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The Eventful Times of
Private John Parry

Courtesy of John D. Cameron


An Opening Note 

Much popular history focuses on the ordinary details in the lives of extraordinary figures from the past, like the nation’s Founding Fathers.  Those works aim to humanize these legends, turning the truths of their foibles into compelling tales for contemporary audiences.  This account follows a different approach, chronicling how ordinary folk were affected by and contributed, if only modestly, to the extraordinary events of the day – hopefully another take on truth.

 Acknowledgements 

Although every attempt has been made at rigor, this is not intended as a scholarly text. 

I have drawn widely from both published and unpublished sources; those sources are generally not cited, though I have relied significantly upon Christopher Ward’s The War of the Revolution and Michael Stephenson’s more recent Patriot Battles.  I have also benefited from the assistance of many others, including the public records available through Ancestry.com.  I especially wanted to thank Sylvia Hasenkopf and the website she coordinates, “Greene County, New York History & Genealogy”.  Any errors, of course, are my responsibility.  Please feel free to contact me with inquiries (or corrections) c/o John D. Cameron, 6555 N. Maplewood, Chicago, IL 60645 USA.


 

 

A Patriot’s Call 

When a jittery militia man fired the “The Shot Heard Round the World” on the Lexington green that April morning, the musket’s crack loudly resounded up the hills and hollows of the Hudson River valley.  Among those quick to answer the call were the “Freeholders and Inhabitants of Coxsackie District in the County of Albany,” including John Parry, his older brother Casper and their father, Nicholas.

On May 17, 1775, less than a month after the “bloody Scene acting in the Massachusetts Bay” the three men joined with some 200 of their neighbors in endorsing a “Committee of Safety, Protection and Correspondence” for Albany County.  The resolution the committee adopted, later to be dubbed the “Coxsackie Declaration of Independence,” was signed by the father and his sons using a Dutch spelling of their name, Pare (just one of several variants used in documents of the day that also included Paree, Parray, even Prys) and like most of the assembled farmers, artisans and small traders, they were of Knickerbocker ancestry.  Though they pledged their loyalty to the Continental Congress and opposition to the specific measures by the British government, they called for something less than independence of the colonies:  

Persuaded that the Salvation of the Rights and Liberties of America, depends, under God, on the firm union of its Inhabitants, in a vigorous prosecution of the Measures necessary for its Safety, and convinced of the Necessity of preventing the Anarchy and confusion which attend the Dissolution of the Powers of Government: 

THAT the Freeholders and Inhabitants of Coxsackie District, in the County of Albany, being greatly alarmed at the avowed Design of the Ministry to raise a Revenue in America, are shocked by the bloody Scene acting in the Massachusetts Bay; Do in the most solemn manner, resolve never to become Slaves; and do also associate under the Ties of Religion, Honor and Love of our Country to adopt and endeavor to carry into Execution whatever Measures may be rendered by our Continental Congress, or resolved upon by our Provincial Convention for the purpose of preserving our Constitution and apposing the Execution of several arbitrary and oppressive Acts of the British Parliament, until a reconciliation between Great Britain and America on constitutional principles (which we most ardently desire) can be obtained; and that we will, in all Things, follow the advice of our general Committee, respecting the purpose aforesaid, the preservation of Peace and good Order, and the Safety of Individuals and private property. 

Yet the tone and the resolve of the document reflect the spreading fervor of revolt, one that stirred passions even in the quiet, generally conservative settlements along the Hudson (or “North”) River.  Though the Albany Sons of Liberty had been formed as early as 1766 and the area’s inhabitants, overwhelmingly Dutch-speaking, had little love for the British Crown, it was hardly a hotbed of agitation.  The unsettled frontier lay just beyond the western edge of Albany County, and the battles of the French and Indian Wars were a recent memory.  Sir William Johnson, His Majesty's Commissioner of Indian Affairs, was held in general esteem by Albany Whig and Tory alike, and until his death in July 1774, their differences remained muted.

His successor and son-in-law, Colonel Guy Johnson, had little sympathy for the colonial cause.  By the time the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia the following September, opposition to the Crown was growing rapidly and a Committee of Correspondence was organized in Albany County.  When the Loyalist-dominated Assembly refused to approve the acts of the First Congress or send delegates to the Second, a Provincial Convention was called on April 20, 1775.  Three days later, news of the Massachusetts hostilities arrived and a Provincial Congress was quickly established to assume governing powers.  Even before then, a Committee of Safety was organized in Albany; it was this body that issued the call bringing  the Coxsackie men together.

Coxsackie (the name is said to be derived from a Native American term for either the hooting of owls or the honking of wild geese) was the southernmost district of what was a much larger Albany County in 1775.  Now part of Greene County, it is located along the Hudson some 25 miles downriver from the state capital.  The latter was the original Dutch settlement of Fort Orange, hub of a busy fur trading empire that passed into English hands in 1664, and was renamed for the King’s brother (and future King James II) , the Duke of Albany.  Under English rule, the lands along the river were charted and sold off as “patents” and settlement began to spread south from the city.

One such Albany settler was Jan (or Johannes) Pare, father of Nicholas and grandfather to Casper and John, born before the advent of the Eighteenth Century.  Like many of the New York “Dutch,”  his roots may not have been in the Netherlands.  Though his surname was to be found there at the time, it is more likely derived from the name of the French capital and pronounced “Pair-ee.”  (The New York “low Dutch” were a mixture of continental immigrants from the Low Countries as well parts of Germany, France, and Denmark; even recent arrivals from Britain; like the Scottish-descendant Livingstons, adopted the language.)  Jan Pare married Annejete Spoor at Albany and their first born son, named after his father, was christened at the Old Dutch Reformed Church there in 1719.

Two years later, second son Nicholas was also born in Albany, though the family would move farther down the Hudson soon thereafter.  Subsequent children were bapitized at the Reformed Churches of Linlithgo and then Claverlack, both on the east side of the river. By the time Nicholas had reached his teen years, his family was located on the western bank near Loonenberg (now Athens) where his youngest sibling was christened.  It was also there in December 1744 that Nicholas married Engletje Halenbeck, one of the many offspring of a large and prosperous Albany County clan.

Such little communities were growing rapidly during those years as the Hudson Valley began to fill up.  In 1700, there had been just 20,000 non-Native Americans living in New York; forty years later that population had more than tripled; it would reach 160,000 by 1770.  Among these numbers were the fertile offspring of the original Dutch colonists, newer immigrants including concentrations from the German Palatinate and the Highlands of Scotland, and a growing percentage of slaves of African ancestry.  As these settlers increased, they pushed inland from the river and then up across the Catskill Mountains and on into the river valleys of the Mohawk and Susquehanna.  Most all the newcomers were farmers and largely self-sufficient, though many would pursue some sort of household trade or manufacture as well. 

Young Nicholas was among those industrious folk; by 1750 he had built a tannery, the first in the area, and predecessor of what would become a thriving industry in the region.  He was also enterprising: in August 1759, he and a partner purchased one-quarter of the Roseboom Patent, comprising more than 1,000 acres.  The land was located along the “Kalkberg” (chalk hill), a lime ridge that bordered the Loonenburg patent on the west, some five miles in from the river and northwest of the village itself.  Nicholas transferred a portion of his land to his younger brothers Isaac and Daniel two years later, and it was there that he raised his family.  Nicholas and Engletje had seven known children, including five daughters as well as their eldest son, Casper, born in 1747 and youngest son John born nine years later.  

Nicholas’s endeavours brought him a modest level of comfort.  The 1766 tax assessment for his property was seven pounds, more than most of the 208 taxpayers in the Coxsackie district but far less than the “old” families like the Van Loons, Bronks, and his Halenbeck in-laws.  He would shortly build a stone dwelling there, its cornerstone reading “May ye 17, 1767, N.P.E.P.C.P,” his initials along with those of his wife and oldest son.  (Located just north of the Schoharie Turnpike, the old house would still be occupied at the end of the following century, though long since replaced by the New York Thruway.)  Three months after dedicating his new home, the names of both Nicholas and son Casper were also to be found on the muster roll of the local militia, a company headed by Captain Jacob Halenbeck, Engletje’s older brother. 

Under the “Duke’s Laws” dating back to the to English takeover, service in the provincial militia was required of all males aged 16 to 50.  Individuals who failed to show up when mustered were subject hefty fines; men were required to provide their own arms and accruements, and there was no pay.  It was tax paid in service, and the roster for Captain Halenbeck’s company reads much like the assessment list from the year before.  Not surprisingly, many names like Nicholas and Casper Parry (this time written “Perray) on the 1767 militia roll would also appear on the Coxsackie “declaration” eight years later.  Others like younger brother John would be new, but bore the same surnames as their fathers and uncles on the earlier list  -- Halenbeck, Bogardus, Claw, Van Schaak, Van Buskirk -- the same “Dutch” names that had intermarried with the Parrys over the last three generations. 

In May 1775 John Parry was yet to turn 19.  He was single and living on the family homestead, undoubtedly helping out in the tannery and on the family farm, a relatively rural backwater surrounded by family and relatives.  When he answered the call of the Albany County patriots and signed his name on that bold declaration, it may have seemed like nothing extraordinary, even the expected thing to do – but the world was about to change, and so would his life. 

Saratoga 

Though not immediately – for the next two years, the conflict between America and Britain would seem a distant thing to the Parrys and their Hudson Valley neighbors.  Even so, most of the major battles took place barely a hundred miles away, and at all points of the compass. 

To the east, the New Englanders had responded to the bloody scene at Lexington and Concord by surrounding Boston and laying siege to its British garrison.  When the redcoats crossed the Charles River and attempted to seize Bunker’s Hill in June, they drove off the patriots, but at such a dear cost that it was an empty victory.  That same month, Congress appointed Virginia planter George Washington, perhaps the wealthiest man in America, to take command of the newly created Continental Army. 

Even before then, a small force of “Green Mountain Boys” led by Ethan Allen and Massachusetts men under the equally ambitious Benedict Arnold had seized the dilapidated Fort Ticonderoga and its sizeable store of artillery in northern New York.  They would be sent off by Washington to conquer Canada later that summer and after joining up forces under Richard Montgomery who had captured Montreal, they would attempt a desperate night attack in the blinding snow on Quebec City that New Year’s Eve.  It failed, and nearly half the attacking American troops were killed or captured (Allen was among the latter); Arnold and the rest were soon headed south in an equally disastrous retreat. 

Meanwhile Boston bookseller Henry Knox took advantage of the frozen winter ground to drag the Ticonderoga cannon across the New England wilds.  When they arrived outside of Boston in early March, Washington had them installed on the Dorchester Heights overlooking the city.  Across the harbor, British commander William Howe had no good options and less than two weeks later he and the rest of the British forces, along with thousands of American Loyalists and their families, sailed away to Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

It was in this wake of the victory at Boston that the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, would adopt the true Declaration of Independence in July 1776.  But then luck began to run out for the patriot cause.  At the end of the following month, Howe would reappear at the mouth of the Hudson with an army three times the size that of Washington.  There followed a series of New York defeats and hasty retreats for the Americans: Brooklyn Heights, Kip’s Bays, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Forts Washington and Lee.  By December, the Continental Army had been chased across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, where the Delaware River offered some security.   

Only Washington’s daring Christmas night raid on the Hessian garrison in Trenton, followed a week later by a return attack and then success over the British rear guard at Princeton, convinced His Majesty’s troops to withdraw to New York City.  Meanwhile Washington went into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, where he and the army would remain until the following summer. 

Only then did the war come to John Parry.   On June 17, 1777, “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne headed south from St. John’s, Canada, just east of Montreal, with some 8,000 British regulars, German mercenaries, Native American warriors, French-Canadians and American Loyalists.  It was Burgoyne’s plan to split the rebellious colonies in two by sailing up Lake Champlain and Lake George, crossing over to the Hudson and floating down to Albany.  There he would meet up with a smaller force from the west heading across the Mohawk Valley and Howe’s troops coming upriver from New York City.  It was a grand plan, or so it seemed on paper, but conditions on the ground would prove much more difficult. 

Even so, it did get off to a promising start.  By July 4, Burgoyne had nearly surrounded the patriot army at Ticonderoga; the 2,500 defenders fled and then retreated southward.  Perceived both as a devastating loss by the Americans and a triumph for the British, it turned out to be neither.  As he pursued the rebel army through the rugged terrain north of the Hudson, Gentleman Johnny’s strategy began to unravel.  First Howe, with ambiguous instruction from London, decided to move on to Philadelphia rather that wait for Burgoyne, leaving Henry Clinton in charge at New York City.  Then Barry St. Leger’s invasion from the west was turned back at Fort Stanwix.  At the same time, a raid searching for much needed supplies led by Burgoyne’s German generals and headed for Bennington (now in Vermont) was surrounded and virtually destroyed, losing over 1,000 captured or killed by a mixed force of Continentals and the local Green Mountain Boys.  By the end of August, Burgoyne’s dwindling expedition found itself increasingly isolated, with yet several days of marching to Albany and a growing American army blocking the way. 

Encouraged by the victory at Bennington, the patriot numbers were increasing daily, including both militia and recently arrived Continentals units.  Naturally enough, the first militia men called out had been the locals of Albany County.  In July, its 11th Regiment under Anthony Van Bergen had assembled at Coxsackie for three months service.   

Van Bergen’s regiment was drawn from the districts of both Coxsackie and “Groot Imboght” (Catskill) and, like its provincial predecessor, represented a who’s who of the region.  Its colonel and other top officers were among the wealthiest men in the two districts (which make up most of modern day Greene County) and almost all leading families, with the notable exception of the Halenbecks, were represented in some fashion.  In fact, the average wealth of the regiment’s full officer roster, as recorded in the 1779 tax assessments, was over 800 dollars – nearly three times that of all local taxpayers.  Private soldiers were, not surprisingly, largely from the latter ranks. 

Though such troops were compensated – unlike the provincial militia – pay lists and muster rolls were left to the recruiting colonel and irregularly kept.  However, in 1781, the New York State Assembly (which had replaced the Provincial Congress when the state adopted its first constitution three years earlier) would authorize “land rights” as a bounty to all who had so served.  A “right” was 500 acres to which privates were each entitled while officers were granted multiples based on rank.  Listed among the state records for land bounty rights due to privates in 11th Regiment are both Casper and John Parry; the latter having served in John Witbeck’s Fourth Company.   

Few specific regimental records survive – beyond the officer lists, the state archives indicate only that Van Bergen’s militia was in service “at sundry times” until 1780.  However it seems very likely that the Parry brothers were among the Coxsackie militia men in 1777 as were many others who had signed its “declaration of independence” two years before. 

Van Bergen’s regiment was just one of 17 comprising the Albany County militia serving under Abraham Ten Broeck, a wealthy patriot politician, future state senator and mayor of the city.  Ten Broeck reported to Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Department for the Continental Army.  At Schuyler’s direction, the militia spent the summer weeks felling trees, destroying bridges, driving off cattle, burning grain and forage in order to disrupt the British advance.  An aristocratic New Yorker, Schuyler was disliked by the New Englanders in Congress who blamed him for the loss of Ticonderoga and would force his replacement by Horatio Gates.  By early September, Gates commanded a mixed forced of 9,000 Continentals and militia garrisoning strong defensive fortifications on Bemis Heights above the Hudson, just north of Stillwater. 

Less than 15 miles upriver, Burgoyne had a decision to make.  Although recently reinforced and restocked, he still had only a month’s provisions.  Unless he turned around and headed back to Canada, he had to break through to Albany before winter froze over his watery supply route to the north.  On September 13, he crossed over to the west bank of the Hudson and started a slow southward progress.  Four days later he made his first contact with patrolling patriots, and on September 19 he launched a direct assault on their fortifications.  As determined and aggressive as was Burgoyne, so Gates was as cautious and inert.  Only after strenuous argument by Benedict Arnold (returned from his successful relief of Fort Stanwix), did he send Continental forces forward to meet the British attack.  The result was a fierce afternoon struggle in the clearing around Freeman’s Farm; the Americans were eventually driven back, but the terrain had favored the American fighting style and the redcoats suffered twice as many casualties. 

The British camped on the field while the Americans retreated behind their defenses, a mile or so to the south.  For the next three weeks, Burgoyne stayed there – his own troops fortifying their lines as well and building small earthen forts around their artillery called redoubts.  A message from Clinton in New York City indicated he was heading up the Hudson.  He never arrived, and, in fact, only went as far as Peekskill, though a raiding party would sail up and burn the city of Esopus where the state legislature had been meeting.  (Esopus, now Kingston, is some 22 miles south of Coxsackie, as close as the fighting was to come to the Parry homestead.)  

Meanwhile the patriot camp continued to swell and by early October the troops available to Gates had more than doubled.  The largest contribution was the 3,000 men of the Albany militia, presumably including John Parry, which arrived under Ten Broeck’s command that first week.  For Burgoyne, the situation was now desperate.  On October 7, he sent out about a third of forces to the west in order to probe for weaknesses in the American defenses.  What they found instead was three-pronged response; the first to hit them was Enoch Poor’s brigade of New Hampshire and New York Continentals which quickly rolled back the British right flank while wounding and capturing its dashing major.   

Ten Broek’s militia was positioned to reinforce Poor’s troops, but the latter’s success rendered that unnecessary.  The redcoats were driven back down the line, retreating to their heavily walled fortifications at Freeman’s Farm; but even these provided little sanctuary.  The ever impetuous Arnold, though he had been stripped of command by Gates, led a ferocious attack that broke through and captured Breymann’s redoubt, leaving its colonel dead and its defenders prisoners.  In less than an hour, the British lost more than half their forces; the Americans less than one-seventh that number.   

Unlikely though it is that he ever fired his musket, for John Parry this would be his first major battle.  For Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, it was his last.  His surviving troops withdrew to the river; the next day they began to retreat to the high ground around Saratoga (now Schuylerville), ten miles to the north.  But newly arriving militia units now cut off his route to the north, and soon his escape to the east, while Gates came up from the south and west.  Finding himself surrounded, Burgoyne began negotiating for surrender.  Though would he stall for a few days (still hoping for Clinton’s arrival), on October 17 the 6,000 remaining troops under his command headed out of their camp, deposited their arms, marched between two rows of triumphant, if respectful, Americans, and watched as their commander handed over his sword in defeat. 

One of the captive Germans present (quoted by Christopher Ward in his seminal The War of the Revolution) wrote of those Americans, “Not one of them was properly uniformed, but each man had on the clothes in which he goes to field, to church or to the tavern, but they stood like soldiers, erect with a military bearing…furthermore, nature had formed all the fellows who stood in rank and file, so slender, so handsome, so sinewy, that it was a pleasure to look at them and we were all surprised at the sight of such a finely built people.” 

The British (and German, Canadian and Loyalist) prisoners were marched off to Boston where they were to be sent home, per the terms agreed to by Gates; it never happened and they would find themselves kept in rude prisoner of war camps down deep in Virginia until the end of the war.  Ten Broeck’s militia, including John Parry’s Coxsackie regiment, was demobilized and sent home.  (Today the woods and ravines at scenic Bemis Heights are a popular national historical park with many battlefield monuments; one of those commemorates Abraham Ten Broeck and the Albany militia.) 

The Continental Line 

John Parry and his motley-attired comrades couldn’t have foreseen the significance of their success, which would become the turning point of the war.  As much a consequence of British arrogance as of American determination, it was viewed as a stunning defeat for the King’s forces, particularly at the Court of Versailles where French aristocrats were openly sympathetic and secretly aiding the American republicans.  Within days of hearing the news, Louis XVI officially recognized the independence of the United States; two months later a formal treaty of alliance was inked between the two countries.  Spain and then Holland also declared war on the British empire, turning the American struggle into a global conflict. 

Word of the French alliance, in turn, reinvigorated Washington’s army, now shivering at Valley Forge, ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-housed with no more than a third of its authorized troops.  In late February 1778, seeking to fill those ranks, Congress authorized New York and ten other states to recruit nine-month drafts from their militia to complete their regimental quotas.  On April 1, little more than a month later, the New York legislature would enact a measure to divide each militia regiment into “classes” of 15 men, and to secure one recruit from each class within nine days.  If they didn’t, officers were empowered to fill the draft by lot.  The men were assigned to the Continental Line and sent to rendezvous at Easton, Pennsylvania. 

And so it was on May 5, 1778, that John Parry was enlisted in the Second Regiment of the New York Line.  Whether it was a voluntary act or not wasn’t recorded, though it is reasonable enough to assume the former.  At age 21, John was young and unmarried, yet he had already seen military service.  Older brother Casper was living on the homestead with their aging parents, where he undoubtedly helped manage the family affairs, including care of their unmarried sisters.  For John, there was the prospect of bounty payments, both from Congress and the state, as well as regular pay at 6 and 2/3rds dollars per month (even if it was in steadily depreciating Continental paper money.)  And his Saratoga experience, though limited, was overall one of adventure and some glory.    

The Second New York Regiment had been around, in various organizational forms, since the beginning of conflict (it was first authorized as the 4th New York in May 1775, and later became the 3rd.)  It had participated in the invasion of Canada, as well the defense of New York and the Battle of White Plains.  Now under the command of Philip van Cortland, it was redesignated as the 2nd New York in January 1777 and stationed in the Hudson Highlands before being sent to join Gates at Bemis Heights that August.  There it was assigned to Enoch Poor’s brigade and fought under his command at both battles on Freeman’s Farm, the second time directly forward of John Parry’s militia unit.   

Following the surrender at Saratoga, Poor’s men marched south to join the main army, recently defeated at Germantown as they tried in vain to thwart Howe’s occupation of Philadelphia.  There they went into winter quarters some 20 miles northwest at Camp Valley Forge, with just 255 men on the regimental roster – the prescribed number was 728 – and only 144 fit for duty.  The hardships of that winter became legendary, as did the newfound rigor instilled by the Prussian drillmaster “Baron” von Steuben that spring.  By the time John Parry arrived in May, things had turned around; as one officer observed, “The Army grows stronger every day.  It increases in numbers… and there is a spirit of discipline among the troops that is better than numbers.”  The ranks of the 2nd New York would nearly double by the time the regiment marched out of camp the next month. 

Before then, John probably saw his first excitement as a “regular” soldier. Though he may not have arrived yet, Washington held a “grand review” of the troops on May 6 to celebrate the ratification by Congress of the treaty with France two days before (and show off von Steuben’s success at precision drill.)  A fortnight later the 2nd New York was involved in a more serious matter.  On May 18, Washington – partially to accommodate the loyal, if inexperienced, Marquis de La Fayette’s desire for his own command – dispatched the young French general with Poor’s brigade, a regiment of Pennsylvanian militia and a small battalion of rangers, about 2,000 troops in all.  Their mission was to advance towards Philadelphia and more closely monitor British movements.  La Fayette progressed about halfway to the city, crossed the Schuylkill River and camped on Barren Hill.  Howe responded by sending most the King’s army out after him by overnight march.

 Outnumbered six to one, the unknowing American force was on the verge of being trapped when two grenadiers captured by the American rangers revealed the British plan.  Fortunately, La Fayette handled the situation coolly, deploying a detachment of Poor’s troops to decoy the advancing attackers while evacuating the rest of his men along a narrow, largely hidden lane that led to the river ford.  By the time the redcoats had figured out the ruse, most of the patriot troops were back across the Schuylkill and the whole affair ended in a minor artillery skirmish at the ford.  La Fayette narrowly avoided total disaster, while Howe returned to city empty handed.  It was John Parry’s second battle, and again it seems unlikely that he was called on to directly face the enemy. 

Back in Philadelphia, Howe was in the process of turning over command to Clinton (just two days before the Barren Hill excursion, Howe’s officers had thrown him a lavish farewell celebration, complete with a mock tournament and fireworks.)  The new commander, fearing the imminent arrival of the French fleet, had decided to evacuate the easily blockaded city.  However the arrival of a three-person “peace commission” from London stalled Clinton’s plans. The British negotiators offered generous terms to the Americans, short of independence – not unlike the demands for “a reconciliation…on constitutional principles” called for by the Coxsackie declaration three years earlier.  Congress saw the move for what is was – an act of desperation brought on by the new alliance with France – and rejected the overtures out of hand. 

During those weeks, Washington’s army remained at Valley Forge and von Steuben continued drilling the new recruits.  For John Parry, this would be his first serious military training, beyond the rudiments of militia exercise.  In addition to marching formation and battlefield maneuvers, he would learn the intricacies of arms drill.  Standard Eighteenth Century combat called for massed musketry volleys followed by bayonet charges, rather than individual marksmanship (tactics dictated by the time-consuming loading, frequent malfunction and general inaccuracy of smooth-bore flintlocks.)  Unit cohesion among the confusing smoke and din of battle was vital, and learning to both understand and then obey commands was key. 

When John Parry arrived at Valley Forge he was assigned to the fifth company of the Second Regiment’s eight, referred to as the “late Captain Ten Eyck’s Company” after its former commander, Barent J. Ten Eyck.  Ten Eyck came from a prominent family of Albany County patriots (Barent H. Ten Eyck had been one of the founders of the city’s Sons of Liberty back in 1766) and held a captain’s commission from June 1775 until he resigned January 22, 1778.  Three months later the company roster had dwindled to just 18 men, including only 11 privates.  The nine-month drafts would substantially increase company ranks – John Parry was one of 22 to arrive in May alone, and by June the payroll had swelled to 52 men.[1]  Not all the new recruits added to the company’s fighting strength however – nearly half of the May arrivals were listed as sick when the company left camp in June.  (A similar percentage of the regiment’s overall strength, 170 out 421, was unfit for duty at the time.)  

On June 18, just as John Parry turned 22 years old, the 2nd New York and the rest of army left Valley Forge.[2]   Their departure was precipitated by Clinton’s delayed decision to abandon Philadelphia.  Having already sent the sick, Loyalist refugees and other women and children ahead by sea, the redcoats would leave the city in the early morning hours to begin an arduous march across New Jersey in the summer heat.  Once it was confirmed that they were moving out, Washington ordered Morgan’s brigade and the New Jersey militia to flank and harass the sluggish British columns, while he marched the main army out on a shorter, more northerly route in hopes of heading them off.  Meanwhile Benedict Arnold took a small force, along with most of the American sick, in to liberate the City of Brotherly Love.  The New Yorkers, as part of Poor’s brigade, left camp in the First Division under Charles Lee, second in command to Washington.  Lee, like Horatio Gates, was a former British officer who didn’t think much of his Virginian commander in chief, and even less of the troops he led. 

Aware of Washington’s intent, Clinton decided to swing farther east, aiming for Sandy Hook rather than Staten Island.  By June 26, Clinton had reached Monmouth Court House, little more than 20 miles from his coastal destination.  Before then Washington had held a council of war among his generals to decide strategy: Lee argued against a direct attack while La Fayette and the others were more eager.  After offering the command to Lee, who declined it, Washington sent out some 5,000 troops under La Fayette to hunt down the British rearguard.  Lee then changed his mind, and was sent forward take over full command.  Poor’s regiments remained behind with the main army, part of the right wing led by Nathanael Greene (for whom the newly created upstate New York county would one day takes its name.)   

In the mid-morning of May 28, the still-reluctant Lee launched a poorly coordinated attack on the rear of British forces, most of which were well on the way north.  Clinton soon called back his crack troops, and after two hours of disjointed combat, put the Continentals in full retreat.  At noon, Washington came forward and angrily relieved Lee of command; he reformed the American position on higher, more easily defendable ground to the west and here, despite wave after wave of British attacks, von Steuben’s training paid off.  The redcoats were repeatedly repulsed until they finally wore out in sweltering heat of the 100 degree day.  By late afternoon, the fighting was over even as Washington was ordering fresh troops to the front.   

Among the reserves he brought up were the 2nd New York and the other four regiments of Poor’s brigade.  They were directed to attack the British right, but with the coming darkness, the assault was called off and Poor’s men were sent instead to forward outposts to monitor the withdrawing British.  During night, Clinton skillfully and silently moved out and marched to Middletown, some 13 miles to the north; three days later the first of his forces were in New York.    

The battle had been the longest and one of the largest of the war, with both sides fielding more than 10,000 men (and, including “Molly Pitcher” – Mary Ludwig Hayes, married to a Continental artillery man – at least one woman) and both suffering about the same number of casualties – some 360 each, with 100 fatalities between the two due to heat stroke.  At best the battle was a draw, though Washington as the aggressor had failed to halt or seriously damage his enemy.  Nevertheless, he issued a proclamation praising the troops, and a service of thanksgiving, “for the Victory which was obtained on Sunday over the Flower of the British Troops,” was held on June 30.  Monmouth turned out to be the last great battle in the northern states, and once again John Parry’s unit had no role in the actual fighting. 

The next day the Americans began the march north to New York.  By the third week of July, all their forces were camped around the city; the 2nd New York was at North Castle just north of Washington’s headquarters in White Plains.  The commander-in-chief was well aware of the irony in returning to the locale of his defeat two years earlier, and believed he now had the upper hand.  At his command was “the largest body of regular troops ever assembled under the American banner.”  Indeed the July and August payrolls for John Parry’s company both totaled 54 men, the highest during his months of service.   

Further, the much-anticipated French fleet under Comte d’Estaing arrived in mid-July off Sandy Hook; however, its chance to capture the smaller British fleet in New York was lost when its deep-draft ships could not cross the shallow sandbars below the harbor.  D’Estaing then sailed off to attack Newport, Rhode Island, which had been taken by Clinton in December 1776 and held ever since.  It was to be a coordinated attack with American land forces, but that too came to naught after they insulted the admiral’s martial etiquette, followed by a mid-August gale that dispersed and damaged the French ships.  After temporary repairs at Boston, they sailed away to Martinique in the West Indies.  

At the end of the summer John Parry was given a furlough, perhaps because he was one of just handful of the May recruits (5 out of 22) who had been consistently present and fit for duty.  While he was away, his company (still bearing Ten Eyck’s name) moved from the White Plains area to Peekskill – Washington suspected that Clinton might go against the Hudson Highlands as he did a year earlier.  Standing at the gateway to the north, the steep bluffs above the river about Peekskill had been heavily fortified since they protected the main ferry across the river and the principle route to New England from the south.  As such, it was the capstone to an arc of American encampments that now encircled New York from Elizabeth, New Jersey to Danbury, Connecticut.   

The British did not sail as far as Peekskill that year, though they would the following summer, leading to the capture of the fort on Stony Point and its valiant reconquest by “Mad” Anthony Wayne.  A year later, it would also be scene of the ever-striving Benedict Arnold’s treason, his plot to hand over the fortress of West Point, the “Key to the Continent,” stunned his countrymen and turned a brilliant reputation into one of lasting infamy. 

It seems unlikely that John Parry ever made it back to the company that fall.  The month after his furlough, he was sent to Nobletown, the modern day Hillsdale in Dutchess County.  Nobletown is some 60 miles to the northeast of Peekskill, but just one-third that distance from Coxsackie.  If John had returned home in August (a few days travel upriver), it is probable that he went directly from there to his new assignment.[3]   Thus it also seems doubtful that John Parry was around when a huge shipment of new uniforms arrived from France that October; it was those new blue coats with scarlet facing that became standard for the New York Line and our image of a Continental soldier’s attire.   

That same month, Washington rearranged his command once again, and the 2nd New York was detached from the main army and assigned to the northern department.  It was a move brought on by a growing guerrilla war with Loyalist and Iroquois raiders along the frontier.  John Parry’s company, now led by regimental major Nicholas Fish, was stationed in the town of Rochester (not be confused with the current city), a settlement in the Catskill foothills 15 miles up Rondout Creek from Esopus.  It residents had petitioned New York Governor James Clinton (not be confused with, and no relation to, the British commander) for protection, pointing out that, “The enemy seem determined to destroy the Grain and Cattle. This must (your Excellency well knows) soon reduce the publick as well as individuals to scarcity." 

Again, this was a post that John Parry would not share with his company; for the next four months he is listed in the muster roll as “Sick at Nobletown.”  As it would be to all large-scale armies until the development of antibiotics, illness was a major peril and it was responsible for some 40 percent of all American deaths during the war.  The combination of poor nutrition, abysmal sanitation, inadequate shelter and the commingling of young men with limited immunities turned military camps into vast incubators of disease and, if anything, their primitive hospitals were even worse.  As noted above, 10 out 22 of the 5th Company’s nine-month draftees were sick within a month of their arrival at Valley Forge.  Many of the ill simply went home, where the care was better and they weren’t a burden on their comrades.  Overall, only seven of the May men were not listed as sick at some point, and three of those deserted or were discharged early. 

John Parry would finish out his enlistment at Nobletown, remaining on the rolls as sick through the winter   Overall it was a period of little military action and in November, Clinton dispatched 5,000 redcoat troops for St. Lucia. The war as a whole had become a struggle on the high seas and control of the West Indies trade was more vital to British interests then reconquest of their troublesome American colonies.    

On February 13, 1779, John Parry was discharged from service in the Continental Army.  Even with his prolonged illness, he had been fit for duty more than most of his fellow May recruits, less than half of whom would make it for the full nine months with some incapacitated the entire time.  He returned to Coxsackie where he married four months later.  For John Parry, his fighting days were over. 

The War at Home 

Yet the war was not over, though the contest between the main armies now shifted to the southern states.  In October, an extensive siege – aided by the Comte d’ Estaing’s fleet –failed to recapture Savannah, Georgia which had been taken by the British the previous Christmas (though it would make Polish count Casimir Pulaski an American martyr.)  This was followed by the redcoat conquest of Charleston under Clinton; he returned north in June 1780 and left Charles, Lord Cornwallis in charge.  Over the next year, Cornwallis would aggressively pursue the American forces across the Carolinas, defeating them at Camden that August (where Horatio Gates, hero of Saratoga, disgracefully fled the field), losing to them at Cowpens in January, and then winning a costly “victory” at Guilford Court House in March.   

By the summer of 1781, Cornwallis was in Virginia where he met up with an expedition initiated by the turncoat Arnold, and joined him destroying military stores, tobacco and other goods in that rich, until-now unscathed state.  Word that the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse was sailing for Chesapeake Bay led Washington – still encamped in New York at Peekskill – to head south in August.  Along with substantial reinforcements from France, he marched a smaller contingent of his Continentals down to join up with forces under La Fayette and corner Cornwallis.  The brash British commander, his supply route blockaded by de Grasse, found himself in a trap not unlike the one that snared Burgoyne exactly four years before, and after three-week siege, Cornwallis faced the same outcome.  Among those manning the lines outside Yorktown was the 2nd New York, and thus it was witness to this second great surrender while the bands of the defeated played “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Before then though, the regiment had been engaged in the continuing warfare along the western frontier.  Based in Fort Niagara, an alliance of British, Loyalists and warriors from the Six Nations repeatedly struck at isolated American settlements along the Susquehanna and Mohawk valleys.  Attacks at Wyoming, Pennsylvania and German Flats, New York were followed by the patriots’ destruction of the Iroquois town of Unadilla, which then led to a massacre of settlers in Cherry Valley.  The escalating violence produced growing demands for action, like those of the residents of Rochester quoted above, and in February 1779 Congress ordered Washington to respond.  He dispatched two divisions under John Sullivan, a huge force that included Poor’s brigade (it would be Enoch’s last campaign; he was shot the next year during a duel with a fellow officer at Hackensack, New Jersey) as well as the New York brigade, to which the 2nd Regiment was now assigned.  The payroll documenting John Parry’s discharge was written on June 30 from the shores of Ostego Lake, near Cooperstown, as his old company was about to join in three months of destruction that laid waste to all the Iroquois lands of western New York. 

That orgy of retribution, however, failed in its main purpose of pacifying the region and the next two years would witness a repeating cycle of stealthy attacks, burnings and lootings, scalping and kidnappings on both sides.  When the King’s forces reduced a settlement to ashes but left the homes of Loyalists untouched, their displaced neighbors would quickly show up and burn them down.  Much of the fighting on the patriot side was conducted by local militia and state troops “levied” out of them (including some familiar names from the Coxsackie regiment) but the Continentals were also involved.  In March 1781, a company from the 2nd New York was cut off and captured near Fort Stanwix.  The fighting would continue even after the regiment joined Washington’s march to Virginia; the last battle on the Mohawk was fought one week after the Yorktown surrender. 

Such partisan warfare was imbued with a ferocity that could only stem from the intense hatreds of civil war.  Throughout the Revolution, New York had remained a divided society and it has been estimated that, over the course of the war, it provided more native sons as troops to the British than to the American forces.  When a King’s man left to join up with a Loyalist regiment, his home and goods were likely to be seized and family members held captive; patriot property fared little better where the redcoats ruled (which included the entire New York City area for most of the war.)  Even in the generally patriotic settlements of the middle Hudson like Coxsackie, loyalties were fiercely divided.  While the Halenbecks on the flats near Lunenberg were patriots, their relatives up the river at Klinkenberg were well-known Tories.  The old stone house of Jacob Halenbeck, the uncle of John Parry who been captain of the local militia before the war, “was a great resort to which the friends of the royal government were much more welcome than the agents of the Continental Congress.” 

Not surprisingly, political affiliation often aligned with material interests.  This is well illustrated by Ethan Allen, hero of the victory at Fort Ticonderoga in 1775.  Before the war, the Connecticut-born Allen had been a land speculator in the wilderness between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain, what is now the state of Vermont.  At the time it was territory claimed by both the colonies of New York and New Hampshire, the latter granting title for much of it to Allen’s land company.  When Albany aristocrats like Lord Livingston also asserted their claims, the dispute turned vicious.  In 1772, Allen with his cousins Seth Warner and Remember Baker declared war on New York, forming the original Green Mountain Boys (to the Yorkers, they would be known as the “Outlaws of the New Hampshire Grants” or simply the “Bennington Mob.”)  The royalist New York Assembly had in fact declared them outside the law and sent a militia force after them not long before Lexington and Concord.

Consequently, it is little surprise that Allen and his band quickly allied with his fellow New Englanders against the King, a battle they fought first and foremost against New Yorkers.  One such victim of their wrath was Thomas Wiltse, a Yorker of long Knickerbocker ancestry who settled near Bennington in 1768.  There he married a second cousin and rented from Livingston; a few years later his father, Jeremiah, would bring along his family by second wife Mary Smith to join him.  Once the war began, Allen’s men felt no constraint in targeting those “sympathizing with the government of the colony of New York.”  After they stole his stock, Jeremiah Wiltse packed up and headed south to stay with relations in Nobletown.  Son Thomas left his wife and young family in care of his father-in-law and went to stay with cousins near Fishkill.  While he was away, Allen’s overgrown hot-head of a cousin Remember Baker showed up, threw Elizabeth Wiltse and her children out of their house, which he ransacked and then leveled.   

With some great irony, Thomas would later join up with the “Mutual Protection Society of Dutchess County” to attack a Loyalist camp in October 1776 and while returning with the spoils of their successful raid, was intercepted by some of Washington’s troops who arrested them for “embezzlement of government property.”  Thomas would be held for several days in the Old Dutch Church at Fishkill, the same spot where he and his siblings had been christened years earlier, before being released. (By then Baker had met a grisly end, having been shot and decapitated while spying along the Richelieu River near St. John’s, Canada.) 

All of this was too much for young Benoni Wiltse, Thomas’s half-brother and firstborn son of Jeremiah and Mary.  “Having experienced mistreatment and the resulting hardship of contact with the Bennington Mob,” Benoni decided to enlist with the King’s army.  According to Loyalist records, he first joined the British forces in August 1777, having just turned 19 (two years younger than John Parry.)  At the time Burgoyne was actively seeking to fill the ranks of his Queen’s Loyal Rangers, headed up by Connecticut-born, ex-Vermonter John Peters.  One of the aims of the Bennington expedition had been to “complete Peters’s corps.”  Subsequently the Rangers fought as part of Fraser’s division in both battles on Freeman’s Farm, and would share its fate at Saratoga.  (If Benoni Wiltse had been on the battlefield, he would have stood across the lines from John Parry, the great-great grandfather of the future wife to his own great-grandson.) 

Like other local recruits, Benoni apparently slipped away before being marched off to Boston.  According to his later claims with the British government, he had his own farm at the time of 120 acres (though just 16 were cleared) on the Manor of Rensselaerwick, in what is now Nassau Township, 14 miles southeast of Albany.  He lost his home and, along with his younger brother James, would spend next six years at war, serving as a scout and spy for the Loyal Rangers, where he would rise in rank to sergeant by the end of the conflict.  Though his specific exploits went unrecorded, family memories mention Cherry Valley and that he piloted other parties in their frontier battles.  His father, Jeremiah Wiltse, would choose to remain in Albany County, settling at South Bethlehem. 

After the war, Benoni and James left for Canada and were among the first Loyalist refugees to settle in Ontario along the St. Lawrence River.  There he was joined by other family from New York and became an esteemed founding father in Yonge Township.  He built the first grain and saw mills, became a captain of the local militia, grand master of the Masonic Lodge, and even gave his name to the settlement of “Wiltsetown,” the modern day Athens, Ontario.  (The local branch of the United Empire Loyalist Association has recently restored the Wiltse family graveyard, unearthing Benoni’s headstone and memorializing his service to the Crown with a brass plaque and fluttering Union Jack.)  

Yet even among the Wiltse family, loyalties were divided.  When Jeremiah and his sons sought safety from the Bennington Mob, they went to stay with his brother Cornelius at Nobletown (the same community where John Parry convalesced in the winter of 1778-79.)  Yet this same Cornelius Wiltse would go on to captain a company of the 8th Albany County militia regiment, enlisting his five sons as privates to fight for the American cause – all first cousins of Benoni and James.  Other uncles, cousins and more distant kin would fill the patriot ranks and the Wiltse name is well sprinkled among the muster rolls of the New York county militias, state levies and Continental Line.

As the war lingered on, political differences would turn bitter and the results were often ugly.  After Burgoyne’s invasion, the Committee of Safety in Albany ordered “every Tory and disaffected person” removed to Connecticut; the next year the legislature would establish a Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies in the State of New York which took evidence from informants testifying against their neighbors.  Among the first to be fingered was Jacob Halenbeck, Jr., the Tory cousin of John Parry – he was released but required to post a very substantial bond to guarantee his good behavior throughout the war.  Even with the coming of peace, the enmity continued.  The Sons of Liberty agitated for the expulsion of all remaining New York Loyalists throughout 1784, and elected enough state delegates to enact harsh laws against those they considered disloyal to the American cause.

Meanwhile up in Vermont, disloyalty pervaded.  Ethan Allen’s captured during the 1775 invasion of Canada hardly stopped his brother and cousins from both their land speculation and harassment of Yorkers.  Imprisoned in England, Allen was spared the noose and eventually exchanged – he arrived at Valley Forge the same month as John Parry.  Designated a colonel in the Continental Army by Washington, he returned to Vermont to resume his legal and political machinations.  After being denied recognition as a separate state by the Congress (due to New York and New Hampshire influence), Allen would open negotiations with the Canadian governor to turn the Green Mountains into a British province.  As a result, the hero of Ticonderoga would be charged with treason by the U.S. government.  Never convicted, he would die in Burlington two years before Vermont became the first new state admitted to the union, in 1791. 

A Widow’s Mite Denied 

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 ended the Revolutionary War but it did not end revolutionary unrest in the new nation.  In addition to acts of retribution and demands to settle old grievances, there were many new ones brought on by the war: soldiers owed back pay and swindled out their land bounties, merchants holding worthless Continental paper money and international lenders demanding satisfaction in hard specie, new calls for freedom like an end to imprisonment over debt and even the abolition of slavery.  The patchwork alliance known as the Articles of Confederation proved inadequate for the security of the new rulers, leading to a stronger centralization of power in the 1787 Constitution.  This, too sparked heated debates over individual liberties and state rights, battles that would continue even after George Washington became the first President in 1789. 

Once back in Coxsackie though, the country’s turbulence did not have much impact on John Parry’s life.  In June 1779 he turned 23 and on the 15th of the month he married Elizabeth Buskirk, the 20 year-old daughter of Laurens (Van) Buskirk by his second wife, Annejte Brandeau.  Laurens had come up to the mid-Hudson from Bergen County, New Jersey, where a cousin of his would become a prominent Loyalist leader, and lieutenant colonel of the Third New Jersey Volunteers.  (Abraham Van Buskirk accompanied Benedict Arnold during his last mission of the war, a raid on New London, Connecticut in September 1781, which ended in the massacre of its local militia garrison, after they had surrendered.) 

Over the next two and a half decades, John and Elizabeth built a busy life together.  A true Jeffersonian yeoman (a non-slaveholding small landowning family farmer), he would be so designated on a 1797 jurors list.  His modest if growing prosperity would be denoted on the local tax rolls and an immodestly growing family on the church registers.  The first child, a son named Nicholas after his paternal grandfather, would be christened at the Coxsackie Reformed Church in December 1781.  By the end of that decade, he would have five more, with another eight offspring in next and the last, a daughter named after her 44 year-old mother, was christened in June 1804 (totaling 15 in all.) 

John Perry first appears on the local tax assessment list in 1788 – the new variant of his surname a result of the standard “American” spelling adopted by officials in the new republic.  His property was valued at 6 pounds in real estate with 5 pounds in personal holdings, considerably less than that of his a father and brother (who appear jointly on the tax rolls.)  Still John’s wealth put him in the top third of the district’s 264 taxpayers; those with no property, of course, do not even appear.  Together, his father Nicholas and brother Casper were among the most prosperous 10 percent.  Among their property was some number of slaves, according to the federal census two years later. 

By 1800, the value of John’s holdings nearly equaled those of his father.  Now a widower, Nicholas was living out his last years in his old stone home with a free man and five slaves.  (New York had only begun the gradual abolition or “manumission” of slavery the year before.)  Older brother Casper, listed separately with his own land, would inherit the slaves after his father passed and he still owned three of them ten years later.  Eventually “the place was left to William Van Hoesen, who took care of Mr. and Mrs. Parry in their old age, and it was his dwelling place for many years.”  Van Hoesen was recorded as holding one slave as a late as the 1820 census.   

While still quite comfortable, the rank of the Perrys had fallen as a flood of New Englanders began to arrive in the last decade of the old century.  Some moved on to “military lands” of central New York while others became successful merchants along the Hudson – in 1800, there were three times more taxpayers in the district than ten years earlier.  This population boom led to the creation of Greene County that year, named after the Revolutionary War general, and ultimately the transformation of southern Coxsackie and northern Catskill into the Town of Athens, but only after Yankee speculators, using Livingston family money, tried but failed to establish a new community named “Esperanza” adjacent to the old settlement of Loonenburg.  

John Perry died in March 1805, not quite the age of 49.  He left his wife, Elizabeth, with property but many mouths to feed.  Three years later she would briefly remarry, to James Van Valkenburg, a widowed neighbor from another old time Knickerbocker family.  After he died, she would move in with her oldest son, Nicholas, with whose family she would live out rest of her life. He became a blacksmith, a busy trade after the Schoharie Turnpike was built in 1802 connecting their little settlement[4] with the Athens river landing and extending on into the interior.  It was a route traveled by many pioneer families heading west in those years, as well as the connection with the Hudson for those settlers sending their products back east. 

As the Revolutionary War passed into a collective gilded memory and the number of veterans died off, sentiment increased the nation’s generosity.  Pensions were eventually approved for all veterans of the war in 1832, and then four years later benefits were made available to their widows, if they had married a soldier while he was still in service.  In 1838 these were extended to the surviving wives even if they were wed afterwards, as was Elizabeth Perry Van Valkenburg.  On Christmas Eve 1841, she applied for the $20 annuity, a modest sum even then.  Still her claim was rejected; the official reason stated: “Evidence of identity wanted of claimant’s husband with the soldier credited on the comptroller’s certificate.” 

Aged 82 at the time, she would die without ever receiving a pension payment, the mite for a widow denied.  By then she would have a growing flock of great-grandchildren, including Nicholas N. Perry.  Two decades later, he would move his family from Greene County to Chicago where his daughter Sarah, my great-great grandmother, married William Wallace Kincaid, great-grandson of the Loyalist Benoni Wiltse in July 1877 – exactly one hundred years after their forefathers had signed up to kill each other.  

* * * * *


[1] The surviving payroll for Ten Eyck’s company at Valley Forge from May, 1778 is largely illegible, but the pay list from June has John Parry being owed for 1 month and 27 days, while the muster roll from that month shows him as enlisted on May 5.

[2] June 18, 1756 was the date Johannes Pare was christened at the Coxsackie Reformed Church

[3] The company muster roll dated September 4, 1778 has him on “furlough”; a second company roll from September 10, just six days later, lists him as “on command” – absent from camp on official business.

[4] Called “Collechberg” or “Colleburgh”, and later “Lime Street” after the numerous lime kilns along the Kalkberg.

 

    John Parry’s War

 

1 - Coxsackie

2 - Saratoga

3 - Valley Forge

4 - Barren Hill

5 - Monmouth

6 - North Castle

7 - Peekskill

8 - Nobletown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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