Phillip R. (Phil) Giffin

I was born a writer and traveler. I wrote for the hometown newspaper in high school, then the Georgetown University Foreign Service Magazine Protocol 1963-65; the US Army as a Captain in Korea & at Ft. Lewis, WA. I studied languages at Waseda University Tokyo 1969-70, and travelled the Trans-Siberian Railroad as a tourist that summer.

For the next 25 years I worked extensively in Asia, Latin America, and Europe as an international product manager in the transportation and paper industries. I retired early in 2001 and returned to school for a Masters in Teaching from George Fox University Newberg, OR; and then taught global studies and history at David Douglas High School in Portland, OR for 9 years.

My wife Jil and I recently moved to Baggs, WY to be close to the old family ranch and to live the Wyoming lifestyle. I am a published free-lance writer.  See:

  • “Samuel Blachley Webb: Wethersfield’s ablest officer.” Published 09/19/2017 and “The Setauket raid of December 1777.” (to be published summer 2017). Journal of the American Revolution. https://allthingsliberty.com.
  • “Dear Maud: Letters from Flanders 1915-16.” The Vancouver Sun “Saturday Review” Published for the 80th anniversary of Armistice Day 11/07/1998.
  • “Annie’s War 1914-1918.” Journal Manitoba History No. 55. Published June 2007.
  • “A family memoir: the men of #2 Company Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry 1915.” Journal Manitoba History No. 53. Published October 2006.
  • “Maud’s Diary: Ireland and Manitoba 1798-1918.” Journal Manitoba History No.65. Published winter 2011.
  • Portland, OR Oregonian guest editorials: “Journey to heartlands is journey of the heart” 09/03/2000. “Obon 1998: Remembering family.” 07/15/1998. “Happy Birthday Canada” 07/02/2001).
  • Albany, OR Democrat Herald guest editorial: “The pandemic of 1918.” May 12, 1999.
  • Colonial Dames Society essay scholarship recipient 2001 “A new England Odyssey 1719 & 1999.”

January 27, 1778 at Fishkill, NY a cold but clear morning. We marched down to the place that Ft. Constitution was built on [Constitution Island]. There we made a halt and marched over the North River [Hudson]… and marched back again for there was no place to lodge there on the west side of the river so we … went into the woods and made fir beds to rest on the snow. We made a hut that 15 of us lay in pretty warm considering the weather being so cold.

From the diary of CO SGT Simon Giffin of Capt. Caleb Bull’s Company of Col. SB Webb’s 9th CT RGT Continental Army.i

Whale Boats on the Hudson

©Phillip R. Giffin

By the end of March of 1778 the men of Col. Webb’s 9th CT Regiment had been working on the wind-swept, frozen banks of the Hudson River for two months. They spent their days hacking a road out of the hillsides and hauling cartloads of pickaxes, shovels, logs, and lumber up to a small plateau where they were building barracks for themselves and breastworks for heavy cannons; for excitement they were ordered to make occasional forays down the Hudson to monitor enemy forces operating out of New York City. My distant grandfather, Co. Sergeant Simon Giffin of Captain Caleb Bull’s Company (9th CT RGT) was keeping notes in his diary.

March 29, 1778 Sabbath [at West Point] orders came to have two whale boats manned with 1 commissioned officer, 2 sergeants, 2 Corporals, and 70 privates to go on a scout down the North River. I was ordered to go as one of the sergeants, (and) to parade at 12 o’clock in the forenoon.

(Later) when I did parade, I was ordered to tarry until the next morning for Major Humphreys.

The commander of the raiding party, LT Col David Humphreys was a fast rising young Continental Army officer (age 25) recently promoted Brigade Major to General Parsons. ii He would go on to become ADC to General Putnam in December 1778, to General Greene in May 1780, and to General Washington in June 1780. No American Army officer has ever served as an Aide to more distinguished leaders. After the war Humphreys would be known as the Poet Laureate of the American Revolution. iii Unfortunately he did not write about his hair-raising adventures on the Hudson in March of 1778, or of the enlisted men who served with him. For that we have Sergeant Giffin’s terse description of the events.

March 30 Monday at West Point. This morning I went to see if I was to go down the river with my boat and my orders were to be ready at a moment’s warning. It rained and snowed most of the day.

Humphrey’s scouts waited two days while a storm of wind, rain, and snow swirled down the Hudson from the North. Finally, on the morning of March 31st the men were issued 2 days allowance of rum (½ pint) and then marched down to the wharf at West Point. Waiting there were several Nantucket whaleboats, sturdy skiffs of 25-30 feet in length propelled by a single sail and 16 oarsmen. The boats had upward pointed bows at both ends, enabling the crew to launch, maneuver, or beach their craft quickly in any direction. The crew typically consisted of eight to ten oarsmen, each working a single oar, plus a man on the rudder. Frequently the boats were equipped with a single sail, as was true in Simon’s case.

From West Point the scouts launched their small fleet into the current, set their single sails, and coasted downstream some 15 miles to the King’s Ferry Crossing, pulling their boats up onto the west bank of the river (at Verplanck, NY). That afternoon they were joined by more boats and men; but they also lost one of their companions. An unnamed private from the patrol deserted and Major Humphries delayed their departure to explore the man’s motives. Was the man heading home to his wife; or was he taking the plans for their raid to the enemy? Exercising some caution, Major Humphreys delayed their departure downriver. Simon covered the day’s events in his journal.

March 31 Tuesday: This morning Major Humphrey sent for me to get ready with my men to go down the North River and he gave me an order to draw 2 days allowance of rum. We set out from West Point at 9 o’clock in the morning…. Rowed as far as Kings’ Ferry and joined the [others] at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

We had one man desert from the party which detained us the rest of the day. Orders came to lay out our lodgings and cook provisions. Lodged at a very poor man’s. He had nothing in the house to eat but bread and salt and he had 4 children almost naked. We helped him cook some flour by the fire.

April 1, 1778 Wednesday: This day we rowed down the river as far as Tarrytown. Landed there with 8 boats. Lodged there. Rained hard all night.

At dawn on April 1st, the river was running high and fast as the raiders launched their flotilla, now consisting of eight whale boats, from the King’s Ferry shoreline. The current grabbed the boats and sent them careening downstream some 28 miles to Tarrytown, NY. Where they again beached their boats and went in search of lodging for the night. Simon noted …. It rained hard all night.

On Thursday morning April 2, Simon drew rations and rum for the men and they again pushed out onto the Hudson. They had not gone far when the storm from the north intensified bringing high winds, lightening, and thunder. The sail on their boat was shredded by the winds; our dour Sergeant noted …. [It was] exceedingly hard for the lads. Soaked to the bone with rain and exhausted from the struggle to keep their boats pointed downstream, the raiders swept past an enemy fort (possibly Fort Washington or Fort Lee) and a British Man of War (a warship).

Simon noted …. Thinking to obtain our end [demise], the men waited for the roar of enemy cannons, but no shots were fired as… the guns were wet and unfit to perform. The priming powder on the flash pans of their cannons and muskets was wet and failed to ignite. In storms the wind would scatter the fine-grain flash powder, and the rains would soak the flash pan, making it impossible for either side to load and fire. Storms undoubtedly saved countless lives during the Revolution as weapons misfired and battles would be delayed for better weather (see for instance Simon’s notes for the Battle of Brunswick NJ June 22, 1777).

Having hurtled down the rain swollen Hudson past an imposing array of British cannons, the raiders faced about and hauled their boats back upstream in the teeth of the gale passing the same imposing but silent batteries of Royal Navy cannons. As usual, Simon refuses to embellish the dangers or miseries of his adventure. After hauling their boats back upstream the raiders tied up on the west bank of the river within sight of Tarrytown where they spent a cold night in their open whaleboats exposed to the wind and rain.

The next morning (04/03), cold, wet, stiff and exhausted, they set off again upriver. At midday they put ashore at Stoney Point, NY on Haverstraw Bay where they… ate dinner. What were they eating, cold boiled beef and hard tack biscuits? Did they risk making camp fires to warm up and dry their clothing? Simon doesn’t say. That afternoon they again launched their boats and rowed upstream the last few miles to the King’s Ferry landing where they “lodged” for the night.

The next day the raiders returned to West Point. SGT Giffin wrote in his diary …

April 4, 1777 Saturday at King’s Ferry. This morning lay by watching the [enemy] ships and the 2 tenders (barges?) motions to see if they are going to come up the river but they lay still at an anchor abreast of Tarrytown and fired several canon at our people but to what (unknown effect)… I cannot say. We left the boats… and came up the River to West Point.

As an interesting postscript to the above incident, in December of 1780 Col. Webb’s Regiment was no longer stationed on the Hudson River but the leader of the above expedition, David Humphreys was still there. By then Humphreys had been promoted to Lt. Colonel and ADC to General Washington. Washington asked Humphries if he would undertake an even more audacious whaleboat raid downriver. iv American spies in New York City had reported that the two senior enemy Generals in the City, British General Henry Clinton and Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, were living in homes close to the banks of the Hudson River. Raiders in whale boats arriving in the black of night just might be able to capture the enemy’s two senior generals and carry them off to New Jersey.

Humphreys volunteered and set off down river with a small party of raiders; this time he took only 30 men and 4 officers in two whale boats and a barge. Once again the weather did not cooperate. A blustery north wind sent Humphreys’ raiders swirling downriver out of control past British ships and batteries along the full length of Manhattan Island and beyond. One of the whale boats was beached on Staten Island and the other crossed Raritan Bay and landed on the New Jersey shore. The large, unwieldy barge ran aground on the New Jersey shore above Fort Lee. The crew attempted to dray (tow) their flat-bottomed scow back up the Hudson River with ropes but the wind and current were too strong. The raiders were forced to abandon their barge and set off for the long march up the east bank of the Hudson to New Windsor, an overland trek of some 90 miles.

Unfortunately or future generations, the poet laureate of the Continental Army failed to take advantage of his opportunity to immortalize the “whale boat raiders of the Hudson River,” and Simon lost another chance for fame. The history books tell us that David Humphreys was famous in his day both for his poetry and for his rich sense of humor. He was no Samuel Johnson or Robbie Burns, but his poetry was popular. Today his serious work seems somewhat heavy, elegiac, serious, and patriotic but in his day he was well known for his humorous doggerel (poor and trivial verse). In one of his most famous pieces of doggerel, “The Monkey who shaved himself and his friends” he tells a cautionary tale for all barbers and writers.v

His poem is the story of a town barber who trained his pet monkey, named “Jacko,” to shave customers for their entertainment. Jacko practiced on the Barber’s pet dog and cat with many a nick and slice; and then decided to work on himself.

… He lathered his beard and whiskers…

and then with the razor in his dexter paw,

around he flourishes and slashes

‘til his face is seamed with gashes….

He cocked to shave beneath his chin;

Drew razor swift as he could pull it.

And cut from ear to ear, his gullet.

Moral

Who cannot write, yet handle pens,

Are apt to hurt themselves and friends.

Though others use them well, yet fools

Should never meddle with edge tools.

In all likelihood, as they took a wild ride down the Hudson in March of 1778 neither Colonel Humphreys, nor Sergeant Giffin knew that the other man had a sense of humor; and in that they were at least half right. After reading his entire diary, it seems unlikely that anyone ever accused my distant grandfather and hero, Sergeant Simon Giffin, of having a sense of humor.

i Simon Giffin, The Diary of Quartermaster Sergeant Simon Giffin of Col. Samuel B. Webb’s Regiment 1779-1783. Also: Record Book of Quartermaster Sergeant Simon Giffin 1779-1783. Originals are with the family. Microfilm and bound copies are available at CSLA (Connecticut State Library and Archive and the LDS Church Family History Library in Salt Lake, UT.

ii Charles S. Hall, Life and Letters of Samuel Holden Parsons 1737-1789. (Binghamton: Otseningo, 1905), 162-63. Available at Archive.org.

See also: F. B. Heitman. Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution. (Washington DC: Lowdermilk, 1 893). 308. Available at Archive.org.

iii Frank Landon Humphreys. Life and times of David Humphreys: Soldier, statesman, poet Vol II. (NY: Putnam, 1917). 320, 325, & 332.

iv Page Smith. A new age now begins: A people’s history of the American Revolution Vol. ii. (New York: Penguin, 1976. 1339-40.

See also: Humphreys. Life of David Humphreys Vol. I. 194-97.

v Samuel Kettell. Specimens of American poetry and critical biographical notice: Vol. 1. (Boston: Goodrich, 1829). 271-72 & Vol. II. 319-21. Available at Archive.org.