Joseph Pettingall, a life-long resident of Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts served the patriot cause during the Revolutionary War. Born about 1751, he spent at least three years in the service of his newly formed country between 1777 and 1780.
During the war, he suffered as much as any Continental soldier probably ever did. His Compiled Military Service Record clearly shows that he spent a terrible winter between 1777 and 1778 at Valley Forge while in Captain Joseph Hodgkin’s Company, Colonel Timothy Bigelow’s 15th Regiment Massachusetts Bay Forces (Infantry). He survived that winter to serve two more years and was discharged in 1780.
After his arduous tour of duty Joseph returned to his hometown where he tried to resume his former life. He married, had at least two daughters and became a baker. A stagecoach accident in 1806 left him injured and unable to work. In 1818 he applied for a pension from the Federal government based on his Revolutionary War service. He was pensioned at $8.00 per month based on the length of his service and need. By this time, he possessed no real estate and his personal property consisted of two tables, three chairs, six knives and forks and one old bible valued at $0.50.
There is a little doubt why, several years later in 1824, he needed even more assistance, this time from the town of Salem. Joseph had tried his hand at being a shoemaker, but was not very successful. The assistance came in the form of an appointed guardian, an upright, sober and upstanding citizen of the town who would look after Joseph’s interests and more importantly, cash his pensioner’s check for him. The town appointed Jesse Smith, a “gentleman” to serve in this capacity, because Joseph had been “…given to excessive drinking and idleness”. He was a subject of willing charity and therefore not scorned for his so-called vicious habits of inebriation and sloth. As a Patriot, he had obviously suffered during the war, and had the trust and compassion of his community and the Federal government. They seemed willing to forgive a minor indiscretion for the sake of his prior service and the respect shown Patriots like him who had sacrificed everything for the cause.
In later times, after the Civil War, the examiners of the pension office viewed drinking copiously, taking drugs, or engaging in other illicit activity as vicious habits that endangered the pensioners health and the reputation of the pension office. As years went by and the agents and examiners who had witnessed the Revolution, or who family who had served, grew old, and memories of the Revolution grew dim, patience and tolerance for the indiscretions of the pensions diminished. At a time, just having been at Valley Forge was enough to grant the pensioners great indulgences, but by the time of the Civil War, when the pension rolls doubled, tripled, and increased exponentially, those indulgences disappeared.
NARA M881, roll 455, RG93, Compiled service records of soldiers who served in the American Army during the Revolutionary War, 1775-1783.
NARA M804. RG15, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files; Pettingall, pension certificate #S33452
Pension Payment Voucher, NARA RG217, Auditors of the Treasury, entry 721 Accounts of Pension Agents, box 1342.