“Butchered him with the greatest Barbarity” – The tragic death of Bartholomew Yates

John Trumbull’s painting depicts the mortal wounding of General Hugh Mercer, but one of those Americans mortally wounded was Lt. Bartholomew Yates.

Perhaps one of the most tragic and brutal stories from the Ten Crucial Days is the death of young Lieutenant Bartholomew Yates. Yates was an 18 year old officer in the 1st Virginia Regiment. He was originally from Gloucester County, Virginia, where his father Reverend Robert Yates was a minister of Petsworth Parish. He fought with his regiment at the Battle of Harlem Heights and at Trenton and Assunpink Creek.

However, he met his gloomy end at Princeton. The fighting on the fields south of the New Jersey town was brief but bloody. The 1st Virginia Regiment was in General Hugh Mercer‘s brigade that was the first engage the British at Princeton. The British 17th Regiment of Foot and Mercer’s men slugged it out in musket volleys in the William Clarke orchard. Shortly after the opening of the battle, Mercer discovered his 350 man brigade was greatly outnumbered and out matched. He ordered his men to retreat as the British lowered their bayonets and charged at Mercer’s men. Mercer’s men broke and ran. The British fell upon those Americans who were wounded or left behind.

Major John Fleming, commanding the 1st Virginia Regiment, had just ordered his men to dress their ranks when he was shot and killed. Mercer, on foot as his horse had been wounded, drew his sword and prepared to fight to the death. The British soldiers clubbed him on the head and bayoneted him seven times, mortally wounding him.

Yates was among those killed in the William Clarke orchard in a most brutal manner that many witnesses remembered. Captain John Chilton of the 3rd Virginia wrote, “Lieut. Yates had got a slight wound in the thigh which threw him into the hands of the enemy who immediately butchered him with the greatest Barbarity.” Dr. Benjamin Rush, who would treat many of the wounded after the battle described Lt. Yates’s death in terrifying detail:

“he received a wound in his side, which brought him to the ground. Upon seeing the enemy advance toward him, he begged for quarters; a British soldier stopped, and after deliberately loading his musket, by his side, shot him through the breast. Finding that he was still alive, he stabbed him in thirteen places with his bayonet; the poor youth all the while crying for mercy. Upon the enemy being forced to retreat, either the same or another soldier, finding he was not dead, struck him with a butt of a musket on the side of his head. He languished a week in the greatest anguish, and then died (I declare it upon my honour, as a man and a physician) of the wounds he received after he fell and begged for quarter.”

Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, tended to Yates before he died.

Shortly after Yates fell, Washington was able to rally his retreating forces and with the help of reinforcements, charged into the British and drove them from the field. It was an important American victory but with a cost. About 40 Americans had been killed and another 40 wounded. One American soldier remembered: “The ground was frozen and all the blood which was shed remained on the surface, which added to the horror of this scene of carnage.”

Remarkably, Yates had survived his two musket ball wounds, thirteen bayonet wounds, and musket butt strike, but only for six days. He was treated by Dr. Benjamin Rush, but he sadly died on January 9, 1777, after recounting to Rush his horrifying story.

Washington, himself, was outraged upon learning of how Yates was killed and wrote that he “was butchered by a British soldier at Princeton.” Washington even wrote to British General William Howe and included Yates’ deathbed affidavit, to which Howe nonchalantly replied “the heat of action will sometimes produce instances that are only to be lamented.”

The Pennsylvania Journal on February 19, 1777 included this tribute to Yates who laid down his life for the American cause, who appears as a ghost to ensure readers “remember Princeton on some future day”:

“But oh! Again my mangled Yates appears
Excites new vengeance and provokes new tears;
Behold my wounds! he says, or seems to say.
Remember Princeton on some future day;
View well this body pierced in every part
And sure Twill fire the most unfeeling heart.”

To learn more about Lt. Yates and the Battle of Princeton, check out Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton or join Emerging Revolutionary War on a tour of the actual battlefield this November.

A mass grave of unknown British and American soldiers on the Princeton battlefield.

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