Facing Sarah Osborn Benjamin
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In the fourth grade, Kyle Freiberger went “a little overboard” on his family tree project. Over the phone, his maternal grandmother supplied a long list of names, then on his next visit, the matriarch pulled him aside and showed him family heirlooms that had been stored away in an old cedar chest. Via a tintype image, Kyle came face to face with his sixth great-grandmother, Sarah Benjamin, his Revolutionary-era ancestor who survived long enough to have her stern visage recorded on camera.
“Some people could say I got a little bit of an addiction after that first discovery with my grandparents,” says Kyle, who has cultivated an extensive Ancestry profile for the ensuing 15 years. “At some point, I found an online copy of an 1850s or 1860s article about Sarah. It was one of the first times that I corroborated what my grandparents had told me — until then it had been ‘trust me that this is true.’”
But it wasn’t just this article, which detailed Sarah’s extraordinary exchange of gifts with Queen Victoria, that demonstrates her “main character energy.” We also have the extraordinary pension application that Sarah submitted and, later, presented to the Wayne County Court (Pa.) in 1837.
In her testimony, Sarah recalled her wartime experiences at length, including two encounters with George Washington. The journey began shortly after she married Aaron Osborn in the winter of 1780 and followed him into service only after she was assured that he’d be placed on commissary guard. Her first season with the Continentals was spent at the fortress at West Point, New York, from which she witnessed battle but remained in camp washing and mending soldiers’ clothing.
Her first encounter with General Washington came about 40 miles south of West Point — at Kingsbridge, where Sarah had joined her husband on sentinel duty on a rather cold night, wearing his overcoat and carrying his gun. The general saw her and questioned who put her on the post, to which she responded, “Them who had a right to, Sir.”
Sarah later moved south with the army to the shores of Virginia, where she saw the Continental Army and their French allies bombard Yorktown. Witnessing soldiers suffering in the trenches there, she acted. Sarah led the women in camp to prepare beef, bread and coffee, and delivered it directly to the trenches ... even amid British artillery fire. It was during one of these deliveries that Washington inquired if she was not afraid of the enemy fire. She supposedly replied, “The bullets will never cheat the gallows.”
If her fiery spirit was not already obvious enough, Sarah’s 1858 obituary claimed that “her temperament was such that she could not be an idle spectator of events.” She was so insistent on witnessing the growth of a nation that she lived to be 114 years old!
Sarah eagerly recounted her experiences during the War for Independence throughout her long life. She was a ripe 87 years old when she testified on behalf of her pension application. And she did so convincingly, securing a pension reflecting the service of both her veteran husbands (she married again after Osborn left her and their children) — plus one for her own wartime service.
The accessible nature of these detailed sources has made Sarah an appealing subject for not only her family, but for historians as well.
The American Battlefield Trust and Daughters of the American Revolution were pulled toward Sarah’s story when creating the American Revolution Experience — a digital exhibit that examines the lives of men and women who witnessed the dawn of a new nation.