Captain Lemuel Roberts-Forgotten Hero?
Submitted by Dr. Paul Loatman, City Historian
The recent dedication of the National Veterans' Cemetery in Stillwater raises the question of whether or not a local hero who grew up within sight of the battlefield and who was present when Burgoyne surrendered to Gates in 1777 deserves special recognition. When Lemuel Roberts' name popped up in a recent issue of the Journal of American History, the leading academic publication in the field, my interest was piqued enough to dig up a rare facsimile copy of his memoirs, published in 1811. The book is fascinating on a number of accounts: it gives us a rare glimpse of life among the lowly in 18th century America; and, it may be the only first-hand source we have from that era which recounts life in the local area
Roberts was born in Canaan, Connecticut in 1751, but he moved here ten years later to an area aptly described as a "howling wilderness." Indeed, as late as 1828, a well-known guidebook for travelers dismissed the possibility of our area ever being suitable for farming because of the thick forests which dominated the landscape here. Coming of age as he did in the 1760s framed Lemuel Roberts' character - who he was and what he became was shaped by the formative experiences he confronted while growing up on the frontier in Stillwater.
The son of a poor farmer living on the edge of civilization, Roberts seemed destined to lead an unremarkable life as a common laborer. However, his early experiences here taught him that he was more enterprising, more hard working, and more brave than most men, qualities needed for survival in hostile environments such as the local frontier. The discovery of this inner strength of character gave Lemuel the courage to follow paths others feared to tread.
Winter lumbering on Grand Isle in Lake Champlain; cutting masts for General Schuyler in the forests nearby; hand-wrestling two large bucks which were mauling his dogs and killing them with his bare hands were experiences sure to teach young Lemuel that he was no ordinary mortal. As early as age 14, he had survived an encounter with a bear when he had to jam the butt of his rifle in the beast's mouth to prevent it from devouring his dog, then killed the huge animal with his hatchet. Twice, while still in his teens, he ventured out into snowbound forests to rescue lost travelers who had been given up for dead, rescuing one man who had so despaired of being saved that he refused to use the snowshoes Lemuel brought him. Roberts had to force the man to help save himself. The frontier was a cruel taskmaster, but Roberts was up to the challenge, and these formative experiences prepared him for greater adventures in the future.
Before he reached his 25th birthday, Lemuel heeded the first call to defend his country, marching off to Lexington in April, 1775 as soon as the Revolution began. The fact that he entered service as a private did not indicate that Roberts was going to be a soldier who blindly followed the orders of superior officers. Common sense and survival instincts had served him too well while growing up in Stillwater for Roberts not to depend on them now. In fact, one of the things which quickly endeared him to his fellow enlistees, and bothered pompous officers no end, was his unwillingness to allow the stupidity of his superiors to place the lives of himself or others at risk. As part of an invasion force sent against the British in Canada in 1775, Roberts violated orders and prepared himself by getting inoculated against the smallpox, a disease destined to kill more soldiers in the Revolution than bullets. When the uninoculated officer corps quickly came down with the pox, the invasion was postponed.
At other times, Lemuel prevented cowardly officers from needlessly surrendering to weaker British forces. He challenged unfair punishment that a cruel general forced on his recruits by making them do a forced march when he kept the errant officer awake all night by loudly stomping his feet outside the general's quarters when he was posted to guard duty. One time, his commanding officer asked Roberts, a mere corporal, to reorganize the officer's panicky troops when they broke ranks in the face of a British attack. Later, a superior officer told Lemuel to take control of the front line in battle while he, the major, brought up the rear. His most audacious challenge to authority occurred when he openly threatened to shoot a parlaying British officer who was about to be released to his own men whom the officer would then order to attack the Americans. Once the officer sensed how serious Roberts was, he ordered the surrender of his own men to the Americans.
The most heart-rending portion of the memoirs describes Roberts' many months of captivity in 1778 and his numerous escape attempts, most of which were unsuccessful. His reputation for cleverness among his captors was so great that he was isolated from the other prisoners. What made his captivity all the more galling to Roberts was the fact that one of those who controlled his life now was Ephraim Jones, a former Stillwater neighbor, now Loyalist, for whom Roberts had shown compassion when they met during Burgoyne's surrender the previous year. At that time, Roberts was torn by the plight of the local Loyalists, because although he "despised their principles and practices," he regretted "how Unhappy it was, that old neighbors and friends ... should become so embittered as to seek to take each others' lives." None of these sentiments dulled Roberts' commitment to escape, and although he nearly starved and froze to death in the northern woods while making his escape from Quebec, he ultimately succeeded in winning his freedom seven months after being captured.
Rarely do historians have a chance to hear first-hand about the life of the lowly or the fate of the common soldier during the Revolution. Then and now, most of those at the bottom of the social ladder have neither the time, nor energy, nor wherewithal to record their life experiences. How and why did Lemuel Roberts do so? The reason he did does not shed a positive light on the country for which he risked his future and his life so selflessly. Physically debilitated by the injuries he suffered in the Revolution and unable to support himself in his old age, Roberts heeded the pleas of his friends and wrote his memoirs to shame Congress to do something it had never done: pay him for his services, particularly for the time he was held captive. As he records so sadly on the final page of his memoirs, " I never have yet, nor perhaps ever shall receive a dollar, as payment from Congress."
Roberts' exploits have led one renowned historian to refer to him recently as "this Rambo of the American Revolution." It is too late for us to recompense him for his labors in the vineyard of liberty. But, we would be untrue to our heritage as children of the Revolution if we did not at least acknowledge that the freedom and liberty we enjoy was made possible by the sacrifices of forgotten heroes like Lemuel Roberts.