Schools are named for him, an honor reserved for heroes. Textbooks cite him as a model of patriotism during the Revolutionary War. Every Memorial Day, the American Legion stops at his grave site in Mastic to pay him respect.
There is an often-told legend of his bravery in the face of death. When ordered by his British captors to say “God save the king!’’ Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Woodhull of Mastic replied defiantly, “God save us all!’’ At this, a furious British cavalryman slashed Woodhull with his saber, and the Long Island general died within days.
The tale of Woodhull’s death has been boiled down to these four words: “God save us all!’’
But he probably never uttered them.
Was Nathaniel Woodhull the Island’s greatest revolutionary hero, whose ringing words of defiance as he faced death made him a martyr to the cause of liberty? Or are the stories of a soldier’s final and agonizing days colored by the mythmaking of hero-worshiping historians and journalists?
Woodhull was born of a well-to-do landholding family in Mastic on Dec. 30, 1722. He later married his neighbor Ruth Floyd, sister of William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. When he was 36, Woodhull joined the New York provincial forces as a major, to fight for the British in the French and Indian War. In August 1775, on the eve of the Revolution, he was elected to the prestigious position of president of the New York Provincial Congress, the illegal Patriot governing body, which, in turn, appointed him head of the combined militias of Suffolk and Queens counties.
On the eve of the Battle of Long Island — in August 1776 — Woodhull went to war. But surprisingly, given his rank and stature, he was not sent to Brooklyn to defend against the British. Instead, he was ordered to put on his general’s uniform and become a cattle herder. Ever the dutiful soldier, he complied.
Not that the assignment was unimportant. There were 100,000 head of cattle spread across Long Island from Queens to Montauk. In addition to the Island’s prolific agricultural resources, these stock were crucial to the British as a source of food for their armies. Woodhull’s orders were to drive the cattle east to keep them out of the hands of the enemy. His problem was that he had only 190 militiamen to do the job, and he never knew on falling asleep at night how many of them would still be around by morning.
The next stage of the Woodhull story — in fact, the final stage of his life — has taken on mythic proportions.
Records of the Provincial Congress show that late on Aug. 27, with only about 90 men remaining — and they were fast deserting — Woodhull’s troops had driven 1,400 cattle out onto the Hempstead Plains and had 300 more ready to go. A severe thunderstorm drove the general to take refuge in a tavern run by Increase Carpenter, about two miles east of Jamaica in what is now Hollis. In a forlorn letter earlier in the day, Woodhull begged the Congress (now called the Convention of the People of the State of New York), for more troops.
The next day, he wrote again:
If you cannot send me an immediate reinforcement, I am afraid I shall have no men with me by tomorrow night, for they consider themselves in an enemy’s country . . . I hope the Convention does not expect me to make bricks without straw.
It was the last letter Woodhull would write. A few hours later, a British cavalry patrol surrounded the tavern, and Woodhull was captured and mortally wounded. What exactly happened at Increase Carpenter’s tavern is not certain, but the “God save the king’’ version of the story has been told time and again.
It was not until Feb. 28, 1821 — almost 45 years after the fact — that Woodhull the Martyred Hero was created. On that day, an anonymous ballad about the heroic death of Nathaniel Woodhull appeared in the National Advocate newspaper in New York. The ballad included the line “God save us all!’’ Though there is no evidence to support the story, it has been told to schoolchildren — and countless adults — for years.
Without regular repetition, such historical anecdotes have little staying power. In this case, Woodhull — who certainly had a splendid record up to that point — has had his name burnished by some of Long Island’s best-known historians. Silas Wood, the Island’s first historian, repeated the story in his 1826 history. A few years later, Benjamin F. Thompson, repeated the Silas Wood story almost word for word. Since then, popular histories have continued the “God save the king!’’ story.
There have been plenty of skeptics, nonetheless. For example, in 1902, historian Peter Ross called the Silas Wood narrative of Woodhull’s capture “one of the wonder tales with which the details of the incidents of every war are embellished.’’ Another historian, W.H. Sabine, later wrote, “Someone had transformed the once unresisting victim into a martyred hero.’’
But there is no question that Woodhull was severely wounded by sword in the head and arm in the course of being captured. Some sources say he was caught trying to escape over a wooden fence. Others say he heroically and patriotically stood his ground, offered his sword in surrender — a common and honorable practice at the time — only to be brutally hacked at by British soldiers.
Woodhull was taken to Jamaica, where the wounds were dressed by a British surgeon, then, with other prisoners, moved to Gravesend and put onboard a filthy prison ship in the harbor. Later he was taken to a house-hospital in New Utrecht. His gangrenous arm had to be amputated.
It was too late. Nathaniel Woodhull died on Sept. 20, 1776, at age 54. He was buried at his Mastic home. But the legend lives on.