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The grandfather and father of the author.-Where born and educated. The
latter, engaged in the Revolutionary struggle in 1774.-Was chairman of the Committee of Public Safety.— Treatment of the Tories.—Dr. B. elected to Congress.-Appointed Physician and Surgeon General of the eastern department, April, 1777.-Stationed at West Point when the treason of Arnold was discovered.-Capture of Major Andre.—Measures to procure his liberation.—Threats used.- Offer to exchange him for Arnold.—Firmness of Washington.—Delicate treatment of Andre.—Tried, convicted and hung:Military movements on Long Island.-York Island. Retreat to the Delaware.—Battle of Trenton.-Battle of Princeton.-American army put in winter quarters.—Attempts to injure the character of Washington.—His character defended.
The writer of the following chapters is the son of Dr. William Burnet, the elder, of Newark, New Jersey; and the grandson of Dr. Ichabod Burnet, a native of Scotland, who was educated at Edinburgh-removed to America soon after his education was finished, and settled at Elizabethtown, in the province of New Jersey; where he practiced his profession with great success, as a physician and surgeon, till 1773, when he died at the advanced age of eighty years.
His only son, William, was born in 1730-educated at Nassau Hall, during the presidency of the Reverend Aaron Burr--and graduated in 1749, before the institution was removed to Princeton.
He studied medicine under Dr. Staats, of New York, and practiced it with assiduity and success, till the difficulties
with the Mother Country became alarmingly serious. Being a high-toned Whig, he took an active part in the measures of resistance which were resorted to, against the oppressive proceedings of the British government.
When the judicial courts of the province were closed and the regular administration of justice suspended, by a ministerial order, he relinquished the practice of his profession, which was extensive and lucrative, and took part in the political movements of the day, with great activity and zeal.
The protection of law having been withdrawn, by closing the judicial tribunals of the colony, the people assumed the reins of government from necessity, and administered law and justice as well as they could, circumstanced as they were.
In some places it was done by county arrangements, and in others by township committees. In Newark, as a temporary expedient, the power was vested in a “Committee of Public Safety," appointed by the people of the township.
Similar measures of precaution were necessarily resorted to throughout the province; each county, town or neighborhood, devising and pursuing its own plan. The powers confided to these committees were dictatorial; and the entire whig population stood pledged to enforce their decisions. The tories were numerous, and had full confidence that the British troops would overrun the country, and reduce it to obedience, without encountering any serious resistance. They were therefore bold and insolent, and by their movements the public peace was constantly endangered, and was preserved only by the vigorous action of those conservative bodies.
The committee appointed at Newark, of which Dr. Burnet was chairman, was in session almost daily, hearing and deciding complaints, and adjudicating on the various matters referred to them. Some of the most obnoxious of the tories they banished: on others they imposed fines
and imprisonment, and in some instances inflicted stripes. By this bold proceeding the disaffected were kept in check; the whigs were pacified, and restrained from personal violence on the loyalists, who ridiculed the attempt to resist the Mother Country, and openly justified her tyrannical proceedings.
The Newark committee, which consisted of three members, Dr. Burnet, Judge J. Hedden, and Major S. Hays, continued in the discharge of their duty till the retreat to the American army from York Island, through the Jerseys to the Delaware, closely pressed by the enemy, who overran that state. See note on page 22.
Dr. Burnet was in the medical service of the country, from the commencement of the contest, and was the superintendent of a Military Hospital, established on his own responsibility, in Newark, in the year 1775. In the winter of 1776–7, the Legislature of New Jersey elected him a member of the Continental Congress. Soon after he took his seat, the subject of the medical department of the army was taken up in Congress, and a new arrangement adopted. The thirteen states were divided into three districts—the southern, middle, and eastern; and provision was made for a Physician-general and a Surgeon-general, in each; but in consideration of the strong claims of Dr. Burnet, on the score of past services as well as of qualificatian, they provided for a Physician and Surgeon-general, in the eastern district, and conferred the appointment on him. He then resigned his seat in Congress, accepted the appointment, and continued in the discharge of its arduous duties, till the peace of 1783.
He was stationed at West Point when General Arnold conceived and matured his plan to surrender that post to the enemy, and it so happened that he, with a party of the officers of the garrison, were dining with the General, when the officer of the day entered, and reported that a spy had been taken below, who called himself John Anderson. It was remarked by the persons who were at the table, that this intelligence, interesting to the General as it must have been, produced no visible change in his countenance or behaviour-that he continued in his seat for some minutes, conversing as before-after which he arose, saying to his guests, that business required him to be absent for a short time, and desiring them to remain and enjoy themselves till his return. The next intelligence they had of him was, that he was in his barge, moving rapidly to a British ship of war, the Vulture, which was lying at anchor a short distance below the Point.
The sequel of that treasonable conspiracy, is as familiar to the American ear, as "household words." All know that it terminated in the execution of Major Andre, the Adjutant-general of the British army, and an Aid-de-camp of Sir Henry Clinton. Very great and strenuous efforts were made, both in Great Britain and France, as well as by the Commander-in-chief of the British army, to save the life of that gifted and highly accomplished officer, who was connected with the most distinguished families in England.
In reply to those applications, General Washington proposed to exchange Andre for Arnold. That offer was manifestly unexpected, and embarrassing; and gave rise to a protracted and animated correspondence between the commanders of the two armies. Sir Henry Clinton denied that Andre was a spy, as he entered the American lines, under the protection of a pass, from the General who commanded in the District; and intimated, that he should feel bound to retaliate, if Washington persisted in his purpose. The American commander maintained, by fact and argument, that, according to the understanding and practice of all nations, Andre was a spy, and that nothing would save him from the penal consequences of his crime, but the surrender of Arnold-on that condition he would release him, and on no other. That proposition not being accepted, the Commander in-chief of the American Army ordered a board of general officers for the trial of the prisoner, of which Major General Greene was designated as the President. That board, after a careful investigation of the facts, reported, that Major Andre was a spy, and ought to suffer death. In pursuance of that finding, he was sentenced to be hung on the succeeding day. Two officers were designated by the president of the board, to communicate the intelligence to the unfortunate Andre, and to attend him to the place of execution. One of them was Major Burnet, one of the Aides-de-camp of General Greene, and the second son of Dr. Burnet. When the sentence of the court was communicated to the prisoner, he wrote to General Washington, requesting a change of the sentence, and praying that he might be shot; adding that if that indulgence were granted, he could meet his fate without a murmur; but the circumstances of the case were of a character, to convince the Commander-in-chief that he could not commute the punishment, consistently with the established rules of martial law, and without subjecting himself to the charge of instability, or want of nerve. Major Andre heard the failure of his application, with calmness, and when the fatal hour came, he walked with a firm step, and composed countenance, to the platform of the gallows, arm-in-arm between the American officers designated to attend him. The multitude, who witnessed the execution, unitedly testified, that the unfortunate sufferer met his destiny with a calmness and composure, indicative of a brave, accomplished soldier.
That West Point, the Gibraltar of the United States, might be made a cheap conquest to the enemy, the traitor had caused some of the heavy cannon to be dismounted, and portions of the masonry to be taken down, to be rebuilt, as he pretended, with additional strength. After the arrival of the Commander-in-chief at the post, he caused those treasonable dilapidations to be repaired, without delay.