Terry Burnett, who is a member of the South Carolina Bar, has been hugely active in assisting with the House of Burnett tents at the Savannah and Greenville Games. His energy is not confined to those two pursuits and he has started a research and writing project on Burnetts in the American Revolution. As far as he can tell at this point, approximately thirty Burnetts served in various Continental Army units at various times from 1776-1783. His goal, where enough information exists, is to produce sketches of these men and their service history.
I have agreed with Terry that publication of the articles as they become available will be of great interest to Banner readers and doubtless many who have yet to discover the Banner, or who have no reason normally to view the Burnett website. I therefore hope that readers will advise others who have an interest in that period of history, of the existence of the articles.
I am very pleased to be able to include the first of Terry’s articles being that of Ebenezer and John Burnett.
“Our Lives, Fortunes, and Sacred Honor”
Burnetts in the War for American Independence
This is the first in a series of sketches on the military careers of the more than thirty Burnetts who served in the Continental Armies during the War for American Independence. Information for these sketches is taken from veterans’ and survivors’ Pension Applications and related documents, from unit muster rolls, from Continental Army unit histories, and from other sources as they are available. By way of disclaimer, I am neither a professional, (or even amateur), genealogist or historian but am simply one who loves history and my family – the House of Burnett. And while I hope these sketches provide some new information to members of the House, I also heartily solicit corrections and additional information that will shed even more light on the careers of these brave Burnetts who risked their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” for the glorious cause of American Independence. My hope is that those who read these sketches will be motivated to dig deeper into their own Burnett genealogy and to share it so that we may all learn and grow toward a better understanding of our proud and common heritage.
Ebenezer and John Burnett – Soldiers of the New York Line
Like today, the American Continental Armies were an “all-volunteer” force. There was no draft, and wartime service commitments could range from less than one year’s duration to “the War.” These volunteer and locally-raised companies were typically populated by neighbors, siblings and relatives who enlisted, fought, and often perished together.
It is possible – though at this point I do not have proof – that this was the case with Ebenezer and John Burnett, who both served for a time in the 5th and 2nd New York Regiments of the New York Line (although in different companies). Their service careers – even if brothers or otherwise relatives – took different paths, so I will follow each on his own journey, except to the extent that their careers overlap.
Both Ebenezer and John Burnett began their service with the Fifth New York Regiment. The Fifth was authorized by the Continental Congress on November 30, 1776 and was formally organized on January 26, 1777. The regiment consisted of 8 companies raised from southern New York and placed under the command of Col. Lewis Dubois. From early 1777 until 1781, the regiment saw service at various times in the Highlands Department, the Main Army (under Gen. George Washington), and the Northern Department. On January 1, 1781, the unit was officially consolidated with the 2nd and 4th New York Regiments. The new regiment was designated as the 2nd New York.
Ebenezer Burnett was born in 1758 and at the age of 18 was appointed sergeant in Capt. Philip D. Bevier’s Company of the 5th New York on December 1, 1776. His initial term of enlistment was three years. Starting in July 1777, company muster rolls show him as being continually present and on active duty through December of 1779. At that time, he reenlisted for the duration of the war, and again appears on the rolls of Capt. Bevier’s Company of the 5th through December of 1780. That summer, for unstated reasons, he was confined by the Provost Guard, but retained his rank. As noted, in early 1781, the 5th was consolidated with the 2nd and 4th and by January 1782, Ebenezer was reduced in rank to Private, a rank he held until the close of hostilities. He was furloughed in January of 1783 and transferred to the Light Company in April of that year. As a unit, the 2nd New York was furloughed in June and officially disbanded in November of 1783.
During his seven years (or possibly more) of service, Ebenezer saw significant battlefield action. His terms of service in the 5th and 2nd New York are easily traced by the appearance of his name on extant company muster rolls, but there are tantalizing hints that he may have served in the Continental Armies prior to his enlistment in the 5th. For instance, muster roll records indicate that an Ebenezer Burnet enlisted in Captain Henry B. Livingston’s Company of the 4th New York on July 5, 1775 and served in that unit until at least October of that year. Thus, if the same person, Ebenezer may have served, as he claimed in his April 6, 1818 Pension Application, in the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, which was several months prior to his enlistment in the 5th New York.
The Battle of Long Island, the first major battle of the war after the declaration of American independence, was an unmitigated disaster for General George Washington. After successfully defending Boston in the winter of 1776, Washington moved his army to the strategically important New York City. Because of superior British naval power, Washington found the city indefensible and after hard fighting, the British, under General William Howe, drove the Americans out of the city. Washington pulled back to Brooklyn Heights, from which his army eventually retreated into New Jersey and Pennsylvania, effectively relinquishing New York City for the remainder of the war.
While it is uncertain whether Ebenezer saw action in the Battle for Long Island, it is certain that he was directly involved in the Highlands Campaign of 1777. In this campaign, British General Henry Clinton was sent to capture Forts Clinton and Montgomery in the Hudson River highlands (commanded by brothers George and James Clinton). The campaign was an attempt to seize control of the Hudson River in order to isolate the New England colonies from the middle and southern colonies, as well as insure a safe British invasion route from Canada.
The battles for Forts Montgomery and Clinton took place in early October 1777. In the weeks prior, the 5th New York was assigned to build and garrison the forts. Situated on high ground on the western side of the Hudson, the forts were virtually impregnable from the river, but were, at the time of the British attacks, still under construction and vulnerable from the landward side. Masterfully employing a series of feints and diversions, British General Clinton’s forces divided and attacked on October 6. Despite a heroic last stand by the 5th New York, the superior British forces overwhelmed the Continentals, inflicting substantial casualties on the defenders (75 killed or wounded and 263 captured). Apparently, Ebenezer was one of the fortunate few who escaped as he appears on the Company muster roll for November 1777.
Ebenezer next saw significant action in the Sullivan (or as he refers to it in his 1818 Pension Application, the “Western”) Expedition of 1779. The expedition was designed by George Washington to “take the war to the enemy and break their morale” by destroying Loyalist infrastructure in the New York lands of the Iroquois Confederacy. The tribes were mostly British allies and under the command of Major General John Sullivan and Brigadier General James Clinton, several thousand Continental soldiers destroyed more than 40 villages, stores of winter crops, and effectively and forever broke the power of the Confederacy. Thousands of Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas froze, starved, or fled into Canada to escape the “scorched earth” policy of the Americans. Only one large battle was fought – at Newtown – in which more than 3,200 Continentals decisively defeated approximately 1,000 Iroquois and Loyalists. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784) secured much of the Iroquois land, although most of it was ultimately absorbed by treaties with the State of New York.
As noted earlier, Ebenezer served in the 5th New York until it was consolidated with the 2nd New York. He served in the 2nd until at least April 1783. Ebenezer married Lydia Rogers (b. April 5, 1766; d. Feb. 5, 1841) on Nov. 21, 1784. They had eight children – 4 boys and 4 girls – before Ebenezer passed on May 18, 1819.
John Burnett was commissioned 1st Lieutenant in Capt. James Stewart’s Company of the 5th New York on Nov. 21, 1776. Muster rolls indicate that he was present on October 6 at the Battles of Forts Montgomery and Clinton, was absent in November and December 1777, but was again with the unit by early January 1778. Perhaps he was one of the unfortunate defenders of the forts who were captured by the British. On May 9, 1778, John resigned his commission in the 5th New York.
Interestingly, in a muster roll dated April 25, 1782, a John Burnett appears as a private in the 1st Connecticut Regiment, commanded by Col. John Durkee. Could this be the same John Burnett? Enlisting a month earlier, this John Burnett served in the 1st Connecticut until September 1782 when he was transferred to the 2nd New York, where he served as a private in the 3rd Company, until May of 1783.
Certainly, based on this information alone, there is no proof that Ebenezer and John Burnett were brothers, or otherwise related. And there is no proof that the John Burnett who resigned his commission as Lt. in the 5th New York, was the same person who later joined the 1st Connecticut, and even later transferred to the 2nd New York. But the circumstantial evidence of service dates as reflected in extant muster rolls provide a tantalizing trail of evidence that lends some credence to those possibilities.
Whatever the case, both men served their country well, as attested by the fact that Ebenezer, and later his widow, Lydia, were awarded Revolutionary War Pensions. Likewise, in a War Department letter dated March 2, 1933 to Chauncey H. Burnett of Brooklyn, NY, Lt. John Burnett is shown to have been granted 200 acres of “bounty land” on Oct. 12, 1790 for his wartime service.
I welcome corrections, additions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.