How to Un-Demand a Surrender.

By Mark Tully

Following is an account of an actual exchange that took place at dawn on 22nd August, 1777, between the Rebel General Parsons and Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett, commanding the Third Battalion of De Lancey's Provincial Corps, during the siege of Fort Setauket, Long Island. The two commanders exchanged a series of letters during the siege, and the correspondence went like this:

The first letter from Parsons: "Brigadier Genl. Parsons, Commanding Officer of the troops of the United American Army, now investing the Enemy's post at Satucket [sic], to prevent the effusion of human blood, requires the immediate surrender of the post. The Officers & Soldiers, and those who are under their protection, shall be entitled to their baggage, and treated with that humanity which prisoners are entitled to. Your answer is desired in ten minutes. I am fully sensible of your condition, and as my whole strength and artillery will soon be here your refusal should oblige to the effusion of human blood, you must charge it to your own obstinacy."

The Reply: "Colonel Hewlett's Compliments to Genl Parsons, and requests half an hour to consult his Officers on the subject of his Summons." Parsons Responded: "General Parsons' Compliments to ColoHewlett & grants him ten minutes only for consideration. Longer time will not be granted."

Hewlett holds out: "Colonel Hewlett presents his Compliments to Genl Parsons, and is determined to defend his post while he has a man left."

Finally, Parsons writes: "General Parsons' Compliments to Colonel Hewlett, and should have been happy to have done himself the pleasure of paying him a longer visit, but the extreme heat of the weather prevents him."

As in most cases, there is a bit more to this story than these letters reveal. First off, the post in question -- Fort Setauket on the north-central shore of Long Island -- was a rather strong post. It consisted of a converted Presbyterian Church surrounded with a ditch and six foot high earthwork, each topped with a palisade of six foot pickets. These pickets were spaced about three inches apart and two small, earthen steps just inside the palisade allowed the defenders to step up, fire through the pickets, and step down to safely reload under the cover of the earthwork. In addition, the Tories had mounted four swivel guns in the upper windows of the church. After Hewlitt vows to defend his post to the last man, Parsons, with between 150-500 men and three brass field pieces, attacked the post at 5 A.M. on 22nd August, 1777. After two or three hours of intense firing, Parsons learned that several British warships were moving up into the area. Fearing that his retreat across Long Island Sound may be cut off, Parsons sent his last note to Hewlett and ordered his troops to fall back. Was Parsons' excuse: "due to the extreme heat of the weather" a sarcastic reference to the brisk exchange of fire? I like to think so.

The total losses from both sides were only about 10 killed and wounded, with most of the casualties belonging to the Continentals. Very little damage was done to the fort. It is said that several musket balls from this engagement can still be seen lodged in the walls of neighboring Caroline Church, which lay partly in the line of fire.

Robert B. Roberts, New York's Forts in the Revolution, Associated University Press, 1980, pp 245-247.

The American Journal of Ambrose Serle, Arno Press, 1940.