During the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania — an inglorious American defeat during the Revolutionary War — William Harris courageously defended Gen. George Washington’s baggage wagons. Harris kept Washington’s long johns safe from sullied Redcoat hands.
OK, that’s the joke that I like to crack about a great-great-great-great-grandfather of mine.
But the Revolutionary War was no joke, and it was no joke being one of Washington’s guards as Harris was. Being chosen was a great honor, according to Rutgers University American history lecturer Bruce Chadwick in his 2005 book, “The First American Army.”
Washington himself set the requirements for his guards: American-born, good soldiers and men of “sobriety, honesty, and good behavior … handsomely and well made … neat and spruce,” wrote Chadwick, quoting letters from Washington, including one to William Harris’ guard commander, Caleb Gibbs.
Washington’s guardsmen had to be at least 5-foot-10, Chadwick noted. I’m 5-foot-10. I’m also sober, honest, handsome, well made … are you beginning to see the resemblance?
In his first Revolutionary War pension application, dated Sept. 13, 1819, a 67-year-old William Harris testified under oath in a Wilkes County court that when he enlisted for the Continental Army he was “immediately” transferred from his 10th Virginia Regiment to Washington’s guard corps.
With his choice, new assignment, Harris was an eyewitness to the revolutionary events of the war in the North, from Bunker Hill to Yorktown, according to records. And all the while at the side of the father of our country.
“The personal guard(s) were always with Washington,” Chadwick wrote. They camped next to Washington, wore special uniforms and new hats and had the best and fastest horses.
The guards’ main job was to protect Washington from personal attacks when the army was on the move.
Also, the guards traveled with the general to make a special impression on civilians and foreign dignitaries, and a local band joined the guards for grand marches into towns. The guards would assemble in lines with music playing and flags flying.
The forerunners of the U.S. Secret Service, Washington’s guards saw him “during happy times, following a victory in a battle … (and) the flashes of anger that the general kept hidden from the army and the public, especially at Valley Forge,” Chadwick wrote.
I’m not a direct descendant of William Harris. We are of different Harris clans. But I am related through my great-great-grandmother Phoebe Fields Harris, who was a granddaughter of William, who lived his final years near Big Elkin Creek.
So on a spring Friday evening I came in tired and hungry after a trying week at a new job. After stuffing myself with dinner about all I was able to do was to sit down and check the Internet for messages.
I never get messages from strangers, but on this evening I got a curious one from Winston-Salem. Dean Sidden, a Realtor and Thurmond native with an interest in history, learned of my name from someone, looked me up on the Internet (I’ve written about William Harris on this “Tribune” page before) and sent me a note saying he knew the location of Harris’ grave.
I’d heard rumors of a grave for years. One time someone sent me on a wild goose chase far up Longbottom Road. I only found the grave of one of ol’ William’s grandsons.
Now Sidden gave me a new location. It was just a couple of miles from my house. And he had photos.
Was I interested, he asked. Well, duh.
So I followed the directions. And there it was, just like in the photos, a grave near the creek. I had traipsed through the area many times but had never noticed a pair of cedar trees just over a rise from the water’s edge. And the gravestones resting underneath in the shade.
“Wm. Harris,” read the stone, broken in half. “10 Va. Mil. Rev. War.” Just like his pension papers said. Amazing. Great-great-great-great-grandfather Harris died in December 1848.
The touch was electric as I ran my fingers reverently over the gravestone, over such an aged piece of my heritage. Our heritage.
It’s one thing to read words about history off a page. It’s quite another to touch history, to breathe the air surrounding it, to stand where my forebears once stood at a solemn moment on perhaps a gray and cold December day, at ol’ William’s burial, and try and feel what they felt, try and learn what they knew.
After the war Harris joined what I call a land rush into this area. With our state’s and country’s independence, Cherokee land here previously protected by the British officially opened to white settlement.
Harris left Culpeper County, Virginia, after the war in search of new land, suddenly made available and cheap here. He found it near Stone Mountain.
Then in 1815 Harris purchased land on Big Elkin Creek, according to land records, and in his last years he lived with his son James, likely near the Big Elkin. My first name is James.
As I stood over ol’ William’s final resting place more than 166 years after his burial I recounted his stirring obituary, published Jan. 11, 1849, in “The Carolina Watchman” newspaper in Salisbury:
“His patriotism was aroused, and he joined an almost hopeless band of Americans to secure the common liberties of his country. … He was truly a soldier in ‘the times that tried men’s souls.’ …
“In private life he evinced none other than fixed principles of Republicanism, which impelled him to perpetuate its blessings, and leave it a glorious inheritance to after ages. …
“We earnestly trust, that his long life, devoted to his Country and to God, has but ended to commence another brighter and happier existence in that world where the happy spirits sing the song of Moses and the Lamb.”
We contacted Yadkinville historian Andrew Mackie of the Sons of the American Revolution’s Elkin Valley chapter. He came to check out the grave site along with Ramona Collins of State Road and of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Mackie immediately identified the gravestone as U.S. government issue that could date to as far back as the 1880s. A prior generation took pains to place the stone and to ensure that ol’ William would be honored and remembered.
“This is gold,” a passionate Mackie told me as he gazed at the stone. “This is top tier. To see the grave of a patriot …,” and his voice trailed off.
We almost lost William Harris. We almost forgot him. Sidden, who discovered his own family ties to ‘ol William during the process, stumbled upon the grave site as listing agent for surrounding pastureland up for sale.
We nearly lost the story of our Elkin area patriot, our man with George Washington.
We must not forget. We should mark such historical treasures, preserve and honor them.
And indeed the likely new owner of the old Fields farm site contacted me last week from out of state and expressed interest in preservation of the grave site. He said he hopes some day to name a new brand of wine after ol’ William.
I’m doing my part, with the writing of this column.
Because I am an heir to William Harris’ “glorious inheritance to after ages.” Many of us here in the hometown are, too, either by blood relation or, if not by blood, then at the least by heritage.
RIP g-g-g-g-grandfather. And thank you.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.