Revolutionary War Historical Article

The Soldiers of the Commander-In-Chief Guard:
Uzal Knapp - Was He Or Wasn't He a Guardsman?

by Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the September/October 2007 Edition of The Liberty Tree Newsletter

The subject of this biography, Sergeant Uzal Knapp, is memorialized as the "Last Member of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard" at Hapsbrouck House, which was General George Washington’s Headquarters at Newburgh, New York. But Uzal’s service record has raised some serious questions.

Uzal was probably born in Stamford, Connecticut, the son of Nathaniel and Jemima (Ward) Knapp in 1759. He was a veteran of the American Revolution and after the war, in 1786, he married Abigail Hoyt and had 9 children, all born in Stamford - Samuel (1788), Hanford (1790), Levina (1793), Raymond (1794), Nancy (1798), Nathaniel (1800), Sally Maria (1803), Edison (1806) and Abigail Jane (1809) (1). He moved to Little Britain, New York about 1814, where he lived the rest of his long life. His wife, Abigail died there in 1843, and he on January 10th, 1856.

As a veteran of the Revolution he filed and received a pension, In said pension application Uzal says he enlisted on June 1st 1777, in Captain Stephen Butts’ Company, 2nd Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Line, commanded by Colonel Charles Webb. He further stated he was promoted to Corporal on March 20th, 1780, and then Sergeant on March 22nd, 1781. He states he was at the Battle of White Plains (October 28th, 1776), the Battle of Ridgefield (April 27th, 1777), wintered at Valley Forge, served under [the Marquis] LaFayette at the Battle of Monmouth Court House (June 28, 1778), and served until he was discharged on June 8th, 1783 (2).

It is interesting to note that the Battles of White Plains and Ridgefield took place before the date Uzal claims he enlisted. And, specifically in regard to the topic of this article, in said pension application Uzal did not mention service in the Commander-in-Chief’s Guards, an omission that is totally bewildering.

Most often, we find that descendants of the soldiers who fought in the American Revolution claim their ancestor was in the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard based on a common and correct statement found in their pension applications or other surviving documents; namely, the statement that "I was a bodyguard to George Washington". In almost every case, they were cavalrymen, escorting the General when he was traveling. The Guards were light infantry hence they were not mounted. Captain Batholemew von Heer, Commandant of the Provost Guard (the first American Military Police) was often assigned to escorting the General, and his men, almost to a man, claim the 'bodyguard' status. But, serving as a 'body guard' did not mean they were members of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, which was a distinct corps, authorized by Congress. Claiming to have served as a bodyguard to Washington is quite understandable. There is no one living today who has the status that was bestowed on George Washington. This writer thinks it is safe to say that he was second only to God in the minds of the American people of his era, and in particular to the veterans that served under his command.

In 1904 Dr. Carlos F. Godfrey, published his book "The Commander-in-Chief’s Guards." Godfrey, who was the State of New Jersey Archivist, raised the question regarding Uzal actually having served in the Guard, and simply dismissed his service (3).

During Uzal Knapp’s later years, his adopted home at Little Britain, New York, was a few miles from Newburgh, site of General George Washington’s last wartime headquarters, Hasbrouck House. The area was a favorite vacation location for the well-to-do of New York City, who would take a steamer up the Hudson River from the city, and enjoy the fresh air and beautiful countryside. Years later lavish river view mansions dotted the landscape. It has been written that Uzal would entertain the visitors with stories of the American Revolution and its influence on the local area.

In 1850, author Dr. Benson J. Lossing, whose writings have added so much to our knowledge of the American Revolution, published his two volume "The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution". In this highly illustrated work, Lossing states "It was late when we said farewell to Major Burnet - - too late to visit his neighbor, Mr. Knapp, who was ninety-one and quite feeble. From another I learned the principal events of his public life, and obtained his autograph, a facsimile of which is here given. Mr. Knapp was born in Connecticut, in 1759. He joined the army when about eighteen years of age. His first experience in warfare was in the battle at White Plains; afterward he served under General Wooster in the skirmish at Ridgefield. When La Fayette enrolled his corps of light infantry, Mr. Knapp became a member, and with them fought in the battle at Monmouth in June 1778. He was soon afterward chosen a member of the Commmander-In-Chief's Guard and served faithfully as a sergeant therein for more than two years. He left the service in 1782, hearing the approbation of Washington. He is believed to he the only surviving member of that well-disciplined corps of the Revolution, Washington’s Life Guards. Although feeble in body, I was informed that his mind was quite active and clear respecting the war-scenes of his youth. He delights 'to fight his battles o’er again,'' (4)." From this passage, it is obvious that Benson Lossing and Uzal Knapp had not actually met until sometime later.

In 1866, Benson Lossing published another book, "The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea" and mentions Uzal Knapp, and his death and burial, but no additional quotes (5).

Another of Lossing’s books, "Reflections of Rebellion Hours with the living men and Women of the Revolution" was published in 1889, and it appears that he traveled to New Britain and interviewed the aging veteran for this and another book he was working on. Lossing wrote: "Were you with Washington all the tune he was at New Windsor?" "Certainly", Uzal replied,"I was one of the Guard, and I believe I am the only one living". "When did you join the Guard" I asked: "Not long after the battle of Monmouth Court House. I joined the army when I was eighteen, and my first battle was at White Plains. I was afterward with General Wooster in the affair at Ridgefield, Connecticut, where he was killed. Then I joined the light infantry under LaFayette, fought at the battle of Monmouth Court House in New Jersey on that terrible hot Sunday in June, and was chosen a member of the Commander-in-Chiefs Guard a month later".

If Uzal was a member of the Guard from July, 1778, why did he not mention the battle at Connecticut Farms, (June 1780) as the entire Guard participated in that vicious engagement, which would certainly be remembered by a veteran of it? Only a half dozen or so men were left behind to protect headquarters at Morristown. In 1888, thirty-two years after the death of Uzal Knapp, Benson Lossing publishes another book "Mary and Martha, the Mother and Wife of George Washington" (6). In this book he extensively quotes Uzal regarding the internal operations of the headquarters at the Ford Mansion at Morristown, New Jersey. Lossing does not qualify the entry by citing the source, other than using Knapp’s name. The first person quotes are extensive, too extensive to be totally included herein. In this book Uzal reports that at Christmas 1780, he states: "I was detailed as a sergeant to take charge of the Lifeguard band, which played lively tunes during the feast, and so I saw all that was going on in the room, for we were stationed in the passage through which each guest went to the dining-room."

Upon first reading, the entire entry sounds reasonable, however, upon close examination serious questions arise. As for Uzal Knapp being a sergeant in the Guard, the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard usually had five sergeants. On December 25th, 1780, the non-commissioned officers of the Guard were: 1st, Sergeant William Roach; 2nd, Sergeant James Frazier; 3rd, Sergeant John Justice; 4th, Sergeant William Hunter. We do not know if the Guard had a 5th Sergeant at the time. Could it have been Uzal Knapp? However, at the time of the 1780 Christmas celebration, the Guard had a Fife-Major, John Bush. Traditionally, the Fife-Major was the senior musician and directed the musicians (7).

In 1855 Scribner’s published "Outdoors at Idlewild" in which was a collection of magazine articles, including one entitled "A Visit to an old Revolutionary Soldier". In the article, the author, Nathaniel Parker Willis, recounts an interview with Uzal Knapp. Uzal did not mention having served in the Guard, although he did recall: "He said he remembered a verbal order Washington gave him at that time - not to present arms or take notice of him when he was alone". Knapp went on: "He was a man of few words and never familiar with anyone" (8).

In addition to not appearing in any of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guards muster rolls or records, there appears to be some serious questions regarding the description of Knapp’s actual service. One is a statement made at his funeral "He was a little man made big by devotion to his God and Country". Also at the funeral it was mentioned that a Revolutionary War cavalry uniform was placed on the casket. The Guards had a height requirement - 5 foot 9 inches to 5 foot 10 inches. In the 18th century those heights were above average, hence calling a member a "little man" is questionable. The fact that a cavalryman’s regimental coat was placed in the casket could explain much of Uzal’s service. He could have been on detached duty to headquarters, as often did occur, and soldiers so assigned were quartered with the Guard, but did not appear on the rolls of the Guard. But to have been so assigned from 1778 to 1783 is not possible.

In defense of the claim that Uzal Knapp served in the guard, it is acknowledged that the muster rolls are incomplete. Many of the muster rolls were preserved by Major Caleb Gibbs, who served as Commandant of the Guard for six years. When the war was over, it was recognized that preservation of the records was important, but we had no system in place to do so. Our government consisted of a handful of appointed Congressman, a few clerks, and they were meeting in a borrowed building, with no facilities they could call their own. As a result, the commanding officers of each Regiment was requested to take their records home with them until some decision was reached and a repository created. General Washington gave Gibbs his trunk number 7 for the purpose. Gibbs, who stayed in the Army until 1784, took the trunk with him to Boston. Gibbs was well aware of the danger of leaving them in a wooden house in a city built of wood. With open fireplaces for cooking and heat and candles for light fire was a constant problem. Gibbs took the trunk and stored it at the Boston Navy Yard where he was employed. There was a fire there and the records were lost.

Uzal’s grandnephew, Edwin Knapp, wrote: "Uzal Knapp was the last surviving member of the Washington Life Guards. Dr. Carlos Godfrey of Trenton, N. J. is mistaken in saying the story of Uzal Knapp was a myth that has been imposed upon the public for nearly a century. My Grandfather, John Nelson Knapp, was a brother of Uzal Knapp. I have heard the whole history told many times by my parents."

With no evidence to substantiate Uzal Knapp’s Service in the Commander-in- Chief’s Guard, we have omitted his name from our “Roster of Known Members of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard”, which we have published on this web site.

All of the above notwithstanding, Uzal Knapp was a proven veteran of the American Revolution, and thusly a patriot who’s memory should be honored.

Shortly after Uzal’s death on January 10th, 1856, Ebenezer W. Knapp wrote to his sister on January 18th, 1856, "1 have to announce to you the death of Old Grandfather. He died on the 10th. He retained his senses to the last. He was confined to his bed eight weeks . . . . He had gradually been sinking ever since last fall. He was a man of strong constitution. He was buried on the 16th, with military honors at Washington’s headquarters, Newburgh. They made a great display. There was one company of soldiers from Albany what claimed the honor of burying him as they promised him to do last fall. They were in Newburgh then and Grandfather was there. 1 think there were more folks in Newburgh than I ever saw there before. The body was taken down on Monday and deposited at Headquarters under a guard of soldiers, and on Wednesday we met there and formed in procession and went to the Episcopal church (he being a chaplain of the Regiment) about as large a church as there is in Newburgh and it was literally crammed. And they said that not one quarter of the people could get in. And then they marched clear through Grand Street to the north end of Newburgh and back through Water Street , the principal business street, and it was trimmed in mourning from one end to the other. The hearse was drawn by four white horses and a Negro driver and one on foot with a rein to each horse, all dressed in livery. It made a very impressive appearance. He was laid in a medal coffin with a silver plate on it with his name and age, 94 years, 3 months.

B. W. Knapp."

Joel Muncell, author of “The Annals of Albany” wrote an article about Uzal Knapp’s funeral. "Continental Company B went to Newhurgh to attend the funeral of Uzal Knapp, the last of Washington’s Life Guards, where it was assigned the post of honor. Also marching were the Newburgh Continental, the Orange Hussars, the Montgomery Guards, and the Port Jarvis Light Guard. J. W. F. Ruttenber wrote: The funeral was inspiring. For two days the body lay in state in Washington's Headquarters. On the coffin was the uniform of a mounted Continental soldier, under it the national flag. Colonel Parmenter was marshall of the procession that escorted the remains to St. George’s church where the Rev. Dr. Brown delivered a eulogy. His text was from the book of Job, 'I would not live always'. In the procession, Uzal Knapp’s own white horse was led after the hearse."

On June 18th, 1860, the Newburgh Guards, company F, 19th Regiment, New York State Militia, erected the monument depicted in this article. When it was constructed it was surrounded by a chain, supported by four granite posts with two pieces of heavy artillery on either side (9).

Notes :

(1) “The Orange County Post” July 6th, 1967, article by Margaret V. S. Wallace
“Rootsweb” - Entry Number 15413 entered by William Bradley September 8th, 2001

(2) “Federal Pension Records” - National Achieves, Washington, D.C.

(3) “The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard” by Carlos F. Godfrey, 1904, page 14

(4)“The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution” by Benson J. Lossing, reprinted 1859, page 687.

(5) “The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea” by Benson J. Lossing, published in 1866.

(6)“Mary and Martha, the Mother and Wife of George Washington” by Benson J. Lossing, 1888, p. 202

(7)“Muster Roll of the Guard” At the National Archives dated: June 4th 1783

(8) “The Orange County Post” August 10th, 1967, article by Margaret V. S. Wallace

(9)“The Annals of Albany” by Joel Muncell - 1856.


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