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Charles Powell in the Revolution

by Fleta Aday

Many Americans with a Revolutionary ancestor would search the history books in vain for any mention of their exploits, but look closely at any leader of the American Revolution and you will see the shadowy images of thousands of our forefathers marching in the distant mist. For three years, Charles Powell was one of the soldiers marching in the mist behind George Washington. The General and the soldier were separated by social and economic status and connected by time, place and purpose. They surely shared an independent spirit and a hunger for freedom.

General Washington and Charles Powell also shared a tenuous connection from before the Revolution. In 1738, George Washington and his family moved to the 260 acre Rappahannock Ferry Farm on the northern bank of the Rappahannock River in Stafford County, Virginia. At this farm the northern view from the hill above the river reveals the land of Charles Powell's birth in Stafford County, the southern view across the river is of the town of Fredricksburg and the land of Spotsylvania County where Charles and Sarah lived during the first decade of their married life. Here in Spotsylvania County in 1764 or 65 Charles and Sarah were married. Charles with only his "horse and wearing apparel" and Sarah with her one hundred acres inherited from her grandfather settled down on a little farm. On this farm, Sarah bore the first six of her eight children while Charles raised tobacco, corn, a few cattle, horses and pigs.

Their peaceful country life here in the backwoods was increasing encroached upon during the next decade by the first rumblings of revolution. In 1763, Britain instituted a new get-tough policy with the colonies by stationing a standing army in America. A secession of legislative acts were passed by Parliament in the ensuing years to try to bring the rebellious colonies under control. These laws brought great unrest to America and served to unite the colonies in their resistance to "taxation without representation." When the British closed Boston harbor in 1774 as punishment for the Boston Tea Party, the Virginia House of Burgess passed a resolution supporting the Boston colonists. In retaliation, Virginia's British governor dissolved the House of Burgess. On August 1, 1774, the first Virginia Convention met at Williamsburg and elected delegates to the First Continental Congress. Tensions quickly accelerated resulting in open warfare at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. In June, the Second Continental Congress appointed George Washington commander in chief of the American forces. In August, King George declared the colonies in rebellion. By 1776, when Congress enacted the Declaration of Independence, every colonist must have clearly seen that it would not be possible to ride out the war without choosing sides. In the fall of 1776, Charles Powell chose rebellion. That fall, Charles volunteered in Captain Stubblefield's Company of Spotsylvania County Militia and joined his fellow militiamen in petitioning the Virginia legislature to move the place of muster from Fredricksburg to a place closer to their homes.

Charles sold Sarah's one hundred acres in Spotsylvania County in July 1776. His land there was less than two hundred miles from Philadelphia and New York. The action of the Revolution was concentrated in and around these areas. It is not possible to know Charles' reason for selling his land on the northern border of Virginia and moving his family south, but it proved to be a fateful decision. The following year, Charles and his father-in-law, Anthony Gholson, bought adjoining acreage along the south side of the Dan River, not far from Irwin's Ferry, in Halifax County, Virginia. Charles was likely hoping this move would take his family far from the action of the war in which he was becoming increasingly involved.

In the fall of 1776, General Washington and his Continental Army met a series of disasters. On October 15, Britain's General Howe moved in to occupy New York City. On October 28, Washington was defeated at the battle of White Plains, New York. On November 16, the British took more than 2000 prisoners at the capture of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island. With the enlistments of the majority of his soldiers due to expire at the end of 1776, General Washington urgently needed a decisive victory. On Christmas night Washington crossed the ice-clogged Delaware and defeated the British at Trenton, New Jersey and then on December 30 led another offensive across the river to drive the British from Princeton on January 3, 1777. With less than 5,000 poorly equipped amateur troops, General Washington had defeated nearly twice this number of professional British soldiers, and virtually ran the British out of New Jersey. Washington then took his army into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey.

The grandeur of Washington's New Jersey campaign brought many new volunteers to the Rebel cause. On January 9, 1777, Charles Powell, leaving his wife and children in the charge of Anthony Gholson in Halifax County, enlisted for a three year term as a bombardier in Captain Samuel Eddens' Company (#8) of Colonel Charles Harrison's Regiment of Virginia Artillery. Neither Charles Powell's military record nor the two listings for Company Number Eight identify any location for the company before May 1778, but numerous records from that date until January 1780 show Eddens' Company Number Eight with General Washington and his troops. From this we can assume, Colonel Harrison's Artillery joined General Washington at Morristown in the winter of '78 and stayed with his army through Charles Powell's three year term.

Washington kept his army protected in quarters at Morristown until June, but even when he moved out he kept to the hills and ridges knowing he would be demolished if he met the British General Howe on the open plains. August found Washington and his troops in camp about twenty miles from the Rebel Capitol of Philadelphia, when he received word that Howe was landing his forces in Chesapeake Bay. Washington rightly assumed Howe's target was the Capitol and moved quickly to position his army between that city and the enemy. In an effort to gain added support and volunteers for his army and to give his soldiers added confidence, he decided to parade his troops through the streets of Philadelphia on his way to meet General Howe. The soldiers polished themselves, their clothes, and their arms, and to offset the shabbiness of the uniforms, each man was ordered to wear laurel leaves in his hat, a "green sprig, emblem of hope." The camp followers of women and children were all lead on an alternate route around the city.

The army started for the city at three in the morning on Sunday, August 24. At seven they reached Philadelphia. It was raining early in the morning but John Adams reported to his wife Abigail:

The rain ceased, and the army marched through the town between seven and ten o'clock. The wagons went another road. Four regiments of light horse...Four grand divisions of the army and the artillery...marched twelve deep and yet took up above two hours in passing by. The army...I find to be extremely well armed, pretty well clothed, and tolerably disciplined. General Washington and the other general officers with their aides on horseback. (Scheer 265)

And surely, Charles Powell was there in the ranks marching with the artillery.

On September 11, these troops engaged the opposing army at Brandywine, Pennsylvania not far from Philadelphia. Washington was defeated and pushed back from the Delaware. On September 26, Howe and his British army occupied the American Capitol of Philadelphia. The American Congress had fled, moving their seat of government to York, Pennsylvania. Washington returned and engaged Howe again in October at Germantown, just outside Philadelphia, but was again unsuccessful in repelling Howe's army. By the end of 1777, the Delaware River, from Philadelphia to its mouth at Delaware Bay, was under British control.

General Washington, needing to remain close to Philadelphia and make a show of protecting Pennsylvania and New Jersey, took his troops into winter quarters eighteen miles northwest of Philadelphia at the now famous Valley Forge. While it is speculation on our part that Charles Powell was with Washington on his march through Philadelphia and at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, Charles Powell's military record solidly places him with Washington at Valley Forge in the winter of '77-'78.

The march of the Rebel army across the countryside to the camp at Valley Forge was a forecast of what was to come. Dr. Waldo, a surgeon from Connecticut gave this description of the journey:

December 12 A bridge of wagons laid across the Schuylkill last night, consisting of thirty-six wagons with a bridge of rails between each. Some skirmishing...Sun set. We were ordered to march over the river. It snows. I'm sick. Eat nothing. No whiskey. No forage...Cold and uncomfortable. I am sick, discontented, and out of humor. Poor food. Hard lodging. Cold weather. Fatigue. Nasty clothes. Nasty cookery...Why are we sent here to starve and freeze? What sweet felicities I have left at home, a charming wife, pretty children, good beds, good food, good cookery...Here all confusion, smoke and cold, hunger and filthiness. (Davis 255)

Many soldiers did not even have shoes during much of this winter, and their progress across the countryside through battle and march could be tracked by their bloody footprints in the snow.

Once in camp, the army lived in tents until they built their own log cabins with axes being their only tools. By mid-January most of the army was in huts, but they were little better than the tents. Here at Valley Forge, Charles Powell and his follow soldiers suffered from lack of food, clothing and medical care. Epidemics of smallpox and typhus ran through the camp. Almost a fourth of the men who entered the camp in December died before winter's end.

General Washington, needing to bring army discipline and order to his soldiers' ranks, enlisted the help of a German soldier of fortune, Baron von Steuben. Before spring Steuben had transformed Washington's starving, ragged troops into a well disciplined military unit.

In May 1778, Charles Powell was surely in camp to witness the great celebration following the news of the decision of France to support the American cause. After surviving winter camp at Valley Forge, Charles was promoted to Corporal in June 1778. His pay was $9 a month (New York currency), the same amount he drew as a Bombardier.

Leaving Valley Forge exactly six months after entering camp, Washington's troops presented a much improved picture as a fighting force thanks to the training of Steuben. On June 18, General Clinton, Howe's replacement, abandoned Philadelphia, crossed the Delaware and set off through New Jersey, with New York as his destination. Washington followed with twelve thousand troops. On June 28, 1778 in 97 degree summer heat, Washington and Clinton clashed at Monmouth, New Jersey. A Washington biographer wrote, "The American artillery had never been so deadly. Its guns were well mounted on knolls from which they could enfilade Clinton's ranks; one round of solid shot that swept along a redcoat platoon knocked the musket from the hands of each man. The severe fighting raged for hours without a pause." (Davis 293) At 6 p. m. the British withdrew. Both armies were near exhaustion in the extreme heat. The battle was officially a draw, but General Washington praised his men for making an impressive fight.

With memories of Valley Forge fading, Washington's army, now seventeen thousand strong and sporting new uniforms and shoes thanks to a shipment of supplies from their French allies, pursued Clinton across New Jersey. Washington did not engage Clinton again in '78, and in an ironic twist of fate for Charles Powell, the British began shifting the emphasis of the war to the Southern Theater. In November, Washington settled into winter quarters about forty miles from New York, with a string of camps from Middlebrook, New Jersey, through West Point to Connecticut, while Clinton camped in New York.

Corporal Charles Powell was in Camp White Plains, not far from West Point, in July and August 1778. September found him sick at Camp Fredricksburg. While this could have been Fredricksburg, Virginia it is more likely he was at Fredricksburg, New York, again in the vicinity of West Point. He was promoted to Sergeant of Company Eight in October 1778, and his pay increased to $10 a month. In December 1778 through April 1779, he was reported at Pluckemin Park of the Artillery near Middlebrook. May of 1779, he was at Middlebrook.

On May 30, 1779, Clinton captured Stony Point, New York. Washington positioned his troops at Smiths Clove, New York, between Clinton and West Point, fearing that to be Clinton's objective, but Clinton moved back down the river. One officer described Smiths Clove as "a most villainous country, rough, rocky and bad climate." July 4, 1779 found Sergeant Charles Powell and his company at Camp Smiths Clove with Washington.

Having fought no decisive battles in '79, Washington moved his troops into winter quarters at Morristown on December 1 during "a very severe storm of hail and snow that lasted all day." The cold was so severe that the army thought longingly of Valley Forge. The men were pelted with one storm after another, and on January 2, 1780, a blizzard piled snow from four to six feet deep. But Charles Powell did not long remain at Morristown.

Having endured many trials during his three year journey with General Washington, Charles received his discharged on January 10, 1780. He went home to Halifax County, Virginia to his family on the Dan River only to be followed by the war. The shift in emphasis to the South that began in 1778 now had British General Cornwallis conducting a campaign in North and South Carolina and the traitor Benedict Arnold threatening Virginia from the Chesapeake Bay.

By late summer 1780 with South Carolina under their control, the British were ready to push into Virginia and Maryland and deal Washington a final blow. In Virginia, Governor Thomas Jefferson had placed General Steuben in charge of the state's defense. By January 1, 1781, the British were in Chesapeake Bay and Jefferson was calling up county militiamen to repel the impending attack. Benedict Arnold, now in charge of the British fleet, sailed up the James River and burned Richmond then moved back downriver to settle in at Portsmouth on the Chesapeake Bay. Charles Powell joined the Halifax County Militia and was sent to Cabin Point on the James River to watch for Arnold's next anticipated raid up the river. The militia had little to do but sit and wait and worry about the news coming in daily of Cornwallis' raids in the Carolinas and his impending threat to Virginia.

Nathanael Greene, now in charge of the southern arm of the Rebel army, found his forces hopelessly outnumbered by Cornwallis. Greene decided to divide his army and draw Cornwallis into the interior. Giving command of a small force of riflemen to Daniel Morgan, he started a run across the Carolinas to Virginia. At Cowpens, South Carolina on January 17, Morgan soundly defeated the British forces of General Tarleton and fled north. General Cornwallis burned his tents, wagons, and baggage, keeping only necessary provisions and gave chase. On January 30, Greene rejoined Morgan and the race for the Dan was on. The Rebel army crossed the Catawaba, the Yadkin and creek after swollen creek with Cornwallis always only hours behind. The seventh of February found Greene at Guilford Court House, North Carolina, ninety miles below Dix Ferry on the upper Dan River with Cornwallis only twenty-five miles away. Greene decided to cross the Dan at Irwin's and Boyd's Ferries, lying four miles apart and twenty miles closer on the lower Dan. The Americans started each day's march at 3 a. m. stopping for only one meal each day. Before dawn on the thirteenth, Cornwallis learned Greene was headed for the lower Dan. On the evening of February thirteenth, Greene forded the Dan at Boyd's Ferry using boats brought down from up river. Cornwallis reached the river on the fourteenth, but lacking boats for a crossing, he camped near the ferries on the south side of the Dan, possibly right at Charles Powell's door. For a few days Cornwallis stomped and fumed, and then on February 18, he turned and started back toward Hillsboro, North Carolina. Greene rested at Halifax County Court House to reorganized his army, but pushed advanced elements across the Dan only one day after the British left. Within a week Greene himself was in pursuit of Cornwallis.

In a letter to Governor Jefferson dated February 15th, 1781, Camp at Boyd's ferry on the Dan River, Greene called for reenforcement of militia:

We have crossed the Dan, and I am apprehensive they will cross it above us...If they should they will oblige us to cross the Stanton branch of the Roanoke...It is by no means certain, that Lord Cornwallis will not push through Virginia.

Jefferson dispatched letters on February 17 and 18 to a long list of county Lieutenants and Baron von Steuben asking for militia to join General Greene who had "crossed the Dan at Boyd's ferry and was retreating before the enemy." News of the alarming activities of Greene and Cornwallis aligned along either side of the Dan near Boyd's Ferry must have reached Charles Powell and his fellow Halifax County Militiamen shortly after February 18. While they sat on the James River waiting for Arnold to make a move, Cornwallis and his army was camped within miles of their homes in Halifax County.

The record is dated February 23, 1781 Cabin Point, Virginia and states:

A list of the mens names belonging to Major Jones Battalion of Militia who have deserted. Distinguishing those who carried off their arms from those who did not. Also those who deserted from their post.

The list of familiar names include: John Pulliman, Thomas Watkin, William Dye, Jacob Miller, John Carter, David Jones and Charles Powell. On that fateful day, Charles Powell took his gun, bayonet, cartridge box, flint, cartridges and, with twenty-six other Halifax County Militiamen, deserted his post on Cabin Point and returned to his home on the south side of the Dan to defend his family and his land. If General Cornwallis was to cross the Dan, he would now face the ever rebellious Charles Powell with gun in hand.

South of the Dan in North Carolina, Nathanael Greene was preparing for a fight. Cornwallis' foray into Charles Powell's backyard proved as fateful for him as it was for Charles. On March 15 at Guilford Courthouse, a day and place of Greene's choosing, he and Cornwallis clashed in one of the fiercest battles of the war. Although Cornwallis claimed victory at Greene's orderly retreat at the end of the day, his forces suffered a blow that eventually proved fatal. In the ensuing months, Cornwallis decided to abandon the Carolina's to Greene and again push into Virginia. He was caught by the Americans in a siege at Yorktown, Virginia and surrendered to General Washington October 19, 1781. Although a final treaty was not signed until September 3, 1783, the surrender of Cornwallis effectively ended the American Revolution.

As far as can be determined, Charles Powell's desertion ended his participation in the Revolution. Desertion by militiamen was not uncommon, and it is unlikely he was punished for his actions. In 1783, he received additional pay and a land grant for his service in the Continental Artillery. By 1790, he was a pioneer on the Kentucky frontier at the very edge of civilization.

It is arguable that the same independence of spirit and hunger for freedom that enabled Charles Powell to enter the rebellion against the British Empire enabled him to dissent against the controls of his new government and propelled him to the Kentucky frontier. Once Charles Powell tasted freedom, he was forever a Rebel.
Charles Powell's Military Record
Freedom's Chance a poem inspired by Charles Powell's war experience.

Copyright © 1996 Fleta Aday

Source References

Boatner, Mark M. III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1966.

Boyd, Julian P. Lyman H. Butterfield and Mina R. Bryan. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 4: 1 Oct. 1780 to 24 Feb. 1781. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951.

Busch, Noel F. Winter Quarters: George Washington and the Continental Army at Valley Forge. New York: Liveright, 1974.

Davis, Burke. George Washington and the American Revolution. New York: Random House, Inc., 1975.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington A Biography: Volume One, Young Washington. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948.

Scheer, George F., and Hugh F. Rankin. Rebels and Redcoats. New York: New American Library, 1957.

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