"Scene of Horror": A 16 Year Old Coldstream Guard Goes to War

The history of the American Revolution has been so mythologized over the centuries that it's sometimes hard to think of it as it was - namely, a war where some pretty scary and terrible things happened to young men of both sides.

So we return this week to the narrative of the Coldstream Guards' Ensign George Mathew, nephew and aide-de-camp of the Brigade of Guard's commanding officer, Major General Edward Mathew. While our last post on Mathew's experiences in North America focused on the notoriously cold winter of 1779-1780 and his somewhat humorous, picaresque-type adventures in occupied New York City, the young officer did taste combat shortly after the year 1780 dawned. His written account - mind you, it was penned by a gentlemen officer of just 16 or 17 years - provides a glimpse into those moments of intensity and horror.

Having arrived in North American in the fall of 1779, the first combat Mathew mentions occurs in February 1780 at the Battle of Young's House. The strategic background and general overview for this skirmish is well documented by Todd Braisted and we won't take space for it here. We do note, however, that our very own 4th Company was part of the attacking force - the Company was re-structured in 1779 as one of the Guards' two light infantry companies and therefore was among the four flank companies sent on this expedition.

After trekking through deep snow to engage a key American outpost at Four Corners (the present-day Thornwood section of Mount Pleasant, New York), the Guards' flank companies (in particular the Guards' grenadiers) wrested control of the battle's namesake stone house from a group of 250 Continental troops. Mathew describes what certainly must have been a gruesome sight after the house was taken:
We could not ascertain the number of killed, as the horse had cut down a great many in their flight at a distance from the house. There were near thirty killed in and about the house with bayonet.
And while Mathew doesn't comment on it himself, other sources describe how the British troops fired the Young home with several wounded Continentals still inside. In a slightly different take, the diary of the Guards' light company commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Eld of the Coldstream Guards, (which the 4th Company holds a transcribed copy) reports:
The house was fired, and many of the enemy who had retreated for security to the cellars were crushed in the burning ruins.
Four months later in July 1780, Mathew and the Guards clashed again with "the Rebel Army" at the Battle of Connecticut Farms at which General Wilhelm von Knyphausen attempted a surprise attack on Washington's camp in Morristown, New Jersey. A delaying action by Continentals and local militia prevented a British victory, and during the Continentals' "firing retreat", the Guards's flank companies [which again would have included the 4th Company] were ordered into action. Mathew's narrative begins with a fairly optimistic tone of mocking for the enemy:
...[we] were ordered to make a charge at the rebels, who had collected in some body in the road. Accordingly we advanced; but the rebels no sooner saw us than they ran off as hard as they could. We pursued them upwards of a mile and overtook a few. They ran much faster than we. They are of a thin, long-legged make; most of them without shoes and stockings and without coats, and sometimes they throw away their arms when closely pursued.
Yet later that night, Mathew's adventure turned must more serious as he found himself nearly "lost", with his picket accidentally left behind by withdrawing British forces:
...the rebels kept firing on [my picket] from the time I went on till dark. About ten o'clock the whole army got into motion and moved off. It was so exceedingly dark, and there was such strict silence observed, that one regiment could not perceive the adjoining regiment going off...in the hurry and confusion of moving off, my picket, was not called in till the army had left the ground...on coming to the ground where the army had lain, I could not find a soul. The fires were almost out. It was darkest night I can remember in my life, with the most heavy rain, thunder, and lightning known in this country for many years. After running about some time, I fell in with our pieces of artillery, which led me to our army. My joy was inexpressible at the meeting, for I had given myself and picket up for lost.
The burning of Lexington, MA by British troops in April 1775. The destruction of Connecticut Farms five years later may have offered a similar scene.
Yet, if the relief of not being left behind to fend for himself was a relief for the young Mathew, he continues with a vivid description of the horrors of the recent engagement:
Nothing more awful than this retreat can be imagined. The rain, with the terrible thunder and lightning, the darkness of the night, the houses at Connecticut farms, which we had set fire to, in a blaze, the dead bodies which the light of the fire or the lightning showed you now and then on the road, and the dread of an enemy, completed the scene of horror.
Indeed, if "war is hell", then it is so regardless of whether it is fought for the even the loftiest of ideals.  And we as re-enactors must remember that for all the fun we have, we are commemorating the good memories as well as the bad.


Balch, Thomas (1857), "Mathew's Narrative", in The Historical Magazine and Notes and Queries Concerning The Antiquities, History, and Biography of America (Boston: C. Benjamin Richardson)

Kwasny, Mark V. (1996), Washington's Partisan War (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press)