Hans Christian Febiger: “Old Denmark”


January 20, 2017
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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Hans Christian Febiger was born on the island of Funen, Denmark in 1746. Around the age of sixteen his father died. For the next two years he received a military education, most likely in Copenhagen. In 1765 he travelled to the West Indies with his uncle who had been appointed the governor of the island of Santa Cruz. It is unclear as to why he began to pursue business interests, but by 1772 he was acquainting himself with the resources and products “in every town and port” from Cape Fear, North Carolina to Penobscot Bay, Maine. In 1774, he was “commercially engaged in the Eastern States in lumber, fish and horse trade.” He was an established merchant in a coastal town of Massachusetts when fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord. Sympathetic to the colonists’ struggles, on April 28, 1775, he joined Col. Samuel Gerrish’s Massachusetts Regiment. In May, he was appointed the regimental adjutant with the rank of captain.

One month later, he lead the only detachment of Gerrish’s Regiment into battle at Breed’s Hill.  Between the second and third assaults, Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam turned to his second line of defense on Bunker Hill – Gerrish’s Regiment. When he moved to bring the regiment forward, he found it in chaos. Men were crouching behind rocks and trees or lying on the ground; Gerrish was also lying on the ground, shell-shocked and claiming that he was too exhausted to advance. Putnam found the captains to have a similar mindset. They refused to rally their men and march into battle only to be slaughtered. Two officers responded to Putnam’s order. One was Capt. Christian Febiger and the other, Thomas Doyle. Ignoring the cannon fire, Febiger collected a company of men and led them to a position between the rail fence and the breastwork and “Bravely covered the retreat from the redoubt.” 1

In August Col. Benedict Arnold led an expedition through the Maine wilderness to Quebec City. Febiger was appointed as his adjutant. 2 The trek was grueling, but the expedition made it to Quebec where they joined up with Gen. Richard Montgomery’s force that had taken the long-established route of Lake George, Lake Champlain, and the St. Lawrence River. Little is known about Febiger’s role or actions during the trek – only its outcome. During the attack on December 31, Montgomery was killed, Arnold was wounded, and 37 officers and an estimated 350 soldiers were captured. Febiger was one of officers captured, held prisoner until August of 1776. He was paroled on September 12, and with other officers exchanged on January 1, 1777.

After his exchange Febiger accepted a commission as lieutenant colonel in the 11th Virginia Continental Regiment. This newly formed infantry regiment was commanded by Col. Daniel Morgan and included Capt. John McGuire, Capt. John Porterfield, and Lt. William Heath, all men he had formed friendships with on the Arnold Expedition.

In the spring of 1777, Washington and the Continental Army were in New Jersey. He ordered all troops as soon as they were formed into companies to report to camp.  On February 23, Febiger set out from Winchester, Virginia, with the first division of the 11th Virginia Regiment.  When he and his men reached Philadelphia, he sent a letter to Washington:

I have the honor of informing your Excellency of my Arrival in this City with the first Company of our Regiment, two Companies more being on their March and hourly expected, those men, who are in Town are under Inoculation and recovering fast, as soon as they can be cloathed and arm’d, I shall march them to Camp, which is the Directions I have receiv’d from Generall Gates.3           

Shortly after his arrival in camp he and his men were assigned to guard the Quibble Town Road near the town of Bound Brook where just prior to their arrival the British had conducted a surprise attack on the garrison.  On June 13, Daniel Morgan was given command of the Corps of Provisional Rifles; command of the 11th Regiment was turned over to Febiger.

Learning on July 24 that General Sir William Howe had set sail from New York with “one hundred and seventy topsail vessels and about fifty or sixty smaller ones,” Washington immediately set out for what he believed was Howe’s target – the city of Philadelphia. The 11th Regiment was assigned to Colonel William Woodford’s 3rd Virginia Continental Brigade in Brig. Gen. Adam Stephen’s division for the march.

Howe and his army landed at Head of Elk, Maryland on August 28. Washington expected the British to cross the Brandywine Creek at Chadds Ford because it was the safest passage between Head of Elk and Philadelphia. Instead Howe, as he had done on Long Island, split his army; some went to Chadds Ford but most went north to Trimble Ford. This meant that Howe’s plan was to attack Washington’s army from the front and on their right flank. Washington, learning of Howe’s maneuver, ordered Stephen’s Division among others to protect the flank. When both parts of Howe’s army attacked, the Americans were forced to retreat, but not before suffering heavy casualties. Brig. Gen. George Weedon wrote that:

Woodford’s Brigade stood firm & in good Order. Marshall had orders to hold the Wood as long as it was tenable, & then retreat to the right of the Brigade …– He continued there 3⁄4 of one Hour … [then] he was called off for fear of being surrounded & retreated in good Order – The Action became general – Woodford was wounded & more than half of his Men killed, but his two field Pieces would have been saved by the Extraordinary Exertions of … Lieut. Col. Febiger, Majr. Day, & Sergeant Majr. Broughton, but that the Horses were shot down, & they obliged to quit them – About 6 pm. General Green’s Division arrived to cover the Retreat … 4

Two weeks after Brandywine, on September 26, 1777, Febiger was promoted to the rank of colonel. Six days later, he entered the following statement into the regimental order book:

The Commanding officer takes this opportunity of returning his publick Thanks to the Officers and Soldiers in the Regiment for their spirited and gallant behaviour on the nth of Sept last and can without Flattery assure them that their conduct, adherence to Order and Discipline by far exceeded his most Sanguine Expectations and makes no Doubt but if again calld to Action, he will have it in his power to say, that their Conduct would do honour to [themselves and the Continental Army].

On October 4, Colonel Febiger and the 11th Regiment under Brigadier General Woodford were part of Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s left column in the battle of Germantown. Washington’s plan of attack, similar to Trenton, was to divide his army into columns and approach Germantown along different roads. As each column began their march, a heavy fog set in. Greene’s column took the wrong fork in the road and arrived one hour late, causing a delay in the attack. After the battle Colonel Alexander Spotswood of the 2nd Virginia Regiment resigned his commission and returned home to take care of his family after mistakenly thinking his brother had been killed. Col. Febiger replaced him as the commanding officer of the 2nd Virginia.

Following the confusion at Germantown, Washington and the Continental Army including Febiger and his regiment retired to Valley Forge for winter encampment.

On June 28, 1778, Febiger and his 2nd Virginia Regiment were part of the 2nd Virginia Continental Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Weedon at the battle of Monmouth Court House, however they were never part of any action. The battle was indecisive with both sides claiming victory. Afterward, the British continued their march to Sandy Hook and embarked on ships for New York; Washington marched back to the Blue Hills of New Jersey.

On May 27, 1778, the Continental Congress had ordered a re-organization

of the Continental Army.5 Virginia was directed to reduce their number of regiments from fifteen to eleven. On September 14, 1778, Febiger’s 2nd Regiment, down to 180 men, was officially combined with the Lt. Col. William Simms’ 6th Virginia Regiment. The new regiment maintained the title of 2nd Virginia Regiment and Colonel Febiger and Lieutenant Colonel Simms retained their ranks, but all of the other officers were either retired or transferred.

On November 29, 1778, Febiger, whose regiment travelled with the Continental Army to the Blue Hills, sent to Washington a reconnaissance report from Hackensack concerning the British stationed at Powles Hook:

the Enmy have stopd for the present any further preparations for an Embarkation … [There] is want of Transports, of which I am well convinced, they have but a small Number left … on Powlus Hook the 64[th] Regt of about 280 men and one Troop of the Queens light Dragoons are stationed there, on the hook are three Redoubts, one on the East End of the Hook appears circular & large, has two Buildings in it where the horse Keeps, Between the Center and the Western Redoubt lays the 64[th] encamped in tents.

The Hook is abatied all round, and at the Distance of about 70 Yards apart are Redans, on the Edge of the Marsh is an advanced Foss filld with Water by the Tide, over which is a Drawbridge, from thence they advance a Sergt & Twelve to a small Redan who advances and retires with the Morning and Evening Gun. A Sloop of 20 Guns lays between Hoback & York and a small Distance below Powles Hook lays the Admirals Ship, The Monmouth a 74, who was dismasted is refitting in the Docks … 6

In the spring of 1779, Washington was concerned that General Sir Henry Clinton might make an attempt to take West Point. Twelve miles to the south of West Point was the fortified peninsula known as Stony Point that was controlled by the British. Washington knew that it was key to any assault on West Point, and ordered Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, the new commander of the Corps of Light Infantry, to prepare a plan for retaking it.

On July 15, 1779, Wayne sent to Washington his plan for the assault.

Butler & Febiger & myself Reconnoitred the Enemies works in a most Satisfactory manner possible – and are decidedly of Opinion that two real attacks and one faint ought to be made agreeable to the Enclosed plan.”

[He divided his force] “as far as it had then been completed, into four regiments, which were under the command, respectively, of Colonels Butler, Meigs, Putnam, and Febiger … When the Head of the Troops arrive in the rear of the Hill Febiger will form his Regiment into a Solid Column and a half Platoon in front as fast as they come up; Col. Meigs will form next to Febiger’s rear & Major Hull in the rear of Meigs …

An Officer & twenty men a little in front whose business will be to Secure the Sentries & Remove the Abbatis & Obstruction for the Column to pass through – the Column will follow close in the Rear with Sholder’d Muskets Led by Col. Febiger & Gen. Wayne in person. 7

His plan was to attack the fortification on its flanks while a small detachment conducted a feint along its front. Both flanking columns carried out the assault with fixed bayonets only. During the attack “a musket ball struck him [Wayne] on the forehead, and glancing, grazed the skull nearly two inches. Stunned by the blow, he instantly fell …” 8 The attack continued on the right under Colonel Febiger and Lt. Col. Francois de Fleury. A couple of days after the assault, Febiger wrote to his wife,

On Thursday the 15th instant we marched very secretly, securing all passes and preventing Country people from going in – and at dark were within one mile of the Fort, where we lay till 12 o’clock at night, when my regiment at the head of the right column, and Colonel Butler’s at the head of the left, with proper ‘forlorn hope’ and advanced guards, marched and attacked the works, who received us pretty warmly. But the bravery of our men soon overcame all dangers, and about 1 o’clock we were in full possession of the Fort, where I had the pleasure of Taking [Lt.] Colonel [Henry] Johnson, who commanded, … to his tent. 9

and then to Governor Thomas Jefferson,

You must undoubtedly before this have heard of and seen the particulars of our glorious and successful enterprise at Stony Point, which renders me giving you a detail unnecessary. But as I had the honor to command all the troops of our state employed on that service I think it my duty, in justice to those brave men, to inform you that the front platoon of the forlorn hope consisted of ¾ Virginians, and the front of the vanguard, of Virginians only, and the front of the column on the right of Posey’s battalion composed of Virginians and two Pennsylvanians … the advance composed of 150 Volunteers, first entered the works. Seven of my men in the forlorn hope who entered first were either killed or wounded. I have the happiness to say that every officer and soldier behaved peculiar to men who are determined to be free, and overcame every danger, and difficulty, without confusion or delay, far surpassing any enterprise in which I have had an active part. I request neither reward not thanks but … that the citizens of Virginia might know from your authority that their troops deserve their thanks and support.10

The phrase, “All of the troops of our state,” referred to six companies of Virginians.

During the early part of 1780, all of the Virginia regiments were ordered southward to assist Gen. Benjamin Lincoln at Charleston, South Carolina. On May 12, 1780, Lincoln and his army of 5000 surrendered to General Clinton; among the 5000 were 1,433 Virginia Continentals.11 The only Virginia regiment left in the field belonged to Col. Abraham Buford. Having started his march for Charleston later than the other regiments, the city had fallen before his arrival. On May 29, as he was marching northward to Hillsboro, North Carolina, he was overtaken by Banastre Tarleton and his Legion at Waxhaws, South Carolina. The final Virginia regiment in the field suffered 113 killed, 150 too badly wounded to be moved, and 53 captured. Buford and about 100 infantry were able to escape.12 The Virginia Line, made up at one time of fifteen regiments, was reduced to three detachments of about 700 men.

On July 18, Washington informed Brig. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg, who had been charged with raising troops and supplies for the southern army, and that army’s commander Gen. Horatio Gates, that he wished to reconstitute the Virginia Line, by “… raising Five Thousand Men to serve Eighteen months, for supplying their Battalions …” Because there were so few positions for officers, many were deemed supernumerary and either furloughed, re-assigned to other duties, or sent back to Virginia to recruit. Febiger was re-assigned. On September 1, he was dispatched to Philadelphia by Muhlenberg to procure supplies for the Continental line.

On October 22, Gen. Nathanael Greene was appointed commander of the southern army. When he arrived in Philadelphia he had two immediate tasks: the first was to assess the leadership and condition of the southern army; the second was to provide supplies for its present needs. He found the second task extremely formidable. All of the army’s artillery, baggage, stores, wagons, and ammunition had been lost in battle at Camden. To make matters worse the army had little credit and even less money.

Then, on November 2, Greene learned that Febiger was also in Philadelphia and performing a similar task but only for the state of Virginia. Many promises were being made to Greene about providing supplies for the southern army by the likes of the auartermaster general, the Board of War, the clothier general, commissaries, and individual contractors. He needed a person who would be sure the promises would not be forgotten or the delivery of the supplies delayed – he found that person in Colonel Febiger.

Shortly after Greene’s departure from Philadelphia, Febiger sent the first train of stores to the southern army on November 30. The invoice read,

            Loaded on Board Nineteen Private Teams under the Care and Conduct of Mr. John Walker … under the charge of Lieutenant Newberry.15

In the wagons were tents, kettles, hatchets, saddles, canteens horseshoes, swords, haversacks and knapsacks, to name a few. On January 2, 1781 another shipment was sent. The invoiced read,

military stores sent in twenty-three close covered wagons, under the conduct of Thomas Scott and command of Captain Brown. 16

In these wagons were muskets with bayonets, cartouch boxes, swords, blankets, and ammunition, to name a few.

In January and February, it became more difficult to obtain supplies.

On January 1, 1781, Febiger wrote to Colonel Davies who had taken on his duties in his absence at the Chesterfield Court House in Virginia,

I am sorry that the miserable state of Our Finances renders me of less service to our Line or the Southern Army than I could wish. But I shall attack all Quarters and gett what I can. Blanketts I never had the least prospect of until this Day, when Congress voted a sum to purchase a small number which I hope to forward immediately as also a few Coats Shirts & Shoes.17

On February 18, he wrote to General Greene,

I have … gott cloathing for Lees Corps compleat as also Sadles and other accoutrements – the whole will be ready for transportation by the eighth of March next, when I shall send … an Invoice [for] 2000 Coats 2000 shirts some Woollen & some Linnen Overalls and evey moment expect a quantity of hunting shirts and Overalls from New Windsor.18

On March 20, things began to pick up. He wrote to the Board of War, “a brigade of twelve wagons, with Bernard Hart as conductor, set out for the Southern Army …”

In the wagons were pouches, swords, pistols, shoes, haversacks, flints, overalls, and shot pouches. The next day another train of twelve wagons followed; they carried saddles, boots, forage bags, and clothing. On March 23 another group of

fourteen wagons, conducted by John McLinn, carrying fifty barrels of gunpowder set out. On March 27, ten more wagons, conducted by John Compty, were en route, carrying pistols, cartridges and round, case and grapeshot. 19

On May 10, Febiger returned to Virginia. He would spend the remaining time left in his military career as a recruiting officer at the Chesterfield Court House. As good a business man as he was in Philadelphia, he was equally as good a recruiter. In his memoirs, Lt. Francis Brooke of the 1st Continental Artillery recognized Colonel Febiger and the recruiting post, saying:

Col. Febiger was an excellent camp officer, well acquainted with the tactics of the drill, and though I belonged to the artillery, I was called into rotation with other subalterns to train and drill the infantry, and I acquired perfect knowledge of the Prussian tactics, written by Baron Steuben, who had been an aid to the Great Frederick.20

On January 1, 1783, Colonel Febiger retired from active duty and on November 15 he was officially discharged from the Continental Army. His abilities and commitment to the American cause won him two honors: Congress conferred upon him the rank of Brigadier-General by brevet and the Virginia State Society of Cincinnatus made him a member.


1 Thomas Fleming, Now We Are Enemies (Franklin , TN: American History Press, 2010), 228; Benson J. Lossing, Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1850), 1:547.

2 Benedict Arnold to George Washington, December 5, 1775, in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 12, 16 September 1775 – 31 December 1775, ed., Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987), 495.

3 Christian Febiger to Washington, March 6, 1777, in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 8, 6 January 1777 – 27 March 1777, ed., Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 520-22.

4 www.revwar75.com/library/bob/weedon.htm, from Brigadier General George Weedon’s Correspondence Account.

5 Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 11, 538-43.

6 Febiger to Washington, November 29, 1778, in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 18, 1 November 1778 – 14 January 1779, ed., Edward G. Lengel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 332-36.

7 Henry B. Dawson, “Letter to George Washington from Brig. General Anthony Wayne, 15 July 1779,” in “The Assault on Stony Point: by General Anthony Wayne, July 16, 1779,” Gleanings from the Harvest-Field of American History (Morrisania, NY: H. O. Houghton, 1863), 34-7.

8 Ibid., 50-51.

9 Henry P. Johnston, “Christian Febiger: Colonel of the Virginia Line of the Continental Congress,” in The Magazine of American History (1881), 6:188-203.

10 Henry P. Johnston, “Colonel Febiger to Thomas Jefferson, 21 July 1779,” in The Storming of Stony Point on the Hudson, July15, 1779: Its Importance in the Light of Unpublished Documents (New York: James T. White & Co., 1900), 188.

11 The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. VII, No. 1 (July, 1899), 308.

12 Mark M. Boatner, III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994), 1174.

15 Johnston, “Christian Febiger,” 197.

16 Ibid., 198.

17 Ibid., 199.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., 200-01.

20 Francis J, Brooke, “A Family Narrative of a Revolutionary Officer,” (Richmond, VA: Macfarlane & Fergusson, 1849); reprinted in The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries, publ. by William Abbatt, No. 74 (1921).



  • Dear Mr. Ruppert,

    Thank you so much for your excellent, in-depth article about Hans Christian Febiger. He is a fascinating figure having fought in most of the major battles of the Revolutionary War.

    The engraving accompanying your article was based on a miniature by Charles Willson Peale, painted c. 1781. A black and white photo of the original portrait was published by Charles Coleman Sellers in his article, Charles Willson Peale: With Patron and Populace in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 59, Part 3, page 138, 1969. At that time Sellers wrote that the miniature belonged to William S. Febiger of Manchester, Massachusetts––it is currently unlocated.

    The painting was set in a unique gold and enamel, double-sided locket decorated with paillon stars. This kind of enamel work is European and was produced around the time of Febiger’s death in Philadelphia in 1796. Sellers noted that he believed Febiger’s wife placed the miniature in the locket when he died. There is a mourning picture on the other side.

    There is another Peale miniature set in an exact duplicate of the locket––it is the only other known example. My article about the portrait’s recent discovery is slated for publication soon.
    By chance, if you know anything about the Febiger miniature or the locket, I would love to hear about it.

    Best regards,


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