Experience the American dream with today’s Patriots of the Past interview. I’m your host, John Gillespie.
It’s October, 1777. I’m with Richard Wallace on the shore of Lake Champlain.
JG: “Mr. Wallace, did you just swim across that lake full of British boats?”
RW: “Yes, I did, John. The regiment must know that the British army is going to attack them soon. The fastest way to warn them was to swim.”
Richard Wallace’s courageous act gave early warning to the Continental regiment, preparing them to successfully defeat the British in battle.
At the Old Thetford Center Cemetery, in Vermont, Richard and Bathsheba Wallace’s headstone reads, “Richard Wallace. Died January 16, 1833, aged 80. Bathsheba Rich, his wife. Died May 13, 1832, aged 81. Richard Wallace was one of two volunteers who, in October, 1777, swam Lake Champlain in the night for a distance of two miles, through the English fleet, carrying dispatches from Ft. Ticonderoga to Gen. Lincoln at Mt. Independence.”
Read Richard Wallace’s account of the incident:
“General [Horatio] Gates contrived to cut off the British watercraft on Lake George and, for that purpose, sent two detachments of five hundred men each, one of which was on the west side of the lake, to the south side of the mountains that lie south of Ticonderoga, where our troops were ordered to halt. I belonged to this detachment.
Directly after halting, Colonel Brown came to me and inquired if I could swim. I told him I was not a great swimmer. He said he wanted me to swim a little way, but did not then tell me where or for what purpose. After excusing myself a little, I agreed to swim [as] he was exceedingly earnest to have me engage. He then said he wanted a man to go with me and inquired who would volunteer in the service. A man by the name of Samuel Webster offered himself and said he was a great swimmer. Colonel Brown engaged him to go with me. This done, Colonel Brown called several officers and some soldiers and we all set off together and traveled up the mountain a few miles until we came in full view of the British encampment. After reconnoitering the mountain east and west for about three miles and taking observations, the officers arranged all things for an attack at break of day the next morning. Colonel Brown then called Webster and myself and told us of ‘the little way’ he wished us to swim, which was nothing less than across Lake Champlain, then in view about five miles distant. He accordingly gave us our instructions, both verbal and written, and we made our [way] over rocky mountains and through hurricanes of fallen trees to the lake, where we arrived a little before sunset, so near the enemy’s ships that we could see them walk on their decks and hear them talk. Had they seen us, they might have reached us with their grapeshot.
With deep anxiety for the event, we undressed, bound our clothes upon our backs, drank a little ginger and water, and entered the cold waters of the lake, here about a mile in width. Webster went forward and I followed. After proceeding a few rods, I was on the point of turning about. The water was so chilling that I thought I could never reach the opposite shore, but, when I reflected that the lives of many of my countrymen might depend upon the success of my effort, I resolved at every hazard to go forward and, if I perished, I should die in the best of causes. When we had got into the middle of the lake, the wind blew and dashed the water onto our bundles of clothes, wet them, and made them very heavy. The garter with which I bound on my bundle swelled, got across my throat, choked me, and exceedingly embarrassed me. When we had swam about two-thirds across, I found myself almost exhausted and thought I could not proceed further, but, at the instant I was about giving up, the Lord seemed to give me new courage and strength. Shifting my manner of swimming a little, I went forward and soon discovered a tree directly before, about twenty rods from the shore. This tree I reached with a struggle and thought I could not have obtained the shore if it had been to gain the world. The tree was large and I made out to get onto it and adjust my bundle.
At this instant, Webster, who was about twelve rods north of me, cried out, ‘For God’s sake, Wallace, help me for I am a drowning!’ The cry of my companion in distress gave me a fresh impulse. I swam to the shore, ran opposite to him, and directly found there poles, which had been washed upon the beach, about twelve or fifteen feet long. I flung one toward him, but it did not reach him. I flung the second without success. The third, I pushed toward him until the further end reached him. He seized it and sunk to the bottom. I then exerted myself with all my might and drew him out. I hardly know how. As soon as he came to a little and could speak, he cried out, ‘O Lord God, Wallace, if it had not been for you, I should have been in the eternal world.’ I told him not to make any noise as the enemy might be watching us in ambush.
I then wrung his clothes, dressed him, put on my own, and we set out to find the American encampment, but it soon became so dark that we lost our way. In a short time, we found ourselves in an open field near the enemy’s guard. We then returned into the woods and remained in a secure place until the moon rose, which appeared to rise directly in the west. I, however, told Webster the moon must be right and we traveled on until we came to the road that led north and south, just as the enemy fired their nine o’clock gun, but we did not know whether to go north or south. Our object was to find General Warner’s encampment and deliver our express to him, but we were not certain whether he was north or south of us and we might fall into the enemy’s hands, let us go which way we would, and the whole plan of our officers fail of success. In this trying dilemma, we agreed that one should go north, followed by the other at few rods distant, risk his life to the best advantage, and, if taken by the enemy, the hind one should go south and deliver the express. It fell to my lot to go forward and, after I had traveled about an hour, I came to a sentry who hailed me and said, ‘Who comes there?’
I answered, ‘A friend.’
He asked, ‘A friend to whom?’
I asked him whose friend he was.
He then said, ‘Advance and give the countersign.’
This I could not do as I did not know the countersign of this detachment. I knew the sentry was an American from his voice, yet, he might be a Tory in the British service. I then asked him in a pleasant voice if there was another sentry near and if he would call him. He did so and, to my great joy, I knew the man. I informed them at once that I was a friend to America, had brought an express to their commander, and requested to be conducted to him immediately. Calling Webster, who was a few rods behind, we were conducted by an officer and file of men to General Warner’s quarters and delivered our message, both written and verbal. I also informed General Warner that the British were much nearer than he imagined and that, unless everything was kept still in the camp, the plan would yet fail. He then ordered all lights to be extinguished and no noise to be made. We then retired a little into the woods and lay down, cold and wet, in blankets furnished us by the commissary. When we awoke in the morning, all our troops destined to this service on both sides of the lake were in motion. The Indian spies took possession of all the watercraft belonging to the British on Lake George and about five hundred prisoners were taken.” (https://www.americanheritage.com/revolution-remembered)
John and Jan Gillespie are the founders of the Rawhide Boys’ Ranch; they have fostered 351 teenagers and wrote the book Our 351 Sons; they have also assisted numerous churches in developing youth programs and expanding their total church ministries. After running for U.S. Senate, John founded 1776 American Dream, which exists to demonstrate the vision of our founding fathers and help our generation of youth passionately embrace those values.