Major-General of the Continental Troops,
Member of the Council of Safety,
Congressman, Judge, Deputy,
Deacon, and Farmer
Charles Barney Whittelsey
Historian Society of the Sons of the Revolution in the
State of Connecticut
The family records of the Spencer family of East Haddam, Conn., state that Joseph Spencer was born in East Haddam, October 6, 1714, and that he died there January 13, 1789.
He was the son of Isaac and Mary (Selden) Spencer of that district, and the great-grandson of Gerard and Hannah Spencer, who were among the first settlers of East
Haddam in 1662 (Mss. Gene. Rec. of East Haddam families).
August 2, 1738, Joseph Spencer married Martha Brainerd, by whom he had five children; their fourth child, Joseph, became a surgeon and served as such and as aid to his father in the Revolution.
He married 2d, Hannah (Brown) Southmayd, by whom he had eight children (Mss. Gene. Rec. of East Haddam families).
Without the advantages of a liberal education, Joseph Spencer acquired that general knowledge and acquaintance with business which enabled him to discharge happily and usefully the various duties to which he was called.
March 14, 1746, he joined the church of the Millington Society, and was elected a deacon November 20, 1767. He was excused from such service during the Revolution; was re-elected April 4, 1788, and retained this office until his death (Statistical Account of Middlesex Co., p. 81).
The peace of Utrecht in 1713 put an end to a desolating war with the French and Indians, and during the next thirty years but few events of importance occurred in the Colonies. In 1744 “King George War” broke out between France and England, and at once brought the Colonists into hostile relations. At the time of the crisis in 1746-7, when the frontier line from Boston to Albany became no longer tenable, we find Joseph Spencer had carefully followed the situation; he had enlisted in the trainband, and on January 28, 1746-7, received his first appointment by the General
Assembly, at New Haven, as Lieutenant of the company or trainband of the parish of Millington (Col. Rec, Vol. IX, P- 375).
A treaty of peace was concluded October 7, 1748, By its stipulations the British and French mutually gave up whatever territory each had taken, and the vigorous effort of the New Englanders, thus rendered useless (Garneau).
At the close of the war, Joseph Spencer turned his thoughts again to his home and the local affairs. He had been brought up under a strict religious discipline, trained
to realize that the growth of the Colony, as well as his own possessions, depended upon his individual efforts.
The strong but loving influence of his parents was deeply impressed upon this young man, as is shown throughout his life; his spirit was never daunted, even under the most trying circumstances. He would never allow that the most difficult undertakings could not be accomplished; his failures spurred him onward and upward.
In 1750 he was elected a Deputy from East Haddam to the General Assembly and by re-elections, served the town at nearly all legislative sessions for fourteen years. He was also Deputy from that town at the October session, 1778. (Col. Rec. Vols. IX to XII, State Rec. Vol. II).
From the autumn of 1753 until his death he was Judge of Probate for the District of East Haddam except while absent from the State in the Continental service in 1776
and 1777. (Statistical Account of Middlesex Co., p. 81).
Then there arose the Seven-Year War, over the dispute between the French and English as to the ownership of the territory bordering on the Ohio; 1753 the French seized British traders and fort, which was followed by Colonel Washington’s attack, capture of Jumonville and his men, the battle of Great Meadows, General Braddock’s defeat, the battle at Lake George, the third expedition against Crown Point, in which the Virginia, New York, and New England troops all took part.
Joseph Spencer was deeply interested in the reports of the trials and sufferings of his countrymen, and increased the amount of his time given to local military affairs, and by his intense interest and devotion had risen from Lieutenant to Captain, and was appointed Major of the Twelfth Regiment of this Colony, in the Northern Army, by the Colonial Assembly, Thursday, October 13, 1757 (Col. Rec, Vol. XI, p. 68).
In March, 1758, as Major of the Second Regiment, and Captain of the Third Company, under Colonel Nathan Whiting, participated with his regiment in the invasion of Canada (Col. Rec, Vol. XI, p. 96), the expedition against Louisburg, Ticonderoga, and Crown Point.
In 1759 he received from the General Assembly his appointment as Lieutenant-Colonel of the Second Regiment, under Colonel Nathan Whiting (Col. Rec, Vol. XI, p. 226- 354; Vol. XII, p. 249), and served as such during the siege of Quebec, and succeeding years until his appointment in May, 1766, Colonel of the Twelfth Regiment, during which he was also appointed a member of the Governor’s Council
(Col. Rec, Vol. XII, p. 459; Cyclopedia U. S. History, Lossing, Vol. II, p. 1330).
Colonel Spencer was elected an assistant in 1776 and was continued in office by successive re-elections until his death except in the year 1778 (Col. Rec, Vols. XII-XV;
State Rec, Vol. II. He was appointed by the Legislature at the special April session, 1775, First Brigadier-General of the Regiments then ordered for ” the safety of the Colony “; he was also appointed Colonel of the Second Regiment, and his commission was dated May1i, 1775. He marched with his regiment, by order of the Legislature, to the camp forming around Boston, and took post at Roxbury. During the siege of Boston he commanded a brigade of four regiments including his own with Parsons and Huntington, in General Ward’s division at Roxbury (Conn. Men in R., p. 37).
At a meeting July 13, 1775, of Governor Jonathan Trumbull and his Council, his Honor the Governor laid before the Council a letter to General Washington, containing the following:
“I have to observe to your Excellency, that the Honorable Congress have altered the arrangement of the Generals appointed by our Assembly. We wish the order we adopted had been pursued, and fear Generals Wooster and Spencer will think they have reasons to complain. They are gentlemen held in high estimation by our Assembly, and by the officers and troops under their command. There are reasons
to fear that inconveniences will arise from the alterations, made by the Congress, in the rank and relation of those Generals; at the same time they have the highest sense of General Putnam’s singular merit and services ” (Mss. Col., 5 series, Vol. X).
“Two of the Council, Samuel Huntington and William Williams, were appointed to wait upon General Spencer at Gray’s, the tavern where he had just arrived, and confer with him on the subject-matter of his dissatisfaction, etc., and endeavor to remove, etc., and reconcile him to cheerfully pursue the service, which he did accordingly.
“In the afternoon of the same day they met again at the Governor’s, where General Spencer attended, and had a long conference with him on the subject-matter of being superseded by the General Congress, putting General Israel Putnam above him, etc., which he thinks is very hard and results, etc., and is at length persuaded to return to the army, and not at present quit the service as he proposed.
“General Spencer set out on his return to camp with the letters to General Washington ” (Am. Archives, 4th series, Vol. II, p. 1658).
June 22, 1775, Colonel Joseph Spencer was appointed Brigadier-General of Continental Establishment, by the Continental Congress, at the instance of General Washington.
General Spencer’s Second Regiment was raised on the first call for troops by the Legislature in April-May, 1775, and was recruited mainly in present Middlesex County. The General with detachments of officers and men engaged at the battle of Bunker Hill, June 17th, and in Arnold’s Quebec expedition, Sept. -Dec, 1775 ; it served until expiration of service, December, 1775, and accompanied the troops to New York, the next field of operations, and assisted in fortifying the city and vicinity.
August 9, 1776, General Spencer was promoted to Major-General of the Continental Army, and given command of a division composed of Parsons’ and Wadsworth’s
Connecticut Brigades. He was present at Long Island at time of the battle August 27th, half of his division being engaged; present at White Plains October 25th, and on December 14th was ordered eastward, and took command in Rhode Island, which was surrounded by Admiral Sir Peter Parker’s forces. General Spencer remained in command through 1777.
He organized an expedition of about nine thousand State troops against the enemy at Newport, and on October 26, 1777, attempted a forward movement, but the weather and failure of one brigade to report in time caused miscarriage of the plan.
Jonathan Trumbull, in a letter dated December 2, 1777, to General Washington, wrote the following relative to the affair: ” The expedition to Newport hath unhappily failed. An Inquiry hath been made Into the reasons. General Spencer was exculpated. A Brigadier Palmer failed in his duty. The enemy were meditating an attack on Bedford, and had actually embarked troops, which were prevented by
General Spencer Invited a court of inquiry and proposed another effort. Exonerated by the court November 15, 1777, Congress on December 11, 1777, ordered an Investigation.
General Spencer resigned December 20th following, and on January 13, 1778, Congress accepted the resignation, ” for the reasons offered by him In his letter of the 20th.” ( Copy of letter, pages 7- 1 1 . )
February 12, 1778, General Spencer was elected a member of the Council of Safety for this State (Vol. I, Rec. of State, p. 537) ; May, 1779; appointed First Major-General of the Connecticut Militia, succeeding Major-General Jabez Huntington, resigned (State Rec, Vol. II, p. 294) ; the same year was appointed Delegate to Congress by the General Court.
Thus it is seen that the eminent patriot General Joseph Spencer was engaged in the service of his country from as early as he was able to bear arms until he died at the ripe age of seventy-five years.