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This Day in History: William Washington, a Patriot lost in his cousin’s shadow

On this day in 1752, a distant cousin of George Washington is born in Virginia. William Washington would serve as an officer in the Continental Army throughout the American Revolution. Can you believe that this Washington once tricked a group of more than 100 Loyalists into surrendering their position, despite the fact that he had no artillery?


Surely those Loyalists felt pretty silly once they realized they’d been fooled.

Washington was present early in the war as Americans were chased out of New York and across New Jersey. He participated in the Battle of Trenton and was wounded there. When the focus of the war shifted to the South, Washington went, too. He was involved in numerous conflicts during that period, including skirmishes at Bee’s Plantation, Governor Rutledge's Plantation, Monck's Corner, Hammond's Old Store, Guilford Courthouse, and Hobkirk Hill.


You think the guy got around!?


One of his more well-known victories came at the Battle of Cowpens, when he and his cavalry fought alongside Daniel Morgan and defeated Bloody Banastre Tarleton. At one point in the battle, Washington nearly got Tarleton. The British colonel was galloping away, but Washington pursued Tarleton and caught him. Washington soon found himself surrounded by other British officers. The British slashed at him with their swords, even as Washington deflected their blows.


Unfortunately, Tarleton fired a shot that took down Washington’s horse. By the time Washington found another horse, Tarleton was gone.


One of Washington’s lesser-known victories came in a skirmish at Rugeley's Mills. Washington had cornered a force of Loyalists inside a barn in South Carolina. The barn was well fortified, and Washington was outnumbered. He had about 80 men with him, compared to the Loyalist’s 112. Perhaps worse, he had small arms, but no artillery. How could he force a surrender with no cannon?


Well, Washington wasn’t going to let a little thing like no artillery get in his way.


Washington decided to use an old “Quaker gun trick.” He obtained a pine log and had it set up to look like a cannon. One soldier later recounted in a pension application that since they had “no cannon, cut a pine log; blacked the end & put it on wheels to represent one in order to deceive them in which we succeeded & took them without firing a gun.” It worked. The Loyalists surrendered as soon as they saw the (pretend) cannon.


In 1781, Washington was at the Battle at Eutaw Springs. During the battle, he was ordered to lead his cavalry in an attack. He did this, but his cavalry unfortunately had trouble getting through a thickly wooded area. Washington became entangled. He was pulled from his horse, bayoneted and captured. Fortunately, Washington survived the ordeal and was kept a prisoner of war in Charleston.


It worked out for him, though. The war was nearly over by that point. Washington ended up meeting his wife in Charleston, and he settled there after the Revolution.


Lord Charles Cornwallis once noted that “there could be no more formidable antagonist in a charge, at the head of his cavalry, than Colonel William Washington.” I wonder if he would be surprised to learn that, over time, William Washington has gotten lost in the shadow of his more famous cousin.


Primary Sources & Further Reading:

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