In 1821, Revolutionary War captain David Perry approached a young Vermont publisher with a request. At age 79 he had little time left. He had written his a memoir to leave behind for posterity, but he had no money to print it. If the publisher would print it, he could have any proceeds from selling it.
Publisher Simeon Ide of Windsor, Vt. agreed and published the short book, Recollections of an Old Soldier, The Life of Captain David Perry.
Perry, the book notes, will not go down in history as a great leader of the revolutionary cause. But his book, reprinted many times, gives a glimpse into the thinking of the American citizen soldier of 1776.
“Thousands, no doubt, of the Revolutionary Heroes, might have left a more brilliant specimen of talent and learning,” begins the foreward.
“Many have moved in a higher sphere of action, who have left no record of their toils and privations behind them,” it said. “But we venture to assert, that few have better earned the appellation of a faithful Soldier, than the subject of these memoirs.
“Though his name may not live on the annals of his country, yet his fellow-citizens should never forget, nor act unworthily of the sentiments of gratitude, which a recollection of this important truth should ever inspire, that, had it not been for the prowess and achievements – the fortitude, patience and perseverance of those who, like himself, in the humbler ranks of the common soldier, bared their breasts to the foe, upon the “tented field,” that country had never known a name and a rank among the nations.”
The Boy Soldier
Captain David Perry was born in Rehoboth, Mass. in 1741. His mother died, so he and his siblings scattered to relatives. Perry moved in with an uncle who helped find him training as a cobbler. But the local militia approached Perry at 15 about joining up. Small for his age, he worried that he might not “pass muster.” However, the service accepted him.
In all, Perry served in four campaigns of the French and Indian war from Massachusetts, 1758-1762, and in two campaigns of the American Revolution from Connecticut, 1775-1776.
His soldier’s life was sprinkled with the remarkable and brutal aspects of war. He tells of how one of his fellow soldiers executed an injured French priest by shooting him in the head at the orders of his British commander. How viciously British officers kept their men in line. And the arduous life of the soldiers during the siege of Quebec.
Civilian Life of Captain David Perry
Along the way Perry also sketches in some of the details of the personal life of a soldier. Perry spent his life in Rehoboth and Dighton, Mass., Killingly, Conn., Plainfield, N.H., and Chelsea and Ira, Vt.
He struggled in business, once going deep into debt after a failed partnership. He was in Roxbury during the Battle of Bunker Hill and played a role in the siege of Boston. But he declined an officer’s request to reenlist because of concern for his wife and five children. “I told him a soldier ought not to have any thing to think of at home,” he wrote. However, he later relented when the shortage of soldiers grew worse.
Of his own life, he tells that at the time his mother died he believed he saw her ghost. He had his own fearful near-death experience when, overcome with fever, he felt his soul leave his body.
“This transition (as I firmly believe) from life to death, and from death to life, which took place nearly sixty years ago, is as fresh in my mind now as it was then: and not many days have passed from that time to this, which have not brought the interesting scenes I then witnessed clearly to view in my mind. But I never dared to say any thing about it, for a great many years afterwards, for fear of being ridiculed,” he wrote.
He recalls discovering that he could actually see cannon fire passing through the air. And despite his own poverty, Perry once paid 20 pounds to enlist a soldier in the Revolutionary army.
A Final Thought
At the conclusion of his brief memoir, Perry offers a call for Americans to never forget the spirit upon which the country was founded.
He cautioned people against greed and self-indulgence. “If they are ambitious to ape the follies, extravagance, and luxury of European countries, their freedom can have but a short duration.”
“When we reflect back to our Revolutionary war, and see how much blood and treasure were spent to gain our independence, shall we, after so long an experience of the advantages arising from so good a government, be any more deceived by internal or foreign enemies? Shall we contrast the mildness of our government, and the civil and religious liberty that we enjoy under it, with the bigotry and tyranny which prevails under the monarchies of Europe, and say we are willing to exchange the former for the latter? I dare say not. Then let me conjure my posterity to stand by this government of our choice, and never be deceived by political or ecclesiastical demagogues.”
Captain David Perry died in 1826 at age 84.
This story was updated in 2021.