George Washington’s Coxswain

I am a frequent visitor to Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia’s East End. The Cemetery, founded in 1854 with its first burials in 1856, is the resting place for about 17,000 Confederate soldiers. I recently made a startling discovery that connects this 19th Century landmark to the Revolution.

Buried in a family plot, not far from the massive Confederate section, is Richard Eubank. His stone reads, “Richard Eubank, 1758-1855, Coxswain of Boat That Took George Washington Across the Delaware – 1776, Rev War.” I was stunned to make such a discovery.

It cried out for more research for several reasons. First, Eubank died in 1855, but the cemetery wasn’t even in use until the next year, so there’s a story there. Secondly, how did this soldier, the man who guided Washington across the Delaware, come to be buried here, in Oakwood, one of the city’s lesser known cemeteries? Most Revolutionary ‘celebrities’ are found in either St John’s or Shockoe Cemeteries in Richmond.   What could I find out about Eubank? The more I investigated, the stranger the story got.

He was born in Gloucester Point (Ironically, where the Revolution’s last major action occurred at Yorktown and Gloucester).   He was also born the same year that George Washington, serving with the Virginia militia, captured Fort Duquesne in the French and Indian War. Richard was seventeen when the Revolutionary War began. He enlisted in December, 1776, just a few weeks before the crossing. He served in the 1st Virginia Regiment, then the 14th, and finally the 10th. What motivated him to enlist will forever remain unknown to us.

By December, 1776, the Continental army had retreated across New Jersey ahead of the pursuing British forces, and reached the relative safety of the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River. Here Washington launched a surprise strike on Christmas night on the German garrison at Trenton.

At McConkey’s Ferry, where the Continental army lined up to cross, the river was about 330 yards wide. At sunset the army moved up to the crossing point.   The Americans had secured the use of Durham boats, about 60 feet long and 8 feet wide, each could hold about 30 men.

The Durham boats were manned by troops from the 14th Continental Regiment, whose men hailed from Marblehead, Massachusetts. These seamen were well experienced and handled the boats that evening.

The coxswain is the one who directs the steering of a boat. How did Richard come to pilot the boat that Washington himself used? Dumb luck? Was he an experienced waterman, perhaps from time on the York River or Chesapeake Bay? Or was it simply the randomness of war?

The weather conditions deteriorated during the crossing, with the temperature around freezing but dropping. At various times it was snowing, sleeting, hailing, and raining. The Delaware River was full of large chunks of ice that floated downstream, making the actual crossing even more difficult.

NJRev 010Site of the crossing.

According to family tradition, during the crossing Richard went to push a large block of ice out of the way with his left foot. At the same time a pike man in the boat reached out toward that same ice block. Richard’s foot was struck, resulting in a hole in his foot that stayed with him the rest of his life. No doubt he did not make the ten mile march from the landing down to Trenton.  He served several more years, but in what capacity? Had his wound healed enough to perform regular duty?

Did General Washington notice the incident? Did he stop to check on Richard before stepping ashore and leading the army down the road to Trenton?

Records indicate Richard deserted in April, 1777, just four months after ferrying Washington across the icy river. He was captured by the authorities, or ‘delivered up’ as the documents say, on May 20th. What caused him to desert we will never know.

He was with the army and wounded at Brandywine on September 11, 1777, one of the largest battles of the war, and one in which the Virginia regiments were heavily engaged. The documents are silent as to the nature of his injury. He was sent to Trenton to recover, remaining there until March, 1778. Did he reflect on the army’s exploits (and his role in them) during those months while back in Trenton?

Richard Eubank rejoined the army in March, 1778 at Valley Forge, having missed most of the winter encampment. By May he was promoted to sergeant. He was likely at the next major battle, Monmouth, fought in June.

He was reported as sick in New Brunswick, NJ from March through May of 1779. Was this illness, or his Christmas night injury acting up? Or the injury from Brandywine? Or a combination?

Having served his three year enlistment, he left the army in 1779. What did he do after that? Did his injuries prevent further service? We can only assume that the 21-year old returned to Virginia and re-entered civilian life.

Did he turn out with the large force of Virginia militia that gathered at Yorktown and Gloucester- not far from his home- in the fall of 1781? Was he present to see the British forces surrender?

Richard died in King William County, Virginia, in 1855, at age 97. He survived the Revolutionary War, lived to see nation expand from thirteen to thirty-one states, saw the dawn of photography, railroads, and telegraph, among other things. He would have been 66 years old when Lafayette triumphantly returned to the United States for a grand tour in 1824, visiting battlefields from the Revolution and speaking with veterans. Was Richard present for the Frenchman’s Yorktown visit that year? If so, they shared something in common, as both were wounded at Brandywine.

He married Jane Rebecca Ragland and had at least six children. I could identify two sons, James Nelson (who died in 1918- imagine that- the son of a Revolutionary War soldier died in 1918!), and William Shelton. The 1820 census also indicates that he owned seven slaves.

Richard was apparently active in local politics, as his name is mentioned many times in meetings of the Democratic party in King William County during the 1840s and 1850s.

There is a Richard Eubank listed as being buried in Beulah Church Cemetery in King William County, is this our man? Was he later moved to Oakwood?

But back to that tombstone. According to Find-A-Grave (yes, the name of a website), one of Richard’s grandsons, William Shelton Eubank, found a meteor in Church Hill (a neighborhood near the cemetery), and used it for a carriage step. When Richard died in 1855, Williams’ son- Richard’s great-grandson- Beaufort Eubank, used the rock for Richard’s tombstone. Beaufort was an architect living in Roanoke at the time.

OakwEubknRichard’s stone in Oakwood Cemetery.

I’m not a geologist, or any kind of scientist, but the rock looked just like the other granite stone to me. Ok, so it’s a meteor. But how did he come to rest here at Oakwood? And where is his wife Jane? The only other family members here are his grandson William Shelton and his wife. Was the family plot in King William County no longer available for Richard’s burial?

So many questions! From the documents and family history, we gain fragmentary clues as to his life and experiences. And in Richmond, nearly 300 miles from Trenton, is an important connection to perhaps the greatest American victory of the Revolution.

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6 Responses to George Washington’s Coxswain

  1. Bruce Venter says:

    Very interesting article, Bert, and cool research. Col. Ulric Dahlgren spent a few nights in Oakwood before being disinterred by Bet Van Liew.
    However, the greatest American victory of the Revolution was Saratoga. You’re spending too much time with Bill Welsch.
    I hope you visit Oakwood in the morning. It’s in a dicey area.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Dalrymple says:

    Bert,
    Awesome topic and research! Brightened my morning!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rob Orrison says:

    Great little known story, will be sure to check that out next time I am in Richmond. Very cool

    Liked by 1 person

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