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This Day in History: A nearly forgotten “rabble-rouser” & Revolutionary War hero

On this day in 1800, Brigadier General John Lamb passes away. This Revolutionary War hero literally sacrificed years of his life (and even part of his eyesight) to the cause. Unfortunately, he would end his life in poverty, burdened with massive debts created by someone else.

John Lamb’s father arrived in America in the 1720s, possibly as an indentured servant. Anthony Lamb worked for years to resurrect his reputation and to build a business. Perhaps Anthony’s son learned lessons about the value of liberty and perseverance from watching his father? The younger Lamb was among the first to join the Sons of Liberty when tensions began to rise with Great Britain.


Lamb must have been something else during those days. One historian even describes him as a bit of a “rabble-rouser”!


Indeed, when the “shot heard round the world” was fired at Lexington, Lamb sprang into action. He was at the forefront of the Patriots who marched down to New York harbor, occupied the customs house, and prevented ships from leaving the harbor. They also seized military supplies.


The war was on. And Lamb was right in the thick of it.


He was made captain of an artillery company, and he joined an early expedition to conquer Canada. Unfortunately, Lamb was among those wounded and captured at the Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775. One of his injuries permanently robbed him of sight in one eye.


You’d think that being badly wounded and captured might dampen his enthusiasm? But it didn’t.


As soon as Lamb was paroled and released to fight, he helped raise another company of men with the assistance of Benedict Arnold (not yet a traitor). Mere months later, Lamb was wounded again. Grapeshot hit him near his spine, leaving him so badly wounded that some at first thought him dead.


He wasn’t. He recovered and went back to the Army. Again.


Lamb was later assigned to West Point, where he continued to work with Arnold. Lamb and Arnold had been friends, so you can imagine that Lamb felt doubly betrayed when Arnold’s treachery was discovered. He was furious with his former friend and reportedly averred that if Arnold “were to be hanged to-morrow, I would go barefooted to witness his execution.”


Perhaps Lamb got his revenge on Arnold at Yorktown? Lamb knew quite a lot about artillery by then and was valued in the Continental Army for that expertise. During the siege of Yorktown, he was second in command of artillery, directing much of the bombardment that convinced Lord Cornwallis to finally surrender to George Washington. Lamb’s work was commended, and he soon earned a promotion to Brigadier General.


Unfortunately for Lamb, his distinguished service in the Army was followed by a less distinguished civil career. He’d been appointed to serve as Collector of Customs for the Port of New York. Sadly, Lamb ended up getting pretty sick. He was still the official collector, but many of his responsibilities were passed on to a chief clerk.


Perhaps Lamb should have resigned instead? His clerk took advantage of the situation. It’s believed that he embezzled large sums of money, then fled the country. Lamb was considered personally responsible for these funds, since he was still officially the collector. He sold his property to cover the debt, but it wasn’t enough. He would continue to struggle to repay the debt until his death in 1800.


What a sad ending for the Brigadier General who had already given so much for his country.

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