William Washington was one of a small, loyal cadre of key field officers who served with distinction in the Continental Army for duration of the War of the American Revolution. His independent operations and battlefield actions as a cavalry commander in the South were comparable to the exploits of his better-known fellow officers. Unlike William Davie, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, Francis Marion, Daniel Morgan and Thomas "Gamecock" Sumter -- as well as their famous British adversary, Banastre Tarleton -- an extensive, published biography has been missing.
Maj. General Nathanael Greene referred to "Light Horse Harry" Lee as his "eye," but he called Colonel Washington his "arm." Washington was a gallant battlefield commander who personally led his men, and he was wounded on at least two occasions (possibly four). His battlefield dash and personal bravery were balanced by modesty and selflessness, and the mercurial aspects of his military career offer a view of the difficulties in maintaining the cavalry. His story is thus an all the more believable, fascinating example of the war's soldier-cavalrymen.
William Washington was born on February 28, 1752. He and George Washington were second cousins, once removed. He was elected a captain of the 3rd Virginia Regiment in 1775. He fought at Harlem Heights. He was one of the few Patriot wounded at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776. In January 1777, he was promoted to major in the newly formed 4th Continental Light Dragoons. In late 1778, Congress promoted him to lieutenant colonel of the 3rd Dragoons and told him to take full command of the regiment. In late 1779 the rebuilt 3rd was ordered to South Carolina.
William Washington and Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton frequently faced each other in cavalry skirmishes and full-fledged battles. William encountered Tarleton near Sandy Hill on March 27, 1780, Monck's Corner on April 14th and Lenud's Ferry on May 6th. Washington then retreated to North Carolina until October. On December 4th, he skirmished at Rugeley's Farm. Later that month, he defeated Tories at Hammond Stores. Washington then fought at Cowpens on January 17, 1781, Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, Hobkirk's Hill on April 25, 1781 and was captured at Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781. He married Jane Elliott on April 21, 1782. The couple had two children. He was an active member of the South Carolina General Assembly for 17 years. He hosted President George Washington in 1791. He died on March 6, 1810.
William Washington's military career reflected the glory and the desperation of the War of the American Revolution. He was one of a vital core of young officers who often accomplished much with very little resources. His cavalry was essential to Greene's successful campaign to drive the British from the Carolinas. That Washington embodied the spirit of resistance until the end is certain, and it was the very spirit that was required to defeat the British in North America. British military historian Sir John Fortesque observed: "It is true that Tarleton and, still more conspicuously, the American Colonel Washington had occasionally wrought great results by the charge of a mere handful of sabres."
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