Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Meeting Notes: March 16, 2016

"Otho Holland Williams in the American Revolution," John Beakes

“Who in the heck is Otho Holland Williams,” asked historian John Beakes during his opening remarks at the March 16, 2016 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond.

Beakes answered his own question by saying, “He had an amazing military career that nobody knows anything about. He was a man of valor and a combat soldier of the first order.”

Beakes is the author of the recently published book entitled Otho Holland Williams in the American Revolution.

“We don’t know much about his early life but he became an orphan at age 13. He was from a fairly prominent family but at this point in his life he had no hope at all. He became a clerk in the Frederick County (Maryland) Courthouse and a great writer. In fact he wrote a very good account of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse shortly after it was fought. Unfortunately he died young and therefore wrote no memoirs,” said Beakes.

Shortly after George Washington took command of the Continental Army, Williams answered the call to arms on June 14, 1775. Maryland sent two rifle companies to the Continental Army, and Williams served as a lieutenant in one of the companies under the command of Thomas Price. Williams was only 26 years old.

“George Washington needed rifle companies with military experience,” said Beakes. “Riflemen were lean and tough--much like today’s Navy SEALS.”

The Maryland riflemen marched from western Maryland to the Boston area at an average daily rate of 21.4 miles per day. They arrived in time to participate in the Siege of Boston and to witness the British evacuation from this port.

“We don’t know what Williams did specifically during the Siege of Boston but he got promoted to captain,” said Beakes.

Shortly after the Siege of Boston, Williams and the other Marylanders were sent to the New York City area. During the New York Campaign, Washington sent the Maryland riflemen to the defense of Fort Washington, located on the northern tip of Manhattan near what is today the George Washington Bridge.

Approximately 300 Maryland riflemen held off two Hessian regiments for several hours. Williams was wounded in a hip during the fighting and was successfully treated by Dr. James McHenry, later the namesake of the famous Baltimore fort. After the surrounded Americans in Fort Washington surrendered Williams became a prisoner-of-war.

“Williams was put on parole in Long Island,” said Beakes, “and could come and go as he pleased. He could even go to parties and cook Johnny cakes with friends.”

After Williams was accused of writing letters to George Washington and planning a prisoner escape he was thrown into a prison where one of his cellmates was Vermonter Ethan Allen. During his prison confinement Williams contracted tuberculosis, which would steadily get worse and eventually cause his death. Even though Williams was serving as a prisoner-of-war, the Continental Congress approved his promotion to the rank of colonel. 

On January 16, 1778 Williams was released from prison and exchanged after 14 months in captivity. Williams returned to Washington’s army and was later named one of the four officers to serve as a sub-inspector under the command of Baron Von Steuben. The sub-inspectors were in charge of introducing Steuben’s system of military discipline and maneuvers throughout the Continental Army.

When the British laid siege to the American army defending Charleston, Washington sent the Maryland troops southward as part of a relief army under the command of Baron de Kalb. By the time the relief army arrived near Charleston, the American forces who were under siege had already surrendered.

The Continental Congress sent Horatio Gates to take command of Baron de Kalb’s army but kept de Kalb as the second-in-command. Gates marched his army to the Camden, South Carolina area where they battled British troops under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis.

“The Maryland Continentals anchored the right side of Gates’ line along with the Delaware Continentals,” said Beakes. “Militia units defended on the left side. The British routed the militia and then outflanked the Continental troops. The Continentals also fled and de Kalb was mortally wounded during the fighting.”

After the disastrous American defeat at Camden the Continental Congress replaced Gates with Nathanael Greene.  At times, Williams would serve as Greene’s second-in-command, and the two of them became very good friends.

Shortly after the Battle of The Cowpens, Daniel Morgan asked Greene for permission to take medical leave for sciatica and other ailments. Greene agreed and personally took command of Morgan’s western wing of the southern army, and appointed Williams to take command of the army’s eastern wing. Both wings of the American southern army steadily retreated northward, away from the pursuing British army in what became known as the Race to the Dan.

“The Americans were very, very good at crossing rivers---a big reason why they won the war,” said Beakes.

Over a three-week period the Americans marched 240 miles before crossing the Dan River and resupplying their army. Since the British had no boats and were unable to cross the river, they ended their pursuit of the American army and marched to Hillsborough, North Carolina in search of supplies.

After taking several weeks to rest and resupply his army Greene marched his troops back into North Carolina. On March 15, 1781 at Guilford Courthouse, Greene prepared for a British attack by aligning his men into three defensive lines. The first line consisted of North Carolina militia, the second line had Virginia militia and the third line was anchored by his most experienced troops---his Continentals which included the First Maryland Regiment under the command of Williams.

The Continentals inflicted heavy casualties on the British attackers before conducting an orderly retreat from the battlefield. Cornwallis elected not to pursue the Americans and instead marched his army toward Wilmington, North Carolina. After resupplying his men Cornwallis marched them northward into Virginia and eventually to their fate at Yorktown.

With Cornwallis’ army vacating the Carolinas, Greene looked for ways to strike the remaining British outposts in South Carolina. Near Camden at the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill the First Maryland Regiment fought one of its worst battles when it broke and ran after the death of Captain William Beatty, one of their company commanders. Five months later on September 7, 1781 at Eutaw Springs the First Maryland troops redeemed themselves by fighting one of their best battles. Shortly after the battle Williams received an honorary sword from the Continental Congress for “his great military skill and uncommon exertions on this occasion”.

Williams was promoted to brigadier general during the last months of war and soon retired to civilian life. His health continued to deteriorate over the next decade due to tuberculosis, and on July 15, 1794 he died at the age of 45. He is buried at Williamsport, Maryland which is located on the Potomac River and is named for him.

John Beakes has worked in executive positions for technology firms for 30 years and is currently the chairman for Next Century Corporation. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and served in the U.S. Navy before going into business. Possessing a passion for American history dating back to his childhood, Beakes is also the co-author of two books with Jim Piecuch which are entitled:

1. Light Horse Harry Lee in the War for Independence

2. Cool Deliberate Courage: John Eager Howard in the American Revolution

During the business portion of the round table meeting, the following topics were discussed:

1. President Bill Welsch announced that the Round Table’s upcoming April 2 field trip on Benedict Arnold’s Virginia raid is sold out.

2. President Welsch reported that the board of directors had unanimously voted to recommend that the Round Table donate $100 yearly from the general treasury toward Campaign 1776, the subsidiary of the Civil War Trust devoted to preserving American Revolution and War of 1812 battlefields. After a motion by Mark Groth which was seconded by Lynn Simms the membership unanimously approved the motion by a voice vote.

3. Nominations are now underway regarding the Round Table’s annual preservation partner, which will receive the Round Table’s annual donation of $5 per member from this year’s membership dues. Two members made nominations from the floor. President Welsch invited all members to submit any additional nominations to him online prior to the next membership meeting on May 18.

--Bill Seward

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