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Sergeant Patrick Cavanaugh, a brave soldier of the Revolution


 

Patrick Cavanaugh was one of the brave soldiers of the Revolution who earned the distinction of mention in official reports. Although the enlistment papers make no mention of his nativity, I am informed by one of his descendants residing in Washington County, Pennsylvania, that he was born in Ireland in the year 1740 and is thought to have emigrated to this country when twenty years old and settled in the neighbourhood of Carlisle. At that time he was “a big, powerful young man” not afraid to face the rigors and dangers of frontier, and at the time of the outbreak of the Revolution he and his brother, John, cultivated a farm of land near the place where the Conedoquinet Creek joins the Susquehanna River, in Cumberland County. In the summer of 1776 Captain Michael Huffnagle came to Carlisle to raise recruits for the Eight Regiment of the Pennsylvania Line, and Patrick Cavanaugh at once enlisted as a private soldier. In November following the regiment marched to New Brunswick, N.J., on orders from Congress “to join General Washington, wherever he may be” and took part in the campaign through New Jersey in the spring of 1777.

Early in the morning of the 19th of April, 1777, General Benjamin Lincoln’s headquarters near New Brunswick was surprised by the enemy under Lord Cornwallis, and this incident served to immortalize the modest private soldier, Patrick Cavanaugh. The American army was in an exposed position, only a few miles from the advance posts of the British between New Brunswick and Bound Brook, but, in spite of all care on the part of the General, the patrols were negligent. Cavanaugh was on sentry duty at a post situated in an abandoned farm house beside the Raritan River where a narrow road ran down from Bound Brook. In the dawn of the morning of the 19th of April his keen ear detected the tread of horses on the highway, and mounting to the roof of the farm house he saw what proved to be the advance column of a formidable body of cavalry, organized to attack the American camp on two sides.

Instead of calling the guard, as was perhaps his duty, his first thought was for the safety of the General, and after firing his piece he immediately set off across country in the direction of the American camp and ran to the General’s quarters and roused him. Lincoln and one of his aides barely had time to mount and leave the house before it was surrounded, but his second aide with the General’s baggage and papers fell into the hands of the British. He led his troops off between the two columns of the enemy, who had nearly closed, and made good his retreat through a pass in the mountains just in his rear, but with the loss of all his artillery, about sixty men killed and wounded and many prisoners. Cavanaugh was among the men who escaped, and when the roll was called late that evening he received the thanks of his General and was promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Sometime afterwards, he was detached from the Eight Regiment and became an express rider for General Nathaniel Greene, for whom he carried many important despatches to the Governors of Virginia and North Carolina and to the commanding officers of outlying detachments of the army, while Greene was operating in the South in 1780 and 1781. The country was then full of small armed parties, both Tories and Whigs, who at times attacked each other with almost savage fury and the enemy patrols frequently were abroad, so that the utmost vigilance was required by a courier to avoid surprise and capture. According to a story handed down in the family, related to me by one of Patrick Cavanaugh’s descendants, he was overtaken on one occasion by a party of English cavalrymen while on his way to General Daniel Morgan’s camp near the town of Ninety-Six, South Carolina. When crossing the Saluda River, then in flood, his horse was shot, and Cavanaugh, unable to extricate himself on account of the struggles of the wounded animal, was captured and brought before the English commander. The despatch of which he was the bearer was secreted in a small cavity of one of the horse’s shoes, but in their exultation at the capture the slow-thinking English soldiers paid no attention to the drowning animal, whose body was carried down stream. The questioning of the officer was of no avail and wily Cavanaugh was ordered to be sent to Tarleton’s headquarters for further examination.

The party bivouacked in the woods that night and the prisoner was bound, as they thought securely, in Indian fashion; but there was no sleep for Sergeant Cavanaugh and during the night he managed to relieve himself of his cords, killed on the sentries who attacked him and made his escape. Unable to secure a horse, he made off as fast as his sturdy legs could carry him, and before the discomfited English soldiers discovered that their prisoner was gone, he was many miles away. But, his adventures were not yet over for when he reached the vicinity of Ninety-Six he was again taken, this time by a party of Whigs to whom he was unknown, but he soon explained his presence in the country. He remained in the service throughout the entire war, after which he settled in Washington County, Pa., and his name appears among a number of Revolutionary pensioners residing in Washington County in 1820, and his death was recorded in that County on April 5, 1823, at the age of 83. There were two other soldiers of that name in the Eight Regiment which Patrick Cavanaugh first joined, namely Sergeant Barney Cavanaugh and private John Cavanaugh, and another Patrick Cavanaugh served as a Corporal in the first Regiment of the Pennsylvania Line, and it is probable that he was a relative of Patrick of the Eight, since he also lived in Washington County and died there in the year 1829.

Source: The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, Vol. XXI, 1922.