It was May 1779 off the Connecticut coastline. Edward Conkling, the captain of the privateer sloop Eagle was cruising off Stonington, perhaps looking for another ship to capture to aid the rebel patriots’ war effort, when the Eagle was taken by a Loyalist ship.
Conkling and some of his crew were killed on the spot, and the Eagle was taken toward New York by the enemy prize crew.
His death was the first war casualty of an East Hampton colonist, as far as records show.
Each year as Memorial Day approaches, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion place flags at the gravesites of the men and women who served in the military. At cemeteries large and small, the groups arrive by bus to honor the dead with a salute, a volley of rifle fire, and “Taps,” played by a live bugler if one is available, a recording if not.
Memorials to the town’s soldiers, sailors, and fliers who died during service are fewer, especially for those who were killed far away or at sea. It took until last year for a plaque to be approved to honor Army Pvt. First Class William Patrick Flynn, East Hampton’s sole Vietnam War casualty, who died in combat on May 28, 1968, at the age of 20. Private Flynn had been stationed near Saigon with the 25th Division when he was killed in a firefight.
Public attitudes about war dead have shifted over time. After Marine Lance Cpl. Jordan C. Haerter of Sag Harbor was killed in 2008 defending his post in Iraq from a suicide bomber in a truck, recognition was swift. Similarly, a 1.4-mile stretch of Route 114 was dedicated to Army First Lt. Joseph Theinert of Shelter Island after he died in Afghanistan in 2010. The bridge linking Sag Harbor and North Haven was named for Corporal Haerter. A plaque in his honor can be seen at the entrance to the Riverhead Building Supply yard in East Hampton, where his mother worked.
The East End of Long Island was scarcely occupied by Europeans when the Pequot War broke out almost a century and a half before the American Revolution. Nor were the island’s colonial towns much bothered during King Philip’s War, which convulsed New England between 1675 and 1678.
In truth, of course, the Island’s war dead date back far longer. Fort Hill in Montauk is so named because of the palisade fortification the Montauketts built there to protect themselves from raiding tribes from across the Sound. That fort itself was the successor to one that had stood near Napeague Harbor. Nearby in Hither Woods, a granite boulder was said to mark the spot where a Montaukett chief was killed by an enemy arrow.
Montauketts under the sachem Wyandanch took part in cornering the Pequots in the Great Swamp in 1637 and were believed to have killed as many as 200 of the foe. And many Montaukett men died in the mid-1600s in conflicts on Block Island and in a reprisal attack at what came to be known as Massacre Valley, in Montauk. Another Montaukett man was killed by Narragansett raiders around 1653 while tending cattle. It would be more than 125 years before the Revolution jolted the region.
Also aboard the Eagle that day in 1779 would likely have been Sam Beaman, described as a Montaukett Indian, who was a member of the sloop’s crew. What happened to Beaman is unknown.
Privateers like the Eagle operated under letters of marque, which allowed their holders to essentially commit piracy, preying on commercial ships that might otherwise aid the enemy. The Eagle received its letter of marque on Nov. 20, 1778, after its investors posted a standard $5,000 bond against misdeeds or noncompliance with the terms of the arrangement. Armed with this document, ships such as the Eagle were able to plunder an adversary’s shipping at will.
Details about the Eagle’s capture are few now, but by the time it was taken it had already amassed a respectable record in its short career. After gaining a prize commission from the Provincial Congress, the Eagle, with six cannon and crew of 30 under the command of Captain Conkling, took part in the capture of eight enemy ships. Among its successes was a well-executed plan to take the Loyalist 12-gun brig Ranger while it was tied up at Sag Harbor. William Havens, another East Hampton privateer captain of great renown, took part, as did the brig Middleton under the command of a Captain Sage.
Some time after leaving Sag Harbor, chased at daybreak by cannon fire from a 12-pound gun on Long Wharf and another heaving 3-pound shot from Hog Neck, Captain Havens’s Beaver and the Eagle intercepted two brigs from Cork, in Ireland, that had been en route to provision the British troops on Long Island with a cargo of rum, wine, and 12,000 bushels of oats.
It was only months before the Eagle was itself taken by Loyalists and Edward Conkling left dead, East Hampton’s earliest known Revolutionary War casualty.
Richard Radune, a Connecticut historian who has written extensively on American Revolution-era privateers, has speculated that Conkling’s killing and that of some of his crew was a rare incident, and suggested that perhaps the Loyalists had, not surprisingly, held a grudge against the Eagle’s captain and its men.
The Eagle did not last long. It exploded and burned to the waterline while on its way to New York under Loyalist command.
East Hampton’s next Revolutionary War death came more than two years later. After Maj. John Davis was captured while on a clandestine mission to British-held Sag Harbor in November 1781, he was imprisoned in New York. As accounts have it, Major Davis and Capt. John Grenell, with several others, were betrayed by Loyalists and captured by a Hessian major with a troop of 20 light horse. The enemy then sought to burn the two armed boats that Davis and Grenell had used on their mission, but were thwarted by an eight-gun Stonington sloop that got to the boats first and sailed away with them.
What, exactly, brought about Major Davis’s death while in British custody was never clear. The prevailing thought was that he died of starvation, as many prisoners did. Others believed that he had been poisoned.
Nor was it known exactly where he was taken, but there is a good guess, said Andrea Meyer of the East Hampton Library Long Island Collection. During the war, some 11,000 American seamen died in the rotting and vermin-riddled British prison ships moored in Wallabout Bay off Brooklyn, and were buried on the mud flats when the tide was out.