Five American literary masters – Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Hawthorne – each had a grandfather involved in the War of Independence.
In the early 1800s, the young United States saw a sudden blossoming of literary talent. Among the writers and poets who emerged to create American classics were Herman Melville (Moby Dick, Billy Budd), Henry David Thoreau (Walden, “Civil Disobedience”), Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Self-Reliance,” “Concord Hymn”), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (“Evangeline,” “Song of Hiawatha”), and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlett Letter, The House of the Seven Gables). Their works are now considered American classics.
Curiously, but not surprisingly, each of these men had a grandfather involved in the American Revolution.
Thomas Melvill, Participant in the Boston Tea Party
Thomas Melvill, grandfather of Herman Melville, participated at age 23 in the Boston Tea Party. For years, his family saved the bits of tea leaves found in his shoes after the event. Thomas Melvill also served as a major in the war. As an old man, Melvill was the subject of the poem “The Last Leaf” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Melvill died in 1832 at age 82.
John Thoreau, Private Under Paul Revere
One grandfather of Henry David Thoreau was John Thoreau, born Jean Thoreau, on the Isle of Jersey. He arrived in America as a 19-year-old rescued from a shipwreck. During the American Revolution he served for a time as a private under Paul Revere. He also did some privateering. That is, he was involved in raiding British shipping during the war. He moved to Concord in 1800 and died there the next year of tuberculosis.
Peleg Wadsworth, Commander on Penobscot Expedition
Peleg Wadsworth, grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was from Duxbury, Massachusetts, and operated a private school before the war broke out. Early on in the war he served as a captain of a minuteman company and was an aide to General Artemus Ward. Later he was second in command of the failed American expedition to Maine in 1779 to dislodge the British from a peninsula on Penobscot Bay. In Maine he was was held captive by the British for a few months, but escaped. Long after the war he served in the US Congress from 1793 to 1807. He died in 1829.
Daniel Hathorne, Privateer Captain
Daniel Hathorne, or Hawthorne, grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne, commanded the Fair American, which raided British shipping during the war. The ballad “Bold Hawthorne,” said to be written by the vessel’s surgeon, told a story of how the Fair American, sailing off the coast of Portugal, came upon and engaged a vessel full of British troops. Hathorne lived from 1731 to 1796 and is buried in Salem, Massachusetts.
William Emerson, Minister in Concord
The Concord, Massachusetts, home of William Emerson, grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a gathering place for a groups of terrified citizens on the April morning of the skirmish at North Bridge on the April day the American Revolution began. Emerson, gave out bread and cheese, and comforted the women and children. Emerson also bucked up the courage of local militiamen with words of support. One Concord soldier whom Emerson inspired later named one son William and another son Emerson. William Emerson later served as a chaplain on a military expedition to Ticonderoga. He died on that expedition in Vermont of a fever in 1776 at age 33.
- Boston Tea Party Historical Society
- Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere’s Ride. New York, Oxford University Press, 1994.