Life on the wrong side of history

On August 8, 1775, Ebenezer Punderson was a refugee on the HMS Rose, a British man-of-war. They were anchored off Fishers Island, where the British were confiscating sheep and cattle to feed their troops back in occupied Boston.

Ebenezer, a Preston schoolteacher, was a Loyalist fleeing from the Sons of Liberty, so perhaps he wasn’t outraged by the theft of colonial livestock. Still, he was feeling blue that day and wrote a letter to his wife, Prudence, that began, “My charming Partner … (The British) are all on shore taking off flock for the sick at Boston. This day one of my gloomy Fits is upon me …My greatest misfortune is that when I have these melancholy hours, I cannot be blest with your chearing (sic) conversation.” Ebenezer couldn’t know that he and his partner wouldn’t see each other again for three more years.

By August 30, the Rose had moved on to Stonington Point, where the British tried unsuccessfully to seize even more livestock. Ebenezer must have felt conflicting emotions as he witnessed the bombardment of the tiny village, some of whose residents he surely knew and perhaps regarded as friends.

By February 1776, Ebenezer was in London, safe from colonial hotheads but still depressed. He wrote Prudence that the inactivity weighed on him and that he planned to return to America to serve with the British on Long Island. He signed this letter “your loving, but heartbroken husband.”

How did Ebenezer’s troubles start?

Ebenezer was a graduate of Yale and, according to his memoir, owned three farms and a store in Norwich. He earned a substantial income and enjoyed relative affluence. During the run-up to the Revolution, he was vocal in his support of England and openly defiant of the colonists’ ban on tea. He wasn’t shy about characterizing the rebels as “insolent, and rascally.” His political opinions, influenced by his father, who was an Anglican minister, were generally tolerated, but after Lexington and Concord, everything changed; Ebenezer became the target of mob fury and death threats. He was so unnerved that in late May, under cover of night, he rowed down the Thames River to New London and was picked up by the Rose.

Prudence and their eight children stayed behind. Fortunately, their friends and neighbors didn’t turn against them. Still, it was a miserable time. Making things even more complicated emotionally, Ebenezer’s wife was sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, and their daughter, Prudence, was in love with a surgeon in the Continental Army.

Ebenezer followed through on his plan to return to America and served for several years in a British commissary on Long Island. His wife and children joined him in 1778, after their own harrowing trip down the Thames and across the Sound under a flag of truce.

The Pundersons’ neighbors were amazed that they would give up relative comfort and most of their worldly possessions for a life of hardship on Long Island. And hardship it was. Food was scarce, there wasn’t much firewood, the winters were brutal, lawless thugs made running errands risky, and the family was plagued by poor health.

After independence was won and property laws against Loyalists were moderated, the Pundersons were more than ready to come home — if they could. Fortunately, when Ebenezer requested permission to return to Preston, many of his neighbors did a very kind thing. They signed a petition of support saying, “It would give pleasure and satisfaction to the people in the vicinity” if Ebenezer could come home again. His property, which had been confiscated in 1780, was restored, he became a successful merchant, and his daughter married her Yankee sweetheart.

His political affiliation and the years of deprivation would have lasting consequences, but — and this was no small thing — Ebenezer could live out his life in familiar surroundings in the place he called home.

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