I write of my Revolutionary namesake with pride, but must admit some truth in the old saying about looking back far enough and finding a horse thief.
Old Jess and I share ancestors who came to Connecticut from England in the mid-1600s. Leavenworth the elder was born in Waterbury in 1740 to a local minister, the Rev. Mark Leavenworth, and Ruth Peck Leavenworth, granddaughter of a local clergyman. Congregationalist Connecticut Yankees to the bone.
Jesse and his father marched to Canada in 1760 during the French and Indian War, when Mark was chaplain of a state regiment and Jesse was a lieutenant. In 1761, Jesse married Catharine Frisbie of New York, she of the "keen black eye and sharp tongue," but more about that later.
He moved to New Haven in 1767 and set up business as a commercial trader. Leavenworth developed a ferry between New Haven and East Haven and was a generous supporter in the extension of what came to be called the "Long Wharf" in New Haven harbor.
When the Lexington alarm reached Connecticut on April 21, 1775, the Yale graduate (Class of 1759) was a lieutenant in the newly formed Second Company, Governor's Foot Guard, captained by the fiery, later infamous, Benedict Arnold.
Arnold assembled the troops on April 22 and marched to Beer's Tavern, where selectmen were meeting. He sent Leavenworth inside to retrieve keys to the town's munitions storehouse so that the locked and loaded company could hurry to help its beleaguered friends in Massachusetts.
The town fathers hesitated. Why such haste? But Arnold's unwavering demand — "None but Almighty God shall prevent my marching!" he declared — became a tableau of the early Revolution. The city of New Haven has celebrated Powder House Day for a century, with current Foot Guard members re-enacting the roles of Arnold and Leavenworth.
Selectmen eventually acceded to Arnold's animated demands. The red-coated company filled its powder horns and headed out onto the northeastern roads.
"When arrived at Cambridge, probably on April 29th, the Company was the only one on the ground complete in their uniforms and equipment, and owing to their soldierly appearance were appointed to deliver the bodies of British officers who had been taken prisoners by the Americans and had died in consequence of wounds received at Lexington," according to the Foot Guard website. "Upon this occasion one of the British officers appointed to receive the bodies from the Guard expressed his surprise at seeing an American Company appear so well in every respect, observing that in their military movement and equipment 'they were not excelled by any of His Majesty's troops.'"
The company drew 28 days' pay for its services at Cambridge, and except for those who remained in the Continental Army with Arnold, returned to New Haven well before the battle of Bunker Hill on June 17.
There are gaps in the history, but Leavenworth reappears as a captain in the Continental Army's quartermaster service in 1777 at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. Arnold and another Connecticut Yankee, Ethan Allen, had seized the fort and its valuable munitions in 1775, but the British recaptured the place in the summer of '77. Leavenworth lodged a formal complaint that the garrison commander, Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, had failed to repair defensive works and made no effort to at least annoy the approaching enemy, according to documents in the National Archives.
Under fire for losing the strategic site, St. Clair was "outraged that Congress had relied upon the testimony of a 'sutler' (an army camp follower who peddles provisions to the soldiers) in bringing charges against him," according to an account of St. Clair's court-martial by Ron R. Morgan.
"It is singular, however, that charges of so high a nature against an officer of my rank should be attempted to be supported … by no other living witness than Mister Leavenworth, a private man! a follower of the army! in some of the lowest and vilest occupations! who, if he had had capacity to judge, could not possibly have had proper information..." St. Clair snootily complained.
"It should be noted that Leavenworth was not quite the vile underling portrayed by St. Clair," Morgan wrote. "He was a Yale graduate and had served as an officer in a Connecticut regiment under Benedict Arnold in 1775 and 1776."
Leavenworth surfaces again in 1778 on Long Island Sound, where he commanded an "armed boat," also called a "whaleboat."
"Thirteen whaleboats had been commissioned by Connecticut 'to cruize in the Sound' by July 1780, each operating under a bond of £2,000," Jackson Kuhl wrote in "The Whale-Boat Men of Long Island Sound" (allthingsliberty.com). "Their main intent was to prevent unauthorized commerce and traffic between Connecticut and Long Island. … A more aggressive goal was 'to land on Long Island and there take all British property.'"
Leavenworth was the target of at least two complaints from Long Island residents. John Gardiner opined to Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull that Leavenworth had stolen a stallion, and a woman named Parnel Wickham said that Leavenworth had taken a "white-faced sorrel mare" that her grandfather had given her. Wickham's father was a loyalist, but she was known as a friend to the Revolution. In both cases, Trumbull ordered Leavenworth to make restitution.
Old Jesse's home life was no less tumultuous. His wife and the mother of their seven children, according to the family genealogy by Elias Warner Leavenworth, "had a keen black eye and a sharp tongue, and in after years, perhaps not without siffucient cause, she turned it on her husband with such efficacy that he sought shelter in the wilds of Vermont."
Leavenworth fled north with his younger children and a family servant, a woman named Eunice Sperry, whom he later married. He was a patentee of the towns of Danville and Peacham, built mills in Danville and served in the state legislature.
He died in December 1824 in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., on the shore of Lake Ontario, where he had moved to be near his son, U.S. Army Gen. Henry Leavenworth, hero of the War of 1812, western pioneer and still the clan's most famous member.
And there you have it — Jesse Leavenworth, businessman, Connecticut Yankee, Son of Liberty, harried husband and horse thief. Somehow, I love the guy.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun