WESTMORELAND, N.H. -- Was Isaac Butterfield a patriot, a disgrace, or both?
More than 210 years after his death, most people probably wouldn't care enough to even ponder the question. But it is a name Charles Butterfield hopes to bring to the public consciousness with his book. After all, there's a good chance he and the subject are related.
Charles Butterfield has, with the help of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, recently published "In the Shadows of Cedars: The Life and Times of a Disgraced Citizen Soldier in Revolutionary Westmoreland, New Hampshire." It tells the true story of Maj. Isaac Butterfield and a little-known tale about the invasion of Canada during the American Revolution.
Thinking he might be related to the Isaac Butterfield, Charles tried to find out more about him and learned about this mission to Canada that "very few people are acquainted with." Charles explained that American colonists in 1775 were terrified the British, who controlled Canada at the time, would try to separate New England from the rest of the American colonies and stifle the revolution that was brewing.
"So they decided to invade Canada," Charles, who lives in Hinsdale, told the Reformer. "It was a terrible disaster. Thousands and thousands of people died or got sick. And Isaac Butterfield was in that group. But he had a rather special role in that mission. When he arrived in Canada, he was assigned to build a fort at a place called Cedars.
"The idea was that his fort would be able to protect Montreal, which was the American headquarters, from the British and Indians from the West, like Detroit and New York state -- the Great Lakes region," he continued. "So that was the purpose of this fort ... to prevent the British from retaking Montreal."
Though there is no official sketch of what Fort Cedars looked like, Charles Butterfield's great-nephew -- Charles H. McLean -- has drawn an artist's rendering of it based on descriptions in journal entries by men stationed there. There were about 390 men from New Hampshire and Connecticut as well as some women and children.
Before Maj. Butterfield could finish building the fort, it was attacked by a group of indigenous people under British leadership in 1776 and he surrendered it "rather quickly." Charles Butterfield explained the major had grown up during the French and Indian War and knew the indigenous people would not take prisoners.
"So he took the chance that the British officers would protect his men, and for the most part they did. The Indians ransacked the Americans -- took everything they had, all the clothes, and they may have killed four or five," he said. "And they kept the Americans captive for about 11 days and then there was a prisoner exchange worked out. So the Americans were released."
The mission in Canada was soon aborted and Maj. Butterfield was court-martialed for having surrendered the fort.
"He was very condemned. Thomas Jefferson called him a ‘scoundrel.' John Adams said he deserved ‘an infamous death,' and George Washington said he deserved ‘exemplary punishment,'" Charles said. "He was known by all the people in Congress, as well as all the military leadership of the revolution, because he was the first person to surrender American troops to the British. So that was kind of a momentous event. Even though, in my opinion, he had no choice."
Maj. Butterfield was "cashiered," or dismissed from the military, though he was not fined or imprisoned.
Charles Butterfield said the first half of his book pertains to how his possible ancestor got thrown into the situation and how he came to suffer disgrace, while the second half is about his life in Westmoreland after his dismissal. The author did extensive research and he believes the major (who was apparently a tavern keeper and farmer by trade) was received not as a coward, but as a hero, because by surrendering he saved the lives of many men from Westmoreland who were in his regiment.
Though he cannot confirm Maj. Butterfield's reception, Charles said his name started to appear in town records as being a member of various boards and committees within months of his return home, where he died in 1801 (at the age of 60) after being kicked by one of his horses.
Charles Butterfield told the Reformer he did about five years of research in the late 1990s, after retiring from his job as a chemistry teacher at Brattleboro Union High School. He said it took from 2000 to 2010 to get the book into its final form and after members of the Westmoreland Historical Society enjoyed reading the manuscripts, they approached the Historical Society of Cheshire County, which agreed to publish it.
Alan Rumrill, the executive director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, said Butterfield's book tells an interesting and important part of local history that has, for the most part, gone untold.
"I was not familiar with it and had no idea about the local connection," he said. "It was something extremely important politically and militarily at the time and it has been forgotten over time."
Copies of the book, published by Surry Cottage Books, will sell for $19.95 at retailers such as Everyone's Books in Brattleboro, Vt., and Toadstool Bookshop in Keene. However, the Historical Society of Cheshire County will for a short time offer a 20 percent discount at its location in Keene.
Charles Butterfield hopes the book will answer the questions many people asked him when he was on the lecture board of the Vermont Humanities Council.
"After talking maybe 30 or 40 minutes and as it was winding down, people would say, ‘Well what happened to Butterfield afterward?' And I would, maybe, in five minutes to try to cram his life into the remaining time," he recalled.
But Butterfield has his own question he would like answered. That's why he recently submitted his DNA to Family Tree DNA to determine if he is in fact a descendent of the subject of his book.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com; or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow Domenic on Twitter @dpoli_reformer