General John Dagworthy: George Washington’s Forgotten American Rival

Every summer, millions of tourists flock to the beaches and resorts on the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia (Delmarva) peninsula sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.  Those headed for Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island, or the state parks that line the Atlantic shores of Delaware may well pass by Prince George’s Chapel in Dagsboro.  Authorized in 1755 by the Maryland Legislature, which claimed Delaware’s lower reaches at the time, the chapel was completed in 1757 to serve local congregants of the Church of England.  Ironically for a chapel named after the future King George III, the most famous person buried in the church’s cemetery is Brig. Gen. John Dagworthy, a devout Anglican, veteran of the French and Indian War, and leader of the Sussex County Militia during the American Revolution.  Dagworthy, whose financial support of the chapel enabled its expansion, is actually buried under the chancery, as was the Anglican tradition.

Born in 1721, Dagworthy came from a Royalist family of means in Trenton, New Jersey.  When King George’s War with France broke out, Dagworthy was commissioned a captain on August 23, 1746 and raised a company of soldiers that eventually joined the regiment of Col. Peter Schuyler.  It participated in the aborted invasion of Canada up the Hudson valley, after which the Council of New Jersey wrote to the Duke of Newcastle seeking a commission for Dagworthy.   The young captain sailed to England on behalf of his own cause, succeeded, and received a royal commission in His Majesty’s service.  He eventually returned it in exchange for a payout.  Thereafter, he relocated to Maryland’s Worcester County, which eventually became Sussex County, Delaware.[1]

The French and Indian War found Dagworthy in Western Maryland, leading rangers and frontier guards.  During Gen. Edward Braddock’s march on Fort Duquesne in 1755, his company was assigned to the 2nd Brigade under Col. Thomas Dunbar, which marched through Maryland before reuniting with a Virginia column at Fort Cumberland, located at the confluence of Wills Creek and the Potomac.  George Washington, who had been a major in the Virginia militia, accompanied Braddock as a brevet captain and personal aide, which afforded him the courtesies, but not the authority, of a colonel.[2]  There, he might have encountered Captain Dagworthy with his dated Royal Commission and company of Marylanders.

After Braddock’s collapse in the Monongahela, events took Dagworthy, some of his Marylanders, and a group of Virginians back to Fort Cumberland, where Dagworthy assumed command of roughly 140 men, mostly Virginians.[3]  By the fall of 1755, he and Washington, back in Virginia service as a colonel charged with defending the frontier, were on a collision course.  Virginia took steps to reinforce its western frontiers, including taking possession of Fort Cumberland as Virginia provided a majority of its garrison and stores.  Maryland, however, was disinclined to support the fort.[4]  Yet Dagworthy, present at Fort Cumberland under a Maryland captaincy, refused to submit to Washington’s command or take his orders, citing his own earlier Royal commission, lapsed though it was. Washington was incensed and sought assistance in resolving the matter from Virginia lieutenant governor Dinwiddie, who dispatched Washington to see Massachusetts governor William Shirley, the late General Braddock’s successor as Commander-in-Chief in North America.[5]  Dinwiddie related Washington’s description of Dagworthy’s behavior to Shirley:

[Horatio Sharpe, Governor of Maryland] has order’d him to keep the Command of the Fort, wch he does in an absolute manner we have purchas’d and laid in Provisions for 1000 Men for one Year; as the Fort was the most safe Place they were deposited there, & a Commissary appointed at the Charge of this Country, he [Dagworthy] will not allow him [Washington] to discharge his Duty but refuses any of the Provisions to be touch’d but by his Order’ and tho’ the Provisions are supply’d by this Country, he insists on a Right to supply his own Men from our Magazine, tho’ Maryland pays no part of the Charge, he otherways acts in an Arbitrary manner, & insists on his Rank superior to any of our Officers, & he has not above thirty men, when Col: Washington has upwards of 500.[6]

Dinwiddie argued that Virginia’s garrisoning and provisioning of the fort, combined with Dagworthy’s lapsed Royal commission, his status as a Maryland captain, and Washington’s rank as a Virginia colonel clearly gave Washington precedence of command.  He further warned Shirley that public opinion in Virginia was inflamed over Dagworthy’s behavior and could limit that colony’s interest in continuing to support the war.

For his part, after meeting with Governor Shirley and others at New York in December 1755, Maryland governor Horatio Sharpe ordered Dagworthy to limit his authority to the confines of Fort Cumberland and “not interfere with any Troops in the barracks or assume any Authority over the Virginians that should there be Posted.”[7]  But, he continued to seek preferment for the Maryland captain by seeking a separate commission for him with Governor Shirley’s regiment.[8]  Governor Shirley, however, pressed Sharpe to resolve the matter by reassigning Dagworthy or telling him he must submit to Washington’s command.[9]  Thus, the relevant colonial governors sought to shift responsibility for solving the problem to one another, but consistently by removing Dagworthy as the source of the problem.  Clearly, the disagreement between Washington and Dagworthy over command precedent was breaking Washington’s way and Dagworthy was making no friends among the rich and powerful in Virginia.

Eventually, Maryland left Fort Cumberland to Virginia and Dagworthy moved his troops to Frederick, Maryland.  The fort, however, remained a bone of contention and France’s native allies continued raids in the area.  Fort Cumberland appeared to offer little protection.  In the spring of 1757, as Virginia shifted its focus away from Cumberland, Dagworthy returned.[10]  Unfortunately, the Maryland Assembly’s continued parsimony with regard to defending its western reaches left Dagworthy undersupplied and at wit’s end.  He could not properly provide provisions to friendly Native Americans to secure their continued friendship or adequately pay and supply his men.  All Sharpe could do was to appeal to Virginia’s governor for help and prepare to abandon Cumberland in its absence.[11] While the Virginians under Washington’s command were in better shape, Williamsburg also provided inadequate support to its troops.  As Virginia and Maryland squabbled, Lord Loudon, who had been governor of Virginia in absentia, assumed his post in person, replaced William Shirley as commander in chief, and opted to dispatch a battalion of British regulars from the 60th (Royal American) Regiment to Pennsylvania. He gave its commander, Col. John Stanwix, local authority.  Stanwix ordered Dagworthy to remain at Cumberland and pledged his support to provision and pay the Maryland troops.[12]  In short, Dagworthy found himself out at the end of a very long, very thin branch while superior political authorities bickered about how to manage affairs in western Virginia and Maryland.  Forces under his command continued skirmishing with Native American warriors passing through the area, but could not stop them from raiding toward Frederick.

While Dagworthy struggled to hold on to Fort Cumberland in 1757 and 1758, a British expedition under Gen. John Forbes blazed a path across Pennsylvania to take Fort Duquesne, the original goal of Braddock’s failed 1755 mission.  Dagworthy, promoted to lieutenant colonel in the summer of 1758, joined the Forbes expedition, reconnoitered the fort to confirm its abandonment, and then brought the news of Forbes’ success to Governor Sharpe in Baltimore during the second week of December 1758.[13]  Before departing Pittsburgh, he sent one hundred Maryland militia back to Fort Cumberland and advised furloughing the rest, most of whose pay was in arrears and might have otherwise deserted.[14]  Sharpe, who was deeply aware of the adverse conditions and struggles Dagworthy and his military troops had experienced while at Fort Cumberland, composed a special paper and forwarded it to Lord Calvert, hoping it would be find its way into Prime Minister Pitt’s hands.[15]

Dagworthy, now a veteran of two wars, returned to Maryland and was rewarded with a large land grant (20,000 acres) in Maryland’s Worcester County on the Delmarva Peninsula, where he donated a large sum to update and enlarge Prince George’s Chapel in Dagsboro, a town named after him.  The surveyed land became known as “Dagworthy’s Conquest.” Eventually, the territory was properly surveyed and a settled line between Maryland and Delaware placed Dagworthy’s Conquest in Delaware’s Sussex County.[16]  Dagworthy began cutting cypress trees in a large swamp near his holdings into shingles that better withstood rot, and shipped them north.[17]  In October 1774, Dagworthy was named a justice of Sussex County and became a member of a commission intended to resurvey, inspect, and assess the boundaries of older land grants.[18]  When war broke out between the colonies and Great Britain, Dagworthy became a member of the Sussex County Committee of Safety and naturally assumed a military post.[19]  Minutes of the September 16, 1775 meeting of the Committee refer to him as a colonel, most likely in reference to his prior service, but the January 1776 minutes of the Committee refer to him as a brigadier general representing Sussex County.[20]

Dagworthy did not receive a field command with the Continental Army, but was in charge of the Sussex County militia.  Lying at southern reaches of the state, Sussex was often overlooked by Delaware officials more concerned with British ships patrolling the mouth of the Delaware Bay, which gave the colonies access to the sea from Philadelphia and the British access to Philadelphia via the bay and Delaware River.  In Sussex County, Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, was more of a concern.  He had fled from Williamsburg to the Royal Navy offshore in the lower reaches of the Chesapeake Bay, from where he could easily threaten the sparsely populated areas of Maryland and Delaware along the coast.  In July, 1776 Dagworthy expressed concerns that Dunmore and local Tories were engaged in discussions to supply the British, even as they protested any moves toward independence.[21]  He also confronted rumors that bands of Tories were preparing to march on Lewes, Delaware at the mouth of the Delaware Bay.[22]  The more populous areas of northern Delaware had little to offer, as they were struggling to build a battalion for service with the Continental Army.  Indeed, contemporary sources suggest that Dagworthy had his hands full keeping order in the county for the better part of a year, as “a considerable part of the Inhabitants of Sussex County” manifested an “inimical Disposition,” according to Delaware’s new president.[23]  Reports of counterfeiting and trade with the Royal Navy along the coast spread.  On July 3, 1777 Congress decided to dispatch a Continental Army regiment to the county, issuing a specific resolution on the matter:

Resolved, That the president of the state of Delaware be requested to order two hundred of the militia of that state to join and co-operate with colonel Richardson’s regiment:

That it be earnestly recommended to the legislative or executive authority of the state of Delaware, to adopt and pursue the most vigorous and effectual measures for checking the spreading of disaffection in that part of the state:

That for accomplishing this end the Congress will afford to the state of Delaware every assistance by the continental troops ordered into the county of Sussex, and by all such other measures as may be found to be necessary.

Resolved, That the board of war be directed to take effectual measures for completely arming as speedily as possible colonel Richardson’s battalion, which is ordered into Sussex county in the state of Delaware.

Ordered, That a copy of the foregoing report and resolutions, also of the letter of the 24th of June from David Hall and others, together with copies of the depositions accompanying the same, be sent to the president of the state of Delaware, and to colonel Richardson.[24]

Delaware President John McKinly was taken aback by the resolution and claimed surprise, having only recently heard reports of disturbances in Sussex.  He complained that Congress was too reliant on just a few sources of information.  Somewhat defensively, he noted that as commander-in-chief of Delaware forces he had ordered guards posted to prevent trade with the enemy and noted, “Dagworthy has the Command of three Battalions, I cannot learn that he has even attempted it on a small Neck of Land of about Three Miles by two & less in extent, in his own Neighborhood, on the Northside of Indian River, where it is said there is much of this Business going on—What the Strength of his Brigade is I cannot learn from him …”[25]  In fact, McKinly was quite dissatisfied with Dagworthy, who apparently complained regularly about the president and general neglect of Sussex!  The President of Delaware, however, excused the Dagworthy insults as the product of ill health.[26]  McKinly did not have long to brood about his Sussex County brigadier.  During the Philadelphia campaign, the British occupied Wilmington and took McKinly prisoner.

Sussex County proved no more reliable for the patriot cause in 1778.  Its Committee of Safety adopted a resolution that March indicating it was convinced “that some of the disaffected inhabitants of the County of Sussex have taken up arms, much to the terror of the good people of said county, and to the encouragement of the British forces to land and make excursions there.”[27]  It went on to recommend to the president of thesState that he order Brigadier General Dagworthy to disarm disaffected inhabitants of the county.  He may well have failed, for a Tory uprising hit Sussex County in the summer of 1780 as drought, inflation, and American taxes pushed small farmers over the edge in the short-lived Black Camp Rebellion.  The uprising occurred in Dagworthy’s county, but north of his personal holdings.  As commander of the county militia, it would have been Dagworthy’s job to suppress the rebellion with his militia, but government authorities called on militia from Kent County to do the job.[28]

Dagworthy fades from history after the war, but appears to have settled into a life as a relatively wealthy landowner and member of society, as well as a continued patron of the church under which he is buried.  He may not have been a very effective military commander, as his inability to stop raids around Fort Cumberland during the French and Indian War and his failure to pacify Sussex County during the Revolution suggest.  He may have also been hobbled by a paucity of resources in both instances.  Yet, despite the prickliness of his colonial relationship with Washington, he was a dedicated patriot, willing to place his life and extensive property on the line in service of American independence.  Dagworthy died in 1784, leaving a substantial estate (including several slaves) to his wife, sisters, and nephews.  In 1908, Delaware unveiled a monument in the Prince George’s Chapel cemetery commemorating Sussex County’s imperfect, and largely forgotten, Revolutionary War general.  The marker, quite prominent on the way to the beaches over which Sussex County Tories were reported to conduct an illicit trade with the Royal Navy, ensures that Dagworthy is remembered for more than his dispute with a much younger George Washington.

 

[1] Proceedings at the Unveiling of the Monument Erected to the Memory of General John Dagworthy, May 30, 1908, Papers of the Historical Society of Delaware, XLVIII, 1908, 12.  Hereafter cited as “Dagworthy Monument.”

[2] David Clary, George Washington’s First War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 124-125.

[3] Lady Edgar, A Colonial Governor in Maryland: Horatio Sharpe and His Times, 1753-1773 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912), 72.

[4] Sharpe to Braddock, July 9, 1755, and Sharpe to Dagworthy, July 9, 1755 in William Hand Browne, ed., Archives of Maryland, Correspondence of Governor Horatio Sharpe, Vol. 1, 1753-1757 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1888), 242-244.  Hereafter Archives of Maryland, Vol. I.  Sharpe was unable to convince the Maryland assembly to raise sufficient funds to support Maryland’s contribution to Braddock’s campaign in the summer of 1755.

[5] Craig Bruce Smith, “Dagworthy Controversy,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon: Digital Encyclopedia, http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/dagworthy-controversy/, accessed August 13, 2017.

[6] Extract of a Letter from Governor Dinwiddie to General Shirley dated January 23, 1756, in Archives of Maryland, Vol. I, 348-349.

[7] Sharpe to Dinwiddie, January 4, 1756, in ibid., Vol. I, 335.

[8] Sharpe to Shirley, January 24, 1756, in ibid., 338.

[9] Shirley to Sharpe, March 5, 1756, in ibid., 357.

[10] Will Lowdermilk, History of Cumberland, From the Time of the Indian Town, Caiuctucuc, in 1728, Up to the Present Day, Embracing an Account of Washington’s First Campaign, and Battle of Fort Necessity, Together with a History of Braddock’s Expedition, &c., &c., &c. (Washington, DC: James Anglim, 1878), 226-227; Sharpe to Dagworthy, March 30, 1757, in Archives of Maryland, Vol. I, 536-537.

[11] Sharpe to Dinwiddie, May 5, 1757, in ibid., 549.

[12] Sharpe to Dinwiddie, July [June] 3, 1757, and Sharpe to Forbes, June 9, 1758, in William Hand Browne, ed., Archives of Maryland, Correspondence of Governor Horatio Sharpe, Vol. II, 1757-1761 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1890), 16-17, 198-199.  Hereafter Archives of Maryland, Vol. II; Fred Anderson, Crucible of War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 203-204.

[13] Sharpe to Baltimore, December 14, 1758, in Archives of Maryland, Vol. II, 312.

[14] Sharpe to Forbes, January 26, 1759, in ibid., 320.

[15] Sharpe to Calvert, September 28th, 1759, in ibid., 364.

[16] Henry C. Conrad, History of the State of Delaware, Volume II (Wilmington, DE: Published by the Author, 1908), 732-733, 743.

[17] Michael Morgan, Patriots and Pirates: Tales of the Delaware Coast (New York: Algora Publishing, 2005), 29.

[18] Dagworthy Monument, 19.

[19] Dagworthy Monument, 20.

[20] “Extract from the Minutes of the ‘Council of Safety,’ September 16, 1775 and January 8, 1776,” Delaware Archives: Revolutionary War in Three Volumes, Volume III and Index (Wilmington, DE: Public Archives Commission of Delaware/Chas. L. Story Company Press, 1919), 1235-1236.  Hereafter, Delaware Archives, Vol. III.

[21] John Haslet to Caesar Rodney, July 6, 1776, Delaware Archives, Vol. III, 1389; Kim Rogers Burdick, Revolutionary Delaware: Independence in the First State (Charleston: The History Press, 2016), 55.

[22] Morgan, Patriots and Pirates, 29-30.  See also Burdick, Revolutionary Delaware, 55.

[23] John McKinly to President of Congress, May 6, 1777, Delaware Archives, Vol. III, 1403.

[24] Journals of Congress, Containing the Proceedings, From January 1, 1777, to January 1, 1778, Vol. III, July 3, 1777 (New York: John Patterson, Printer, n.d.), 266.

[25] John McKinly to President of Congress, July 15, 1777, Delaware Archives, Vol. III, 1407-1408.

[26] Ibid., 1408.

[27] Dr. George W. Marshall, “Memoir of Brigadier General John Dagworthy of The Revolutionary War, Read before the Historical Society of Delaware, April 16, 1894,” Papers of the Historical Society of Delaware, X (Wilmington: The Historical Society of Delaware, 1895), 16.

[28] Morgan, Patriots and Pirates, 43; Burdick, Revolutionary Delaware, 123-124.

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