Revolutionary War Historical Article
The Men of the Commander-in-Chief Guard Captain George Lewis
by Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the January 2006 Edition of the The Liberty Tree Newsletter
George Washington Lewis, a son of Fielding and Betty (Washington) Lewis of Virginia was a nephew of General George Washington. He was born at Kenmore Plantation in Fredericksburg on March 14th, 1757. He is also a great-great uncle of our former Chapter President Wm. Scott Campbell.
His early years were very much like most Officers of the upper class of colonial Virginia, with adequate education, having attended Princeton College, learned the social graces and a love of the outdoors. One of the most beloved sports of the era was the fox hunt. Participating in it encouraged him to become an excellent horseman, like his uncle for whom he was named. He was George Washington's favorite nephew. Unfortunately no likeness of him has survived.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, George Washington was named Commander-in-Chief by Congress, and immediately left for Boston to take command of the army besieging the British.
In November Martha Washington went to Cambridge, the General's headquarters, to winter with him. George Lewis escorted her. No documents survive detailing the escort, however it appears that Lewis formed a troop of cavalry from his neighbors. His father, Colonel Fielding Lewis, wrote his brother-in-law on February 4th, 1776 regarding his son's intention to seek a commission. Fielding was well aware of Washington's objection to granting commissions to relatives. He wrote that his son "may be serviceable to you in some other way, as you may have occasion for some person to do some little things that you can confide in." General Washington, obviously fond of his namesake, did as his brother-in-law requested, but exactly what we do not know.
After the British evacuated Boston it was necessary to establish a formal personal guard for the General. On March 12th, 1776, General Washington created the Commander-in-Chief Guard. He appointed Captain Caleb Gibbs commandant and George Lewis First Lieutenant as second in command, with his Continental Commission to be approved on that date. Lewis was 19.
On May 16th, 1776, in New York City, in the general orders of the day, Washington proclaimed: "Any orders delivered by Caleb Gibbs and George Lewis, Esqs. (Officers of the General's Guard) are to be attended to in the same manner as if sent Officer of the by an Aide-de-Camp."
In addition to performing secretarial obligations such as writing letters for the General, and attending to their own detachment, Lewis conducted all the courier and mounted escort duties.
After being driven from New York, Washington started the long retreat across New Jersey. Washington always set an example for his army. When advancing, he was in front, screened by a mounted force, but when retreating, Washington personally commanded the rear guard. This habit frequently placed his Guard in harm's way.
Christmas, 1776, saw Washington's genius. He ordered his exhausted, ill equipped troops to recross the Delaware and attack the 1,200 man Hessian garrison at Trenton. It was a turning point in the Revolution. George Lewis was part of the cavalry that screened the surprise attack.
Following that victory, Lewis assisted by screening the army and 918 prisoners returning to Pennsylvania. Once the prisoners were safely over the Delaware River, the Americans turned their attention to Princeton. This was another American victory, but unlike Trenton, costly. Among the casualties was mortally wounded General Hugh Mercer. Mercer was from Fredericksburg and had been the family doctor to both Mary Washington, the General's mother and the Lewis family. When General Washington learned of his being seriously wounded and a prisoner he sent Captain Lewis, under a flag of truce, to escort Doctor Benjamin Rush to attend him. Mercer died in the arms of Lewis a few days later.
In January, 1777, Washington instructed Lieutenant Colonel George Baylor to raise a Troop of Light Dragoons, to be designated the Third Regiment of Dragoons. He instructed Baylor: "As nothing contributes so much to the constitution of a Regiment, as a good corps of officers" . . . . he went on, "take none but gentlemen, let no local attachment influence you. . . . . do not take old men, nor yet fill your Corps with boys." He then advised he would assign Lewis's troop of cavalry to his command, promoting Lewis to Captain. This Regiment was known as "Lady Washington's Horse". One can only wonder if Gorge Lewis did not convince Colonel Baylor to nickname the Regiment after his favorite aunt.
The Regiment fought with the Continental Army in the Philadelphia Campaign, wintered at Valley Forge and in the Spring, was deployed to harass the British who were preparing to evacuate Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Just south of Trenton, New Jersey, near Bordertown the Third Dragoons encountered the much feared British 17th Light Dragoons. Colonel Baylor ordered a charge. The Americans drove off the British at sabre point. The Third Dragoons also participated in the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, the last major battle in the North.
After the British were forced back to New York, General Washington positioned the Continental Army in New Jersey and the Hudson Highlands. Assigned to patrolling the west side of the Hudson River, the one hundred and twenty men of the Third Dragoons made camp in Old Tappan on September 28th, 1778. They divided the Regiment into troops and each occupied a barn. The normal guards were posted and those off duty bedded down for the night. Unbeknown to them, British General Charles "No-flint" Grey, leading a surprise attack, had surrounded three of the four barns, eliminated the twelve man guard, and charged. He had given orders to give no quarter, as a result at least 30 Americans were bayoneted, another 50 were captured. Among the captured was Colonel Baylor. Captain George Lewis and about 40 of his troops escaped. This was a duplicate of the attack Grey had launched at Paoli, Pennsylvania the year before, against General "Mad" Anthony Wayne's Division. As a result of these losses, the Third Dragoons were destroyed as a fighting force.
Colonel William Washington, General Washington's third cousin, replaced Colonel Baylor as Commander of the Third Dragoons. It took almost a full year to recruit and equip the Regiment. During this time the detachment was assigned to the Headquarters.
Captain Lewis had met Colonel William Daingerfield, who had been the Commander of the Seventh Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line, and his daughter Catherine. He fell in love with Catherine and they were married on October 15th, 1779. Shortly thereafter, George resigned his commission. General Washington was probably not at all happy with his decisions, but George Lewis remained his favorite nephew throughout his life.
The Lewis's settled in Berryville, Clarke County, Virginia, on land that is still owned by his descendants. They had four children there - Samuel (1780 - 1842), Mary (1782-1800), Daingerfield (1785-1862) and Betty (her dates of birth and death unknown).
After the Revolution, Congress, deeply in debt, down sized the American Army to a point it hardly existed. General Washington was elected President of the new republic. In 1794 it became clear Congress' decision regarding the army was wrong. The Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania broke out. It was necessary to raise a volunteer army to put it down. Captain Lewis raised a troop of Cavalry - the Fredericksburg Troop of Volunteers. He and his detachment were deployed to Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh).
On October 17th, surviving records show "Captain Lewis promoted to be Major Commandant of the Cavalry. "
Dr. Robert Wellford, of Fredericksburg kept a diary on the campaign, and wrote on October 19th, "The Cavalry this morning escorted the President about five miles from camp when he [Washington] requested the troops to return and at taking leave spoke to Major George Lewis as follows: 'George you are the eldest of five nephews that I have in the Army let your conduct be an example to them, and do not turn your back until you are ordered.' "
Five years later, and after Washington left the presidency, our relations with the French and their new revolutionary government deteriorated to a point where it appeared war was inevitable. And, as in the case of the Whiskey Rebellion, we simply did not have an army. President Adams wisely appointed Washington Lieutenant General and Commander of all our armed forces. His primary job was to create an army. Congress wanted to establish a standing army of 10,000 officers and men with a reserve of 50,000. Selecting the senior officers was the first major chore. Many of the generals that served in the revolution had either passed away or were to old to serve. To assist General Washington, Colonel Alexander Hamilton, a former Aide-de-Camp to Washington was appointed a Major General. He was to assist the Secretary of War, James McHenry, also a former Aide-de-Camp to Washington. Their problems were many fold, including politics. As he did when President, Washington refused to allow his personal preferences interfere with his decision making. He relied on the recommendations of the political leaders from the various states. As a result many good men, men personally known to the Washington were passed over. Among them was Major George Lewis. On June 6th, 1799, from Mount Vernon Washington wrote to McHenry: "The letter from Major George Lewis shows his disappointment, in not having had his name brought forward at an earlier date. He did not apply to me at that time, because he knew that I had always felt a delicacy in bringing into public service any of my own relations. I confess, however, that I regretted not seeing his name on the list, which was laid before the general officers in Philadelphia; for I knew him to be a valuable officer, and believed that he had a predilection for the service. In justice to his application I must say, that I think he deserves attention. He served with reputation in the Revolutionary war, and commenced the oldest Captain in Colonel Baylor's regiment of Cavalry, but marrying resigned before the close of it. On the western expedition [Whiskey Rebellion] he commanded the Virginia Cavalry with the rank of Major, and acquitted himself with honor, His age and standing in society qualify him for the appointment which he asks. he makes no claims on the score of preeminent or superior abilities but he is known to possess a soundness of judgement, qualifications, and acquirements, at least equal to the place which he wishes; and no man stands higher than he does in the esteem of those who know him, or a firm and steady friend to government."
The situation with France calmed down and most of the proposed commissions were never activated. Major Lewis military career was over.
His relationship with George Washington remained very close. One of the surviving letters to Lewis from Washington shows the trust and respect he had for him.
April 7th, 1796
Tuesday's post brought me a letter from a Mr. Andrew Parks of Fredericksburg, covering one from your mother; both on the subject of overtures of marriage made by the former to your cousin Harriot Washington, which it seems, depends upon my consent for consummation.
My sister speaks of Mr. Parks as a sober, discreet man; and one who is attentive to business. Mr. Parks says of himself, that his 'fortune at present, does not much exceed 3000 pounds, but with industry and economy, he has every expectation of rapidly improving his condition' being concerned with his brother-in-law, Mr. McElderry of Baltimore, in mercantile business.
As I am an entire stranger to Mr. Parks; to his family connections, or his connections in trade, to his mode of living; his habits; and to his prospects in trade; I should be glad if you would ascertain them with as much precision as you can and write me with as little delay as you can well avoid. . . . "
Harriot Washington did marry Andrew Parks on July 4th, 1796.
When George Washington died, December 14th, 1799, he left land and gave George Lewis first choice of his swords, which was highly prized in the 18th century.
Major Lewis moved his family from Berryville to Marmion in King George County, Virginia died there in 1821.
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"Pension Records" - Held at the National Archives, Washington, D.C.