One famous, one forgotten: John Eager Howard and Patrick Duffey

John Eager Howard by Charles Willson Peale in 1782 (Independence National Historical Park)

In late November 1777, Col. William Grayson and a group of gentlemen gathered in a tavern near Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, a mile and half in front of their lines, glad to be out of the cold, but apprehensive that the enemy might even now be marching against them from their winter quarters in Philadelphia. They sat at a court-martial, reviewing serious charges stemming from a bloody argument between a pair of brother officers. Aggravating matters, the altercation occurred in full view of the enlisted men, standing in their ranks on the parade ground. The court, forced to decide who was in the right, might destroy a man’s career, and lose a valiant soldier’s services to his country – all over a disagreement turned violent.

The men involved, Maj. John Eager Howard, a Marylander, and Capt.-Lt. Patrick Duffey, of Proctor’s Pennsylvania Artillery, had both displayed valor in the field. But their pugnacity, while useful in battle, was difficult to restrain when they were cooped up in camp. Assembled on the parade ground by Howard, their adjutant, the men of the 4th Maryland watched with amusement as he began a violent quarrel with the Pennsylvania officer. As the two exchanged heated words, Duffey lashed out at Howard, striking him. In the ensuing scuffle, Howard cut Duffey with his sword, then, seizing a loaded musket, pointed its wicked bayonet at the quarrelsome Irishman, bringing the fracas to an abrupt close.

Uneasy, the judges sought to find a path between necessary discipline and outright dismissal, and it was good they did. Both men repeatedly proved their worth in the years that followed, though one is remembered as a national hero, and the other, ultimately cashiered, is now forgotten. In the end, the court convicted both of aiding and abetting a riot in camp. They were acquitted of other charges. The court said Howard didn’t intentionally wound Duffey, and that Duffey did not assault and abuse Howard in the execution of his duty, because “Major Howard when Capt Duffy struck him had deviated from the Line of his Duty and consequently was not in the Execution of his Office.” Both were reprimanded in general orders.1

While receiving similar sentences, their future paths were to diverge as widely as their origins. Both were to be court-martialed again, but with very different consequences.

Howard was born to privilege at his family’s estate, “The Forrest,” near Baltimore in 1752, and educated by private tutors. In 1776 he joined the rebel army as a captain in the Maryland militia, declining a proffered colonelcy because he felt he needed more experience. He saw action at White Plains and again at Germantown, where he was engaged in fighting around the Chew House, home of his future father-in-law.2

Despite the reprimand received in December 1777, Howard was promoted to lieutenant colonel during the winter at Valley Forge, participating in the Battle of Monmouth a few months later. When accused of neglecting his duty at Morristown in 1780 for irregularly parading his men during bitter weather, Howard was convicted by another court-martial, but the commander in chief, George Washington, disagreed with the court’s conclusions, overturned the verdict and freed him from arrest, noting that it was Howard’s intent to keep his men warm.3

He served with his Maryland troops throughout the southern campaign, fighting at Camden, Guilford Court House and Hobkirk’s Hill. His valorous charge at Cowpens (January 17, 1781), the stuff of legend, was pivotal in securing the American victory, and earned him a silver medal from Congress.4 Seriously wounded at Eutaw Springs, Howard was out of action but survived the war. His commander, Gen. Nathanael Greene, said of him, “He deserves a statue of gold, no less than the Roman and Grecian heroes.”5 Well-regarded by Washington and the leaders of the new republic, Howard went on to become a distinguished statesman, his posts including Representative to the Continental Congress, Governor of Maryland, and U.S. Senator. He died in 1825, highly respected as a patriot and a prominent benefactor to the city of Baltimore and the people of Maryland.

Duffey came to Philadelphia from County Longford, Ireland, where he must have received an excellent education, based on the quality of his later correspondence. He married Margaret Miller at Christ Church on December 8, 1774, joined the Pennsylvania Artillery Battalion commanded by Thomas Proctor, himself a Longford native, and rose quickly through the ranks. On June 30, 1776, Duffey was a corporal and company clerk in the new organization. Within three short months, the capable young man had risen to 3rd lieutenant (or lieutenant fire worker, as the artillerist’s position was known). By November 1, he had taken the Oath of Allegiance to Pennsylvania as 1st Lieutenant, distinguishing himself eight weeks later in battle at Trenton.6

His brass six-pounder was one of two field pieces sent by Proctor to accompany Washington’s assault on the Hessian garrison. Duffey and his men jockeyed their gun several miles through snow and ice, over roads barely passable to such a cumbersome contrivance. In the gray light of morning, they took up a commanding but precarious position in the town. “I had the honor of being detached up the Main Street, in front of the savages without any other piece, and sustained the fire of several gunns from the houses on each side without the least loss,” Duffey reported to his commander.7 Throughout the fight, Duffey’s cannon raked the street with fire, preventing the German soldiers from organizing effective resistance.

When, by March 1777, his unit was reorganized and expanded as part of the Continental establishment, Duffey’s skill and zeal (and perhaps his place of birth) were recognized by his commander, and he was appointed captain-lieutenant, in which rank he exercised command of a company. It was in this capacity that he exchanged blows with Howard on the parade ground near Philadelphia. Like his adversary, Duffey was promoted while at Valley Forge, at a time when so many other officers left the army.8 The Winter of 1779 found him sick in the military hospital at Yellow Springs, in Chester County, Pennsylvania, but he recovered in time to join Sullivan’s expedition against the Iroquois when it formed at Easton the following June.9

In 1781, Duffey served under Generals Wayne and Lafayette in Virginia, fighting a desperate battle at Green Spring Farm on July 6. During the action, Cornwallis cunningly feigned a retreat, and the eager Americans thought to fall on his rear guard. But the entire British force, concealed in a wood, sprang upon them. Wayne’s infantry, their flanks threatened, fled after a hot exchange of fire, leaving Duffey’s cannon exposed to great danger on the battlefield. The artillerist afterward complained to Wayne, “I have been order’d on the Charge – when Arrived at the Extremity of our Advance, left destitute of Men – No officer to Com[man]d – No Man to support me, left to Judge for myself without More than one Man, My Horses all Kill’d, worse than a forlorn hope, deserted by the Vetrans whom I depended on …” His gun and another were lost, and the distraught Duffey requested a court of inquiry lest the silence following his “Misfortune” be seen as an implication of cowardice when he had fought valiantly. His request was never honored.10

Perhaps it was this grievance – a sense of injustice and wounded pride – that led him to drink so heavily eleven weeks later. On the night of September 23, Duffey became angry with Capt. Jeremiah Ballard of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment, drew his sword and attempted to stab him. Calming down momentarily, he asked 1st Lt. George Blewer of the 4th Pennsylvania if he would negotiate “an amicable Settlement” with Ballard. Before Blewer could resolve the matter, Duffey flew into a towering rage, seized Blewer’s pistol, pointed it at the lieutenant and pulled the trigger. Fortunately for the astonished Blewer, the pistol was either not loaded or misfired. But Duffey’s rage wasn’t spent. Later that night, he wandered over to the field hospital and assaulted a French guard stationed there, threatening mayhem between the allied forces. Duffey was brought before a second court martial, held at Yorktown. This time he was found guilty, cashiered and dismissed from the service, just a few days before Cornwallis’s surrender.11 His temper finally getting the better of him, he missed the climactic battle of the war and the honors that came with it.

This was not quite the end of Duffey’s involvement in the Revolution, or even the end of his military career. The irascible captain quickly positioned himself as a broker and, in April 1782, set off from Yorktown for the West Indies. He was aboard the brig Letitia, on May 8, 1782, when she took a British merchant vessel, the Francis, at St. Kitts. Duffey himself boarded the prize following its capture to help record the cargo, and testified in an admiralty case after the harbormaster seized the ship from its captors.12 Back in Philadelphia a short while later, Duffey once again served in the Pennsylvania militia at his former captain’s rank. He remained active as a broker in the city through the 1780s, serving in the militia, patronizing the theater, and subscribing to Matthew Carey’s first American publication of the Roman Catholic version of the Bible. But Duffey seemed to disappear from the records before the century was out. Unlike Howard, his antagonist, Duffey today is largely forgotten.13



1 Valley Forge Orderly Book of General George Weedon of the Continental Army under command of Genl. George Washington, In the Campaign of 1777-8 (New York: Dodd & Mead, 1902), 147-148; James C. Neagles, Summer Soldiers: A Survey and Index of Revolutionary War Courts-Martial (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Incorporated, 1986).

2 Cary Howard, “John Eager Howard: Patriot and Public Servant,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 62 (1967): 300-317.

3 Order Book of Adjutant General Alexander Scammel, National Archives Microfilm M853, Roll 5, Vol. 33, 252-260.

4 Lawrence E. Babbits, A Devil of a Whipping: the Battle of Cowpens (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

5 Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (Philadelphia: Bradford & Inskeep, 1812), 409.

6 Pennsylvania Archives Ser. 2, Vol. 8, 76; Benjamin M. Nead, “A Sketch of General Thomas Proctor, With Some Account of the First Pennsylvania Artillery in the Revolution,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography 4 (1880): 454-470; Pennsylvania Archives Ser. 5, Vol. 3, 943-995.

7 Patrick Duffy to Thomas Proctor, December 28, 1776; Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 5, 141-142. At the time German soldiers were often regarded as “savages,” in part because of their use of longer-than-usual bayonets.

8 Francis Bernard Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution, April, 1775 to December, 1773 (Washington, DC: 1914, reprinted Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1982), 206. Duffey was promoted to captain on February 29, 1778.

9 Charles P. Greenough, “Roster of Officers in Sullivan’s Expedition, 1779,” in Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779, ed. Frederick Cook (Auburn, NY: Knapp, Peck & Thomson, 1887), 325.

10 Patrick Duffey to Anthony Wayne, July 8, 1781, in The Wayne Papers, Vol. 13, 74, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Henry Phelps Johnston, The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis, 1781 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881), 64 ff.

11 Early American Orderly Books, 1748-1817, New York Historical Society Microfilm: 149. Orderly Book: Col. Philip Van Cortlandt’s Second New York regiment, Virginia, September 26-October 30, 1781; Early American Orderly Books, 1748-1817, New York Historical Society Microfilm: 150. Orderly Book: Col. John Lamb’s Second Regiment, Continental Artillery, Virginia, October 7 -October 30, 1781.

12 “Narration of a Journey to the West”, Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives Microfilm M247, Roll 184, 170-172.

13 Pennsylvania Archives Ser. 6, Vol. 4, 49-51.

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