This is from the recollections of Lucinda A. (Stewart) Brown (1865-1941), about her great-granddad David Wilkerson (who is my ancestor also):
David Wilkerson, was an intimate friend of George Washington and was with him in the Revolutionary War. He crossed the Delaware that memorable Christmas in the same boat with General Washington.
What a story, and remarkable on many fronts. Primarily, that David Wilkerson would be participating in the famous raid on Trenton as a lad aged eleven years. Also, while plenty of illiterate farmboys like David served under General Washington, it’s amazing that the fancy pants fortysomething aristocrat would even get chummy with a little kid like David, much less become an “intimate friend”!
Perhaps you’ve anticipated my conclusion, that unfortunately the account does not closely match David’s actual Revolutionary War experience. It was written by someone who was born three decades after David’s death, who had heard it from parents that had heard it from THEIR parents, and like the telephone game what comes out isn’t always going to match the source very well.
It appears that David did, however, serve in the war, and the story has some surprising intersections with “the truth”.
When war veterans applied for military pensions, they would make an account of their service and offer other evidence to demonstrate their worthiness for an annuity. In 1820 David described his service thus:
…served in the Revolutionary War as follows. He enlisted with Maj’r Daniel Call of Colonel Washington’s Regiment of Cavalry in Halifax County, Virginia, in the year 1777 or 8 to serve for during the war in the Virginia Line on Continental establishment and continued in service till the close of the war, when he was discharged by Cap’t Parsons, at The High Hills of Santee in South Carolina, was in the battles of the Eutaw Springs, Guilford Courthouse where he was wounded in the knee, at the Cowpens, and several other small engagements…
The first word that leaps out of the account is “Washington” – he did serve under Washington, after all! Only it was William Washington, second cousin of the great George, a Colonel in the Virginia Line, and a war hero in his own right.
There’s the telephone game in action. So many of the stories are passed down to young ears, ears like Lucinda’s, apparently, that latch onto names like “Washington” and form the most romantic conclusions possible. And who could blame her?
David could not have been at Trenton on 25 Dec 1776 (though interestingly enough William was; perhaps Lucinda’s informant pointed this out and she once again made a romantic leap in logic). He does describe himself joining the Virginia Line at a shockingly young age – he would have only been 12 or maybe 14 in 1777-1778. In other documents he is described as joining in 1780 at the age of 15 – still awfully young, but somewhat more realistic. I’m still chasing down the particular details; perhaps he did a short stint early on and then joined on in 1780 for the duration of the conflict. The battles he said he took part in all happened in 1781.
Lucinda also neglects to mention his injury – there’s a romantic detail, for sure. I don’t know how badly he was hurt – he brought it up on his pension application probably to emphasize his indigence at the time. Guilford Courthouse was 15 Mar 1781, while David continued in service until 1783, apparently even fighting at Eutaw Springs on 8 Sep 1781. His unit fought at Hobkirk’s Hill six weeks after Guilford Courthouse and David made no mention of that conflict in his recollections. (Maybe he referred to it when he said, “several other small engagements”, though Hobkirk was no less obscure than Cowpens, which he does mention.) Perhaps at the time he was convalescing at home.
Sadly, Lucinda’s account says more to us about the storytelling milieu of her upbringing than her great-granddad’s life. The boat-across-the-Delware detail is a grandiose touch. I wonder how many people through the past 200 years have fondly supposed their Revolutionary forefather was in that very boat with Washington? Surely more than the eleven displayed in this famous painting. You’d probably need a much larger vessel to hold them all.
Incredibly, William Washington was also slightly wounded in the knee in 1781. It is fun to imagine that David was pals with the Washington he actually served under, who was after all more obscure, but still no less aristocratic than his cousin. That is at least possible in theory, though only before Eutaw Springs, where William was captured by the British. After that he cooled his heels under house arrest until the war was over.