Josiah Atkins: “Ye Enemy Are Upon Us”


By Mary Christ

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2021-2022

Subscribe/Buy the Issue!

But I must shut my book for ye present, ye drum beats for parading… ye enemy are upon us.”

Private Josiah Atkins, 5th Connecticut Regiment, Continental Army, June 23, 1781

In January 1781, 32-year-old Josiah Atkins of Farmingbury (now Wolcott), Connecticut left his pregnant wife and young child to enlist in the Continental Army. He kept a journal that survived a long, arduous march south from the Hudson Highlands of New York to a field hospital near Yorktown, Virginia and later found its way into the Whitney Library collection of the New Haven Museum.  

Atkins acknowledges that he might not survive the war and asks whoever finds his journal “to send this book with its contents to my dear wife, whom I have left at home to morn myself.” While in essence it is a “war diary,” there are few tales of the glories of battle, though famous historical figures make cameos, including General Anthony Wayne and the Marquis de Lafayette. While passing General George Washington’s Mount Vernon and reflecting on those enslaved to the plantation, Atkins observes, “Alas! That persons who pretend to stand for ye rights of mankind, for ye liberties of society, can delight in oppression & yt even of ye worst kind!” Throughout the journal Atkins’s Christian faith is readily apparent.

Sadly, Josiah Atkins did not live long enough to fill the pages of the book he carried with him over 400 miles of military service. He died on October 27, 1781, of illness, probably smallpox.

The 6th [of July, 1781]we continued our route till we (somewhat unexpectedly) came upon a large body of ye enemy, all paraded in a line of battle ready to receive us. This was sudden business, because ye inhabitants had continually declared to us that there was no enemy within six miles of our troops. It appear’d unexpected to our general: He hardly dream’d of finding such a formidable body of enemy as near him. We too, were hardly prepar’d for so severe an action, our men being very much scattered. However, our officers & soldiers, like brave heroes, began ye attack, with (at first) but an handful of men: Ye other regiments came on with all possible speed. The attack began about 5, & lasted till dark: The rifle men, ‘tis said, some of them stay’d & scurmished with ye enemy in ye woods all night & all day, yt they have not found time, nor opportunity to pick up their dead.

Our party consisted only of ye brigade of Infantry & one brigade of Pennsylvanians (and these not more than half of them engaged), and a few rifle-men. The enemy were more than 6 times our number. This notwithstanding, our troops behaved well, fighting with great spirit & bravery.

… Our loss of men cannot yet be ascertain’d, tho’ I would hope it is inconsiderable. –The enemy gain’d ye ground, but have no cause to glory, their dead from all appearance being many. (Tho’ this was a severe action for us, yet ye loss of our regiment is trifling; Gen. Wane’s considerable.)

We retir’d five miles yt night to rest, & get some refreshment, of which we stood in much need, having neither victuals, rum nor water; & all we then had, was one gill of vinegar to 4 men. How great was thy mercy O Lord, in our deliverance! Ye like was hardly ever heard of! Six hundred men have attack’d & stood, ye fire, sword &
bayonet, of ye force of an army of 5,000, yea, of ye whole army under Lord Cornwallis!

The Journal of Josiah Atkins has been digitized, transcribed, and published online by the New Haven Museum and is available at The project was generously funded by the Society of the Cincinnati in The State of Connecticut.

 Mary Christ is collections manager of the New Haven Museum.





Comments are closed.