This Day in History: A mysterious death in George Washington’s army
On this day in 1780, George Washington loses a trusted senior officer. Allegedly, Brigadier General Enoch Poor died because of a sudden illness. But was it really a cover-up? Poor’s unexpected death remains one of history’s great unsolved mysteries.
The traditional story is rather straightforward: Poor fell ill and died rather suddenly of a “bilious fever.” He was buried not long afterwards with both Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette in attendance at his funeral.
But the other version of Poor’s death is not quite so innocent.
Shortly before his death, Poor was leading his brigade on a forced march. One of the men under him was Major John Porter, Jr., who was leading his own regiment. Porter’s men became tired, dehydrated, and hungry. They stopped for a rest in a cool, shady spot. When Poor found them, he ordered Porter to make his men move. Porter issued the order, but apparently none of Porter’s men had any interest in resuming their march. They did not move a muscle!
Poor was furious. He ordered Porter to get his men moving and apparently used a few choice words about Porter’s lackluster leadership. Porter retorted that, but for their differences in ranks, he would hold Poor responsible for such insults. Poor renounced his right of rank and by the end of the day the two men had agreed to a duel.
The Massachusetts Historical Society reports the circumstances of the duel the next morning. “The seconds arranged that each should stand back to back against the other with loaded pistol in hand, that each should advance five paces, fire over the shoulder at the other when the word should be given, and that they should then advance and finish the contest with swords.”
Poor was hit by the initial fire. Porter was unwounded and immediately drew his sword, but the seconds stopped the duel. Unfortunately, Poor’s wound was fatal and he died not too long afterwards. What horrible timing! It was a rough time in the war. No one wanted to hear about a senior officer being killed by his junior officer in a duel! Thus, as this version of the story goes, the real cause of Poor’s death was covered up.
I can’t tell you which version is true. Historians can’t seem to agree on it! Either way, Washington lost a trusted officer at a time when such a loss must have been especially rough. And maybe the whole incident simply reminds us of something that we already know (or should know): The men and women who fought our Revolution were far from perfect. They were fallible human beings! Maybe even more amazing? Our founding generation rose above these shortcomings and defeated the mighty British army, despite everything.
Washington credited Providence. He would later remark that the “singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving; while the unparalleled perseverence of the Armies of the U States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle.”
A standing miracle. Do you agree with Washington?
George Washington, Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States (Nov. 2, 1783)
Henry Phelps Johnston, Yale and Her Honor-roll in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (1888) (reprint available HERE)
Letter from George Washington to Samuel Huntington (September 15, 1780)
Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Vol. 19; 1881-1882)
Proceedings of the New Hampshire Historical Society (Vol. 3; 1902)