From the Battle of Long Island in 1776 until the withdrawal of British military forces from his native New York City in 1783, William Stephens Smith proved himself an exceptional military officer during the War for American Independence. General George Washington pronounced him as “one of the best Battalion officers” of the Continental Army.1 His life as a civilian afterwards, however, was not as distinguished as Smith struggled to balance civic service with private gain.
The firstborn of a prosperous and a well-connected merchant couple of New York City, William Stephens Smith graduated from the College of New Jersey on September 28, 1774.2 He returned to New York City to study law, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war. Despite the firm loyalty to Great Britain of some members of his family, Smith enlisted in the cause of the colonists as a common soldier. A chance meeting with a family friend led to an introduction to Brigadier General John Sullivan, who was “charmed with his zeal and his inclinations,” and appointed Smith as an aide-de-camp on August 15, 1776 with the rank of Major.3
Less than two weeks later, Major Smith received a baptism by fire at the Battle of Long Island, eluding the same fate of his captured General. Major Smith retreated across the East River in the same boat as General George Washington, who took him onto his staff temporarily. Smith was wounded at the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776 “when dispatched by the Commanding General with orders to the troops.”4 Some weeks later, he led a corporal’s guard in destroying the bridge at Throgs Neck, New York, preventing the enemy from enclosing Washington’s army on Manhattan Island. Smith continued in the flurries of combat at Pell’s Point, New Rochelle, and White Plains in New York, and at the Battle of Trenton in New Jersey.5
In recognition for his “galantry intelligence & professional knowledge” during the New York-New Jersey campaign, William Stephens Smith was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in one of the “additional” regiments of the Continental Army on New Year’s Day 1777.6 By year’s end, he joined the main army at Valley Forge with a sizeable detachment and was entrusted with the command of an advance post between the American encampment and the enemy in Philadelphia. Over the next two and a half years, Colonel Smith led his regiment at the Battle of Monmouth, the Siege of Rhode Island, the expedition against the Iroquois Confederacy in Upstate New York, and the Battle of Springfield. After the last engagement, he was promoted as the inspector and adjutant general of the Marquis de Lafayette’s light infantry division.7
Vacancies in George Washington’s military family led to William Stephens Smith being selected as an aide-de-camp a year later on July 6, 1781, in time for the Yorktown Campaign.8 When the Continental Army returned to the Hudson River Valley in 1782, the Commander-in-Chief relied heavily on Smith, assigning him to be both commissary of prisoners and entrusting him with the command of the forward post at Dobb’s Ferry to watch and report on the enemy in New York City. When the Treaty of Paris ended the war, George Washington appointed William Stephens Smith one of three commissioners to supervise the British withdrawal from New York City.9
In March of 1785, William Stephens Smith became secretary to the American legation in London, headed by John Adams as U.S. minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain.10 While residing in London, Smith courted the daughter of John and Abigail Adams, Abigail “Nabby” Amelia Adams, and the two were married in London on June 11, 1786.11 After almost three years of diplomacy, a frustrated John Adams ended the mission in England and the families returned to the United States in 1788 at precisely the right time for the beginnings of a new national government. In 1789, President George Washington appointed William Stephens Smith the first U.S. Marshal for the State of New York on September 26, 1789 and two years later, Supervisor of the Revenue for the District of New York. He resigned both positions after about a year in each of them in favor of the lucrative pursuit of land speculation.12 By 1797, that bubble had burst, leaving Smith humiliated and mired in debt for the rest of his life.
During the Quasi-War with France, George Washington forwarded William Stephens Smith as a candidate for the post of Adjutant General of the Provisional Army. Citing his bankruptcy, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering successfully lobbied senators to vote against Smith’s commission and the best that President John Adams could offer his son-in-law was no more than a lieutenant colonelcy and command of a regiment.13
After conflict was avoided and the army was reduced, President Adams appointed his son-in-law as the Surveyor of Customs for the Port of New York on 24 June 1800.14 He continued in this office until his dismissal for his involvement in Francisco de Miranda’s filibustering expedition to liberate Venezuela from Spanish rule in 1806. Smith stood trial in federal court from April to July 1806 but was acquitted on the implication that Jefferson’s administration had turned a blind eye to the venture.15 In 1807, Smith retreated into exile with his family to his farm in Lebanon Township, New York. In one last gasp of public life, he served a single term in the U.S House of Representatives from 1812-1814, before his death on June 10, 1816.16
Samuel K. Fore
Harlan Crow Library
1 George Washington to James Duane, December 26, 1780. Fred W. Smith National Library, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
2 “The Smith Family of New York,” Johnson family paper, 1776-1937. Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
3 Chastellux, Francois Jean, Marquis de, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 & 1782. Translated and edited by Howard C. Rice, Jr. (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History & Culture by the University of North Carolina Press ), 339-340;General Orders, 15 August 1776, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0023.
4 William S. Smith to his Excellency Morgan Lewis, Governor & the Honorable Council of Appointment of the State of New York, February 3, 1807. Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Morristown National Historic Park.
5 “Memoir of William S. Smith” in Smith, Abigail Adams. Journal & Correspondence of Miss Adams, Daughter of John Adams… Written in France & England, in 1785. Ed. by her Daughter. (New York [etc.] Wiley and Putnam, 1841-42.), 101-104.
6 George Washington to William Stephens Smith, 24 June 1782, Item 92, Letters from William S. Smith and Others, Papers of the Continental Congress, M247, National Archives & Records Administration & William S. Smith, Lee’s Regiment, Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, 1775-1784, RG 93, National Archives & Records Administration.
7 William S. Smith to his Excellency Morgan Lewis, Governor & the Honorable Council of Appointment of the State of New York, February 3, 1807. Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Morristown National Historic Park.
8 General Orders, 6 July 1781, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-06299.
9 General Orders, 22 September 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-09551; George Washington to William Stephens Smith, 19 November 1782,” Ibid., https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-09982; Commissioners of Embarkation at New York to Washington, 18 January 1784,” Ibid., https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-01-02-0038.
10 Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. Journals of the Continental Congress: Vol. XXVIII, 1785. (Washington, D.C.: USGPO, 1933), 111.
11 John Adams to Isaac Smith Sr., 20 June 1786,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-07-02-0083.
12 George Washington to the United States Senate, 25 September 1789, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0058; Washington to the United States Senate, 4 March 1791, Ibid., https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0286; Washington to William Stephens Smith, 10 February 1792, Ibid., https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0331.
13 Timothy Pickering to Washington, 1 September 1798, Ibid., https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-02-02-0450; Washington to James McHenry, 13 December 1798, Ibid., https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-03-02-0179.
14 John Adams to William Stephens Smith, July 22d 1800. Adams Family Papers, Letterbooks, Massachusetts Historical Society.
15 Smith, William Stephens. The Trials of William S. Smith, and Samuel G. Ogden. for Misdemeanours, Had in the Circuit Court of the United States for the New-York District, in July, 1806… (New York: Printed by and for I. Riley & Co., 1807).
16 The Columbian (New York, N.Y.), June 17, 1816.
McCullough, David G. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Roof, Katharine M. Colonel Smith & Lady. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1929.
Smith, Abigail Adams. Journal & Correspondence of Miss Adams, Daughter of John Adams… Written in France & England, in 1785. Ed. by her Daughter. New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1841-42.