The Monument That Never Was

Arts & Literature

September 2, 2015
by Conner Runyan Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Everything we know about Brig. Gen. Andrew Williamson leads to one question: Did he become a traitor to the Patriot cause—the “Arnold of the South,” or is he a scapegoat, a victim of powerful men seeking to avoid blame and censure? This is a look at a two week period following the death of Williamson. It provides a glimpse of how, even in those moments, some in low country Charleston, South Carolina, were struggling to define the old general’s legacy.

There was someone—possibly acting alone but more likely as part of a group—that had to walk a tightrope between misunderstood patriot and traitor when it came time to  do what colleagues often did for others. Who is this that would be neither friend nor foe to Williamson, but go to the trouble to propose a monument to his memory?

The answer leads to a group of men in colonial America with fraternal bonds whose strength is often underestimated by modern minds.

Andrew Williamson remains a mystery among those of us who care about these things, seeking an answer to one overshadowing question: Did Brig. Gen. Andrew Williamson, leader of American militia at Ninety-Six, become a traitor toward the end of his life? In the uncertainty that comes with the bits and pieces known about him one thing is clear: he will evermore be known as the “Benedict Arnold of the South.” [1]

We are no closer these two hundred and twenty-five years later to an answer than were Williamson’s contemporaries. Generations of historians have paused to look at what happened to Williamson after the British capture of Charleston, written a few lines, shrugged and moved on, leaving us with most unsatisfactory answers. Some say he betrayed his country; others say he did the honorable thing; still others simply remain silent and set aside the question of vilified hero or traitor. With Williamson you always return to your starting point, not knowing much more than when you undertook to follow his faint footsteps. But the question remains: Did Williamson, like almost all of who served with and around him, take British parole and, in so doing, become the most honorable of men by never twisting and turning his way out of his word of honor, as did his most severe critic Andrew Pickens, or did he slide down a slippery slope that lead to British protection and then to something beyond, crossing a line into betrayal of his countrymen?[2]

In 1779, when Augusta fells to the British for a second time, and again in 1780, when Charleston surrendered, bringing about the loss of a huge Patriot army, a group of men started looking for someone to take the blame away from themselves for the mess that now existed all along the Savannah River. They focused on Williamson. Historian Edward Cashin called them a cabal, and poor patriot General Robert Howe, himself made a scapegoat for the first fall of Augusta, said that they were men with “crafty and designing ways.” Rumors flourished: Williamson was always late to a battle; he was intentionally sluggish at Augusta, never firing a shot at the British; he deliberately hid the news of Charleston’s fall so the British could get to the backcountry before anyone would know, and most damaging of all, he took a bribe.[3]

It is in those days that the metamorphous of Williamson from hero of the South Carolina backcountry to most detestable of men started to take place. While under British parole, and perhaps even protection, there is some evidence that Williamson continued down a slippery slope to the point where he used his considerable intellect, and incomparable charm, to collaborate with the British high command – men like Col. Nisbett Balfour[4] and Francis Lord Rawdon – to help, perhaps inadvertently, formulate British southern strategy, thus making him, if not a traitor, at least an “obnoxious person.” [5] Then again, maybe not.

Was it Williamson who was using the British high command, rather than the other way around, to further the American cause, becoming a spy who kept in dangerous contact – if discovered he would have been hung within days – with the son of his old friend, the somewhat spirited and rash Patriot Col. John Laurens? These questions would not be so difficult to answer if all those around Williamson had survived the war to tell their story. It was only when the South Carolina General Assembly was going about the business of deciding how the spoils of war should be divided, that Gen. Nathaniel Greene stepped forward to inform Williamson’s former friends that the old general was not a traitor, but one of his most valuable spies.[6] It is a most minor detail, and one that should not be overemphasized but simply noted, that Greene had a connection to those who came to consider themselves as neither friend nor foe to Williamson, but felt an obligation to show him respect.

Much like those who have wrestled, over the centuries, with the question of Williamson’s role in the last years of the Revolution, there is evidence that at least one group of men, contemporary to Williamson, and living in and about Charleston, found themselves in somewhat of a quandary upon hearing of his death. Who these men were led to a special kind of bond that is rare today. Attention now turns to the two weeks following Williamson’s death and what the Charleston public was reading in their newspapers.

Andrew Williamson, in a tender coincidence, died five years to the day after his wife, Eliza Tyler Williamson.[7] (Even in his marriage there is something of a mystery: how did a supposedly illiterate, common born youth of great intellect, but nonetheless a lowly cattle driver, come to marry into one of the most prominent frontier Virginia families, the Tylers, a family already at work to someday give us our Tenth President, John Tyler?) The first newspaper notice of Williamson’s death is typical of the day – cryptic, without sentiment, and short on words: “Died. On Tuesday last, at his plantation at Horse Savannah, Andrew Williamson, Esquire.”[8] Tuesday last was March 22, 1786.

A day of so later, the Charleston Morning Post published a rather fascinating eulogy of Williamson. It appeared as part of a listing of news items of the day, which ended with the notice that the sloop Betsy was sailing. The author of this tribute was likely Williamson’s daughter, Mary Ann Williamson Walker, and her husband John Walker, wealthy Charleston merchant and someone closely associated with the Betsy (at one time named the Betsy Walker).[9] It is toward the end of this eulogy that a number of insights are gained into this last period of Williamson’s life. The careful reader will notice this eulogy praises Williamson for his role in the early years of the Revolution, when there was great conflict along the frontier with the Cherokees. No mention is made of anything that later took place. Maybe some things were best left unsaid. He lived his last years on his plantation at Horse Savannah, “… surrounded and in the midst of plenty of what might amply support him in a stile of splendor and affluence.”[10]

Williamson’s Horse Savannah Plantation was a huge rice plantation, located outside of Charleston in a mix of swamp and wooded land. At one time it was “three settlements,” but by Williamson’s time it was consolidated into two plantations, each self-sufficient. Each tract contained “prime rice land” – hundreds of acres – that appeared to have been neglected. When Williamson’s estate went on the market, prospective owners were told that “with very little trouble” these rice fields could be made “as safe as any swamp in the state.”[11]

On one plantation there was “a small dwelling house in good repair.” This was likely where Williamson lived. On the other plantation, a mirror image of the first, there was a dwelling described as “an overseer’s house.”[12]

All this was a far cry from Williamson’s former home near Ninety Six, White Hall, with its parlor and elegant dinner parties.[13] The last years of Andrew Williamson were different from those he knew when he was a prominent, fine looking militia officer living on a frontier plantation that drew to his equally fine home, like a magnet, both the famous and infamous. In Ninety Six all roads lead to Whitehall and Andrew Williamson, but not so at Horse Savannah. Williamson’s eulogy portrays him as choosing to live a simple, modest life, near the Golden Mean and in the exact middle “between the extremes of giddy prodigality and the meanness of penury.”[14] This, of course, is something that a daughter and son-in-law would have Charleston society believe.

The historian Joseph Johnson, however, wrote that Andrew Williamson died “an obscure, heart-broken, poor creature…”[15] What remains untold is to what extent Williamson chose to live this modest lifestyle. It cannot be denied that in the coin of the day – slaves – Williamson was a very wealthy man. When there existed the possibility that the South Carolina General Assembly, wrangling at Jacksonboro, might confiscate his property, Williamson worried most about losing his ninety slaves.[16]

It may well be that Johnson is right; Williamson might have died in obscurity, but if he did, it was an “amiable” anonymity. It is also clear that the sins of the father were not visited upon the children. Charleston society, represented by those who lived on fashionable and exclusive Meeting Street in mid-Charleston, as did Mary Ann Williamson Walker and her husband, found the old general and at least his two daughters as “amiable,”[17] a trait at odds with bitterness and disillusionment. Both daughters married well and prosper; if indeed Charleston saw the father as a traitor, his daughters suffered no ill consequences because of it. Elizabeth Williamson married Judge Charles Goodwyn and the two purchased half of the vast Silver Bluff Plantation of Thomas Galphin. Two years after Andrew Williamson died, John Walker died and Mary Ann Williamson married Judge Ephraim Ramsey, nephew of the first great historian of the American Revolution, David Ramsey.[18] In his own right, Ephraim Ramsey became an important figure in the post-Revolutionary period.

Historian Johnson may also be right when he wrote that Williamson was “heart-broken,” but not in the sense that the writer intended. There is some evidence that at the time of his death, Williamson had been in a period of declining health, something that would help explain both the neglect of Horse Savannah and his obscurity. The eulogy ends by telling us he was “declined and drooped in a ripened age.”[19]

While Charleston society may have kept quiet, and perhaps even forgave Andrew Williamson for his efforts to survive the Revolution with family and property intact, it did not forgive indiscretion. Possibly living with the ailing Williamson, and caring for him, was someone by the name of Catherine Anderson.[20] Somehow, someway, this individual was connected to future Gen. Robert Anderson, a friend to Williamson but even better friend to Andrew Pickens. Every path of investigation seeking this Catherine Anderson eventually leads back to Catherine Blair, a sister-in-law of Anderson. She was married to William, Robert Anderson’s younger brother. Around the time Williamson was the subject of Charleston gossip as being in  “… a situation not creditable to him as a man of family,” [21] William Anderson disappeared; his father hoped that someday he would “return from his journey.”[22]

The final piece of this story came two weeks later, with the publication in a Charleston newspaper of a poem written by “a person who was neither a friend nor a foe to the General.” The verses – entitled a “monumental inscription” – are apparently intended to be the inscription over Williamson’s grave.[23] There is circumstantial evidence – but no smoking gun – that these verses were written by Philip Morin Freneau, the so-called Poet of the American Revolution. The poem first appears in the Columbian Herald, owned and published by Thomas B. Bowen and John Markland. Both were founding figures of Freemasonry in Charleston.  Even to this day, Bowen is remembered as one of Charleston’s more celebrated masons.[24] Freneau was also heavily involved in Free Masonry, often writing upon request eulogies and memorial verses for other masons. It is highly probable this strong fraternal brotherhood between publisher and poet explains why this poem to Williamson appears in the Herald. What appeared in the Herald as Williamson’s proposed monument is strikingly similar – eerily so – to other poems written by Freneau.[25] Freneau was aboard the sloop Monmouth, moored in Charleston Harbor, during this time.[26] He had the motive, opportunity and skill to write this monument.

These verses, long forgotten, tell best the story of Andrew Williamson:

“Here lie the remains
Andrew Williamson, Esq.
Late Brigadier-General of the State militia
Reader, whatever be thy station,
His story,
May afford thee useful instruction.
If setting out in life thy situation be
Thou mayst hope from his example,
That want of friends and fortune
May be supplied
If thous hast but sterling merit,
If thou cannot boast of learning,
Despair not:
Tho’ wanting aid of letters, genius like his
May enable thee to serve thy country
With luster,
In the field or cabinet.
Or if thou art basking
In the warming sunshine of high station
And popularity.
Yet remember,
That fortune may, without any crime of
One day turn thine enemy,
Render thy best services instrumental to
And make all thine importance
To vanish
As a dream
Let him who standeth take heed lest he

Not a shred of evidence exists to show that Andrew Williamson was a Free Mason. It is probable that he was, given his Scottish heritage, status and the known masons about him. What does exist is the distinct probability that those who could not come to call him either friend or foe were fellow fraternal brothers – bound in an ancient order – trying carefully to avoid the stigma of one of their own being called the “Arnold of the South,” choosing to tell his story as a cautionary lesson.

No monument exists for Brig. Gen. Andrew Williamson; even the site of his grave is no longer known. Today no one can say for certain if he deserves to be called the “Benedict Arnold of the South.” Many in the frontier backcountry around Ninety Six came to regard him as a traitor; yet an equal number of those living in the low country around Charleston seemed to have empathy for him.  All that we know for certain is that someone, or some group, had sufficient regard for the old general, enough  to want him to have a monument, but even in proposing it they could only go so far as to remain neutral. This seems to suggest that even among a most ancient order of brothers there was conflict about one of their own. Was Andrew Williamson a traitor or a tarnished patriot?


[1] Llewellyn Toulmin, “In search of … a most Obnoxious Ancestor,” Travel (April 18, 2014):1. Toulmin has written the only extended biography of Williamson and, along with Robert Scott Davis, is among the contemporary handful who continue to ponder the question of Williamson’s role in the final days of the revolution. Davis continues to ask the one impenetrable question, and is the source of my inquiry above: Was Williamson a much maligned hero or a crafty traitor who deserved the title “Arnold of the South.” Robert Scott Davis, “Prisoner of History: Andrew Williamson of South Carolina as Revolutionary War Scapegoat or Traitor,” unpublished monograph. Toulmin refers to Williamson as the “Benedict Arnold of South Carolina,” others over the centuries call him the “Arnold of the South.”

[2] William R. Reynolds, Jr, “The Parole of Col. Andrew Pickens,”Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution Vol. 10 No. 1 (Spring2014): 4. On the issue of Pickens vs. Williamson and who is the more honorable, I part company with many excellent historians. Pickens comes to consider Williamson as a traitor, but I contend Pickens was on the verge of doing much the same as Williamson did, perhaps even to the point of accepting a British commission. It was only when the “lack-brain” Tory Maj. James Duncan plundered Pickens’ plantation that the dour Presbyterian elder, with his tight sense of honor, found a way to twist out from under British parole. There was no James Duncan in the life of Andrew Williamson. The interaction between Andrew Pickens and Andrew Williamson is one of the keys to understanding when, how and where a line was crossed between hero and traitor.

[3] Edward Cashin, “The Trembling Land. Covert Activities in the Georgia Backcountry During the American Revolution,” Augusta College Georgia (1982), 34.

[4] Balfour to Cornwallis, June 24, 1780, “written from Ninety Six,” in Ian Saberton, The Cornwallis Papers (The Naval and Military Press, East Sussex, England, 2010), 1:237-40. There is no more damaging evidence against Williamson than this letter. If nothing else, it shows that Williamson and Balfour had entered into a friendly collaboration in which Balfour “had several private conversations with Williamson, who has ever appearance of candor and sincerely wishing to remain under the British government.” Unanswered is at what point Williamson used this relationship to start spying for Greene.

[5] A list of “those persons whose estates have been confiscated by an act of the Rebel Assembly at Jacksonburgh,” dividing the estate owners into different classes based on how they had exhibited Loyalists tendencies, included Williamson in “Class VI-Obnoxious Persons,” Royal Gazette (Charleston), March 20, 1782.

[6] John Mathews, “Honorable Gentlemen of the Senate, Mr. Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Representatives,” East Florida Gazette, March 1, 1783. Governor Mathews addressed the South Carolina Assembly on January 24, 1783. Toward the end of his speech, almost as an afterthought, he presented a request from Nathaniel Greene, then in a position to obtain anything he wanted: “I shall lay before you for your consideration, as well as another letter from Major-General Greene respecting Mr. Andrew Williamson.” This was Greene’s announcement that Williamson had served as a patriot spy.

[7] “August, March 21,” Royal Georgia Gazette, March 29, 1781.

[8] “Arrivals”, Columbian Herald (Charleston, SC), March 23, 1786.

[9] “Marriage Announcements,” Charleston Morning Post, March 22, 1786.

[10] “Marriages,” Charleston Morning Post, March 22, 1786.

[11] “For Private Sale A Very Valuable Plantation,” Columbian Herald, July 13, 1786.

[12] Columbian Herald , July 13, 1786.

[13] Llewellyn Toulmin, “Backcountry Warrior Brig. Gen. Andrew Williamson,” Journal of Backcountry Studies (Spring 2012 Volume 7, No 1), 34 n174. See also Patriot Maj. John Bowie’s description of his last, sad dinner at White Hall, 35. Bowie says “After the cloth was removed and wine introduced, you requested your guests to fill their glasses.”

[14] “Marriage Announcements,” Charleston Morning Post, July 13, 1786.

[15] Joseph Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South (Charleston: Walker and James, 1851), 30

[16] Edward Cashin, “The Trembling Land,” 34. See also the December 22, 1782 letter from Williamson to Greene in which Williamson states his hope that he will be given a chance to defend himself before his slaves are sold off.

[17] “Marriage Announcement,” Charleston City Gazette, April 19, 1788.

[18] Daniel M Cullen, Orangeburg District 1768-1868 History & Records Publication (Spartenburg (Sic), SC: The Reprint Co., 1995), 293, 737; Susan Taylor Aldridge, “Hardy’s Chapel Edgefield SC and Other SC Baptist Meeting Houses,” Directions (8 November 2008):1.

[19] Johnson, Traditions, 361.

[20] “Will of Andrew Williamson,” South Carolina Department of Archives and History (Columbia, SC. Will Book A 1783-86), 625.

[21] Johnson, Traditions, 361.

[22] Lyman Chalkey, Records of Augusta County, Virginia 1745-1800 (Augusta County, VA, 1966), 177.

[23] “A monumental inscription for Gen. Williamson. By a person who was neither friend nor foe to the general,” Columbian Herald, April 3, 1786.

[24] McDonald L. Burbidge, “A Soldier’s Journey to Charleston,” The Scottish Rite Journal Online (September 2003), 1.

[25] Philip Freneau, “On the death of a Master Builder, or Free Mason of High Rank (written by request),” New York Journal, April 20, 1786. “The Country Squire’s Exit,” Charleston City Gazette, Issue 1493, 4. It remains for the reader to compare Freneau’s work with Williamson’s proposed monument and to determine if there is great similarity.

[26] “For Sale on Board the sloop Monmouth, from Brunswick, NJ,” Charleston Evening Gazette, July 1, 1786.

One thought on “The Monument That Never Was

  • Whether within the context of his overall actions during the Revolutionary War Williamson was a traitor or tarnish patriot is a subjective opinion certainly. However, that he provided intelligence on British forces, which Greene believed to be valuable, is well documented. He began reporting in early spring 1782. His first Case Officer was John Laurens, and Col. Thaddeus Kosciuszko took over after Laurens death. Details of his reporting are on pages 206-07 in my book “Spies, Patriots, and Traitors”.

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