Jacob Ritter and a Vision of Light, 1777
The Battle of the Brandywine,September 11, 1777, was fought in the midst of a largely Quaker inhabited region of Pennsylvania, and the major clash between the British and Patriot forces took place around the Birmingham Friends Meetinghouse. While the battlefield site and museum recall the single day of conflict, the presence ofBirminghamand Old Kennett Friends meetinghouses should recall a commitment to peace. While September 11, 1777, was for most a day of battle, for one twenty year old Pennsylvania soldier, it was the beginning of a commitment to peace. Among the solders defending the crossing at Chadds Ford was Jacob Ritter from Bucks County. Jacob was the child of German immigrants who came to America as indentured servants. He had youthful doubts about war, but his misgivings were overcome by a sermon from his Lutheran pastor on the duty of “standing in defense of our country against our enemies.” In 1777, Jacob Ritter took up a musket and joined the American Army.
In September 1777, Ritter’s regiment spent several days erecting batteries in the vicinity of Chadd’s Ford. On September 11, they were awakened by General Washington himself telling him to be ready as the British army was nearly upon them. Here follows Jacob Ritter’s description of the battle written fifty years later.
“General orders were given for every company to maintain its ranks, and each man to keep his place. An awful pause preceded the engagement, and some of us stood in solemn silence. I then remembered what I had seen and felt of the mercies of God, and was afresh convinced that it was contrary to the Divine Will for a christian to fight. I was sensible in my own heart that I had done wrong in taking up arms, and the terrors of the Lord fell upon me. I then secretly supplicated the Almighty for preservation, covenanting that if he would be pleased to deliver me from shedding the blood of my fellow-creatures that day, I would never fight again. Then the love of God was shed abroad in my heart, and all fear of man was entirely taken away; and throughout the engagement I remained perfectly calm, though the bombshells and shot feel round me like hail, cutting down my comrades on every side, and tearing off the limbs of the trees like a whirlwind; and the very roots quaked, and the hills that surrounded us seemed to tremble with the roar of cannon.
“It happened that the standing troops were called into action before the militia of which the brigade that I belonged to was partly composed. – Towards evening, (for the battle lasted from sunrise to sunset,) our battalion was ordered to march forward to the charge. Our way was over the dead and dying, and I saw many bodies crushed to pieces beneath the wagons, and we were bespattered with blood. But no orders were given to use our small arms, and thus I was enabled to rejoice, that though I was provided with sixty cartridges, I did not discharge my musket once that day. Forever magnified be the God of my life that I was mercifully delivered from spilling the blood of my fellow-creatures!
“As we had to march directly under the English cannon which kept up a continual fire, the destruction of our men was very great, andWashingtoncalled out to us: “Men, retreat; it is not worth while to sacrifice so many lives.” It was now drawing toward night, and we retreated as well as we could. I took shelter in the woods, and having found a thick grape-vine, crept under it, and worn out with hunger and fatigue, fell sound asleep.
“The next morning I crawled out of my hiding place, and a sense of my forlorn condition covered my mind. I knew I had sinned in entering into the war, and no man in going to execution could have felt more remorse. I went along until I came to a little cottage were dwelt a Dutch woman. I entered at a venture and begged her to give me a little broth, for I had not tasted a mouthful of food for two days. She took pity on me and gave me some, but I had scarcely done eating it, when a party of Hessians came in and took me prisoner. War-worn and weary as I was, they marched me before them, beating me most unmercifully with the butts of their guns, and occasionally placing their bayonets at my breast; they swore they would kill me on the spot because I was a rebel. In this trial I experienced heavenly Goodness to be near, and again all fear of death was taken away.
“They took me to the Hessian General, Count Donop, who, after much rough language, ordered me to be put under the provost-captain, and with a number of other prisoners of war, I was marched toPhiladelphiaand lodged in prison.”
In his later years, Jacob Ritter the Quaker minister often spoke of his experiences at the Battle of Brandywine. Before his death in 1841, he revisited the battlefield. “He said he had been very recently on the ground, and saw the hills, the rock and the trees that brought back the remembrance of the awful scene he witnessed, when the desolations of war were about him, when the shrieks of the wounded and the groans of the dying were ringing in his ears.”
But if the battle was terrible, the treatment of Ritter and his fellow captives afterwards may have been worse. “The weather was cold, the glass in the jail windows was broken out, and he was compelled to lodge on bear ground, almost literally without food and clothing. Many of his fellow-prisoners actually starved to death, and some of them died with a little grass half chewed in their mouths.” Ritter was offered a “whole handful of English guineas” to join the British service, and was beaten cruelly when he refused. Ritter was finally released, possibly at the intercession of Friends. In 1790, Ritter, then living in Philadelphia, joined the Society of Friends. In 1794, his wife died and Ritter moved with his children back toBucksCounty.
But Jacob Ritter was not free of war-time animosity. “While a widower, I went regularly to Friends’ meetings, and many were my trials and exercises, both inwardly and outwardly. It would often occur to my mind as I sat in meeting, that when I was a prisoner in the revolutionary war, I had vowed revenge upon those Englishmen and Hessians, who had so cruelly beaten and abused me, and I would secretly petition my Heavenly father to forgive them, and to point out some way to overcome those feelings.”
Then Ritter had a vision. “One night it appeared to me that I stood in my rank in the army, with my gun on my shoulder and when I remembered I belonged to Friends’ Society whose principle was peace to all mankind, I thought how inconsistent it was for me still to wear regimentals, and carry my weapons of war.” Ritter threw his arms down and ran until he was too tired to run further and then he fell asleep under an oak. The vision continued with Ritter waking to the light.
“When I awoke, methought I found myself in great darkness, and was at a loss to know what to do, when suddenly I saw a great light before me, and was commanded to arise and follow that light. I did so, and it led me safely; for I observed that whenever my road was rough and difficult, the blessed light drew near, and distinctly showed me how to step; and when the path was good, it removed to a greater distance before me. Thus traveling forward I was led down hill in order to pass over a frightful desert: the light now hovered about my head, and shed such a brightness on my path that I could distinctly see numberless reptiles, and noxious vermin about my feet, but they fled from the light and hid themselves, and I stepped from one sod to another unhurt, and thus got safely over this dismal place.
“My guiding light now began to ascend a hill and I followed it; but I was now so wearied with my long travels, that I was obliged to climb up the mountain on my hands and feet.
“When the vision was gone I came to myself, and was sensible that the Christian principle in my own breast had entirely overcome that spirit of war and revenge, which had so long troubled me, even in meetings; and I was enabled to forgive my enemies, even those who had so greatly abused me while I was a prisoner wholly in their power, and unable to defend myself. Yes! And I forgave them from my very heart, loved them freely and could have received them as brothers.”
About this time, Jacob Ritter was acknowledged as a minister in the Society of Friends. He remarried in 1802, and in 1812 moved with his family from Springfield, BucksCounty, to Plymouth Meeting in Delaware County, where he was a member of Gwynedd Monthly Meeting. Ritter died in 1841, sixty-four years after the Battle of Brandwine. “In conversation, he frequently related the events of that day, with expressions of gratitude to the Father of mercies, who then clearly showed to him the sinfulness of all wars and fightings, who took away all fear of man from him; who plucked him as a brand from the burning; and led him safely along through deep suffering.”
The story of Jacob Ritter is taken from the Memoirs of Jacob Ritter, a Faithful Minister in the Society of Friends, compiled by Joseph Foulke, and published in Philadelphia by T.E. Chapman in 1844. Further information can be found in the “Memorial of Gwynedd Monthly Meeting, Concerning Jacob Ritter,” published in the Friends Intelligencer 11 (3 Mo. 17, 1855): 817-9.
Christopher Densmore, Curator
Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College