by John Williams Haley

Hero of the Revolution.

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. III, pages 142-145, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1939. Transcribed by Beth Hurd for non-commercial use only.

Gravestone of Captain Stephen Olney.

March 17th is not only St. Patrick's Day, but it is also the anniversary of that ever-to-be remembered day in American history when the British departed from Boston for an unknown destination, a departure that brought joy to the hearts of Massachusetts folks and fear into hearts of Rhode Islanders. It was all very well for the hated enemy force to relieve Boston of its unwelcome presence but it must have been terrifying to the patriots living in these parts when rumors had it that the next stop was to be Narragansett Bay. History reveals that such was not the objective of the British army, although later invasions proved to be supremely annoying for Rhode Islanders. Let us turn to the pages of local annals that have to do with the exciting days of the War for Independence and consider the Olneys, a Rhode Island family descended from Thomas Olney, a contemporary of Roger Williams, and a joint proprietor in the "Providence Purchase." The family of Olney of Rhode Island gave to the war of the Revolution the services of four of its members. Stephen, who became a Captain; Jeremiah who attained the rank of Colonel; Christopher who became a Major; and Coggeshall Olney, who also became a Major. These men all performed notable war service for their country and left honorable records. This account will treat of the first of these, Stephen, who is regarded by historians as an outstanding hero.

Stephen Olney was born in the town of North Providence on September 17, 1756, the very year that his future Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, paid his first visit to Rhode Island, stopping with his friends in Newport for a day or two on his way to Boston. The first nineteen years of Stephen's life were spent on a farm, a life which he loved and intended to pursue, amid plenty of rural comforts and in quiet. Never had the sound of war or contention of any kind disturbed his own or his family's happiness or simple order of existence. He married young, in his twentieth year, and had complacently settled down to pass his allotted days in cultivating the soil on his farm, in rearing a family, and walking in the footsteps of his father.

The only military inclination in his character that can be discerned previous to his entrance into the national struggle is the record of his membership in the North Providence Rangers, one of the several patriotic military companies that were organized in Rhode Island, their object being "to learn military tactics and to be prepared to act in defense of our country's rights."

Immediately following the receipt of the news telling of what happened at Lexington and Concord, Rhode Island lost no time in organizing three regiments and in sending them into the front lines, so to speak. Stephen Olney, farm boy and private in the North Providence Rangers, was appointed an Ensign in one of these regiments commanded by Colonel Hitchcock. This was called the second regiment and Ensign Olney was assigned to a company [under the] command of Captain John Angell. Olney's own observation on this military assignment is interesting. He said in part: "Who recommended me I do not know; but it was not by my own intercession, but perhaps they chose me because they could get no better, so many were deterred from embarking in the cause for fear they might be hanged for rebels by order of our then gracious Sovereign, George III. I accepted this commission with much diffidence as to my qualifications; my education was but common for that day, and worst of all, what I had learned was mostly wrong." He added, "I had no fear that our gracious Sovereign would think me worth hanging for a rebel."

After the period of exasperating delays in Rhode Island when loyalty to the crown in high places created strong opposition to all measures taken by friends of liberty, Governors Wanton and Sessions retired, the one to his farm and the other to his business, and then General Nathanael Greene's little Rhode Island Army of three regiments received official orders to depart for the scene of action. On May 1, 1775, Colonel Hitchcock's regiment paraded to the North Providence meeting-house where prayers were said, blessings given, the last fond embrace and fevered shake of the hand exchanged, and the little band prepared to march to Roxbury, Massachusetts, on the following day.

After a tedious hike of about forty miles the three regiments of Rhode Island infantry and one company of artillery found themselves near Boston, the redcoats in sight, strongly fortified, and in a much better situation than they had imagined. They encamped on Jamaica Plain, some little distance southwest of Roxbury, where they were drilled to military and camp duties until the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17th. The Rhode Island troops were subjected to a heavy bombardment during the memorable battle, and this showering of shells upon the Roxbury area was probably an enemy attempt to draw attention from what was going on at Bunker Hill. Stephen Olney wrote some very interesting comments on the scene when "The Rhode Island troops were drawn up just within reach of their (the enemy) shells, and not being acquainted with those sort of missiles, it was with great difficulty that the men could be kept in the ranks, especially when they imagined a shell was about to light on their heads."

Between Bunker Hill in the Spring [sic—summer] of '75 and the day of evacuation in March 1776 was that tiresome period of entrenching, pot-shot fighting, arduous war camp duties, frightful epidemics, and untold suffering on the part of soldiers and civilians alike. Washington finally arrived with reserves, competent officers, and the inspiration of leadership. A new army had been organized. Stephen Olney, already distinguished for his gallantry and military ability, was promoted to the commission of First Lieutenant and was attached to a regiment that had Colonel Daniel Hitchcock, Lieutenant Colonel Cornell and Major Israel Angell as field officers.

Soon after March 17th the troops, including many of the Rhode Islanders who had re-enlisted, were ordered to New York. They marched by way of Providence where they halted, and Lieutenant Stephen Olney obtained leave to visit and stay one night with his family. This he says "was the first favor of the kind since I engaged in the army, and previous to this, I had never been from home more than twenty-four hours at a time in my life." Olney's regiment was next stationed on Long Island, at Brooklyn Heights. Here the men were kept busy erecting fortifications and also active in driving away small parties of enemy marauders who robbed the inhabitants of whatever hands could be laid upon. Lieutenant Olney was one of a party that captured seven or eight of these roving foragers one night, and from them some most important information was gained.

Olney was cited for bravery in the Battle of Long Island and in the clash with the British forces at Harlem. Unfortunately, his company was delayed on the march and it was a little too late in crossing the Delaware River to assist in the Christmas Day fighting at Trenton. At that time the enlistments of the three Rhode Island regiments expired and it was said that Washington expressed regret that he was to lose valuable men upon whom he could always depend for active fighting. By special request of General Mifflin who earnestly requested that the Rhode Islanders remain at the front for at least one more month, the local regiments enlisted to a man. Because of this unselfish display of patriotism, these loyal Rhode Islanders were with Washington in the second battle at Trenton, and they helped score the decisive victory of Princeton. In the latter engagement Stephen Olney earned for himself the honors that entitle him to be immortalized as a hero. Colonel James Monroe of the Pennsylvania troops fell wounded when he attempted to rally his disorganized ranks. It was in the beginning of the battle when the Pennsylvanians were driven back by the enemy and they rushed through the ranks of the Rhode Island regiment. Captain Jeremiah Olney's company was in formation just behind the Pennsylvania contingent and as the latter retreated, he stopped some of them and compelled them to form in rank. Stephen Olney observed what had happened, rushed to the aid of the fallen Colonel Monroe, raised and carried him to a place of safety. It all happened in a minute, for Stephen was soon back again in the thick of the fighting, but little did he realize that he had just borne a future President of the United States in his arms. Colonel Monroe was the fifth President and he was in office at the time when the Providence Institution for Savings was founded. It has been said that Stephen Olney never spoke or wrote of this act of battlefield heroism except when closely questioned, thereby marking him as a true hero, unspoiled by ostentation and boasting.

Shortly thereafter he returned to the quiet farm in North Providence for a brief visit and was then informed that he had been elected to the rank of Captain. He rejoined Washington's army at Peekskill, fought with great valor at the Battle of Red Bank, and spent part of that terrible winter with the suffering patriots at Valley Forge. He participated in the Battle of Monmouth and came home with the Rhode Island regiment to take part in the action at Portsmouth. He was later wounded in the left arm at the Battle of Springfield.

At Yorktown, where General Cornwallis and his veteran British Army had been surrounded by the American troops and their French allies, Captain Olney's Rhode Island company was selected by General Washington to lead the charge. Over the parapet he went, leading his men against the enemy; he met stubborn resistance and was severely wounded in the encounter that followed. Although weak from the loss of blood, he continued to fight on and encourage his men who forced their way into the fortifications and drove out the British. He formed his troops in orderly fashion inside the fort and then fell to the earth apparently stricken with mortal wounds. But he recovered quickly, and in a few weeks he was back with his regiment. In March, 1781, he resigned his commission.

Captain Olney was a member of the General Assembly and President of the Town Council at North Providence. He lived long enough to participate in the greeting extended to Lafayette when the latter visited America in 1824. He died in 1832 and was buried in the family burial ground on his own North Providence farm.

Return to Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island index.

John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

Editor's Notes

The "ever-to-be remembered day... when the British departed from Boston," in case you forgot it, was March 17, 1776. The Brits hightailed it because American forces had taken Dorchester Heights, a strategic spot overlooking the city.

Olneyville in Providence was named for Major Christopher Olney.

North Providence was not set apart as its own town until 1765. Therefore, Stephen Olney was actually born in Providence.

Colonel Hitchcock is probably Daniel Hitchcock (1740-1777), a Providence lawyer. It's considered possible that he was one of the raiders who was present at the burning of the Gaspee on June 9, 1772, although he afterward denied it in a letter to the Gaspee Commission of Inquiry. In 1776 he was in command of the 11th Rhode Island Infantry. He died on January 13, 1777, shortly after the Battle of Trenton, New Jersey, of "peripneumony."

We've so far been unable to positively identify Captain John Angell, as his is a pretty common name.

According to The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn by Henry P. Johnston (1878), Lieutenant Colonel Cornell was Ezekiel Cornell of Scituate, "whose habit of reprimanding the men for every neglect... won for him the title of 'Old Snarl' throughout the camp." After completion of his military service he became a member of Congress and served on the Board of War.

The Olney family burial ground (now historical cemetery #6), where Stephen Olney lies at rest, is located on Smithfield Road in North Providence.

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This article last edited April 3, 2008

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