William Washington

Portrait of William Washington
William Washington.

NPS Photo

William Washington was born in Stafford County, Virginia on February 28, 1752. He was a distant cousin of George Washington. Washington had been trained for the ministry at the time of the outbreak of the Revolution but was commissioned as a Captain of the Third Virginia Continentals on February 25, 1776.[1]

Revolutionary historian Mark Boatner described Washington as six feet tall, strong and obese. He was kind to his soldiers to the extent that his discipline was sometimes lax. Washington preferred the heat of the action and not the tedious calculation of strategy.[2] He was bold, collected, and persistent.[3]

Washington served with the Third Virginia Regiment throughout the New Jersey and New York Campaigns. He was wounded at the battle of Long Island, August 27, 1776 and at the battle of Trenton, December 26, 1776. After Trenton, Washington was transferred to Colonel George Baylor's Cavalry Corps and soon received other promotions.[4] A promotion to Major in 1777 gave him command of the Fourth Continental Dragoons. On November 20, 1778Washington became lieutenant colonel of the Third Dragoons.[5]
As the focus of the war changed to the Southern colonies, Washington also came south. He aided General Isaac Huger's corps at Charleston.[6] On March 23, 1780, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton beat Washington's force in a skirmish at Bee's Plantation. Three days later, Tarleton again defeated him in another skirmish at Governor Rutledge's Plantation.[7] On April 14, 1780, Huger and Washington's forces were routed and many captured at Monck's Corner near Charleston.[8] After this defeat, Washington withdrew into eastern North Carolina to recover and recruit.[9]

In late 1780 Washington's activities picked up again. In December Washington and his dragoons were attached to General Daniel Morgan's force which had been sent into South Carolina. On December 4, Washington and his men captured 112 Loyalists at Rugeley's Mill. On December 28, 1780, Morgan used Washington's dragoons and mounted militia to subdue 250 Georgia Loyalists at Hammond's Store near Fort Ninety-Six. This was the start of the operations that led to Morgan's victory at Cowpens.[10]

At Cowpens on January 17, 1781, Washington commanded 80 dragoons and about 50 mounted militia.[11] The first time his men appeared during the battle was when they surprised the advancing British who were attacking the retreating American militia. James Collins, a militiaman, referring to the speed of Washington's troops, described them as being among the British like a "whirlwind."[12]

Washington appeared a second time near the end of the fighting when he helped defeat the British on the right side of the American third line and complete Morgan's "double envelopment" of the British. While engaged in the fight, he caught sight of the British leader galloping down the Green River Road. Washington pursued Tarleton and caught up with him but soon found himself surrounded by Tarleton and two other British officers. Each made a sword swipe at him. As Tarleton made the last slash, Washington successfully parried the blow. As Tarleton wheeled on his horse and began to gallop away, he drew his pistol and fired at Washington but wounded his horse instead. By the time Washington was given another horse, Tarleton had escaped.[13] Having experienced a glorious victory, Morgan and Washington began a hasty retreat into North Carolina with the remainder of the army and prisoners. A grateful Congress voted Washington a silver medal to commemorate his heroic efforts of the battle of Cowpens.[14]

The remainder of 1781 continued to be an active time for Washington. In February, he and General Morgan rode to Beatties' Ford, North Carolina to inspect American defenses and to link Morgan and Greene's forces.[15] With the two armies combined, Greene dispatched 700 of his best troops including Colonel Washington's corps to position themselves between the main American army and the main British force under Lord Cornwallis. They were to recover the retreat of the main army by destroying bridges and delaying Cornwallis' march as much as possible until Greene could be reinforced.[16] On March 15 at the battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, Greene placed Washington as leader of the cavalry that supported the third line.[17] Colonel Washington's corps performed with valor.[18] At the battle of Hobkirk's Hill, South Carolina, Washington was present with 87 dragoons.[19] His men served Greene with reliability and dependability.[20]

Washington's cavalry corps was present at the battle of Eutaw Springs, South Carolina on September 8, 1781. During the heavy fighting Greene ordered Washington's reserves to attack Major John Marjoribanks and his corps of British troops. When Washington tried to attack, his cavalry was not able to penetrate a thickly wooded area and were defeated. Washington became entangled with his fallen horse and was bayoneted and captured.[21] After his capture Washington was taken to nearby Charleston as a prisoner where he remained until the end of the war.[22]

In Charleston, Washington met Jane Riley Elliot. Charmed by her beauty, polish, and respectability, they eventually married and settled there. After the war, Washington served in the state legislature. Some admirers tried to persuade him to run for governor. He declined, saying he was unable to formulate and deliver speeches.[23] The end of the war did not end Washington's military activity. In 1798 he was appointed Brigadier General and served in this capacity until 1800.[24]

In 1802 Washington visited his friend and former commander, Daniel Morgan, who was near death. Washington later recalled that his friend showed the same courage in the face of death as he did on the battlefield.[25] Washington died on March 6, 1820 and was buried near Charleston.


[1] Bobby Gilmer Moss, The Patriots at the Cowpens (Greenville, SC 1985), 243.

[2] Mark M. Boatner, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York, 1966), 1170.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. D. Bailey, Some Heroes of the American Revolution (Spartanburg, 1966), 45.

[5] Boatner, 1169.

[6] Bailey, 45.

[7] Boatner, 1169.

[8] Bailey, 45.

[9] Boatner, 1169.

[10] Ibid.

11] George Sheere and Hugh Rankin, Rebels and Redcoats, (New York, 1957), 495.

[12] Ibid., 216.

[13] Ibid., 219.

[14] Ibid., 499.

[15] Ibid., 502.

[16] North Callahan, Daniel Morgan: Ranger of the Revolution (New York, 1961), 238.

[17] Sheere and Rankin, 518.

[18] Boatner, 1169.

[19] Boatner, 505.

[20] Callahan, 198.

[21] Sheere and Rankin, 535.

[22] Bailey, 54.

[23] Boatner, 1169 - 1170.

[24] Boatner, 1170.

[25] Callahan, 295.

Cowpens National Battlefield

Last updated: May 20, 2024