Absalom Bainbridge

1742-1807

Served as surgeon to a Loyalist regiment but also showed compassion for his Patriot neighbors

I was born in Maidenhead in 1742 and grew up in a household where we were used to protesting for our rights. I graduated from the college at Princeton in 1762 and then from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. I moved to neighboring Princeton where I was settled and happily pursuing my medical career when the American Revolution broke out. Although I came from a family that supported the Revolution, I did not believe in fighting a war for independence from England. I remained in Princeton during the first year of the war and tried to maintain good relations with my neighbors who disagreed with me. I demonstrated this in early December 1776 when the British army approached Princeton in pursuit of the American army that retreated through our town several days earlier. I warned one of my neighbors in the middle of the night to escape to Pennsylvania. After the British defeats at Trenton and Princeton, I had to flee my home and removed to Flatbush on Long Island. I was officially declared a Loyalist and was subject to the property confiscation law. My four hundred acre plantation in Maidenhead was put up for sale at public auction in March 1779. By April 1778, I had resigned as surgeon to a Loyalist regiment and moved to New York City where I continued to live under the British occupation and remained there after the British departed in 1783. When I died in 1807, I was buried at Trinity Church in New York City.

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I was born in Maidenhead, Hunterdon County in 1742, the fourth son of Edmund and Abigail Bainbridge. My grandfather, John Bainbridge, was one of the original settlers of Maidenhead. My father was involved in land disputes with the Proprietors during the 1730s and 40s so I grew up in a household where we were used to protesting for our rights.

I graduated from the college at Princeton in 1762 and then from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. I was an early member of the New Jersey Medical Society and was elected secretary in 1771 and then president of the Society in 1773. During this time, I practiced medicine in Maidenhead and then rented a house in Princeton where I was settled and happily pursuing my practice as a physician and surgeon when the American Revolution broke out. I married Mary Taylor, daughter of Sheriff John Taylor of Monmouth County. The fifth of our fourteen children was born on May 7, 1774 in the house in Princeton known now as Bainbridge House. Our little boy grew up to be the famous Commodore William Bainbridge, one of the important United States naval heroes of the War of 1812.

Although I came from a family that supported the Revolution, I did not believe in fighting a war for independence from England and became what the rebels called a Loyalist or Tory. Mary’s family in Monmouth was also Loyalist. I remained in Princeton during the first year of the war and tried to maintain good relations with my neighbors who supported the war. Just because we disagreed didn’t mean we could not care for each other. I demonstrated this in early December 1776 while the British army was chasing the rag tag American army in retreat across New Jersey after the fall of Fort Lee in November. As the British army approached Princeton the first week of December, I knew that life was going to become very harsh for my patriot neighbors. Many of them began to leave the area to escape to Pennsylvania with the American army and I went out of my way to warn one my neighbors, Margaret Sergeant, to join them. Margaret was the wife of Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, a delegate to the Continental Congress and that would make her very vulnerable to mistreatment by the British army. She was also the daughter of Trenton’s Presbyterian minister Elihu Spencer, another well-known patriot leader. When I learned the British army was only hours away, I knocked on Margaret’s door at two o’clock in the morning and insisted that she should immediately set off in her family’s carriage with her children and proceed without delay to one of the Delaware River ferries.

When the British arrived in Princeton a few hours later, I offered my house in Maidenhead to General William Howe for his headquarters and I joined with the British army. After the British defeats at Trenton and Princeton I was one who had to flee his home and I removed to Flatbush on Long Island. My slave, Prime, was brought to Long Island, but he escaped from me and returned to Princeton in 1778. Jacob Bergen, a commissioner for dealing with confiscated Loyalist property took charge of him and on the advice of the legislature he put Prime in the army to drive wagons. Prime assumed he was now a free man. His freedom was challenged in 1784 by John Van Horne who claimed to have purchased him in 1777 or 1778, but Prime was officially granted his freedom by the legislature in November 1786.

After leaving New Jersey I was officially declared a Loyalist and was subject to the property confiscation law. My four hundred acre plantation in Maidenhead was put up for sale at public auction in March 1779.

I served the British cause as a surgeon for the Third New Jersey Volunteer regiment in the brigade of General Cortland Skinner. By April 1778, I had resigned and moved to New York City where I continued to live under the British occupation and remained there after the British departed in 1783, reconciled to the reality of our independence from Britain. I was an early member of the New York Medical Society and was a highly regarded physician and surgeon. The imminent physician Dr. David Hosack of New York, who attended Alexander Hamilton when he dueled with Aaron Burr, credited me with helping him develop his ideas on the nature and origins of Yellow Fever, one of Hosack’s main contributions to medicine. I visited England for about a year in 1785-86 but then lived out the rest of my life in New York. When I died on June 23, 1807 I was buried at Trinity Church in New York City.

Green, Howard L., ed. Words that Make New Jersey History: A Primary Source Reader. Rivergate Books, 1994.

Jones, E. Alfred. “The Loyalists of New Jersey: Their Memorials, Petitions, Claims, Etc. From English Records.” Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, Volume 10, republished from the New Jersey Historical Society Proceedings 1926-27, Newark: 1927.

Lee, Francis Bazley, ed. Genealogical and personal memorial of Mercer County, New Jersey. Volume 2. New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1907. page 456

Art: Joe Barsin

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