When you think of the American Revolution what immediately comes to mind?
Betsy Ross and her American flag?
Paul Revere and his midnight ride?
“The British are coming! The British are coming!”
The stories we were taught as children stick with us long past the time we come to understand that they were just that… stories. The people were real. Ross was a hard-working upholsterer and Revere was a talented metal-smith. But perhaps their actions during the Revolution were a bit more complicated then how they were presented to us as schoolchildren at the age of eleven or twelve.
Take the city of Philadelphia for instance. By the time of the American Revolution, it was the largest English-speaking city outside of London. The legacy of William Penn’s promise of religious freedom also meant Philadelphia enjoyed one of the most diverse populations in the world with immigrants arriving not just from England, but also from the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, France, and the Caribbean. Yet all Pennsylvanians had one thing in common regardless if they were 3rd generation or recent arrivals… they were ALL British subjects. Starting in 1727, all “foreign immigrants” of non-English descent (men 16 years-old and above) were required to take the Pennsylvania Oath of Allegiance upon arrival in the colony. That meant a person was swearing his allegiance to the British Crown… to King George II (until 1760) and King George III (until the revolution).
I was reminded of this fact recently when I spent the day with a group of men who are living history reenactors. These men bring the battle for American Independence to life by portraying British Soldiers…the Red Coats. “The British are coming! The British are coming” my twelve-year- old self immediately said. “The Regulars are out,” I was corrected. For what British citizen would look upon another British citizen and shout the British are coming? “The Regulars” were the King’s military in the fancy red coats. (Except as I also learned, some British soldiers wore "buff" colored coats while others wore blue to differentiate their roles on the battlefield...so they weren't all "red coats" after all.)
In 1777, when the American Revolution was in full swing, the “regulars” had taken Philadelphia. Many citizens had escaped to the countryside while the highest-ranking military officers occupied the fanciest homes in town. Some of Philadelphia’s wealthiest citizens hedged their bets waiting to see how the battles progressed before making the ultimate decision. Would they stand loyal to their Mother County and benevolent King? Or would they take up arms and fight against the law and order of the day? Was the British system of government still representing their best interests? Whatever the decision…once it was made, there was no turning back. What were they willing to put their life on the line for? Taking up arms against your king WAS a treasonous offense no matter how you reasoned through it.
But what of those loyal British soldiers sent to America to protect the interests of the Crown? What can we learn from them? How can we learn their stories? As it turns out, a number of them left their mark here in America. One quite literally.
A Brigadier-General in the army of Sir William Howe, James Tanner Agnew commanded four regiments—a total of 1200 men—in Howe’s invasion of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1777. Agnew fought in the Battle of Brandywine in September, eventually making his way to Germantown (in present-day Philadelphia). There he found an empty house conveniently located. He and several others setup their headquarters in John Wister’s Big House (present day Grumblethorpe) on the 26th of September, 1777. The American army attacked the British in Germantown on October 4, 1777 (aka The Battle of Germantown.) Leading his brigade towards the skirmish to lend support to Lord Cornwallis, Agnew was caught off-guard by a large group of American soldiers appearing unexpectedly from behind a building. As he turned his horse around to regroup, he took the full brunt of the volley. In a letter to General Agnew’s wife, his servant Alexander Andrew described the full events (written March 8, 1778):
"Dear Madam," he wrote six months after the event, "though an entire stranger to your ladyship . . . I had the honor to wait on your beloved husband for considerable time." He went on to describe events at “that unfortunate place called Germantown."
“…Being between the hours of 9 and 12, as the brigade was following the 3d in an oblique advancing line, the general, with the piquet at their head, entered the town, hurried down the street to the left, but he had not rode above 20 or 30 yards, which was the top of a little rising ground, when a party of the enemy, about 100, rushed out from behind a house about 500 yards in front, the general being then in the street, and even in front of the piquet, and all alone, only me, he wheeled round, and, putting spurs to his horse, and calling to me, he received a whole volley from the enemy. The fatal ball entered the small of his back, near the back seam of his coat, right side, and came out a little below his left breast. Another ball went through and through his right hand. I, at the same moment, received a slight wound in the side, but just got off time enough to prevent his falling, who, with the assistance of two men, took him down, carried him into a house, and laid him on a bed, sent for the doctor, who was near. When he came he could only turn his eyes, and looked steadfastly on me with seeming affection. The doctor and Major Leslie just came in time enough to see him depart this life, which he did without the least struggle or agony, but with great composure, and calmness, and seeming satisfaction, which was about 10 or 15 minutes after he received the ball, and I believe between 10 and 11 o’clock. I then had his body brought to his former quarters, took his gold watch, his purse, in which there was four guineas and half a Johannes, which I delivered to Major Leslie as soon as he came home. I then had him genteelly laid out, and decently dressed with some of his clean and best things; had a coffin made the best the place could produce. His corpse was decently interred the next day in the church-yard, attended by a minister and the officers of the 44th regiment.”
There are several things to note about this passage. First the burial place that his servant Andrew mentions was not a “church yard” but rather the Lower Burying Ground, today known as Hood Cemetery. He was buried that day with a fellow British soldier, Lieutenant Colonel John Bird, who had also died at the Battle of Germantown.
When Andrew speaks of having “had his body brought to his former quarters” he is referring to present day Grumblethorpe, whose parlor floor still bears the stains of Agnew’s blood. I have often wondered if this blood stain was a source of pride to the Wister family when they returned home…and for the generations that followed. “Here is the blood of our enemy…? Such a blood stain is truly amazing. The stain on that parlor floor has remained for 240 years…through countless generations of Wister family, renovations, and the passage of time. That stain on the parlor floor has kept the story of General Agnew alive.
Another thing to note here is that this account of Agnew’s death has often been overshadowed by the story of a rogue American sniper named Hans Boyer who claimed he shot Agnew while hiding behind the wall of the Mennonite Meeting House. This sniper story has lived on despite evidence to the contrary (including Andrew’s first-hand account.) The most recent voice in opposition of the Boyer story, Don N. Hagist, published his opinion on August 17, 2016 in the Journal of the American Revolution: “Who Killed General Agnew? Not Hans Boyer."
As the British anticipated their evacuation of Philadelphia (which would happen in June 1778), General Howe started to worry about the graves of his fallen officers. The anger of those they would leave behind—especially as the British had been the victors at the Battle of Germantown—did not bode well for the future of the graves. In order to prevent their desecration, General Howe issued orders for their removal to a more secure spot. In May of 1778, they were given permission to bury the officers in the family plot of Dr. George DeBenneville, the founder of the Universalist Church, who had cared for wounded soldiers of both sides after the battle. The plot was along York Road in a place then called Branchtown. The burial ground can be found today near the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, on Green Lane just off Broad Street.
General Agnew’s grave appears to be lost through time, only to be "rediscovered" every few decades or so. Sometime around 1830, the historian and creator of Watson’s Annuls of Philadelphia, John Fanning Watson--after learning the story of Agnew and Bird--decided to procure a simple headstone for the site. The inscription read:
No more at War
Genl. Agnew & Col. Bird
Wounded in the Battle of Germantown
In 1902, the widening of Broad Street disrupted the eternal peace of Agnew and Bird when their section of the cemetery had to be relocated. They were disinterred and reburied further down Green Lane under the supervision of the British Consul, who followed up with a new larger stone monument which was dedicated to both men on October 4, 1903.
The newer inscription reminds us that General Agnew’s story was a tragedy compounded by the fact that he died at the young age of 58, and an ocean away from his homeland, separated from those who would mourn him. Agnew was one of only three British generals who died during the Revolutionary War to be buried in America. (The other two graves are located in Saratoga, NY and Petersburg, VA.)
Here Lie The Remains
General James Tanner Agnew
A British Officer
Who Was Killed at Germantown
On the 4th of October 1777 . . .
Once again forgotten, Agnew’s grave has been rediscovered anew throughout the last century. There are several accounts of descendants who searched out his grave (including American descendants!) In 1986, Michael Ruane wrote an article about Agnew in the Philadelphia Inquirer, followed by another by Ron Avery in the Daily News in 1994. The latest group to rediscover Agnew’s grave are local living history reenactors from the British 43rd Regiment of Foot. In preparation for their upcoming “occupation” of Grumblethorpe as part of the Grumblefest 2016 celebration—which coincides with the Revolutionary Germantown Festival (the recreation of The Battle of Germantown), they decided it was time to pay a visit to General Agnew, the original occupier of Grumblethorpe.
On Saturday, August 27th, a group came together to pay a visit to General Agnew: The 43rd Regiment of Foot was joined by the Site Managers of Grumblethorpe and staff from PhilaLandmarks on a very hot summer afternoon. It is a surprisingly peaceful location, given that it is situated up against busy Broad Street. After some maintenance of the hedges and clearing of the grave, the 43rd Regiment honored Agnew (and Bird) with a mourning formation and salute. We all wondered if for a brief moment the General’s spirit was awakened by the sounds of “God Save the King” being played at his feet. And perhaps just for a brief moment…the ocean, the miles, the years…all melted away…allowing the spirit of General Agnew to be transported home.
Here's a little video of the Tribute to General Agnew:
JOIN US for the Revolutionary Germantown Festival official after-the-battle party... Battle Bash on Saturday October 7th, 4:00-8:00 PM
on the historic gardens of Grumblethorpe!
For more information visit: Revolutionary Germantown Festival
Michael E. Ruane, “He seeks to Honor An Officer of Long Ago,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 22, 1986 (Philly.com) accessed 9-4-16
Ron Avery, “If Cemeteries Could Talk…Two Family Plots Hold Many Keys to City’s History” Philadelphia Daily News, March 28, 1994 (Philly.com) accessed 9-4-16
Text from the Alexander Andrew letter to Lady Agnew in Don N. Hagist, “British Soldiers, American War” (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2012), 229-231
John Palmer Garber, Naaman Henry Keyser, C. Henry Kain, Horace Ferdinand McCann, History of Old Germantown: With a Description of its Settlement and Some Account of Its Important Person, Buildings and Places Connected with its Development, Volume 1 (Germantown, PA: H. F. McCann, 1907), 403-407.
Also of interest
Sally Wister’s Journal: “A True Narrative: Being a Quaker Maiden’s Account of her Experiences with Officers of the Continental Army, 1777-17778” (Beford, Massachusetts: Applewood Books 1995) Originally published in 1902.
43rd Regiment of Foot: Company Corporal Joe "Brig" Wilson, Corporal Eric Kingland, Private Doug Sherlock, Private Keith "Squire" Dalton, Private Scott Chianese, Royal Artillery Gunner Callum Wilson, Fifer Seamus Wilson, Camp Follower Aidan Dalton
Commanding Officer, 43rd Regiment, Paul Loane
Videographer, Willem Ytsma
Kathryn Pannepacker & Diane Dunning