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WDYTYA, the Battle of Trenton and lineage societies

Most of the time, when I watch Who Do You Think You Are, the power of the emotional hits the celebrities take at times during their discoveries comes as no surprise to me. One of the things that hooked me, completely, on genealogy back when I first started was how very much every single discovery of what my family lived through has made history come alive for me.

So I was feeling kind of sorry for Rob Lowe as I watched this past Friday night. He wanted so very badly to be descended from a genuine American hero — a Revolutionary War soldier — and it must have come as something of a shock when it became clear his ancestor John Christopher East was really a Hessian soldier Johann Christoph Oeste.

Anybody who goes from supporting Michael Dukakis to appearing on Hannity isn’t going to feel warm and fuzzy about that.

And then the program disclosed that Oeste had been at the Battle of Trenton. A Hessian soldier in uniform under arms at the Battle of Trenton. That’s a battle I happen to know a lot about… and to have had a very personal stake in.

David Baker pension application

And that’s what gave me my shock of the evening: an absolute gut-level visceral reaction I never would have expected. Logic went out the window, and pure emotion took over.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know much about Lowe’s Hessian ancestor and his comrades. It’s that I felt like I knew too much.

Because, you see, in the thick of that battle on the other side — the American side — was the 3rd Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line.

First authorized in December 1775, the 3rd Virginia Regiment of Foot began actively recruiting to fill its 10 companies in February 1776. The 4th Company of the Regiment was headed by Captain John Thornton and raised in Culpeper County on 12 February 1776. Among those who enlisted in the company were James Monroe, future President of the United States, and John Marshall, future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, as lieutenants.1

And serving in the 3rd Virginia, in the very same company with Monroe and Marshall under Captain Thornton, were two brothers from Culpeper County, Virginia. The older, David Baker, was my fourth great grandfather. He signed up the day the company was formed and served as corporal throughout his two-year enlistment from 1776 to 1778.2

The younger was Richard Baker. My fourth great granduncle and, because of cousins marrying cousins, a first cousin many times removed.

The conditions the brothers faced in the assault on Trenton were appalling. One of Washington’s aides, believed to have been Col. John Fitzgerald, recorded:

It is fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet; others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain. They are ready to suffer any hardship and die rather than give up their liberty.3

These were the American patriots that Lowe’s ancestor and his Hessian comrades were trying to kill. They weren’t just trying to kill George Washington. They were trying to kill members of my family.

And, my family’s history records, Richard Baker, who was born 23 December 1753 in Culpeper County, Virginia, died 26 December 1776.4 At the Battle of Trenton. He was just three days past his 23rd birthday when he was killed. By the Hessians. At Trenton.

There aren’t any details of Richard’s death. Just a poignant and quiet statement by his brother David many years later when David applied for a pension:

In a few days after we joined the main army the battle of White Plains was fought. We retreated & recrossed the Deleware The next Battle was at Trenton the 26th of Decemb – I was guarding the Baggage during the battle & had a Brother by the name of Richard killd in that action.5

Little is known or written about casualties among enlisted men at Trenton. David McCullough in his masterful 1776 could document no American troops killed in the fighting, but noted two froze to death in the terrible winter conditions.6 But David Baker’s use of the phrase “killd in that action” rather than saying “he died” to describe his brother’s fate suggests a death in combat, and at least one relatively contemporary account records:

Our loss is only two killed and three wounded. Two of the latter are Captain (William) Washington and Lieutenant (James) Monroe, who rushed forward very bravely to seize the cannon.7

Washington and Monroe were both officers in the 3rd Virginia. Monroe was a lieutenant in the Baker brothers’ own company. If the officers were rushing forward, it stands to reason the enlisted men were too, and a biography of Monroe says they were.8

We’ll never know for sure if that’s how and when Richard fell, but it well may be.

So I sat there listening to and watching the WDYTYA episode, getting more and more upset. It’s one thing to have history coming alive in your family history; it’s something altogether different to have the dead hand of your own family history playing out on the tube while somebody else is trying hard to justify his ancestor’s role in your family member’s death.

I couldn’t help but think of David. He was a young man, not yet 30, who had just lost his little brother. He must have been grief-stricken and guilt-wracked. He was the older brother who couldn’t save the younger. But his concerns were so much bigger than the Hessians’ “humiliation” of being marched through Philadelphia.

He and the rest of the 3rd Virginia didn’t get a rest in the Newtown Church the way the Hessians did. He had to keep on after that battle:

The 27th the cannonading at Trenton took place on the 28th the Battle of princetown was fought & General Mercer of Virginia was killd from princeton we went into Winter quarters at princetown Morristown The next Battle I was in was the Battle of Brandewine. Lafayette was one of our Generals Washington commander in chief. 46 were killd & wounded of our regiment. I think Colo Heath was then our Colo. Next Batle was that of Germantown Washington commander & General Stevenson was broke of his command for misconduct in that battle I was then marched to Valey forge & there stationd untill I was discharged in february 1778 by General Woodford.9

Two years of service. Marching in the snow with bare and bloody feet. A brother’s death. The terrible winter at Morristown followed by the even more terrible winter at Valley Forge. That’s what David Baker endured. I knew that, just as I’ve known for years that not everyone supported the Revolution. I don’t ordinarily get worked up over things that happened more than 230 years ago.

So I didn’t expect to be as angry as I was at the end of the program. I didn’t expect to be as bothered by the whole thing.

I particularly didn’t expect to be sitting here, even now, thinking that something is very wrong when organizations like the DAR and SAR think the payment of a tax ought to qualify somebody as an American patriot. When selling a cow — not giving it, mind you, but selling it — to the American forces qualifies someone’s descendants for DAR or SAR. And looking at the list of eligibility requirements I’m getting even more steamed.

The kinds of service performed by an ancestor that qualifies you to join the DAR includes your ancestor buying his own way out of military service by hiring a substitute or furnishing supplies that he got paid for.10 SAR’s eligibility requirements are a little mushier: your ancestor has to be “a recognized patriot who performed actual service by overt acts of resistance to the authority of Great Britain,”11 which — we saw Friday night — includes paying a tax.

Now I really don’t want to take away anybody’s pride in his own family history. The transformation of the Hessian Johann Christoph Oeste into upstanding American John Christopher East is a great story.

But it’s hard for me to accept it as a DAR- or SAR-worthy story of American patriotism.

Because my family didn’t pay to help build this country in coin.

We paid in blood.


  1. E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra, A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774-1778 (Richmond : Virginia State Library (1978), 29-40, 71.
  2. See generally Affidavit of Soldier, 26 September 1832; Dorothy Baker, widow’s pension application no. W.1802, for service of David Baker (Corp., Capt. Thornton’s Co., 3rd Va. Reg.); Revolutionary War Pensions and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, microfilm publication M804, 2670 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Service, 1974); digital images, Fold3 ( : accessed 28 Apr 2012), David Baker file, pp. 3-6. And see Compiled Military Service Record, David Baker, Corp., 3rd Virginia Regiment, Revolutionary War; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, microfilm publication M881, Roll 951 (Washington, D.C. : National Archives Trust Board, 1976); Fold3 David Baker file, pp. 12-17.
  3. George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels & Redcoats: The American Revolution Through the Eyes of Those Who Fought and Lived It (1957; reprint, New York : Da Capo Press, 1987), 211.
  4. John Scott Davenport, “Five-Generations Identified from the Pamunkey Family Patriarch, Namely Davis Davenport of King William County,” PDF, p. 27, in The Pamunkey Davenport Papers: The Saga of the Virginia Davenports Who Had Their Beginnings in or near Pamunkey Neck, CD-ROM (Charles Town, W.Va.: Pamunkey Davenport Family Association, 2009).
  5. Affidavit of Soldier, 26 September 1832; Dorothy Baker, widow’s pension application no. W.1802, Revolutionary War; Fold3 David Baker file, p. 4.
  6. David McCullough, 1776 (New York : Simon & Schuster, 2005), 281.
  7. Scheer and Rankin, Rebels & Redcoats, 213.
  8. See Harry Ammon, James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (Charlottesville, Va. : Univ. of Virginia Press, 1990), 7-8, 13 (the officers “led the company in a charge”).
  9. Affidavit of Soldier, 26 September 1832; Dorothy Baker, widow’s pension application no. W.1802, Revolutionary War; Fold3 Bavid Baker file, pp. 4-5.
  10. Eligibility: Acceptable Service,” National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution ( : accessed 28 Apr 2012).
  11. Article III, SAR Constitution, National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution ( : accessed 28 Apr 2012).
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