The Thomas Ferris Affair

Inspired by the evils done to his father, Thomas Ferris joins the rebel army. Working behind enemy lines, he gathers important intelligence and works to hinder the enemy’s war efforts through kidnappings and sabotage. I present to you the adventures of Mr. Ferris:

Thomas Ferris (1757-1831)
great-great-grandson of Jeffrey Ferris through his son John

The Romance of the Revolution
edited by Oliver B. Bunce 1853
pages 165 to 172

At early morn, of a day in September, 1776, a long line of boats put off from the enemy s fleet, which for some days had been lying nearly opposite Throgs Neck, on Long Island sound, and approached in an imposing manner to the shore. The gay regimentals of the soldiers, and the glittering bayonets that threw back the sun’s rays in floods of brilliant and dazzling light, with the sounds of martial music, and the occasional solemn booming of a gun, presented a beautiful and inspiriting scene. But to the residents of the country, who were tremblingly watching the disembarkation, the pageant was only one of terror, and as with heavy hearts they watched the invaders land upon their soil, their bosoms sunk in hopeless despair, and a long era of oppression, suffering, and imprisonment was opened to them, of which this was the first scene in the drama.

British map of Throgs Neck from the Library of Congress.

British map of Throgs Neck from the Library of Congress. Click for a larger image.

In the house of James Ferris, a large land holder, and wealthy farmer, residing on the Neck, a cheerful and happy family group were gathered at the morning meal. But as they arose from the table, the appalling sight burst upon their view, and in an instant peace and contentment were changed into dismay and terror. Part of the troops had already landed, and their danger was imminent.

Mr. Ferris was aged and crippled, and thus escape to him was impossible, but his son, Thomas Ferris, a young man of twenty, he determined to save for future services to his country. The trembling hands of the whole family group, were immediately engaged in preparing him for departure, his clothes were hastily tied up in a handkerchief, and with his musket thrown over his shoulder, he sprang upon the horse ready saddled at the door, and galloped off toward the head of the Neck. But he was observed by the British, and a party sent to prevent his escape. He succeeded, however, in reaching the head of the Neck before his enemies, but as lie crossed the bridge, a volley of musketry was discharged after him by the disappointed soldiery. Not a bullet touched him, however, and he hurried forward to join the American ranks.

The members of the family, whose peace had been thus suddenly disturbed, meanwhile, remained in the most keen anxiety as to the fate of the fugitive. The discharges which they heard did not serve to allay their fears, but the approach of the enemy to the door, turned their thoughts to their own danger. Mr. Ferris had hoped that his age, and his inaction in the contest, would preserve him from molestation. But he was mistaken. When, indeed, in the course of the war, was a dependence on British mercy justified?

He was ruthlessly seized, and torn from his family, despite their entreaties, and sent to New York as a prisoner. We are all aware of the terrible sufferings of the American captives confined in New York, and of the atrocities practiced upon them by their inhuman keepers. Mr. Ferris was thrown into the old sugar-house prison, where, subjected to every exposure, half starved, and compelled to eat the unwholesome food placed before him, he contracted a disease which then prevailed among the prisoners. His strength became utterly prostrated, and he was brought to an extremity of suffering, difficult to realize.

The Sugar House also became a prison as the Redcoats captured more of Washington's soldiers during the retreat from New York.

The Middle Dutch Church is where the enlisted men captured at the Battle of Long Island were imprisoned. The Sugar House also became a prison as the Redcoats captured more of Washington’s soldiers during the retreat from New York. Image from 1830. The sight today is the location of the Chase Manhattan Bank. 1887 book “Our Firemen” page 93, by Augustine E. Costello

But during the term of his confinement, Mrs. Ferris, who was a determined and resolute woman, went into the city for the purpose of attempting to procure his liberation. Undaunted by the innumerable obstacles in such an attempt, and undismayed by the almost utter hopelessness, she persevered to the last, and eventually procured his release. (Paroled June 14, 1777) But it was at an hour when disease had wasted his strength, and death was hovering so close upon him that his captors considered him of no more danger to the cause of his majesty.

The devoted wife bore him to her home, only to see him die. It was but a few days after he was borne out from his pestilential dungeon, that he was carried to his last earthly abode ; and the soil that rested upon his bosom, covered one of the many martyrs who purchased the liberty of their country, not in the wild excitement of the battle field, but in the silent, slow, and unanimated agonies of the dungeon; by the canker of suffering that eat into their souls and consumed their heart-strings.

Thomas Ferris, young and active, with a vigorous and powerful frame, now became one of the deadliest and most dangerous enemies to the invader. We can readily imagine that the horrors which surrounded his father’s untimely end gave an edge to his animosity, and often nerved his arm in the contest. He was generally employed in collecting information of the movements of the British forces, and this duty brought him into frequent connection with Luther Kennicut, one of those persons employed by the commander-in-chief to frequent the camp of the enemy in the capacities of spies, and who have been immortalized in the character of Harvey Birch.

This class of men in doing signal service to their country, were placed in situations most trying to their patriotism. They were usually suspected to be refugees, and as such were frequently exposed to the honest indignation of their Whig neighbors, and indignities thus heaped upon them by those whom they served, could only have been allayed by the consciousness of the great benefits their services were conferring upon the patriotic cause. They usually went about as pedlars, and would pass through the enemy s lines, and even penetrate into the very presence of the British leaders, by means of their pursuit, with unsuspected impunity.

This Kennicut was one of the most active men thus employed. Whenever any movement was in contemplation by the British army, he would adroitly manage to become possessed of all the particulars, and then pass through the line under the pretense of selling his articles, and meeting his accomplices in secret places, at night, in the depths of the wood, convey his intelligence to the American officers. Young Ferris was of those employed in receiving the intelligence thus gained by Kennicut; and he declared after the war that many serious consequences were averted from the American army, by means of the faithful services of the despised, but patriotic pedlar.

In one of the many interviews between Ferris and Kennicut, a bold plan was conceived by them for the surprise and capture of one of the principal British officers while in his own camp. The British army were encamped on Throgs Neck, and the quarters of the officer, whom they designed to capture, were in the house of Mr. Ferris. Two other enterprising patriots were engaged in the attempt.

On the evening fixed upon, Ferris and his two companions, Kennicut appointing to meet them on the Neck, cautiously approached the sentinels. Their manner of passing the guard, was ingenious and bold. It was done by crawling along the shore through the sedge, cautiously advancing as the sentinel’s back was turned toward them, and when he advanced, they would lie close and still in the sedge. By this slow and critical means, they at last passed the sentinel, and got on to the Neck, and soon joined Kennicut at the place of meeting. A place of concealment was now found for them, and the plan for the capture arranged, which was to take place at midnight of the next evening. Young Ferris who was acquainted with the house, was to conduct the party to the apartment of the officer, whom they were to seize, gag, and muffle, and escape with him from the Neck as expeditiously and silently as possible. It was a daring plan, but its success would crown them with lasting honor.

After the completion of all the arrangements, Kennicut left them. Some little time after his departure, Ferris becoming very thirsty, in cautiously ventured to the well, near to the house, for the purpose of procuring water, when he was observed and recognized by one of the negro slaves belonging to the house. In a few minutes after this incident, Kennicut came to them hurriedly, and in formed them that their presence on the Neck was known, that the guard was doubled all round the Neck, and that a thorough search was ordered to be made for them, at the first approach of daylight.

They were now in a critical situation. To escape from the Neck in the same manner they reached it, was impossible, as at this point a vigilant watch would doubtless be stationed. Ferris proposed to escape by swimming, but his two companions could not swim, and they begged most earnestly not to be abandoned. But the resources of men inured to danger, and familiar with stratagem, were not exhausted.

Towards the lower end of the Neck there was an old stone wall, which had been built double, and which was surrounded by a thick and tangled mass, of plumb bushes. The plan was to remove one side of the wall, and rebuild it in such a manner so as to afford hollow places for their concealment. Ferris and Kennicut first built in their two companions

, and lastly, Ferris took his place, and Kennicut alone completed the entombment. These singular and ingenious cages having been finished, Kennicut surveyed them closely, and with scrutiny on all sides. The form of the wall was but little altered from its original shape, while the screen work of bushes effectually curtained it from observation. Assured of the completeness of the concealment, Kennicut, with a few words of caution, left Ferris and his companions in their voluntary imprisonment, with a promise to return to them whenever he might do so with prudence.

The situation of our heroes, must indeed have been trying. It was not long before daylight appeared, and then they could hear the search that was going on all around them. Presently the tramp of soldiers was heard, which grew nearer and nearer, and their hearts sank despairingly within them, as they could detect their approach directly to the spot where they were concealed. Two files of soldiers, one on each side of the wall, came along close by the side of the Avail, and so near to them, that with a switch two feet long, the prisoners could have touched them. Suddenly, and to the great terror of the adventurers, the word of halt was given, and our heroes believed their discovery certain.

The grass which had been trampled down by them in the process of erecting their prisons, arrested the attention of the soldiers, and a brief conference as to its cause, was held within hearing of the captives. One remarked, that “there the damned rebels must have lain last night,” but another was of opinion, that it was where the deserters, who had escaped the day previous, had lain during the night. Satisfied with this solution of the cause, the party resumed their march, much to the relief and delight of our incarcerated friends. They remained in their concealment the entire day, and much of the ensuing night, without food, and in a state of unceasing anxiety. Towards morning, Kennicut came and released them. They now abandoned their intention of securing the officer, and set about escaping from the Neck in the same manner they had come upon it.

Mr. Ferris was frequently engaged in enterprises of a similar nature to this, during the period of the war. On one occasion, he accompanied an expedition in two whale boats, eastward, and approaching Stonington they resolved to cut out two vessels, a sloop and a schooner belonging to the British, which were lying at anchor in the harbor. At the hour of midnight, when all was hushed and still, they cautiously rowed towards the vessels, the one to which Mr. Ferris belonged approaching the schooner. But one man walked its deck, the others being asleep below, and he seemed to be unconscious of the danger which threatened the vessel. Not a sound denoted their approach, and the boat was by the vessel’s side, and the assailants already pouring upon the deck, ere the sentinel was aware of the attack.

A pistol at his head commanded immediate silence, or death the penalty, and in a moment the hatches and companion-way were secured, the cables cut, the sails hoisted, and they slowly moved from the shore. But at this juncture they were saluted by cannon from the battery on shore, the alarm having been given by the hoisting of the sails, and with balls ploughing the sea about them and occasionally whistling through the rigging, they stood out to sea, but were soon out of sight and beyond the reach of the enemy.

Numerous adventures and “hair-breadth escapes ” occurred to Mr. Ferris during the eventful period of the war, but the foregoing, from their daring and ingenuity particularly commend them selves to the admiration of the reader. The author is indebted to a son of Mr. Ferris, now residing in Westchester County, in this State, for the particulars of the above sketch.

The Line of Fire, Or, The Advance Guard of Civilization in America
By Lou. V. Chapin

No sooner were the sails raised than a signal was given from the land and when a failure of the vessels to answer it showed that something was wrong on board the cannon from the British battery began to speak and its balls to plow the waters on every side of the two crafts. Several shots whistled through the rigging but did little damage and the cheers from the brave little band of captors told the enemy that no mischief had been accomplished by the guns. In a few minutes they were out of range and the prizes were safely conveyed to a certain point upon the coast where they were a welcome addition to the continental navy while the prisoners were sent to Elmira for safe keeping.

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