We’re coming up on Memorial Day — now celebrated on the last Monday of each May — which will be on May 30 in 2016. While many people look forward to the long weekend as a kick-off to summer and an occasion for partying, the reason behind the observance has a much more somber tone. The day is a national holiday to honor all Americans who died in military service — more than 1.1 million now, according to PBS.
I’ll be writing a series of stories about some of the people in my family tree who gave their lives in service to our country, beginning with the Revolutionary War.
Understandably, records about Revolutionary War casualties are not reliable indicators of the true scope of the bloodshed, considering that they were based on rustic, handwritten notes and the general characteristics of warfare at that time prevented taking an accurate tally. Official figures from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs show only 4,435 battle deaths in the Revolutionary War, but historians believe the actual figure was thousands more. The website Campaign1776.org estimates 6,800 Americans were killed in action, 6,100 wounded, and at least an additional 17,000 deaths resulted from disease, including about 8,000–12,000 who died while prisoners of war.
I imagine that many family histories include information about Revolutionary War soldiers that has been passed down as oral tradition, as have the stories about my second cousins five times removed, Moses and Aaron Yeager.
Moses was born in 1759 in Madison County, Virginia, to John Yeager and Mary Wilhoit (my first cousin six times removed), and Aaron was born the following year. The brothers are listed on the Muster Roll of Captain Kirkpatrick’s Company of the 4th Virginia Regiment, taken in June 1778. This means they were both teenagers when they joined the Continental Army. Oral tradition claims that neither returned home from their service and that no word of them ever came back home to the family.
The Muster Roll, however, does give some clues about what happened to the Yeager brothers. A notation in the Remarks column of the document beside Moses Yeager’s name says “Dead July 9th 1778.” The 4th Virginia Regiment, as a part of Scott’s Brigade under Brig. Gen. Charles Scott, was among those at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. It left Valley Forge on June 19, 1778, as a part of General Lafayette’s Division. Lafayette’s troops fought in the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. The moving battle covered a distance of about 20 linear miles, beginning in Freehold Courthouse and continuing into Middletown, NJ. Casualties for the Battle of Monmouth, as reported by each commander, were: 69 killed, 37 dead from heat-stroke, 160 wounded, and 95 missing for the Continental Army. Again, these numbers are likely grossly understated. One source says that of the approximately 30,000 troops engaged in battle, about 501 died, half of which succumbed to heat stroke. With the battle being fought on June 28 and Moses Yeager listed dead on July 9, I think it is a reasonable guess that Moses died as a result of this engagement.
As for Moses’s younger brother Aaron, the Muster Roll notes that he was “Sick V. Forge.” Historians estimate that somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 men were at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78 and that about 2,500 died from disease and exposure. Again combining the scant written clues with a large amount of supposition, it seems likely that Aaron Yeager was unable to leave Valley Forge to continue active duty with the troops that went to Monmouth. Perhaps he later recovered and deserted, as many did, but did not return to his family in Virginia. Or perhaps he succumbed to his illness and died, his death going unrecorded as a Revolutionary War casualty.
The numbers tell only a part of the story of the service of patriots in the cause of freedom. And the stories we know for sure account for only a part of the true numbers of lives lost, particularly in the early wars of our country’s history.