditable of the two; but, as such, it will never be viewed by the historian or the country. As for historians, it requires a man to be singularly honest to write against a prejudice; and it is so much easier to celebrate a deed as it is imagined than as it actually occurred, that I question if we know the truth of a tenth part of the exploits about which we vapor, and in which we fancy we glory. Well! we are taught to believe that the time will come when all things are to be seen in their true colors, and when men and deeds will be known as they actually were, rather than as they have been recorded in the pages of history.

I was too young myself to take much part in the war of the revolution, though accident made me an eye-witness of some of its most important events, and that at the tender age of fifteen. At twelve-the American intellect ever was and continues to be singularly precocious-I was sent to Nassau Hall, Princeton, to be educated, and I remained there until I finally got a degree, though it was not without several long and rude interruptions of my studies. Although so early sent to college, I did not actually graduate until I was nineteen, the troubled times requiring nearly twice as long a servitude to make a Bachelor of Arts of me as would have been necessary in the more halcyon days of peace. Thus I made a fragment of a campaign when only a sophomore, and another the first year I was junior. I say the first year, because I was obliged to pass two years in each of the two higher classes of the institution, in order to make up for lost time. A youth cannot very well be campaigning and studying Euclid in the academic bowers, at the same moment. Then I was so young, that a year, more or less, was of no great moment.

My principal service in the war of the revolution was in 1777, or in the campaign in which Burgoyne was met and captured. That important service was performed by a force that was composed partly of regular troops, and partly of militia. My grandfather commanded a brigade of the last, or what was called a brigade, some six hundred men at most; while my father led a regular battalion of one hundred and sixty troops of the New York line into the German intrenchments, the memorable and bloody day the last were stormed. How many he brought out I never heard him say. The way in which I happened to be present in these important scenes is soon told.

Lilacsbush being on the Island of Manhattan (not Manhattan Island, be it always remembered), and our family being whig, we were driven from both our town and country houses the moment Sir William Howe took possession of New York. At first my mother was content with merely going to Satanstoe, which was only a short distance from the enemy's lines; but the political character of the Littlepages being too well established to render this a safe residence, my grandmother and mother, always accompanied by Miss Wallace, went up above the Highlands, where they established themselves in the village of Fishkill for the remainder of the war, on a farm that belonged to Miss Wallace in fee. Here it was thought they were safe, being seventy miles from the capital, and quite within the American lines. As this removal took place at the close of the year 1776, and after independence had been declared, it was understood that our return to our proper homes at all, depended on the result of the war. At that time I was a sophomore, and at home in the long vacation. It was in this visit that I made my fragment of a campaign, accompanying my father through all the closing movements of his regiment, while Washington and Howe were man?uvring in Westchester. My father's battalion happening to be posted in such a manner as to be in the centre of the battle at White Plains, I had an opportunity of seeing some pretty serious service on that occasion. Nor did I quit the army and return to my studies, until after the brilliant affairs at Trenton and Princeton, in both of which our regiment participated.

This was a pretty early commencement with the things of active life for a boy of fourteen. But in that war, lads of my age often carried muskets, for the colonies covered a great extent of country, and had but few people. They who read of the war of the American revolution, and view its campaigns and battles as they would regard the conflicts of older and more advanced nations, can form no just notion of the disadvantages with which our people had to contend, or the great superiority of the enemy in all the usual elements of military force. Without experienced officers, with but few and indifferent arms, often in want of ammunition, the rural and otherwise peaceful population of a thinly peopled country were brought in conflict with the chosen warriors of Europe; and this, too, with little or none of that great sinew of war, money, to sustain them. Nevertheless the Americans, unaided by any foreign skill or succor, were about as often successful as the reverse. Bunker Hill, Bennington, Saratoga, Bhemis's Heights, Trenton, Princeton, Monmouth, were all purely American battles; to say nothing of divers others that occurred farther south: and though insignificant as to numbers, compared with the conflicts of these later times, each is worthy of a place in history, and one or two are almost without parallels; as is seen when Bunker Hill be named. It sounds very well in a dispatch, to swell out the list of an enemy's ranks; but admitting the number itself not to be overrated, as so often occurred, of what avail are men without arms and ammunition, and frequently without any other military organization than a muster-roll!

I have said I made nearly the whole of the campaign in which Burgoyne was taken. It happened in this wise. The service of the previous year had a good deal indisposed me to study, and when again at home in the autumn vacation, my dear mother sent me with clothing and supplies to my father, who was with the army at the north. I reached the head-quarters of General Gates a week before the affair of Bhemis's Heights, and was with my father until the capitulation was completed. Owing to these circumstances, though still a boy in years, I was an eye-witness, and in some measure an actor in two or three of the most important events in the whole war. Being well grown for my years, and of a somewhat manly appearance, considering how young I really was, I passed very well as a volunteer, being, I have reason to think, somewhat of a favorite in the regiment. In the last battle, I had the honor to act as a sort of aide-de-camp to my grandfather, who sent me with orders and messages two or three times into the midst of the fire. In this manner I made myself a little known, and all so much the more from the circumstance of my being in fact nothing but a college lad, away from his alma mater during vacation.

It was but natural that a boy thus situated should attract some little attention, and I was noticed by officers, who, under other circumstances, would hardly have felt it necessary to go out of their way to speak to me. The Littlepages had stood well, I have reason to think, in the colony, and their position in the new state was not likely to be at all lowered by the part they were now playing in the revolution. I am far from certain that General Littlepage was considered a corner-post in the Temple of Freedom that the army was endeavoring to rear, but he was quite respectable as a militia officer, while my father was very generally admitted to be one of the best lieutenants-colonel in the whole army.

I well remember to have been much struck with a captain in my father's regiment, who certainly was a character, in his way. His origin was Dutch, as was the case with a fair proportion of the officers, and he bore the name of Andries Coejemans, though he was universally known by the sobriquet of the "Chainbearer." It was fortunate for him it was so, else would the Yankees in the camp, who seem to have a mania to pronounce every word as it is spelled, and having succee

ded in this, to change the spelling of the whole language to accommodate it to certain sounds of their own inventing, would have given him a most unpronounceable appellation. Heaven only knows what they would have called Captain Coejemans, but for this lucky nickname; but it may be as well to let the uninitiated understand at once, that in New York parlance, Coejemans is called Queemans. The Chainbearer was of a respectable Dutch family, one that has even given its queer-looking name to a place of some little note on the Hudson; but, as was very apt to be the case with the cadets of such houses, in the good old time of the colony, his education was no great matter. His means had once been respectable, but, as he always maintained, he was cheated out of his substance by a Yankee before he was three-and-twenty, and he had recourse to surveying for a living from that time. But Andries had no head for mathematics, and after making one or two notable blunders in the way of his new profession, he quietly sunk to the station of a chainbearer, in which capacity he was known to all the leading men of his craft in the colony. It is said that every man is suited to some pursuit or other, in which he might acquire credit, would he only enter on it and persevere. Thus it proved to be with Andries Coejemans. As a chainbearer he had an unrivalled reputation. Humble as was the occupation, it admitted of excellence in various particulars, as well as another. In the first place, it required honesty, a quality in which this class of men can fail, as well as all the rest of mankind. Neither colony nor patentee, landlord nor tenant, buyer nor seller, need be uneasy about being fairly dealt by so long as Andries Coejemans held the forward end of the chain; a duty on which he was invariably placed by one party or the other. Then, a practical eye was a great aid to positive measurement; and while Andries never swerved to the right or to the left of his course, having acquired a sort of instinct in his calling, much time and labor were saved. In addition to these advantages, the "Chainbearer" had acquired great skill in all the subordinate matters of his calling. He was a capital woodman, generally; had become a good hunter, and had acquired most of the habits that pursuits like those in which he was engaged for so many years previously to entering the army, would be likely to give a man. In the course of time he took patents to survey, employing men with heads better than his own to act as principals, while he still carried the chain.

At the commencement of the revolution, Andries, like most of those who sympathized with the colonies, took up arms. When the regiment of which my father was lieutenant-colonel was raised, they who could bring to its colors so many men received commissions of a rank proportioned to their services in this respect. Andries had presented himself early with a considerable squad of chainbearers, hunters, trappers, runners, guides, etc., numbering in the whole something like five-and-twenty hardy, resolute sharpshooters. Their leader was made a lieutenant in consequence, and being the oldest of his rank in the corps, he was shortly after promoted to a captaincy, the station he was in when I made his acquaintance, and above which he never rose.

Revolutions, more especially such as are of a popular character, are not remarkable for bringing forward those who are highly educated, or otherwise fitted for their new stations, unless it may be on the score of zeal. It is true, service generally classes men, bringing out their qualities, and necessity soon compels the preferment of those who are the best qualified. Our own great national struggle, however, probably did less of this than any similar event of modern times, a respectable mediocrity having accordingly obtained an elevation that, as a rule, it was enabled to keep to the close of the war. It is a singular fact that not a solitary instance is to be found in our military annals of a young soldier's rising to high command, by the force of his talents, in all that struggle. This may have been, and in a measure probably was owing to the opinions of the people, and to the circumstance that the service itself was one that demanded greater prudence and circumspection than qualities of a more dazzling nature; or the qualifications of age and experience, rather than those of youth and enterprise. It is probable Andries Coejemans, on the score of original station, was rather above than below the level of the social positions of a majority of the subalterns of the different lines of the more northern colonies, when he first joined the army. It is true, his education was not equal to his birth; for, in that day, except in isolated instances and particular families, the Dutch of New York, even in cases in which money was not wanting, were any thing but scholars. In this particular, our neighbors the Yankees had greatly the advantage of us. They sent everybody to school, and, though their educations were principally those of smatterers, it is an advantage to be even a smatterer among the very ignorant. Andries had been no student either, and one may easily imagine what indifferent cultivation will effect on a naturally thin soil. He could read and write, it is true, but it was the ciphering under which he broke down, as a surveyor. I have often heard him say, that "if land could be measured without figures, he would turn his back on no man in the calling in all America, unless it might be 'His Excellency,' who, he made no doubt, was not only the best, but the honestest surveyor mankind had ever enjoyed."

The circumstance that Washington had practised the art of a surveyor for a short time in his early youth, was a source of great exultation with Andries Coejemans. He felt that it was an honor to be even a subordinate in a pursuit, in which such a man was a principal. I remember, that long after we were at Saratoga together, Captain Coejemans, while we were before Yorktown, pointed to the commander-in-chief one day, as the latter rode past our encampment, and cried out with emphasis-"T'ere, Mortaunt, my poy-t'ere goes His Excellency!-It would be t'e happiest tay of my life, coult I only carry chain while he survey't a pit of a farm, in this neighborhoot."

Andries was more or less Dutch in his dialect, as he was more or less interested. In general, he spoke English pretty well-colony English I mean, not that of the schools; though he had not a single Yankeeism in his vocabulary. On this last point he prided himself greatly, feeling an honest pride, if he did occasionally use vulgarisms, a vicious pronounciation, or make a mistake in the meaning of a word, a sin he was a little apt to commit; and that his faults were all honest New York mistakes and no "New England gipperish." In the course of the various visits I paid to the camp, Andries and myself became quite intimate, his peculiarities seizing my fancy; and doubtless, my obvious admiration awakening his gratitude. In the course of our many conversations, he gave me his whole history, commencing with the emigration of the Coejemans from Holland, and ending with our actual situation, in the camp at Saratoga. Andries had been often engaged, and, before the war terminated, I could boast of having been at his side in no less than six affairs myself, viz.. White Plains, Trenton, Princeton, Bhemis's Heights, Monmouth, and Brandywine; for I had stolen away from college to be present at the last affair. The circumstance that our regiment was both with Washington and Gates, was owing to the noble qualities of the former, who sent off some of his best troops to reinforce his rival, as things gathered to a head at the North. Then I was present throughout, at the siege of Yorktown. But it is not my intention to enlarge on my own military services.

While at Saratoga, I was much struck with the air, position and deportment of a gentleman who appeared to command the respect, and to obtain the ears of all the leaders in the American camp, while he held no apparent official station. He wore no uniform, though he was addressed by the title of general, and had much more of the character of a real soldier than Gates who commanded. He must have been between forty and fifty at that time, and in the full enjoyment of the vigor of his mind and body. This was Philip Schuyler, so justly celebrated in our annals for his wisdom, patriotism, integrity, and public services. His connection with the great northern campaign is too well known to require any explanations here. Its success, perhaps, was more owing to his advice and preparations than to the influence of any one other mind, and he is beginning already to take a place in history, in connection with these great events, that has a singular resemblance to that he occupied during their actual occurrence: in other words, he is to be seen in the background of the great national picture, unobtrusive and modest, but directing and controlling all, by the power of his intellect, and the influence of his experience and character. Gates[1] was but a secondary personage, in the real events of that memorable period. Schuyler was the presiding spirit, though forced by popular prejudice to retire from the apparent command of the army. Our written accounts ascribe the difficulty that worked this injustice to Schuyler, to a prejudice which existed among the eastern militia, and which is supposed to have had its origin in the disasters of St. Clair, or the reverses which attended the earlier movements of the campaign. My father, who had known General Schuyler in the war of '56, when he acted as Bradstreet's right-hand man, attributed the feeling to a different cause. According to his notion of the alienation, it was owing to the difference in habits and opinions which existed between Schuyler, as a New York gentleman, and the yeomen of New England, who came out in 1777, imbued with all the distinctive notions of their very peculiar state of society. There may have been prejudices on both sides, but it is easy to see which party exhibited most magnanimity and self-sacrifice. Possibly, the last was inseparable from the preponderance of numbers, it not being an easy thing to persuade masses of men that they can be wrong, and a single individual right. This is the great error of democracy, which fancies truth is to be proved by counting noses; while aristocracy commits the antagonist blunder of believing that excellence is inherited from male to male, and that too in the order of primogeniture! It is not easy to say where one is to look for truth in this life.

As for General Schuyler, I have thought my father was right in ascribing his unpopularity solely to the prejudices of provinces. The Muse of History is the most ambitious of the whole sisterhood, and never thinks she has done her duty unless all she says and records is said and recorded with an air of profound philosophy; whereas, more than half of the greatest events which affect human interest, are to be referred to causes that have little connection with our boasted intelligence, in any shape. Men feel far more than they reason, and a little feeling is very apt to upset a great deal of philosophy.

It has been said that I passed six years at Princeton; nominally, if not in fact; and that I graduated at nineteen. This happened the year Cornwallis surrendered, and I actually served at the siege as the youngest ensign in my father's battalion. I had also the happiness, for such it was to me, to be attached to the company of Captain Coejeman's, a circumstance which clinched the friendship I had formed for that singular old man. I say old, for by this time Andries was every hour of sixty-seven, though as hale, and hearty, and active, as any officer in the corps. As for hardships, forty years of training, most of which had been passed in the woods, placed him quite at our head, in the way of endurance.

I loved my predecessors, grandfather and grandmother included, not only as a matter of course, but with sincere filial attachment; and I loved Miss Mary Wallace, or aunt Mary, as I had been taught to call her, quite as much on account of her quiet, gentle, affectionate manner, as from habit; and I loved Major Dirck Follock as a sort of hereditary friend, as a distant relative, and a good and careful guardian of my own youth and inexperience on a thousand occasions; and I loved my father's negro man, Jaap, as we all love faithful slaves, however unnurtured they may be; but Andries was the man whom I loved without knowing why. He was illiterate almost to greatness, having the drollest notions imaginable of this earth and all it contained; was anything but refined in deportment, though hearty and frank; had prejudices so crammed into his moral system that there did not seem to be room for anything else; and was ever so little addicted, moreover, to that species of Dutch jollification, which had cost old Colonel Van Valkenburgh his life, and a love for which was a good deal spread throughout the colony. Nevertheless, I really loved this man, and when we were all disbanded at the peace, or in 1783, by which time I had myself risen to the rank of captain, I actually parted from old Andries with tears in my eyes. My grandfather, General Littlepage, was then dead, but government giving to most of us a step, by means of brevet rank, at the final breaking up of the army, my father, who had been the full colonel of the regiment for the last year, bore the title of brigadier for the remainder of his days. It was pretty much all he got for seven years of dangers and arduous services. But the country was poor, and we had fought more for principles than for the hope of rewards. It must be admitted that America ought to be full of philosophy, inasmuch as so much of her system of rewards and even of punishments, is purely theoretical, and addressed to the imagination, or to the qualities of the mind. Thus it is that we contend with all our enemies on very unequal grounds. The Englishman has his knighthood, his baronetcies, his peerages, his orders, his higher ranks in the professions, his batons, and all the other venial inducements of our corrupt nature to make him fight, while the American is goaded on to glory by the abstract considerations of virtue and patriotism. After all, we flog quite as often as we are flogged, which is the main interest affected. While on this subject I will remark that Andries Coejemans never assumed the empty title of major, which was so graciously bestowed on him by the Congress of 1783, but left the army a captain in name, without half-pay or anything but his military lot, to find a niece whom he was bringing up, and to pursue his old business of a "chainbearer."

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