Major General William Shepard was a man with a complicated legacy. At one turn, hero of the French and Indian War of 1754-63 and the American Revolution, Shepard commanded the 4th Massachusetts Militia through 22 actions as its colonel before it was sent home in the winter of 1783, one of the last to leave revolutionary service. At the next, Shepard became a goat to his neighbors—and especially those with whom he’d served faithfully in the revolution– owing to his actions on an icy day in January 1787, where despite the venom that would be later directed at him, he made decisions with forbearance, wisdom, and such humanity as war allows one to retain. Worse, it was ultimately his actions on that day that ensured his own financial ruin, even as it perhaps saved the Commonwealth and even the nation.
Shepard was born in the town of Westfield, Massachusetts in 1737, the son of Deacon John Shepard and Elizabeth Noble. His family had come to the New World sometime around 1675, and settled on the western side of the Connecticut River, away from the smoldering ruins of the Pynchon-dominated trading post of Springfield, itself devastated during King Phillip’s War in 1675. John served as the local religious leader, on the Selectmen, and turned a tidy profit as a farmer to boot. William was the fourth born to John and Elizabeth, after sister Elizabeth, brother John, and sister Experience. William attended the Westfield Common School, and later became a farmer like nearly all of Westfield’s residents at the time.
Shepard is reported to have grown into a physically imposing presence, standing robust and hale, and a good six feet tall in a time when that made him a giant. Given his size and educational background, as well as his status as a second son not set to inherit the bulk of his father’s holdings, it seems to follow traditional pattern that Shepard would find his way into military service. Shepard began the French and Indian War as a 17-year old Lieutenant, with his gallantry earning him promotion to Captain before he left the fight in 1763 prior to the invasion of Canada. Shepard returned home and married, but did not remain at rest of long. The experience he gleaned in that conflict earned him that warranted his appointment as Colonel of the 4th Massachusetts when the Continental Congress formally split from England, sparking the infamous ‘shot hear around the world’ after his time serving on the local Committee of Correspondence in resistance to English rule.
Commanding the 4th Massachusetts, Shepard would see action at Bunker Hill/Breed’s Hill, the New York Campaign, and the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Saratoga, Monmouth, and Rhode Island. At the successful conclusion of the war, Shepard was promoted to the rank of Major General in the Massachusetts Militia and stood as a stalwart defender of the newborn republic. Shepard, a local hero, was elected in 1785 to serve as a state senator.
By 1786, Shepard’s strength and loyalty to the republic would begin to be tested. In the years immediately following the revolution, the economy took a dramatic downturn, owing to the massive inflation caused by the unchecked printing of Continental scrip to pay off the governments debts. This essentially unbacked currency quickly became worthless—yet it was all that was being offered to those whom the government owed funds, like the former soldiers that fought for its very independence from England. Those who were away from their families and farms for long years found themselves destitute and deeply in debt. Those holding their debts demanded payment only in hard currency, rather than the debased scrip, and the debtors simply could not pay. In droves, the courts ordered their property and land seized. Others found themselves locked into debtors’ prisons until they could pay—a sketchy proposition at best.
In the turmoil of this economic and social catastrophe stepped Captain Daniel Shays, formerly of the 5th Massachusetts Regiment. Shays was himself a hero of the revolution, and was in similar financial straits to so many of his men. Shays saw the injustice being wrought upon those who faithfully served and sought to do something about it. Based out of Conkey’s Tavern in Pelham, a group calling themselves ‘the Regulators’ formed, with the intent of shutting down the courts that were impoverishing their friends and neighbors, jailing others.
In September of 1786, the situation started to come to a head. Shays’ Regulators threatened to shut down the Superior Court in Springfield, and were said to number some two thousand strong. William Shepard was called to duty with his militia to preserve the function of the court, and garrisoned themselves inside the courthouse while Shays’ men camped outside it, brandishing muskets and implicitly threatening violence. A company of militia sent from Boston to relieve Shepard arrived, but promptly joined Shays’ Regulators. Fearing the numbers of Shays’ men, Shepard ordered his force up what is now State Street, and onto Continental Hill—the hill at the current day rear of the Springfield Arsenal on the Springfield Technical Community College campus looking down towards the Connecticut River. The judges fled. Having accomplished their mission, the Regulators returned home.
Uprisings following the same pattern continued to occur throughout the fall of 1786, silencing the courts in Concord, Great Barrington, Northampton, and Taunton, among others. Emboldened by their successes, and facing the threat of a massive armed response by the government, Shays’ Regulators decided to seize the Springfield Arsenal itself with its stores of muskets, powder, shot, and cannon; and to use it as a garrison for the winter. Shepard was again called into action, to defend the Arsenal.
As Shays and his men approached the Arsenal at 4 PM on 25 January 1787, Shepard made a last gasp effort to prevent bloodshed, sending emissaries—old friends of Shays—from his own force gathered at the Arsenal to meet with Shays and dissuade him from his attack. It was to no avail. Shays, confident of victory, marched on through hip deep snow with some 1200 Regulators in tow. In a 26 January report, Shepard himself writes:
“Shays… in battle array… marched his men in open column by platoon. I sent several times by one of my Aids, and two other gentlemen, Capt. Bussington and Woodbridge, to hi to know what he was after, or what he wanted. His reply was, He wanted barracks, and barracks he would have, and stores. The answer returned was, He must purchase them dear, if he had them. He still proceeded on his march until he approached within two hundred and fifty yards of the arsenal. He then made a halt. I immediately sent Major Lyman, one of my Aids, and Capt. Bussington to inform him not to march his troops any nearer the arsenal on his own peril, as I was stationed here by order of Your Excellency and the Secretary of War, for the defense of public property; in case he did, I should surely fire on him and his men.”
Shays would have none of Shepard’s warning, and proceeded to drive his troops towards Shepard’s lines. Shepard in turn ordered the cannon from the arsenal fire four or five shots over their heads in warning. Shays did not take the warning, and so Shepard had the guns loaded with grapeshot, fired at Shays’ men at waist height, it had the desired effect: the Regulators panicked and broke, taking a few casualties in the process. For his part, Shepard suggested that his action in turning the artillery on the Regulators was something of an act of kindness, stating that “Had I been disposed to destroy them, I might have charged upon their rear & flanks with my Infantry & the two field pieces & could have killed the greater part of his whole army within twenty five minutes”, but that rather than that level of bloodletting, no muskets were fired, and Shays’ men fled from the Arsenal—save for three killed and twenty wounded.
Despite his forbearance in attempting to preserve lives rather than take them needlessly, Shepard would become a controversial figure in Western Massachusetts in light of his actions at the Arsenal at best, a pariah at worst. Many of his neighbors were among the Regulators, or sympathetic to their cause. According to Michael Paulin, by the eve the attack, some third of Massachusetts’ citizens aligned with Shays and his lieutenants—not an insubstantial number—and given that yeomen farmers were the ones worst hit by the issues with scrip and the courts, and that Westfield was essentially a community of yeoman farmers… Well. It does not take an imagination to gather what the atmosphere was like for Shepard when Shays’ Rebellion finally ended on the fields of Sheffield on 27 February 1787 with the last rebel force chased down by Massachusetts militiamen.
Shepard reports the ire with which many regarded him in a 1790 letter:
“…excited against me the keenest Resentments of the disappointed Insurgents, manifested in the most pointed Injurys, such as burning my Fences, injuring my Woodlands, by Fire, beyond a Recovery for many Years – wantonly & cruelly butchering two valuable Horses, whose ears were cut off and Eyes bored out before they were killed ~ insulting me personally with the vile Epithet of the Murderer of my Brethren, and, through anonimous Letters, repeated by threatening me with the Destruction of my House and Family by Fire.- which kind of Injuries I occasionally experience even to this day.”
Shepard was none the less commended by the statehouse for his stalwart defense of the Arsenal, being gifted a silver bowl. He would go on to serve on the Governor’s Council from 1792-6, and as a Representative in the US Congress from 1797 until 1803.
Despite his laurels, Shepard ironically suffered from the same ill-fortunes rallied against by the Regulators. Shepard blamed his financial woes on the costs of raising the militia to defend the Arsenal, paid out of his own pocket. He accepted a buy-out of a $1113 debt owed to him “for four shillings on the pound” due to a desperate need for liquidity.
William Shepard died 1837 at ripe old age of 80, alternately loved and hated by his neighbors and countrymen, depending which side of the fence they fell as to his actions at the Arsenal that January day of 1787. As the years rolled on after his death, Shepard’s image slowly became somewhat rehabilitated owing to his service in the Revolution. At the town’s 250th anniversary celebration in 1919, the statue of William Shepard in the center of town was dedicated. Now standing in the middle of a traffic island on Route 20, it is passed by hundreds of drivers each day. In 1921 Westfield ordered the design of a seal for the town. The only requirement passed on was that the seal must include the image of Major General William Shepard.
The Ballad of Daniel Shays, Michael Paulin, (c) 1986, The Transcript Press, Athol MA
Genealogical and Family History of Western New York: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of a Commonwealth and the Building of a Nation, Volume 2, William Richard Cutter, (c) 1912, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, New York, NY
Edwin Online: Westfield Atheneum Historical Records, http://edwin.westath.org/
Shays Rebellion, Springfield Technical Community College website, http://www.shaysrebellion.stcc.edu
City of Westfield website, http://www.cityofwestfield.org/facilities.aspx?page=detail&rid=2