Mendon, Milford’s romantic war hero

By Mr. Know-It-All

Editor’s note: Mr. Know-It-All is an occasional feature in which we answer reader questions about local history.

You can’t help but be intrigued by a headline that reads “Alexander Scammell, the lovesick Revolutionary War hero.” An article on the New England Historical Society’s website details the rocky relationship between Scammell and Abigail “Nabby” Bishop, and it’s a real heart-tugger.

But first some background, compliments of the Mendon-Hopedale website, which contains articles in the Milford Daily News by Gordon E. Hopper as well as the websites for the aforementioned historical society and Wikipedia.

Scammell was born in a part of Mendon that is now Milford, thus we have both towns claiming Scammell as their hometown hero. His parents were Dr. Samuel Leslie and Jane Scammell, who emigrated from Portsmouth, England, to Mendon, probably in 1737, according to Hopper.

As for the date of Alexander’s birth, Hopper’s article states he was born in 1744, though the Scammell genealogy book has him born on March 27, 1747. After Scammell’s father died in 1753, Alexander and his older brother, Samuel, were placed in the care of Rev. Amariah Frost.

Scammell graduated from Harvard College in 1769. Prior to graduation, he is believed to have taught school in Milford for one term. Milford historian Aidan Ballou describes Scammell as “a tall, well-built, handsome man, full six feet, two inches in height and of graceful deportment, a bright scholar and of attractive manners.” Some accounts list him as 6-foot-5. He also had blue eyes and a fair complexion. The New England Historical Society site calls Scammell “dashing and unusually likable.”

After graduating, Scammell moved to Plymouth County, where he taught school in Kingston and Plymouth. He also taught in Shapleigh, Maine.

In 1772, Scammell moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he surveyed lands of the Royal Navy Timber. He also assisted Capt. Samuel Holland in making surveys for his topographical map of New Hampshire.

In 1773 and 1774, Scammell studied law in the Durham, N.H., law office of John Sullivan, later General Sullivan. Scammell was with Sullivan during the raid on Fort William and Mary on Dec. 14, 1774. During the raid, Scammell hauled down the British flag flying over the fort, the first patriot to do so, according to the New England Historical Society. 

With the start of the American Revolution, Scammell became a major in the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment, which was in Sullivan’s Brigade, and after the Siege of Boston he was sent with the brigade to reinforce the Continental Army units in the Invasion of Canada.

More appointments followed with Scammell commanding the regiment at Saratoga, New York, and distinguishing himself bravely in the battles of Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights, where he was possibly wounded in the latter battle, Wikipedia states. In letters to his brother he did not indicate being wounded, though bullets had passed through his clothing and hit the breech of his weapon.

Scammell rose through the ranks – titles included adjutant general and lieutenant colonel – and would move with his light infantry division to Yorktown, Pa., in 1781, where tragedy would strike.

But before we get to that, let’s backtrack a bit and re-introduce the aforementioned Miss Bishop.

“On a June night in 1777, Gen. Alexander Scammell poured out his heart in a letter to Abigail Bishop of Mistick, Massachusetts,” according to the New England Historical Society. “He had marched to Fort Ticonderoga, where the Continental Army hoped to fend off a British attack. He told her he was concerned about the sufferings of his men, he disliked court-martial duties and he longed to marry her.

“For four long years, (he) pleaded with Abigail Bishop to marry him. He was a battlefield hero, a rising star in the Continental Army and a favorite of George Washington. The thought of his possible future happiness with her sustained him through the hardship and fatigue of war.

But “Abigail Bishop refused to marry him until he left the army. She led a life of privilege in Mistick (now Medford), where her parents hosted Washington, John Adams and John Quincy Adams. At times she raised his hopes. At others, she dashed them.

Abigail Bishop was born Oct. 5, 1753, in Mistick, the daughter of John and Abigail Tufts Bishop. The Bishops lived in a big house on High Street, where Alexander Scammell probably met Miss “Nabby,” the society site continues. 

While the war raged on, Abigail sent Scammell a letter that gave him “‘a new flow of spirits,” though she accused him of insincerity. On June 2, 1776, he wrote back to her, “Tis cruel, my dearest, tis cruel to ever think I am insincere You wrong me to entertain the least suspicion of that kind…I expect a warm summer. But console myself with the hopes of being so happy as to see you next winter, which will richly make amends for the greatest fatigues. I conjure you by the ties of love and friendship not to call it flattery, for I solemnly protest I am incapable of using the least dissimulation with the person that lies nearest my heart.”

Scammell told Abigail how much he loved her, but said he couldn’t leave the army. “Though I should much rather be able to retire to enjoy the sweets of liberty and domestic happiness, but more especially the pleasing charms of your dear company… so long as my country demands my utmost Exertions, I must devote myself entirely to its service.”

Now get out the violins. “The tender moments which we have spent together still, and ever will, remain fresh in my memory—You are ever present in my enraptured heart—and a mutual return of affection from you, I find more and more necessary to my happiness—cherish the love, my dearest Nabby, which you have so generously professed for me. Although I am far distant from you, still remember that I am your constant, and most affectionate admirer.”

As always, Scammell begged her to write more. She seldom did. The fall of 1777 was the last Scammell heard from Abigail, but this didn’t dissuade him from writing more letters. Eventually, he began to wonder if she had another suitor.

On April 13, 1779, Scammell wrote to Nabby’s father from Camp Middlebrook, in what is now Somerville, N.J., concerned that the Bishops thought he was ignoring their daughter because he didn’t visit. But, he explained the duties of adjutant general were so great that George Washington wouldn’t give him leave. And he made one last, desperate attempt to win Abigail Bishop: “Your former goodness and generosity emboldens me to ask your and Mrs. Bishop’s consent to marry Miss Nabby, without being obliged to leave the army, provided she is willing. At the same time could wish you would not mention to her that I have wrote this letter to you, as I have not previously obtained her consent to make this proposal, besides it might wound her delicacy, if she knew I had wrote you on the subject, and so frankly opened the state of our courtship.”

On July 15, 1780, Scammell finally conceded defeat in love as Washington was preparing for the Siege of Yorktown. He wrote again to her father: “I once fondly hoped for a connection in your family, and that I should before this had the honor of addressing you in a more respectful manner. My hope has now vanished, and I am obliged to give up my long expected happiness. But although I never expect to stand in a nearer relation to you than at present, yet my gratitude will never be diminished. I sincerely hope that your daughter will bestow her hand on some worthy, agreeable gentleman, who will render her life perfectly happy, and give you and your lady the utmost satisfaction.”

We should note that Scammell was a member of Washington’s inner circle for three years. Scammell “was known for having an easy manner and being one of the few people who could lighten the moods of and make George Washington laugh with his humorous stories and jokes,” Wikipedia states. ” In fact, Washington considered Scammell to be one of the funniest men in the army. Scammell (also) had the rare ability to lead and inspire loyalty.”

Now it’s time for tragedy. In May 1781, Scammell was assigned command of a light infantry, which was the vanguard for the army’s march to Yorktown, according to the New England Historical Society. “On Sept. 30, 1781, he was scouting fortifications that the British had recently abandoned. He came upon a British cavalry patrol he thought were Americans,” the site continues. “When he realized his mistake he surrendered, but another cavalryman came up behind him and shot him in the back. The British paroled the wounded prisoner to a hospital in Williamsburg, where he died on Oct. 6.”

Accounts of Scammell’s demise differ. Some have Scammell shot before he surrendered. He would become the highest ranking Continental Army officer killed during the Siege of Yorktown. His exploits on the battlefield were not forgotten. Fort Scammell in Casco Bay, Maine, is named after him. Also, in 1933, the Alexander Scammell Bridge over the Bellamy River near Durham, New Hampshire, was named after him and a street was named in his honor at the time of the founding of Marietta, Ohio, the first establishment in the Northwest Territory. There’s also a Scammell monument in the family cemetery on Depot Street in Bellingham. Apparently, no such honors exist in Mendon and Milford.

As for Abigail Bishop, she married Dr. Archelaus Putnam of Danvers on Nov. 12, 1786. He was 46, she was 33. Abigail Adams’ sister, Elizabeth Smith Shaw, wrote a letter to her niece suggesting Nabby Bishop married for money rather than love.  

Abigail Bishop Putnam had one daughter and one son who survived childhood. Archelaus Putnam died on April 14, 1800. She died in Medford on Dec 17, 1807. 

Mr. Know-It-All, aka Bob Tremblay, can be reached at 508-626-4409 or [email protected]. FYI, Mr. K adjusted the spellings of some words in Scammell’s letters to avoid misspelling accusations. Repeatedly typing “sic” gets tiresome. 

The pages below are from the genealogical section of Adin Ballou’s History of Milford.


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