Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Daniel T. Davis.
Last month, I heard Emerging Revolutionary War co-founder Phill Greenwalt remark “when you think about retreats, victory is a word that doesn’t come to mind.” The period of January 18 to February 14, 1781 is the exception to the rule. During this time frame, the American army under Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene and the British under Charles, Lord Cornwallis, marched across the backcountry of the Carolinas. Known as the “Race to the Dan”, this episode between the engagements at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse, is a largely forgotten but consequential even in the Southern Campaign of 1781.
Two hundred and thirty nine years ago today from his camp at Rugeley’s Mill, SC, American General Horatio Gates issued the following orders to his Southern Army to move on to the British post of Camden, SC.
“The sick, the extra artillery stores, the heavy baggage, and such quartermaster’s stores, as are not immediately wanted, to march this evening, under a guard, to Waxaws. To this order the general requests the brigadier generals, to see that those under their command, pay the most exact and scrupulous obedience. Lieutenant Colonel Edmonds, with the remaining guns of the park, will take post and march with the Virginia brigade, under General Stevens; he will direct, as any deficiency happens in the artillery affixed to the other brigades, to supply it immediately; his military staff, and a proportion of his officers, with forty of his men, are to attend him and await his orders. The troops will be ready to march precisely at ten o’clock, in the following order, Continue reading ““troops will observe the profoundest silence upon the march…” Gen. Gates’ Orders on August 15, 1780″→
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.
For the next year and a half, until he was exchanged for a British officer captured in the Battle of Saratoga, Williams faced an ordeal that would continue to haunt him for the rest of his life. Initially treated as a gentleman because of his officer status, the first few months of his imprisonment passed in relative ease. The ease of the beginning months of his captivity was the norm for officers taken in civilized 18th century viewed warfare. Williams’ early imprisonment showed the gentleman status he had attained through his rise in the military ranks. During this time, an anecdote reinforces this point.
While in prison in New York, he became acquainted with a Major Ackland of the British military. The two became fast friends. Williams, under the auspices of his imprisonment, was able to move freely through the city of New York with this new friend.The friendship was confirmed when after dining with Major Ackland he was invited to attend an assembly. This was the term used to describe a fashionable ball of the period. When arriving at the ball, the reception that Major Williams received was so contemptuous and full of scorn that it attracted the attention of Major Ackland who replied: “Come, Williams, this society is to ill-bred for you and me; let us go home.” The account shows the personable demeanor and gentlemanly qualities that Williams espoused. This quote only tells half the story. The other half of the account transpired after Major Ackland returned to England that makes this story so worthy.
Upon Ackland’s return to England attended a mass dinner and one of the topics broached was the questionable courage of the American military. The major defended Americans so vehemently that he was issued a duel by a fellow British officer. This led to his demise, with a fatal gunshot wound to the head. To defend the abilities of Americans to such an extreme depicted the immense respect and valued friendship that blossomed between the two officers. Along with showing the respect and admiration that constituted the friendship was the fact that Williams reached a level where he could fraternize with gentlemen of pre-war higher social classes. In addition he was an amiable companion and a worthy military adversary in the views of British counterparts.
The imprisonment of Williams took a drastic turn to the worse when an accusation of espionage surfaced against him. According to the General Phillips, the commandant of New York, Major Williams was in the habit of communicating to General Washington all the information to be collected from the British camp by means of emissaries employed for that purpose. Williams was seized as soon as the accusation was leveled against him and was denied a chance to provide a defense or refutation of the charges. He was placed in the provost jail in New York, in a room about sixteen square feet. The prison cell had poor ventilation and was best described as “disgustingly filthy.”Here Williams languished for approximately eight months; the last of the fifteen months he was a prisoner of war. Although the spying was never verified and for all intents probably a false accusation, Williams’ “naturally fair constitution…was much impaired” by this ordeal.
After his exchange in January 1778, Williams took command of the 6th Maryland Regiment and Williams would see action at Monmouth Court House in the summer of that same year.
Williams headed south with the Maryland Continentals to aid the Southern Department and relieve the American garrison at Charleston, South Carolina. Unfortunately, the American reinforcements arrived too late to lift the siege.
The reinforcements did make it in time for another American military disaster; the Battle of Camden. Plucked as adjutant general for Horatio Gates, the American commander, Williams was powerless to stop the route of march that Gates chose to move the American army from North Carolina to South Carolina.
The condition of the troops, fatigued from the march along with other difficulties, mixed with very limited rations would prove fatal tomorrow to the American effort at Camden. What ensued the following day was the death of General Kalb, the lost of over 1,000 American soldiers, and the ruin of Gates military career as a field commander. The way the battle unfolded would haunt Williams for the rest of his life, which was recorded in a written component for the Papers of Nathanael Greene. He remembered how the “great majority of the militia fled without firing a shot.” This was a significant issue because the militia comprised two-thirds of the total force of Gates! Williams, along with the survivors were left to question the reasons behind the campaign, the strenuous marching, and the condition they were led into battle with.
Williams took part in the strategic move north across the Dan River in Southern Virginia, part of Nathanael Greene’s strategic maneuvering in the face of British Lord Charles Cornwallis’ British forces. Able to recuperate and refit his army across the watery boundary from the British, Greene planned the strategy that would lead Williams and the rest of the Americans back to North Carolina and to a place called Guilford Court House.
After serving a stint as a commander of light infantry, Williams played a pivotal role in the March 15, 1781 Battle of Guilford Court House. Serving in the last line, where other Marylanders of the 1st Maryland Continentals played a decisive role in saving Nathanael Greene’s American army, Williams helped lead the rear-guard away from Guilford Court House.
Williams would continue to serve admirable in future engagements at Hobkirk’s Hill and Eutaw Springs. In the later stages of 1781 Williams was given command of the 1st Maryland Regiment, the same unit that the famous painting below depicted at the Battle of Guilford Court House.
In January 1783, Williams received notice that Congress had approved his promotion to brigadier general on account of his merit and service in the Southern Theater Campaigns.
Approimately halfway through that same month, on the 16th, Williams retired from the army.
After almost eight years of arduous service, Williams, like the nation he helped create by his service was a changed being. The changes were numerous, first being the obvious, that he had shown tremendous progress in climbing the officer ranks, from lieutenant in 1775 to brigadier general in 1783. Secondly, and possibly the most important he had endured through numerous campaigns and some of the bloodiest battles of the war, from Fort Washington in New York to Camden in South Carolina.
Williams return to civilian life saw him appointed as commissioner of the Port of Baltimore and he was active in the Society of Cincinnati, the society created to preserve the fellowship of former officers of the American army during the Revolution.
In 1786 Williams married Mary Smith and became a father to four sons, settling on the banks of the Potomac River where he tried his hand at farming.
With his friendship to George Washington, Williams had his appointment as commissioner of the Port of Baltimore renewed and then in 1792 was approached by Henry Knox, Secretary of War in Washington’s administration (and at the behest of Washington) to see whether he would accept a commission as brigadier general in the regular army.
Although the position would have made Williams the second highest ranking officer in the military, he declined the position because he had no ambition for the position and also his health was poor.
Williams died on July 15, 1794. He was 45 years old. His health never recovered from the strains of imprisonment and the fatigues of war.
The town of Williamsport, Maryland, which would play a prominent role in the Gettysburg Campaign of 1863 was named after him and where he was laid to rest.
When I was completing my graduate degree in American history from George Mason University a few years back, I took on the challenge of trying to examine the motivations of American soldiers during the American Revolutionary War.
The basis was to examine, “why they fought” if I can borrow a line used frequently by Civil War scholars and historians.
Being a native Marylander, I narrowed my focus on soldiers from that colony/state.
Yet, I was struck by the continued emergence of one name in particular and this gentleman became a focal point of mine.
This gentleman became through the war and could not be ignored with any mention of Maryland and her patriotic citizenry’s service in the war. His name is Otho Holland Williams.
First a little background on Otho Holland Williams. Otho Williams’ early life mirrors that of many early American colonists. His parents, Joseph and Prudence Holland Williams were born and married in Wales before emigrating to the colonies and settling in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Otho was born on March 1, 1749, one of eight children. The following year the family moved to western Maryland, settling near the mouth of Conococheauge Creek in Frederick County. Life on the frontiers of the British North American colonies could be rough and hard and before Otho reached adulthood, he lost his father. However, he showed enough promise and potential to be entrusted by a brother-in-law to a clerk position in Frederick County. Showing his ability to grasp a new skill, the young Williams rose to be given “final charge” of the clerk’s office before moving on to a clerk position in the larger town of Baltimore at age eighteen in 1757.
In Baltimore, Williams continued to enhance his reputation and business prospects. After seventeen years in the spiraling, busy port town situated on the Chesapeake Bay, Williams moved back to more familiar grounds in Frederick in 1774. With the move, he entered into the merchant trade, overseeing commercial enterprises in the growing town. Williams was building a respectable life and he would have been considered a gentleman.
However, nothing truly remarkable had happened to cause this ordinary British colonist in Maryland to be remembered by history. Events transpiring on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean soon reared an opportunity for Williams to change that.
Otho Holland Williams now 26 years of age, at the direction of the Committee of Observation of Frederick County, Md, on the 21st of June, 1775, would have heard of a letter from the Delegates of Maryland asking for the formation of two companies of “expert Riflemen to be raised” to join the army near Boston.
The gist of that correspondence is below:
“A letter from the Delegates of Maryland, and a resolve of the Congress enclosed therein, were read, requiring two companies of expert Riflemen to be furnished by this County, to join the army near Boston, to be there employed as Light-Infantry, under the command of the Chief officer of that Army
In the second company, Williams was elected one of three lieutenants and within the month was marching north to join the army, arriving in Cambridge in 22 days, marching over 550 miles, which needless to say gave a great first impression on the military officers and one that the future Commander-in-Chief George Washington would realize in New York.
In January 1776, Capt. Price, of the rifle company, was promoted to major in Col. William Smallwood’s Maryland Regiment. The gentleman who replaced Price was Williams who succeeded him as captain. Williams’ star continued to rise and in June 1776 was appointed major in Colonel Hugh Stephenson’s newly organized rifle regiment. He was still a major in November when he saw action in New York.
While other Marylanders serving valiantly but unsuccessfully in the opening engagements of the battles around New York City, further the Hudson River stood Fort Washington and stationed there was the rifle company that Otho Williams was a member of.
Upriver from New York City the Americans had constructed two forts on either side of the Hudson River. On the island of Manhattan stood Fort Washington, named in honor of the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. On the other bluff, stood Fort Lee named in honor of Charles Lee, a major general in the American army that had overseen the defense of New York City prior to the Continental Army’s arrival. Nathanael Greene, the very capable American general convinced General Washington that his namesake fort could be held and although of a different opinion initially, Washington relented to his subordinate. The decision would have dire consequences for Williams and the men in the rifle regiment.
Before discussing the role of Williams and his gallant band of riflemen in the defense of Fort Washington, one fact that cannot be looked over is the rapid rise that Williams had undertaken. The mere fact that a young boy, with no prior military experience, could rise to the rank of major was truly exceptional.
To rise to that similar rank in the British army would depend more on family prestige and the ability to pay the price for the commission. That this was not the case in the American army was a sign of the difference in ideals and make-up of the military. The American colonies were revolting against the aristocratic regime of Great Britain, so to imitate their promotion mechanisms would seem out of place with the republican ideals espoused by the aspiring new republic. Furthermore, the ability to navigate the command structure with the added benefit of superior’s being promoted or more morbid, die, allowed Williams to rise.
However, the previous mentioned attribute only tell a portion of the career so far of Williams. His commitment and perseverance to the cause had been duly noted and he would soon show the coolness and battlefield leadership that would cement his rise through the officer ranks.
Williams commanded men of the rifle company occupied a portion of the outlying trenches that surrounded the fort because of a very grave insight the defenses in the environs of Fort Washington could not accommodate the number of American defenders. In their exposed position, the men from Maryland and Virginia would come into contact with their British and Hessian counterparts in the opening stages of the conflict on November 16, 1776. The action commenced in the morning and would be an all-day, drawn out conflict, the epitome of a “fight to the death” type battle. Part of the reason the affair turned out to be so relentless and bloody was the fact that the Americans had refused to surrender the fort initially and the ensuing action could quite possibly result in the British and their allies showing no quarter if the Americans suffered defeat.
History does not depict whether the men with Williams and under the command of Colonel Rawlings knew this fact, but what they did know was that they had been given an assignment to defend the fort and the men from Virginia and Maryland were prepared to do just that.
Unfortunately, after facing overwhelming odds and the collapse of other sections of the American lines, Williams and his men were forced to fall back from their exposed positions. During the action Colonel Rawlings received a severe wound to the leg, resulting in a fracture of the bone. Serving as second in command, Williams assumed command of the rifle regiment, continuing to show his unwillingness to yield the field even after suffering a severe groin wound.
With the wound and the collapse of the American lines, he did not command for long. The survivors of the regiment, along with the rest of the fort’s garrison, surrendered to the British and German forces.
After the conflict, a Hessian survivor remarked about attacking the Maryland riflemen, in which Williams was most likely in command of; that “he had a hard time of it.” Another enemy soldier noted the inordinate number of wounded. Official casualty reports, listed 2,780 Americans, including Williams, as prisoners of war, and another 149 were killed and wounded. The British lost 458 killed, wounded, and missing during the day long fight.