(HOST) On the day after Thanksgiving, many people around the country participate in the Annual National Day of Listening. As part of that effort, VPR commentators are telling some of their own favorite family stories this week – like this one from commentator Bill Mares.
(MARES) On the city green in Westfield, Massachusetts stands a statue of a Revolutionary War era figure with a rocky jaw and in a three-cornered hat and cape. He looks strikingly like George Washington. This is actually my maternal great-great-great-great-great grandfather, General William Lyman Shepard. He had two careers, farming and war. At the age of 16 he enlisted in the British army and fought through the entire French and Indian War.
He returned to Westfield and farmed for the next ten years until, in 1774, he joined the Committees of Correspondence, a proto-Revolutionary group of conspirators who collected grievances against the British king.
At the Battle of Boston he was made a colonel of the Massachusetts militia. At the battle of Long Island, his troops protected Washington’s escape to New Jersey. In that battle he was shot through the neck. As he was borne from the field, he asked for water. When he found he could drink, he told the surgeon, "I’m all right, doctor! Stick on a plaster and tie on my cravat, for I am going out again." And he did.
He fought at Trenton, Princeton, and Saratoga. Overall, he survived 22 battles – and the grueling winter at Valley Forge. After the war he went back to farming. He also served on the Massachusetts Governor’s Council, he was an elector in the first two Presidential races, he served three terms in Congress, and he was one of the councilors appointed to write treaties with the Penobscot Indians and the Six Nations Confederation. He died at the then-uncommon age of 80.
In our family he is famous not just for his military exploits but for the angry and anguished letter he sent from the misery of Valley Forge to the members of the Massachusetts legislature in comfortable and safe Boston.
He wrote that the state had not provided the troops with any material support for more than three months. There were, he wrote, "…at least 400 men in the Brigade which I belong to that have not a shoe nor a stocking to put on and more than that number have not half a shirt apiece… I have seen soldiers turned out to do their duty in such poor condition that notwithstanding all the hard heartedness I am naturally possessed of, I could not refrain from tears. It would melt the heart of a savage to see the state we are in."
There is no record that any shoes came.
This Thanksgiving, as detachments of the Vermont National Guard begin returning home from from deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq, I’ll be reminded of General Shepard’s story, 220 years after he, too, laid down his sword and returned to the plow.