Lieutenant Colonel William Washington of the 3rd Continental Light Dragoons rode quietly at the head of his regiment. He was a large man for a light horseman. He was over six feet tall with bear-like shoulders, a ruddy face, and clubbed brown hair. One of his commanding generals described him as the “Hercules” of his day. Perhaps. That isn’t what we see in his portraits. We see an ordinary-looking man with no wig or hat, a round, honest face, and a casual open stare.
By September 1781, Colonel Washington was 29 years old. A wounded veteran of six years’ service, a former minuteman in Stafford County, Virginia, and a member of the Old Dominion gentry. His cousin, of course, was the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
William did not share those aristocratic attributes — he was more comfortable in the saddle than in parlors and drawing rooms drinking tea and discussing politics. No, William was a fighter. He amused himself with horse racing, good cigars, fine whiskey, and a modest wager. He was unassuming, respectful of others, self-confident, good-humored, and friendly. But there was also another side to William Washington: he was hot-tempered when his blood was up. When he led his regiment into the fight, he was always the first man across the line of departure. Like a badger, once he had hold of his enemy, he wouldn’t let go. But, as with all good soldiers, it was only a matter of time before his luck ran out.
George Washington was 20 years old when Cousin William was born in 1752 — and only two years away from igniting the Seven Years’ War. William’s parents were Bailey Washington, Sr., and Catherine Storke Washington, who were married in 1749. William was their second-born child, whom Bailey named William after Catherine’s father, William Storke, the Sheriff of Stafford County. Bailey was moderately wealthy — the owner of 1,200 acres of prime agricultural land near Aquia Creek. The bad news for William was that he would not stand to inherit this property. Still, he was raised in a privileged environment, and while 1,200 acres wasn’t as large as the estate at Mount Vernon, it was large enough to require an investment in horses. William Washington was raised in an environment of horse breeding, horsemanship, and horse racing.
At one time, Stafford County was part of Westmoreland County, created in 1664 as the Virginia colony sought to organize itself through a series of commonwealth structures. In time, Stafford County (named after Staffordshire, England) gave way to such jurisdictions as Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria.
As a southern planter, Bailey Washington raised his children within the context of Anglo-Virginian culture, suggesting that William was brought up as a gentleman. Beyond his primary education, William trained to become a church minister. His post-primary education included Greek, Latin, mathematics, and theology. William was well into training when the American Revolution sent him in a completely different direction.
In 1775, William Washington was 23 years of age with an incredibly acute sense of duty and of right and wrong. When Virginia began raising troops to resist Great Britain, William gave up his studies and life as a planter’s son to join the patriot cause. Patrick Henry delivered his Liberty or Death speech to the Virginia Convention in March. Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s governor, wisely removed gunpowder from the public warehouse in Williamsburg to prevent it from falling into “local” hands, which only aroused the patriots even more.
Subsequently, news arrived from Massachusetts detailing the Battles of Lexington Green and Concord. Like many of his fellow citizens in Stafford County, he was raised in the tradition of the Common Burden. He was among the first of Virginia’s youth to answer the call “to arms.” Already a member of the minutemen organization in Stafford County, he formed a militia company in the early summer. In Richmond, the convention created three infantry regiments commanded by Patrick Henry, William Woodford, and Hugh Mercer. On 12 September, at a meeting at the Spotsylvania Courthouse, local minutemen elected William Washington and Townshend Dade to serve as captains in Hugh Mercer’s 3rd Regiment of Infantry. Assisting Mercer was Lieutenant Colonel George Weedon and Major Thomas Marshall. Later that year, the regiment became part of Brigadier General Hugh Mercer’s Brigade of the Continental Army in New York and was assigned to the command of Major General Nathaniel Greene.
Fighting in the mid-Atlantic region, young Captain Washington commanded the 7th Company. Lieutenant James Monroe, later the 5th President of the United States, served as Washington’s second-in-command. During the Battle of Trenton, Captain Washington and his XO distinguished themselves by leading a charge against a battery of Hessian artillery. Washington and Monroe received serious wounds; both received the personal thanks of their Commander-in-Chief, General George Washington. While recovering from his injuries, the Continental Army advanced William Washington to the rank of major and, on 27 January 1777, provisionally assigned him to serve in the newly created 4th Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons.
During the night of 26 September 1778, the 3rd Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons, serving under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Baylor, had found billeting in the town of Old Tappan, New Jersey. A town citizen with loyalist sentiments notified British forces, and Baylor’s command was attacked in their quarters while still asleep. Colonel Baylor, wounded in the lung by a British bayonet, was captured and taken prisoner. A short time later, Baylor’s XO, Major Alexander Clough, also injured, died of his wounds. In light of the loss of the regiment’s two principal command officers, Continental Army HQ advanced Major William Washington to Lieutenant Colonel and ordered him to assume command of the 3rd Dragoons.
Between September 1778 and the late summer of 1779, Colonel Washington recruited replacements and supervised their training. On 19 November, the Army HQ ordered Washington to join the command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln in Charleston, South Carolina.
Southern Department Fights
On March 10, 1780, Washington’s regiment joined forces with the remnants of the 1st Continental Light Dragoons at Bacon’s Bridge, South Carolina. His mission was to reconnoiter and screen against advancing British troops. On 26 March, Washington had his first encounter with the British Legion, a brigade-sized unit of dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. It was a minor victory near Rantowle’s Bridge on the Stono River. Afterward, on the Ashley River during the fight at Rutledge’s Plantation, Colonel Washington again bested a detachment of Tarleton’s Dragoons.
On 14 April 1780, Colonel Tarleton assaulted the encampment of General Isaac Huger at Monck’s Corner, successfully routing the Continental force (including Washington’s Dragoons). Washington’s losses included 15 dead, 17 wounded, 100 captured, and the loss of 83 horses.
Colonel Washington led his remaining troops across the Santee River to escape capture. The severe attrition of Washington’s command forced its amalgamation with the 1st Continental Light Dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Walton White. While waiting to cross the flooded Santee River, British forces surprised and defeated Colonel White’s dragoons at Lenud’s Ferry on 6 May 1780. With Colonel White’s capture, command of the dragoons passed to Colonel Washington. Washington moved the regiment to North Carolina for recruitment, provision, and training when General Lincoln surrendered the southern army and the city of Charleston to Cornwallis on 12 May.
British forces defeated the reconstituted southern army, formed under General Horatio Gates, at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina, on 16 August 1780. This loss opened up the south to British control. General Nathanael Greene soon replaced Gates, whose cowardice in the field permanently discredited his former service in the northern theater
General Greene divided his army between himself and General Daniel Morgan. Colonel Washington was placed under Morgan, who tasked Washington with conducting raids in western South Carolina. Washington’s two notable successes included capturing Rugeley’s Mill on 4 December. In this engagement, Washington bluffed 112 loyalists into surrendering a strongly fortified structure without firing a single shot. To achieve the bluff, Washington used a Quaker Gun — a felled tree placed in the wagon bed and shaped to look like a large cannon.
In the second engagement at Hammond’s Old Store in the Little River district, Colonel Washington defeated 250 Georgian loyalists, killing or wounding 150 men and capturing the remaining one-hundred troops.
Colonel Washington’s successes became a source of irritation to General Charles Cornwallis, who soon turned to Colonel Tarleton and ordered him to “chase down” General Morgan’s “flying corps.” Tarleton’s orders led directly to the Battle of Cowpens on 17 January 1781.
General Morgan’s battle plans called for Washington’s group of 80 Continental dragoons and 45 mounted Georgia infantry to serve as either a defensive or offensive unit (as the situation required). Washington’s first encounter with the enemy involved the rescue of a South Carolina militia unit as it was reloading behind the front lines of Morgan’s left flank. The unit was under an aggressive assault by Colonel Tarleton’s Legion. Colonel Washington crushed the attackers, regrouped, and then pursued the British left flank infantry. After repeated assaults by Washington, the Americans moved through the British infantry and attacked a small artillery position behind Tarleton’s front lines.
Surrendering troops create battlefield confusion. This is what happened when the main British infantry decided to surrender their arms after Tarleton attempted to withdraw. Washington, in close pursuit, found himself in an isolated position and, because of it, soon found himself the focus of an attack by Colonel Tarleton and two of his aides. The courageous Washington met Tarleton head-on, calling out to him, “Where is now the boasting Tarleton?”
A young coronet of the 17th Dragoons, Thomas Patterson, rode up to strike Washington but was shot by Washington’s orderly as Washington struck Tarleton with a blow from his sword. Colonel Tarleton returned the favor by shooting Washington in the leg, which luckily only creased his knee but also wounded Washington’s horse.
Colonel Tarleton turned his horse and withdrew from the engagement. Washington, whose temper had not yet cooled, pursued him for sixteen miles — eventually giving up the chase at Thickitty Creek, near the plantation of Adam Goudylock. For his valor at Cowpens, Colonel Washington received a Congressional silver medal.
After the Battle of Cowpens, Washington’s dragoons assisted the withdrawal of General Nathanael Greene to Dan River, Virginia, by providing rearguard actions against British forces under General Cornwallis. Subsequently, Colonel Washington returned to North Carolina as a vanguard for Greene’s re-emerging army.
In March 1781, Washington’s dragoons fought at the Battle of the Guilford Court House, Greensboro, North Carolina. This battle successfully fought as a defensive action gave General Cornwallis a victory — but an expensive one. The fight only lasted around 90 minutes, but in that time, Cornwallis gave up a quarter of his men to death or incapacitation. Upon learning of the battle’s details, Sir Charles James Fox, a British Member of Parliament, quipped that with another victory, such as at the Guilford Court House, the British Army in North America would be in ruins.
According to Cornwallis’ report, the British gave up three officers and 88 men of other ranks killed, with 24 officers and 374 men of other ranks wounded, with 25 men “missing in action.” Colonel Tarleton was one of the wounded officers.
The Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill (also, the Second Battle of Camden) occurred on 25 April 1781 when British forces under Major General Francis Rawdon assaulted Continental troops occupying Hobkirk’s Hill. After a fierce clash of arms, during which Colonel Washington could not assault Rawdon’s flank, General Green ordered a withdrawal, leaving Rawdon’s smaller force in possession of the hill. Despite the British victory, Rawdon eventually fell back to Camden, abandoned it, and withdrew to Charleston. Greene was willing to accept defeat in this and three other engagements for the longer-term benefit of depriving the British of their control of South Carolina beyond the city of Charleston.
The last Carolinas engagement during the American Revolution occurred at the Battle of Eutaw Springs. In early 1781, Major General Greene initiated the campaign to end British control over the South Carolina backcountry. His first objective was to capture a village designated as Ninety-Six. On 22 May, Greene laid siege to the fortified village — but its loyalist residents would not budge.
Within thirty days, Greene became aware that General Rawdon was leading reinforcement to offer relief to Ninety-Six. A Continental assault against the village was repelled, so to avoid having to confront Rawdon, General Green withdrew toward Charlotte, N.C.
General Rawdon did pursue Greene for several days but abandoned the pursuit because his men were exhausted and in need of resupply. Ninety-Six was the only remaining inland British outpost after the fall of Augusta. Unable to sustain the outpost, General Rawdon decided to burn the village and withdraw to Charleston. General Rawdon, being in poor health, decided to return to England, leaving command of Charleston in the hands of Colonel Alexander Stewart.
By mid-July, General Greene moved his exhausted army to a bivouac on the High Hills of Santee. The men needed the rest, and Greene needed a place to await the arrival of reinforcements.
On 13 August, Colonel Stewart led around 2,300 men to Thompson’s plantation (south of the Congaree River). He then fell back to Eutaw Springs on 27 August (about 2 miles east of present-day Eutawville). The Battle of Eutaw Springs was Colonel Washington’s final Revolutionary War action. Midway through the fight, Greene ordered Washington to assault a portion of the British line positioned in a blackjack thicket along Eutaw Creek. The order was not only stupid, but it was also a needless sacrifice of good cavalry: the thicket proved impenetrable and British fire repulsed Washington’s mounted charges. During the last charge, Washington’s mount was shot from under him, and he was pinned beneath his horse. British troops bayonetted Washington, and he was taken prisoner and held under house arrest until the end of the war.
On September 8, 1781, Washington’s final action was the Battle of Eutaw Springs, the last major battle in the Carolinas. Midway through the battle, Greene ordered Washington to charge a portion of the British line positioned in a blackjack thicket along Eutaw Creek. The thicket proved impenetrable and British fire repulsed the mounted charges. During the last charge, Washington’s mount was shot out from under him, and he was pinned beneath his horse. He was bayoneted, taken prisoner, and held under house arrest in the Charleston area for the remainder of the war. General Charles Cornwallis said of Colonel William Washington, “There could be no more formidable antagonist in a charge, at the head of his cavalry, than Colonel William Washington.”
The list of patriot officers of William Washington’s quality is very small. That Colonel Washington compares favorably with the most notable American Revolution heroes is indisputable — it is a shame that few Americans today know about this tremendously aggressive, tactically proficient, and strategically adept regimental commander.
Our schools teach that the American Revolutionary War ended with General Cornwallis’ surrender to George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, on 19 October 1781. The worst of it is that it isn’t true. Considerable fighting occurred in the two years after Yorktown and even expanded to the European continent. After Yorktown, there were at least 200 additional fights in South Carolina alone — most often between Whig (patriot) and Tory (British loyalist) militias. Moreover, a violent civil war occurred between 1781 – 1783 as Indian tribes raged against each other, offering no quarter.
After Yorktown, the British embarked on an aggressive policy to reestablish its hold on the Caribbean. After Yorktown, the British confronted the combined forces of Spain, France, and the Dutch Republic. There was also the matter of French meddling in India, British mischief in Vermont, and the role of the Dutch navy in keeping the British “on alert.”
The last British soldier withdrew from the newly created United States on 25 November 1783 — three months after the signing of the instrument of peace (known as the Treaty of Paris of 1783) — a process that was begun in 1782, after Parliament voted to suspend military operations following Cornwallis’ surrender in late 1781.
Colonel William Washington met Jane Elliott of Sandy Hill, South Carolina, when she made his regimental battle flag, which he carried with him from the Cowpens to Eutaw Springs. Retained under arrest in Charleston through the end of 1782, Colonel Washington nevertheless made good use of his time. He and Jane Elliott were married on 21 April 1782. Washington, unable to inherit his father’s Virginia estate, became quite wealthy through marriage (as did his cousin George). Miss Elliott owned the Sandy Springs plantation and several other properties in St. Paul Parish.
In 1785, William and Jane Washington purchased a townhouse at 8 South Battery in Charleston. They pursued low-country farming and raised thoroughbred horses. William was elected to the state legislature between 1787 – 1804 and accepted the post of brigadier general of the state militia in 1794.
Following his presidency, George Washington retired to Mount Vernon to struggle with his predicament of being land-rich and cash poor. He had vast acreages in the Virginia piedmont but could not sell the land due to the encroachment of squatters. Ultimately, he grew restless in retirement, prompted by tensions with France. In 1798, as part of the continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars, French privateers began seizing American ships — the so-called Quasi-War that lasted until 1800.
On 4 July 1798, President John Adams nominated Washington to serve as a lieutenant general as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armies. President Washington accepted the post and served in it until his death 17 months later. His work involved planning for a provisional army without offering specific details (to avoid political implications). In recommending individuals to serve at high rank, Washington broke with the recommendations submitted by Thomas Jefferson. By this time, the two men had become enemies.
While serving as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, Washington offered his cousin William a commission as brigadier general in the U.S. Army. William accepted the commission, particularly as it involved defensive works in South Carolina and Georgia, should the French attempt an invasion of the United States. During this period, William served as an officer on his cousin’s staff.
In his late 50s, William Washington became ill and suffered from a lingering ailment — likely cancer. He passed away on 6 March 1810, aged 58 years. He was survived by Jane, his wife, and their son and daughter (Elizabeth). Elizabeth was married to Major General Alexander Spotswood, the grandson of Colonial Virginia’s lieutenant governor.
Brigadier General William Washington — was one of America’s finest Revolutionary War officers.
- Babits, L. E., and J. B. Howard. Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of the Guilford Courthouse. The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
- Glen, J. The Washington’s: A Family History. Savas Publishing, 2014
- Glickstein, D. After Yorktown: The final struggle for American Independence
- Haller, S. E. William Washington: Cavalryman of the Revolution. Heritage Books, 2001.
- Murphy, D. William Washington, American Light Dragoon: A Continental Cavalry Leader in the War of Independence. Westholme Publishing, 2014.
 Do not confuse the subject of this essay, William Washington (1752 – 1810), with a distant relative, William Augustine Washington (1757 – 1810). William Washington was George Washington’s second cousin once removed; William Augustine Washington was George Washington’s nephew.
 Beginning in 1774, minutemen were organized from within the ranks of colonial militia but trained specifically as an early form of special operations infantry. These men were the “rapid reaction” force of the colonial militia. They held themselves in readiness to report/respond to emergencies within moments of an alert. The name derived from the fact that they were expected to respond “within a minute” of an alert.
 Dr. Hugh Mercer was a Scot who eventually achieved the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army. He previously fought as a Jacobite in the Battle of Culloden, in the Seven Year’s War, and in the early battles of the American Revolution. He was killed in action at the Battle of Princeton.
 The “second-in-command” of an American military unit is variously referred to as “executive officer” or “deputy commander.” The executive officer is usually referred to as simply XO, while a deputy commander is generally referred to as “deputy.” When serving in temporary command, the XO or deputy will sign official documents as “Acting Commander.”
 The United States Army never had a cavalry component until 1861. Before then, the horse-mounted troop was referred to as dragoons. In effect, dragoons were horse-mounted infantry. They would ride into battle, dismount, and fight as infantry. After 1861, horse-mounted troops were called cavalry with a distinctly different mission.
 George Baylor previously served as General Washington’s aide-de-camp. The 3rd Dragoons often served as security escorts for Martha Washington, who accompanied her husband during his military campaigns, and also served as Washington’s reconnaissance force, collecting and reporting information about the disposition of British Forces.
 The British Legion was an organization recruited and formed in the colonies of British loyalists. A regimental-sized cavalry, the commander of the British Legion was Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.
 The Battle of the Cowpens was significant because the Americans totally destroyed the Brigade of Dragoons under Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Such losses made the conflict a turning point in the war. General Morgan’s success came as a result of his effective employment of a double envelopment of Tarleton’s force. Of Tarleton’s 1,000 men, all of whom were British loyalists, 850 were killed or captured.
 Blackjack red oak is a deciduous tree growing about 15 meters tall.
 Balch, Thomas, ed., Letters, and papers relating chiefly to the provincial history of Pennsylvania. Applewood books, 2009, attributed to a letter written by Major William Jackson quoting General Lord Cornwallis.
 Such terms as patriot and loyalist are far too imprecise to use in any discussion about the American Revolution. Glickman suggests using the words Whig and Tory … so that everyone knows who did what. British loyalists were, after all, patriots as well.