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Honoring our fallen heroes

Two very different wars, in two very different times, in two very different places.

And two members of The Legal Genealogist‘s family giving their all for the freedom we all enjoy today.

It is Memorial Day 2013 — the day set aside to remember and to honor those who died in the service of this country. And so it is fitting to recall these two men, so different and yet so alike in the legacy they have passed on to me.

Battle of Trenton, 1776

The first died the day after Christmas 1776 at a place called Trenton, now the capital of New Jersey.

His name was Richard Baker; he was my fourth great grand uncle and, because of cousins marrying cousins, a first cousin many times removed.

He was serving with his older brother, my fourth great grandfather David Baker, in the Continental Line when Washington crossed the Delaware just after dark on Christmas Day 1776.

One of Washington’s aides, believed to have been Col. John Fitzgerald, recorded the conditions faced by those troops that day:

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.1

Washington wanted to attack just after daybreak but the crossing took longer than expected. By 6:00 A.M., the storm not abating, the conditions were miserable. One commander sent word that the men’s muskets would not fire due to being exposed to the elements. Washington sent word back to rely on the bayonet: “I am resolved to take Trenton.” 2

The General succeeded in taking Trenton, and he did so at a very small cost to his small force. But part of that cost was paid by Richard Baker, who had just turned 23 years old.3

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.4

Little is known or written about casualties among enlisted men at Trenton. Historian 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.5 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, but we simply will never know how Richard met his fate. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he gave his life for the freedom all of his kin — and all of us Americans — enjoy today.

Philip Cottrell 1943

The second died on the 4th of August 1943, in a fiery crash in the Mojave Desert of California.

Philip Cottrell was born in South Dakota 16 April 19206 to John W. Cottrell, my grandfather’s brother, and Abigail Claymore, John’s second wife.7 Philip was Abigail’s only child.8

Phil was a South Dakota Golden Gloves boxing champion and the first in his family to go to college, first attending the South Dakota State College in 1939-40 and then receiving an appointment by Rep. Francis Case, in 1941, to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.9

By 1942, however, Philip — like many enrolled in the nation’s service academies — had opted out of the classroom and into active duty, resigning from the Naval Academy in May 1942 in favor of the Marine Corp air wing. He wanted to fly — and he earned both his wings and a second lieutenant’s commission at Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1943.10

He was assigned to a training squadron at the Mojave Marine Corps Air Station — a station which saw four pilots killed in training accidents between the 13th of August and the 7th of September in 1943.11

And the first to die in those terrible weeks… Philip Cottrell.

Philip’s roommate, Lieut. James Seay, told a local newspaper:

The squadron had gone up about 2:30 p.m. to get in a couple hours of target practice. Phil was piloting the tow plane. When he attempted to let out the long target sleeve, it became entangled and wouldn’t unfold. Having no target to shoot at, the squadron decided to go back to the base. Phil was to pull in the “sleeve” and follow them in. Apparently, the target was blown up against the side of the engine as Phil was hauling it toward the cockpit, and it became ignited. His plane afire, Lt. Cottrell had no choice but to jump. It is believed the fuselage of the plane struck him on the head as he leaped. He never pulled the ripcord.12

After ten hours of searching, his body was found “on the side of a mountain, several miles from his shattered plane.” His remains were returned to his South Dakota home, accompanied by Lt. Seay, and he was buried with military honors at the Greenwood cemetery in Mobridge.13

Two very different wars, in two very different times, in two very different places.

And two members of The Legal Genealogist‘s family giving their all for the freedom we all enjoy today.

I am so very grateful to them both, and honor them and all who died in the service of this country, here, in 2013, on Memorial Day.


  1. 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.
  2. Alan Axelrod, Profiles in Audacity: Great Decisions And How They Were Made (New York : Sterling Pub. Co., 2006), 218-219. See also Kevin Wright, “The Crossing and Battle at Trenton – 1776,” Bergen County Historical Society ( : accessed 26 May 2013).
  3. 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).
  4. 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, p. 4.
  5. David McCullough, 1776 (New York : Simon & Schuster, 2005), 281.
  6. Crystal Bachman, “In Memory of Marine Lieutenant Philip Ellsworth Cottrell,” South Dakota WWII Memorial ( : accessed 27 May 2012). Also, “California Death Index, 1940-1997,” entry for Philip Patrick Cottrell, 4 Aug 1943; database, ( : accessed 27 May 2012); citing California Death Index, 1940-1997, California Department of Health Services, Center for Health Statistics, Sacramento.
  7. Walworth County, South Dakota, marriage certif. no. 4-44450, John Cottrell-Abigail Claymore, 9 Nov 1914; County Clerk’s Office, Mobridge.
  8. Sean Claymore, California, e-mail, to Judy G. Russell, New Jersey, 28 Jan 2005, “Abigail and Philip;” private held by Russell.
  9. Bachman, “In Memory of Marine Lieutenant Philip Ellsworth Cottrell.”
  10. Ibid.
  11. “Accidents Occurring Between 1940 and Prior,” Aircraft Wrecks in Southern California ( : accessed 25 May 2013).
  12. Bachman, “In Memory of Marine Lieutenant Philip Ellsworth Cottrell.”
  13. Ibid.
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