Adam Stephen’s career was curiously intertwined with that of George Washington’s.1 Having served with the British Navy, Stephen was a requisite complement to the younger and inexperienced Washington during the first years of the French & Indian War. He was also a rival to George Washington’s early political ambitions and acquisition of western lands. Early in the Revolutionary War, Stephen attained the confidence of several key members of the Continental Congress and rose quickly to the rank of Major General in the Continental Army. However, his erratic and unseemly behavior renewed Washington’s mistrust of him, and when his overindulgence in alcohol began to cost lives, Stephen would be court-martialed and dismissed.
Other than his being born and raised in the parish of Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, very little is known of Adam Stephen’s life before his move to North America. He was well-educated, graduating from King’s College of the University of Aberdeen with a Master of Arts degree in 1740 followed by two years of medical studies at the University of Edinburgh.2 With Great Britain embroiled in the War of Austrian Succession at the time, Stephen took the opportunity to build upon his new surgical skills with the Royal Navy and took part in the expedition against the French Port of Lorient in 1746.3 Finding naval life disagreeable, Stephen immigrated to North America in 1748 and established a physician’s practice near Fredericksburg, Virginia. He earned a reputation as a skilled medical practitioner and in time acquired enough land in the Shenandoah Valley to become a gentleman planter.
When the clash between the British and the French for the Ohio Country began in 1754, Adam Stephen’s experience and political connections gained him a captain’s commission in Virginia’s newly formed provincial regiment. He met Lieutenant Colonel George Washington – a dozen years Stephen’s junior – at Winchester in April of 1754 at the beginning of the first expedition to confront the French.4 The two men fought together at Little Meadows and at the miserable capitulation of Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754, with Stephen earning battlefield promotions after each action.5 During Braddock’s expedition the following year, Stephen commanded a company of rangers and was wounded at the catastrophic Battle of the Monongahela after making a brave stand.6 With George Washington’s return to command of the re-formed Virginia Regiment in September 1755, Adam Stephen resumed his place as the unit’s executive officer with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.7 Stephen often commanded the Virginia troops at Fort Cumberland during Washington’s absences and was instrumental in drilling the troops into a cohesive and disciplined unit. During the Forbes campaign of 1758, he supervised the crucial tasks of clearing roads and building forts in western Pennsylvania, with the enemy constantly harassing his work details.
Interestingly, it would be after Washington’s resignation from military service that Adam Stephen would attain his most noteworthy achievements: the successful defense of Fort Ligonier in 1759 and by shrewdly avoiding armed conflict with the Overhill Cherokees in 1761. The flaws in Stephen’s character, however, also revealed themselves during the Seven Years’ War. He was charged more than once with failing to account for public funds and property, as well as using his public office for private gain by selling his livestock and flour to the army.8 These, and several other infractions, drew the censure of George Washington, who was then sitting in the Virginia House of Burgesses. A more defined enmity between George Washington and Adam Stephen further developed in securing the lands promised to the soldiery of the 1754 expedition by the royal government of Virginia. Both men formed separate partnerships with other veterans to obtain “all the best land on the Ohio.” Adam Stephen also believed that political clout would give him an advantage and stood for election for one of the two seats for Frederick County in the House of Burgesses - one of which was held by George Washington - in the spring of 1761. Customs of the time forbade candidates from publicly and actively soliciting votes and Stephen’s blatant demagoguery stirred Washington’s resentment.9 Washington easily won the election, but any comradeship that had existed between them abated.
Adam Stephen continued in military service for the Virginia colony, serving as county lieutenant – or chief militia officer – for Frederick and then Berkeley counties in the inter-war years. He also commanded one of the two militia forces during Lord Dunmore’s War of 1774. As conflict with Great Britain loomed on the horizon, he chaired the Berkeley County Committee of Safety, as well as serving as a commissioner to treat with native tribes at Fort Pitt in 1775. Yet another black mark on his public record occurred during the local elections for delegates to the Third Virginia Convention when Stephen, as Sheriff of Berkeley County, was disqualified from his win on charges of manipulating the voting process to his favor.10
When the War for American Independence commenced, Adam Stephen was appointed to the command of the 4th Virginia Regiment, with the rank of Colonel, in February of 1776.11 He was active with establishing Virginia’s defenses, especially in Hampton Roads.12 In September, Stephen was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and ordered to join the Main Army under General George Washington.13 He arrived with his brigade during the Continental Army’s retreat through New Jersey and soon fell into his old habits. The most substantial of which occurred during the covert operation to surprise the Hessian garrison at Trenton the following month. After crossing the Delaware River, Washington’s taskforce encountered a band of Virginians trudging towards them. It was soon learned that that General Adam Stephen had quietly dispatched the infantry company on the evening of Christmas Eve to “take revenge” on the enemy for killing one of his men. Fearing Stephen’s blunder had put the enemy on alert, Washington nevertheless pressed on and successfully trounced the Hessian garrison on Boxing Day 1776.14
After the successes of Trenton and Princeton, Adam Stephen’s political friends endorsed him strongly enough that he was advanced to the rank of Major General on February 19, 1777.15 He was further entrusted with a key command in New Jersey’s Raritan Valley to guard against enemy advances from New York. In this capacity, however, Stephen drew a sharp reprimand from Washington by reporting inflated casualties inflicted on an adversary that had actually routed Stephen’s force near Piscataway, New Jersey in May of 1777.16 Stephen began to draw the attention of members of Congress over the summer for frequently being intoxicated while on duty. 17 Though his division fought valiantly at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, Stephen’s inebriated blunders contributed to the American defeats, especially at the latter engagement where a portion of his command was involved in a case of friendly fire.18 General Stephen demanded a court martial to clear his name, and charges of drunkenness and the abandonment of his command during battle were investigated.19 Several weeks later, he was found “guilty of unofficerlike behavior, in the retreat from Germantown, owing to inattention, or want of judgement; and that he has been frequently intoxicated since in the service.”20 His was the sole case of a general grade officer’s immediate discharge from the Continental Army.
Adam Stephen returned to his home in Berkeley County, Virginia, where he resumed ranching, farming, and practicing medicine. In time, he would be joined by neighbors Charles Lee and Horatio Gates, fellow general-grade officers who also had their contentions with George Washington. Stephen dabbled in local politics, with his election to the state convention for ratifying the Constitution in 1788 being the apex of his public life after the Revolutionary War. He died at his home in Martinsburg on July 16, 1791.21
Samuel K. Fore
Harlan Crow Library
See an earlier version of this entry archived here.
1 Having found no primary source evidence of a definite date, Stephen’s biographer, the late Prof. Harry M. Ward, gives his best estimate for Stephen’s birth year as about 1721.
2 Peter J. Anderson, ed., Officers and Graduates of University & King’s College, Aberdeen, 1495-1860 (Aberdeen: New Spaulding Club, 1893), 233.
3 Samuel Bunford, ed. “The Ohio Expedition of 1754: ‘Col. Stephen’s Life Written for B. Rush in 1775,’” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography. Vol. XVIII, No. 1 (1894): 43.
4 Expedition to the Ohio, 1754: Narrative, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0004-0002.
5 Robert Dinwiddie to George Washington, 11 September 1754, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-01-02-0101; “Commissions Sent Colonel Washington for the Officers in his Regiment, Viz…” in R. A. Brock, ed., The Official Records of Robert Dinwiddie, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Virginia, 1751-1758… Vol. I (Richmond, Published by the Society, ): 315-319.
6 See footnote 3 in Roger Morris to George Washington, 23 June 1755, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-01-02-0158.
7 Orders, 17 September 1755, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-02-02-0034.
8 See footnote 9 of Cash Accounts, May 1759, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0165. & John Kennedy and John Pendleton, eds., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1761-1765. (Richmond: [Virginia State Library, 1907]): 296-298.
9 George Washington to Van Swearingen, 15 May 1761, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0021.
10 Robert L. Scribner, comp. & ed., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. III, The Breaking Storm & The Third Convention 1775 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977), 350-351.
11 Worthington C. Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress: Vol. IV, 1 January?–?4 June 1776 (Washington, D.C: U.S.G.P.O., 1906), 132.
12 4th Virginia Regiment Orderly Book, 13 May - 20 Sep. 1776, Peter Force Collection, Library of Congress.
13 Worthington C. Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Vol. V, June 5-October 8, 1776 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906), p. 133.
14 David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 231-233.
15 Worthington C. Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Vol. VII, January 1-May 21, 1777 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1907), 134.
16 See Major General Adam Stephen to George Washington, 12 May 1777, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0399. & George Washington to Major General Adam Stephen, 12 May 1777, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0400.
17 See “Historical Notes of Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1777” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 27, No. 2 (1903): 147 & Charles Carroll of Carrollton to George Washington, 27 September 1777, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0349.
18 Thomas J. McGuire, The Philadelphia Campaign: Vol. II, Germantown & the Roads to Valley Forge (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2007): 98-99.
19 Richard K. Showman, ed., The Papers of Nathanael Greene: Vol. II, 1 January 1777-16 October 1778 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980): 188-189.
20 General Orders, 20 November 1777, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-12-02-0324.
21 General Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Wednesday, August 17, 1791.
Bunford, Samuel, ed. “The Ohio Expedition of 1754: ‘Col. Stephen’s Life Written for B. Rush in 1775.’” Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography. Vol. XVIII, No. 1 (1894): 43-50.
King, Duane H., ed. The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake. The Story of a Soldier, Adventurer, and Emissary to the Cherokees, 1756-1765. Cherokee, N.C.: Museum of the Cherokee Press, 2007.
McGuire, Thomas J. The Philadelphia Campaign. 2 vols. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2006-2007.
Ward, Harry M. Major General Adam Stephen and the Cause of American Liberty. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989.