Samuel Holden Parsons (May 14, 1737 – November 17, 1789) was an American lawyer, jurist, general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and a pioneer to the Ohio Country. Parsons was described as “Soldier, scholar, judge, one of the strongest arms on which Washington leaned, who first suggested the Continental Congress, from the story of whose life could almost be written the history of the Northern War” by Senator George F. Hoar of Massachusetts
Parsons was born in Lyme, Connecticut, the son of Jonathan Parsons and Phoebe (Griswold) Parsons. At the age of nine, his family moved to Newburyport, Massachusetts, where his father, an ardent supporter of the First Great Awakening, took charge of the town’s new Presbyterian congregation.
Parsons graduated from Harvard College in 1756 and returned to Lyme to study law in the office of his uncle, Connecticut governor Matthew Griswold (governor). He was admitted to the bar in 1759, and started his law practice in Lyme. In 1761, he married Mehitabel Mather (1743–1802), a great-great-great-granddaughter of Rev. Richard Mather. Well-connected politically, he was elected to the General Assembly in 1762, where he remained a representative until his removal to New London.
Actively involved in the resistance against British forces on the eve of the Revolution, he was a member of New London’s Committee of Correspondence. In March 1772, he wrote to Massachusetts leader Samuel Adams, suggesting a congress of the colonies: “I take the liberty to propose for your consideration”, he wrote, “whether it would not be advisable in the present critical situation to revive an institution which formerly had a very salutary effect – I mean an annual meeting of commissioners from the colonies to consult on their general welfare.”
Parsons went on to suggest that the time for discussing colonial independence from Britain was at hand: “The idea of inalienable allegiance to any prince or state, is an idea to me inadmissible; and I cannot but see that our ancestors, when they first landed in America, were as independent of the crown or king of Great Britain, as if they hade never been his subjects; and the only rightful authority derived to him over this people, was by explicit covenant contained in the first charters.”
In April 1775, immediately after the battles of Lexington and Concord, Parsons, along with colleagues in the Connecticut legislature, began promoting a project to take Fort Ticonderoga from the British, securing commitments of both public and private funds to underwrite the expedition.
Like most active politicians of the period, Parsons served as a militia leader. He was appointed Major of the 14th Connecticut, Militia Regiment in 1770. In 1775, he was commissioned Colonel of the 6th Connecticut Regiment, a new regiment raised “for the special defence and safety of the Colony”. In June he was ordered to lead his regiment to Boston, where he fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. He remained in Boston until the British evacuated the city in March 1776.
In August 1776 Congress appointed Parsons Brigadier General in the Continental Army. He was ordered to New York with his brigade of about 2,500 men. Stationed in Brooklyn, Parsons was in the thick of the fighting with British troops under Lord Sterling at Battle Hill on August 17, 1776. He took part in the Council of War on August 29, at which it was decided to retreat from New York. Parsons successfully transported his men from Long Island, joining the main body of the army as it withdrew from the city.
While in New York, Parsons played a central role in the American efforts to destroy the British fleet. David Bushnell, an inventor from Connecticut, had devised a submarine called the Turtle which he planned to use to place torpedoes on British ships. Parsons selected his brother-in-law, Captain Ezra Lee, to undertake this risky mission. Lee succeeded in reaching the British flagship Eagle undetected, but was unable to attach the torpedo to its hull. The bomb exploded, much to the consternation of the British, but without causing any harm to the ship.
After the retreat from New York, Parsons’ brigade was assigned to General Israel Putnam’s division north of the city. He fought in the battle of White Plains. In January 1777, he returned to Connecticut to help recruit the Connecticut Line to bolster depleted Continental forces. He led raids on Loyalist enclaves on Long Island, and took part in efforts to defend Connecticut towns against raids by British forces under General William Tryon. He organized the raid led by Return Jonathan Meigs against Sag Harbor in retaliation for Tryon’s raid on Danbury, and led a failed assault on Setauket, New York in August 1777.
In the winter of 1777–78, Parsons took command of West Point, and began building its fortifications. At the end of 1778, he joined Connecticut troops at winter quarters in Redding. In December 1779, Parsons took command of Putnam’s Division, and spent the following months recruiting, training, and trying to engage British General Sir Henry Clinton in battle. The high point of this period was the discovery, in September 1780, of Benedict Arnold’s treacherous scheme to surrender West Point to the British. Parsons served on the board of officers which tried Arnold’s accomplice, Major John André, and ultimately sentenced him to death.
On October 23, 1780 Parsons was promoted to Major General. In the winter of 1781 he helped suppress the mutinies of soldiers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and took part in efforts to clear out Tory militias in Westchester, north of New York. After months of containing the British troops in New York, American forces, now bolstered by French reinforcements, departed for Virginia. Parsons and his troops were left behind to keep the British contained.