“did you ever see where I was scalped?...” or the Unfortunate Tale of Captain Gregg

October 11, 2022 Posted by: Ranger Eric O.

Sarah Osborne, the wife of a soldier in the Third New York Regiment, told an interesting story about her husband’s captain in her 1837 pension application. Sarah swore in court: “Captain Gregg had turns of being shattered in his mind and at such times would frequently say to deponent, “Sarah, did you ever see where I was scalped?” showing his head at the same time.” Sarah claimed she “repeatedly saw the bare spot on his head where he had been scalped by the Indians.” Captain Gregg’s story is a remarkable tale of survival.

Captain James Gregg was stationed at Fort Schuyler [present-day Rome, N.Y.] in the summer of 1777. Accompanied by his faithful dog, and Corporal Samuel Madison, Gregg went out of the fort to go hunting on the morning of June 25, 1777. Hunting was contrary to orders, so the men walked two miles away hoping that their shots would not be heard at the Fort. The corporal spotted a small flock of pigeons and took aim. Before he could fire, two shots rang out from a party of concealed Indians. Gregg saw Corporal Madison fall and felt a pain in his side. A musket ball had entered his side and ran along the middle of the back. It then passed near the spine and exited just beyond. Captain Greg tried to stand but quickly fell. Helpless, Gregg saw an Indian coming towards him and pretended to be dead. The Indian struck him on the head with his tomahawk but Gregg was saved when the blow glanced off a button on his hat. After a couple of more blows from the tomahawk, the attacker took out his knife and cut a circle through the skin from Gregg’s forehead to the crown, and then drew off the scalp with his teeth. At this point Captain Gregg most likely passed out and the Indian left with his grisly trophy.

When Captain Gregg regained consciousness he looked at his watch; it was ten o’clock in the morning. He made his way over to the lifeless body of the corporal and laid his head on the body hoping the elevated position would ease his pain. At this point, Gregg’s dog came over and began licking his wounds. Gregg told the dog to get help, and like an old episode of “Lassie” the dog took off. According to an account by Doctor James Thacher: “The animal, with every appearance of anxiety, ran about a mile, when he met with two men fishing in the river, and endeavored in the most moving manner, by whining and piteous cries, to prevail on them to follow him into the woods; struck with the singular conduct of the dog, they were induced to follow him part of the way, but fearing some decoy or danger, they were about to return, when the dog fixing his eyes on them, renewed his entreaties by his cries, and taking hold of their clothes with his teeth, prevailed on them to follow him to the fatal spot.” After suffering for four hours, Captain Gregg was discovered about two o’clock in the afternoon. One of the fishermen went to fort for help and a party was sent out to retrieve Captain Gregg. Just after three o’clock the party reached the fort with the severely injured officer. Colonel Peter Ganesevoort, Jr., the fort’s commander, described Gregg’s condition in a letter the following day.  “He is Perfectly by his Senses & Speaks Strong & hearty – nothwithstanding his Recovy is Doubtfull…”

But he did recover. Dr. James Thacher helped treat the captain in an Albany hospital and gave this description of the wounds: He was a most frightful spectacle, the whole of his scalp was removed; in two places on the fore part of his head, the tomahawk had penetrated through the skull; there was a wound on his back with the same instrument, besides a wound in his side and another through his arm by a musket-ball. This unfortunate man, after suffering extremely for a long time, finally recovered, and appeared to be well satisfied in having his scalp restored to him, though uncovered with hair. …”

After his recovery, Captain James Gregg returned to active duty and his name appears occasionally in various letters and orders. Captain Gregg and Doctor Thacher may have even run into each other at Jockey Hollow during the winter of 1779-1780 since both of their units were part of the camp. Though at the beginning of the encampment Gregg was apparently on furlough. Lt. Colonel Marinus Willet complained in a letter to Colonel Ganesvoort: “If Captain Gregg should be in your part of the World, I should be glad he might be made to remember that his company wants his presence.”

Captain Gregg may have been on light duty due to his wounds and state of mind. At the siege of Yorktown, Sarah Osborn, the camp follower, recalled: “Captain Gregg, who, on account of infirmities, did not go out much to do duty.” After the surrender Sarah, “and her husband, Captain Gregg, and others who were sick or complaining embarked on board a vessel from Yorktown…and set sail up the Chesapeake Bay and continued to the Head of Elk, where they landed…” Eventually, the New York Brigade would spend the winter of 1780-1781 camped in Pompton, New Jersey. Based on Sarah’s descriptions, one can imagine that Captain Gregg suffered from some sort of post-traumatic syndrome or as she said: “being shattered in his mind.” But Captain James Gregg continued to serve in the New York Brigade until the final discharge in June 1783.

Captain Gregg married a 20-year-old woman named Mary in 1782. But James died three years later on September 22, 1785. Mary applied for a received a widow’s pension [W.17025] in 1836. In her pension application she stated, “James Greg was shot through the body, was tomahawked and scalped in the Revolutionary War and I believe said wounds was the means of shortening his days.”

Below: A period image of a scalping. 
A sketch of a man holding a tomahawk and a human scalp. He appears to be yelling.

continentalarmy, AmericanRevolution, FortStanwix, Siegeof 1777

Last updated: October 11, 2022

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