- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2008

In his own time, Adam Stephen enjoyed wide fame for exploits in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. Now, however, he is just a footnote in history, remembered by just a few scholars and the residents of Martinsburg, W.Va., the town he founded.

Stephen was born in 1721 in Rhynie Parish, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The passage of time has clouded his early years, but between 1736 and 1740, he attended King´s College, where the rigorous curriculum included Greek and Latin classics and political philosophy.

After graduation, Stephen studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. In 1745, he enlisted in the Royal Navy as a surgeon assigned to the Neptune, an army hospital ship.

The Scotsman got his first taste of combat in the fall of 1746, when, somewhere in the English Channel, a French privateer attacked the Neptune. At the outset, Stephen approached his excited captain seeking permission to take control of the guns in the cabin, four 9-pounders. Thus armed, he blasted the pirates with grapeshot just as they were closing to board the ship.

Stephen returned to London to a hero´s welcome but soon left the navy because of habitual seasickness.

Joining Washington

He immigrated to America in 1748, settling in Falmouth, Va., and began practicing medicine. Five years later, however, he decided to go into farming and rented 2,000 acres of land along Opequon Creek in the lower Shenandoah Valley. His plantation, known as Adam´s Bower, later gained renown as a favorite camping site of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart´s cavalry during the Civil War.

But in 1754, events across the Allegheny Mountains propelled his life in a different direction. Disputed French and English claims to the Ohio Valley were leading both countries and their colonists toward armed conflict.

Probably motivated by Virginia´s promise of free land for each soldier, Stephen joined the 300-man 1st Virginia Regiment. At Winchester in early April, Stephen, as a captain, and his 39 men joined a force led by Lt. Col. George Washington and marched west toward the Forks of the Ohio, present-day Pittsburgh, to garrison Fort Trent.

Upon reaching the trading post at Wills Creek, Md., Washington learned that French soldiers had forced the men building the outpost to stop. Nevertheless, he ordered his 159 men to start along the Nemacolin Path toward the fort, since renamed Duquesne.

Fort Necessity

Along the way, Stephen led scouting parties looking for enemy patrols. Finally, on May 17 at his camp at Great Meadows, Pa., Washington´s Indian allies told him of some enemy soldiers camped in a glen just five miles away.

The next morning, Washington, accompanied by 40 men and a handful of Indians, surprised the French as they were eating breakfast. With the colonel leading a detachment on the left and Stephen one on the right, the French were quickly defeated. Unfortunately, after the skirmish, Seneca chief Half King murdered Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, the rival commander, tomahawking him in the head.

Washington returned to Great Meadows, and over the next month, his men built Fort Necessity. On June 12, Capt. James MacKay´s independent company of South Carolina regulars arrived, bringing the fort´s complement up to 400. By this time, Washington had promoted Stephen to major.

On July 3, a force of 900 French, Canadians and Indians seeking to avenge Jumonville´s death attacked the fort. During that long, rainy day, Stephen went along the line steadying his men and supplying them with ammunition. That evening, however, Washington, with 30 dead and 70 wounded, agreed to discuss terms with the French commander.

The next morning, the colonel surrendered. As his soldiers were preparing to march home, a Frenchman tried to steal Stephen´s baggage. In an instant, the major grabbed his trunk off the man´s shoulder and kicked the fellow´s backside. Upon reaching Wills Creek, Washington placed him in co-command of Fort Cumberland.

Bloody disaster

During the spring and summer of 1755, Stephen, by then a lieutenant colonel, led a company of Virginia rangers on British Gen. Edward Braddock´s ill-fated expedition to capture Fort Duquesne.

On July 9, just seven miles from the fort, approximately 250 French and Canadians and 650 Indians soundly defeated Braddock´s advance column of 1,400 men, killing more than 900 soldiers. Of his part in the Battle of the Monongahela, the twice-wounded Stephen wrote, “The few independents and Virginians … behaved better and suffered much. There were but few of them engaged, as General Braddock had unhappily placed his whole confidence and Dependence on the [British] Regiments.”

Stephen commanded Fort Cumberland, on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, for the balance of the next two years, and his job proved to be a difficult one. Frustrated by his failure to intercept Indian raiding parties that frequently swept down on isolated frontier homesteads, he also became involved in political rivalries between Maryland and Virginia officials and faced many problems arising from a bored and underpaid garrison.

Crucial road

In April 1757, Stephen took about 200 soldiers to Charleston, S.C., to help thwart a rumored invasion of the western part of that Colony. The attack never materialized, and he returned to Virginia about a year later.

Shortly thereafter, Col. Henry Bouquet placed Stephen in charge of building a new road across the Alleghenies to facilitate Gen. John Forbes´ advance on Fort Duquesne. In June 1758, at Fort Loudoun, Pa., Stephen and his workers began their arduous task.

By early September, Stephen had constructed a substantial part of the road despite being pestered by skulking Indians and a running feud with British Quartermaster General Sir John St. Clair. It was not until November, however, that Forbes marched his entire army toward the fort. Facing long odds, the French evacuated their bastion on the night of the 25th.

On July 6, 1759, Stephen fought his last action of the war. Commanding 350 soldiers at Fort Ligonier, Pa., he handily repulsed an attack by more than 700 French and Indians.

Gentleman farmer

Stephen expected to receive a commission in the Royal Army as a reward for his faithful service, but when none came, he returned to the Bower. There, except for periods of military activity during Ottawa Chief Pontiac´s Uprising (1763) and Lord Dunmore´s War (1774), he speculated in land and also tested the political waters. From time to time, his dealings in both avocations caused bitter feelings among business associates and former friends, including George Washington.

Although his farm´s production of cattle, grain and hemp yielded some revenue, Stephen usually was cash-poor. Sometimes he got out his doctor’s bag to supplement his income and help his neighbors.

In early 1772, Stephen was influential in persuading the House of Burgesses to create Berkeley County. That April, the governor appointed him the new county´s first sheriff. Other than law enforcement, his responsibilities included collecting taxes and serving court papers.

Fighting the British

In the fall of 1774, Stephen began questioning crown policy. Soon after Col. Andrew Lewis defeated Shawnee leader Cornstalk´s Indian army at Point Pleasant, Lord Dunmore, Virginia´s Colonial governor, infuriated his militiamen by making peace with the Indians rather than wiping them out.

Because of this, Stephen and other officers, convinced that Dunmore had started the war to divert attention from British actions in Boston, issued the Fort Gower Resolutions. Although the signers swore allegiance to King George III, they pledged to “exert every power … for the defense of American liberty and … her just rights and privileges.”

In May 1776, a year after the Revolutionary War started, Stephen took command of the 4th Virginia Regiment. Then, as biographer Harry M. Ward wrote, Stephen found himself “in a different kind of warfare, one taken out of the woods into … fighting according to European tactics.”

To say the least, Stephen´s record during that conflict did not equal his bygone exploits on the frontier. Although he quickly rose to divisional command and fought in a number of battles, including Washington´s Dec. 26 victory over the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, N.J., rumors about his hard drinking and talk that he was too old for active service spread throughout the army.


On Oct. 26, 1777, Gen. Nathaniel Greene convened a court of inquiry to investigate Stephen´s actions during the American defeats on Sept. 11 at the Battle of Brandywine and Oct. 4 at the Battle of Germantown. Charges against him included “Drunkenness … as to act frequently in a manner, unworthy the character of an officer.”

After the hearings, the court forwarded its finding to Washington, who ordered his old colleague tried by court-martial. In mid-November, the court found Stephen innocent of most charges but guilty of “unofficerlike behavior in the retreat from Germantown … and that he has frequently been intoxicated.” The commanding general subsequently dismissed him from the army and gave his division to the Marquis de Lafayette.

Stephen promptly returned home and resumed his farming and other business affairs. Ironically, within a short time, three cashiered Continental Army generals - Horatio Gates, Charles Lee and Stephen - all lived within a few miles of one another.

It is rumored that at a gathering of the trio, Lee once said, “You, Stephen, distinguished yourself by getting drunk when you should have been sober. You, Gates, were cashiered for advancing while you should have been retreating, while your humble servant … was cashiered for retreating while he should have been advancing.”

In his later years, Stephen was especially interested in the development of Martinsburg - named after a close friend - and had a new home built there.

The old Scotsman died in Martinsburg on July 16, 1791. He never married but had a daughter, Anne, and a number of grandchildren who survived him.

Steve French is the author of “Imboden´s Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign.” He can be contacted at [email protected]

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide