Numerous biographies grace the shelves of book stores, museum shops, and the personal libraries of American Revolutionary Era history enthusiasts. Yet, until 2015, not a single dedicated biography was written about an extraordinary American general that rose from the ranks during the war to assume such a lofty position by the successful conclusion of the conflict.
That unintentional omission has now been filled with the excellently detailed oriented and primary source driven biography entitled Otho Holland Williams in the American Revolution by John Beakes. The author is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and a resident of Ellicott City, Maryland.
I had a chance to interview the author via email and one of the questions I asked him was if there was one takeaway you wanted your readers or those interested in the book to know, what would it be? His answer is below and sums up the importance of Williams and soldiers like him:
“Otho Holland Williams was a vibrant, healthy young man with distinctive intellectual gifts and leadership capabilities when he joined the army at age 26 in 1775. Had there been no War of Independence, he might well have lived a long life enjoying the family relationships that he cherished so deeply, and have risen to a position of prominence and wealth.
Instead, Williams died at age 45, spitting up blood and much weakened in body and spirit from the tuberculosis that he had contacted while a prisoner-of-war in New York after the Battle of Fort Washington.
We owe much to the young men like Williams who gave so much in the fight for our nation’s independence, and yet he is largely forgotten.
Here, truly, was a life laid in sacrifice on the altar of our freedom.”
This biography is part of an ongoing effort by The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America to publish a biography on the chief lieutenants that served under and with George Washington and were instrumental in winning American Independence. Previous volumes in the series include titles on John Eager Howard and Henry “Light-Horse” Lee. The series is entitled, “George Washington’s Best Officers Book Series” and definitely worth the read for the enthusiastic and/or serious student of the American Revolution.
So, why was Otho Holland Williams chosen as the third installment? I asked the author and his response is below;
“Otho Holland Williams kept appearing in all of the key moments of the story of the war in the South, but always tantalizingly just beneath the surface, hidden in the shadow of larger figures like Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan. Williams was a compelling writer, and his descriptions of battles like Camden and Eutaw Springs are superbly written and deeply insightful observations of a first-hand participant. His leadership of the Screening Force during the Race to the Dan displayed combat leadership skills of the first order, but his life story was largely untold.”
Furthermore, the reader will glean that Williams is the quintessential depiction of the American soldier, rising from the ranks to one of the top positions in the Southern theater by war’s end. The process, superbly told by Beakes, winds the reader from the early days of the revolutionary movement in western Maryland to the Siege of Boston, to the defeats of the New York Campaign. Those achievements and setbacks combined to give Williams the invaluable training as a military officer. For Williams, like a majority of the men who would hold rank in the American forces;
“Military knowledge and experience were scant commodities in the colonies at the start of the Revolutionary War, and young men like Howard, Lee and Williams joined the army in their twenties with virtually no prior military experience. There were no institutions such as military academies, officer candidate schools, or ROTC to help them learn. They read all the available military literature. They observed leaders like Washington, and took in the written guidance that he provided, often in General Orders, for how to develop into effective officers. And most importantly, they learned by experience in the daily rigor of military discipline and in their various combat engagements.
Starting with such “bare bones” learning opportunities, in the short years between 1775 and 1780, when the Southern Campaigns began, these young officers had become exceptional military leaders, and the army that they led was as fine a combat organization as any on earth. It is a story of grit and determination and persistence that brought these young civilians to such a high state of military capability.”
During this early part of the war, Williams also became a prisoner-of-war after the fall of Fort Washington during the New York Campaign of 1776. After being exchanged, Williams would feel the affects of his imprisonment which would eventually cause his death in 1794 from tuberculosis.
Yet Williams, like many other junior officers, are still worth studying in history, as Beakes claims, because,
“With the resources available today, we have a powerful opportunity to take a fresh look at these stories. Unfortunately, our fresh look at original sources sometimes reveals that writers along the way have perpetuated false information, sometimes from honest mistakes, but also sometimes from blatant political motives.
We have an important opportunity to correct the record. Stories like those of Otho Holland Williams give readers a look at the War of Independence from the front-lines and from ground level, a perspective that fills out and enriches the more strategic insights of the well-known works on the Founders.”
This book, like two previous volumes in the series, is definitely a worthy addition to any avid reader of the American Revolutionary Era. If these great in-depth biographies already grace your private library, don’t worry there is more biographies in the works. Beakes is currently working on research for a volume on Baron de Kalb.
Stay tuned and enjoy the read!
Publisher: The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America
Published Date: November 5, 2015
346 pages, including appendices, bibliography, notes, and index
Click here to view the website where further information, including how to purchase the book, is available.