Memorial Day: Recovering the Service of William Tiller, American Soldier


May 25, 2020
by Michael J. F. Sheehan Also by this Author


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Every now and then, one comes across a pension application of an old soldier that includes extraordinary detail. Occasionally the application includes a journal or memoir, as in the case of Connecticut’s Isaac Grant or Virginia’s William Tiller. Tiller’s journal is full of detail, but unfortunately few muster rolls for his regiment exist, making certain aspects of his service difficult to corroborate. His pay rolls exist for much of his service and can at least prove his having been a soldier for the time he claimed to be. Using other primary sources, such as the Papers of George Washington, the Continental Army’s monthly strength reports as published in Charles Lesser’s Sinews of Independence, and other letters, we are able to fill in many gaps or even prove Tiller’s words.

William Tiller was a native son of Virginia, but at no point in his pension application does he mention his age, town of birth, or any other details of his early life. It is possible Tiller was from Bedford County, Virginia, as he enlisted in a company commanded by Capt. Henry Terrell (who was from Bedford County) in the 5th Virginia Regiment commanded by Col. Charles Scott on February 22, 1776. What Tiller did during this time is unclear—he left no mention of his first enlistment, and his muster and pay rolls don’t pick up until October 1776. For October, November, and December 1776, only his pay rolls exist, and they leave no clues of his activities. On September 30, Congress had ordered that Brig. Gen. Adam Stephens shift his Virginia brigade towards Washington’s Main Army. His brigade, which included the 4th, 5th, and 6th Virginia regiments, arrived at Trenton, New Jersey, on November 8. As Washington was defeated in late 1776 in the greater New York area, the Lower Hudson Valley, and finally in Northern New Jersey, he was constantly pursued by the British. He marched inland towards the Delaware River, arriving on its banks in the first week of December.

On Christmas night 1776, Washington famously crossed the Delaware back into New Jersey to surprise the German troops that had recently settled in Trenton for the winter. Stephen’s brigade was part of Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s division as they marched towards King and Queen Streets on the morning of December 26, chasing the enemy east into an orchard, where they surrendered. There is no certainty that Tiller participated in this battle; if he did, it is highly unusual that he never mentioned it. What is more interesting is that his January 1777 pay roll remarks that he had “deserted.” He continued to be annotated as having deserted until June 1777, when he was no longer included on the rolls of his company. In his 1821 pension application, Tiller alluded to this. Having initially enlisted, he “continued in said service for the term of two years (except about six months, for which term he was confined by sickness at his sister’s, and at home, whither he had gone on furlough) and was discharged at Valley Forge.” Of the furlough and the discharge, there is no evidence, but it is possible Tiller believed himself on a furlough through miscommunication (a similar situation happened to a Pvt. Isaac Grant).[1]

Whatever the case, he found himself at “Valley Forge in Pennsylvania on Schuylkill River” in the Spring of 1778, and enlisted into the company of Capt. Samuel Lapsley. This company was nominally part of Col. Nathanial Gist’s Additional Continental Regiment. At times some of the companies detached to other regiments but, as Tiller noted, he was “under the command of Colonel Nathaniel Gist.” At the time of his second enlistment, he said he was in the 8th Virginia Regiment, “under command of Colonel Parker,” probably referring to Richard Parker, although he must have been mistaken as Parker was lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Virginia Regiment. What does agree with the extant documentation is Tiller’s date of enlistment. He signed on the “ninth day of June,” in 1778, although not as he says at “a place called the White Plains,” as the army was still in Valley Forge on that date. Tiller came down with a case of smallpox which he either brought with him or caught when he was inoculated upon enlistment, just as the army departed their winter encampment. [2]

When the “grand Army marched from Valley Forge there were about three hundred of us recovering from the smallpox.” It is possible he recovered in the army hospital at Yellow Springs, but he isn’t clear. When they were able to walk again, Tiller said they were placed under the command of an unnamed “Maryland major . . . and to march in the rear for we was weak.” As they marched through New Jersey, they were to “meet the grand army at King’s ferry.” After the Battle of Monmouth on June 28 (which Tiller and his ill comrades missed), the Continental Army slowly made their way to New York after celebrating the second Independence Day in New Brunswick. The army crossed the Hudson in mid-July at King’s Ferry on the north side of Stony Point, a rocky promontory in present day Rockland County. The army shifted down to Westchester County from the other end of the ferry at Verplanck and encamped in the vicinity of White Plains, surrounding the British in New York as Washington awaited a French naval blockade at the Narrows below New York that never materialized. Tiller finally joined his company at “White Plains . . . where we had some little time and several small fights with the British but no general engagement at that time.” Again, he was unclear—was he referring to himself, or the army seeing action? At this point, Tiller appeared on the August pay roll of Lapsley’s Company, but what was he doing? A pay roll from 1779 gives the indication that Lapsley’s company was detached to the 12th Virginia Regiment. As Gist’s Regiment was composed of both Marylanders and Virginians, and as they had detached companies the previous campaign, it is certainly plausible that Lapsley’s Virginia company served with other Virginians. Colonel Gist was mentioned often in letters from Charles Scott, now a General, to Washington in late 1778. Scott had been given command of a Corps of Light Infantry that was the Army’s first line of defense facing the British. The 12th Virginia was with Scott and evidently so was Gist, so it is quite possible that Tiller saw action either detached or with his regiment. [3]

As 1778 turned into 1779, Scott’s Light Infantry disbanded and returned to their respective parent regiments for the winter. Initially, the army moved north up New York State, around Fredericksburgh (present Patterson), before shifting further south. As Washington wrote to Gen. John Sullivan from Fredericksburgh, “Be pleased to address your next [letter] to me at Middle Brook New Jersey for which place I am setting out.” The army remained in Middlebrook for about six months before the campaign opened; Tiller mentioned nothing of what he did during this time. On May 31, 1779, the British hove up the Hudson and occupied Stony and Verplanck Points, the two ends of the King’s Ferry that Washington had relied upon the campaign before. In order to watch enemy activity there, but more importantly, to provide better security for the series of fortifications at West Point, only eleven miles north of King’s Ferry, the army moved back into New York. Tiller remembered that “we marched back to the North [Hudson] River again to a place called Smith Clove.” From there, they marched to the Forest of Dunn [Dean]” (present Harriman State Park west of Fort Montgomery) which indicated Gist’s Regiment was now in Gen. Peter Muhlenberg’s Brigade, which arrived there in early July. Although he didn’t mention it specifically, the evidence points to Tiller being drafted into Gen. Anthony Wayne’s Light Corps, which was forming at the time. Unfortunately, only Tiller’s pay rolls exist for this period, and typically they don’t include the whereabouts or activities of a soldier. Aside from the detail Tiller provided later on, we have Washington’s own orders. In creating the Light Corps in general orders on June 12, Gist’s Regiment was to join with the 1st Virginia State Regiment “to form one battalion & furnish one company of Light Infantry.” General Wayne was a stickler for well dressed soldiers and the maintenance of a martial appearance. He would not have been impressed by the men from Gist’s Regiment as they came into his camp; only a month before, when Inspector General Baron von Steuben inspected the regiment his comment was “cloathing: very bad.”[4]

Poorly dressed or not, Tiller walked along the Popolopen Creek east towards the ruins of Fort Montgomery where Wayne had formed his light infantry camp. His company formed under Lt. Wyatt Coleman of the 1st Virginia State Regiment (it is possible the company had no captain) and was placed with the other Virginians in the 1st Light Infantry Regiment commanded by Col. Christian Febiger. Here they would have undergone drilling and further instruction regarding the task of light infantry, which was to scout, be a screen for the army, and be a light, fast moving strike force. In the meanwhile, the British had gone about fortifying Stony and Verplanck Points. At Stony Point, the British had two rows of felled trees called abatis, fifteen pieces of artillery, and nearly 500 troops; it would be the Light Infantry’s first goal of the campaign. After Washington and Wayne planned the assault it was up to the Light Infantry to carry it out. On July 15, “the long roll was beat for us to parade . . . it was to go and take Stony Point.” Washington saw the nearly 1,100 men of the Corps off as Tiller recalled, “we saluted General Washington . . . in a little time we marched well fixed with good guns and bayonets,” for this attack was to be made at the point of the bayonet, with the majority of troops refraining from firing.

After hours of marching, the Corps arrived at Springsteel’s Farm, where they “kept a picket guard . . . and a team of artillery.” While they “fell in [Tiller] remember[ed] that I said ‘Now boys, you may know what we are going to do.’ They said, ‘yes.’” From there the men began the approach to their objective. Then, they “marched along until we came to a field. We were ordered to halt and not to speak over a whisper and to be ready at a moment’s warning.” Silence among the troops corresponds directly to one of Wayne’s orders for the attack: “After the troops begin to advance to the works, the stricktest silence must be observed.” Just before the attack, “there came an officer with some white paper to put in the for-brims of our hats to distinguish us from the British.”[5]

As the Light Corps approached Stony Point, “the sentinels fired upon us. Their alarm drums beat, their alarm cannon fired,” Wayne and some of the officers “cried out . . . ’Rush on my brave heroes, the fort is our own!’” Again, this relates directly to Wayne’s orders: “When the works are forced and not before, the victorious troops as they enter will give the watchword ‘The fort’s our own,’ with repeated and loud voice.” Of the attack itself, Tiller was brief, recalling that “we displayed in columns [Tiller was in the right or south column] and scaled their fascine walls and rushed in and after we got possession we turned their cannon around and fired upon two large Ships that lay” in the river. As the sun rose on the morning of July 16, Tiller recalled the ships moving out of the way down river (they had actually begun hours earlier) and the troops collecting the prisoners. A “large British ship of war lay above the fort. She running by, we fired upon her very heavily trying to sink her but she got by to the other ships.” Tiller was not far off the mark in his memory. According to the log of HMS Vulture, one of the ships driven away by the guns the previous night, “At 11[A.M.] the Philadelphia & Cornwallis Gallies passed the forts under a heavy cannonade.” The Americans recognized deserters among the captured troops, and as Tiller correctly wrote, “three deserters being found in the fort, they were condemned to die. We cut down three flagpoles and made a gallows of it and [hanged] them thereon,” while the others were pardoned.[6]

As the British were fast approaching, and the Americans failed to take Verplanck across the river, it was thought prudent to evacuate Stony Point. The troops destroyed the defenses and “tore their fascine walls to pieces and set the fort on fire and blew up their magazine.” Here Tiller’s memory was shaky. He said the Light Infantry returned to “Smith’s Clove, from thence to Princeton Plains,” which does not match Wayne’s movements at the time. Without the survival of his muster rolls, it is difficult to tell, but the evidence points to his departure from the Light Infantry. There are a few reasons men might return to their parent regiments—injury, illness, not being up to the task, or as it appears in Tiller’s case, promotion. His August 1779 pay roll indicates he was “Promoted to Corp[oral] 15 Aug [1779]” in Lapsley’s Company. Tiller mentioned that on August 19 “we sent off a detachment . . . to Paulus Hook and stormed it and took out about a hundred fifty prisoners with the loss of but few men.” This is in reference to Maj. Henry Lee’s raid on Paulus Hook in present Jersey City, New Jersey, in which elements of Gist’s Regiment were involved. Compared to the way he wrote about Stony Point, his brief mention of this action probably indicates that he was not personally involved.

As the summer passed and autumn turned to winter, the army began preparing for winter quarters as things settled down. Over 700 miles away, the British successfully defended themselves at Savannah, Georgia, forcing Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln and the Comte d’Estaing to lift their siege. Lincoln withdrew to Charleston, South Carolina, the next obvious British target in the South, and began constructing and repairing defenses. In order to aid Lincoln, Congress ordered the Virginia troops with the main army to join him, as Washington told General Lord Stirling, “Congress has been pleased to direct . . . the whole of the Virginia Troops to be immediately put in motion, with a view of sending them to the Southward.”[7]

William Tiller was about to go on a journey. “Orders came for us to march to the South, from thence we came to Trenton, from thence to Philadelphia, from thence to Richmond in Virginia, from thence to Petersburg, from thence to Charlestown in South Carolina. On the seventh of April we got there.” Here again, Tiller’s memory was precise. Writing to Washington, Lincoln said “the Virginia troops under General Woodford arrived, which was on the 7th [of April].” The siege had officially begun on March 29 but according to Tiller, “on the thirteenth day of the said month, the British opened their battery upon us, about eight or nine o’ clock in the morning with their cannon, their bomb shells, their carcasses and everything that could destroy us with and it continued night and day.” The siege was intense: “we never had the chance to pull off our clothes but four times in four weeks. We had to fight night and day.” The British pressed their attack as Tiller recalled, “I remember one night there was twelve thousand tried to fire upon us and had like to get in a small battery . . . called the half moon battery, but we beat them back with the force of our cannon and small arms.” Tiller recalled that,

[one] night there was twenty seven rounds fired with the small arms. In a little time after our fort was torn up with their bomb shells and several of our cannon dismounted. About that time I received two wounds by bomb shells that I shall carry to my grave, one in my head and one in my secret part [groin?]

The Siege of Charleston, 1780, by Alonzo Chappel, c. 1860. (Brown University Library)

The disastrous conditions in Charleston only got worse. Sergeant “[William] Hundley was killed and [Private] Richard Spendler was killed, one was taking [care?] of me when he was killed, the other close to me.” He also remembered that “General Moultrie was killed by a cannon ball.” In fact, it was his brother, Capt. Thomas Moultrie, who fell in a sortie on April 24. Tiller continued, “but at last we had to give up after fighting hard for we had no chance. We were weak . . . the British were strong, there were fifteen thousand of them,” and less than 6,000 Continentals. At last, General Lincoln surrendered. When “we gave up there came two grenadier regiments and took possession of our main fort called the Horn Works and that we marched out towards the breastworks on the canal and gave up our arms.” The terms of their surrender were harsh: “They would not suffer us to beat any British march nor to have colors uncased, so we beat the Turk’s march and marched out, gave up our arms and then marched into the barracks and remained prisoners fourteen and a half months and then the exchange took place.” The barrack was one of many places around the city where the prisoners of war were held, and though the buildings are gone now, his barracks stood on the grounds of the present College of Charleston. Tiller’s memory of Lincoln’s humiliation was accurate: colors (flags) were not permitted to fly, and the captives were denied the military tradition of playing a tune associated with the victorious army. These favors would later be returned to the British at the surrender of Yorktown.[8]

The war continued. Gen. Charles Cornwallis took British troops in the South through the Carolinas and engaged in great battles like Camden, Guilford Courthouse, Waxhaws, and Cowpens, none of which Tiller participated in. Finally, around July 1781, a large-scale exchange of prisoners took place. When Tiller was finally released, he recalled that it took “six ships and some seven brigs to take us round to Jamestown in Virginia and there we were landed.” They were then marched to Williamsburg and discharged by one “Major Liftwich” (Joel Leftwich). Cpl. William Tiller does not appear to have reenlisted, but as he returned to his Bedford County home, he would have heard of the October 1781 victory of the combined Franco-American army at Yorktown, where General Cornwallis was finally halted. We do not see William Tiller again until he first applied for the 1818 series Federal pension, and again when he reapplied in 1821, where he produced his journal. And like so many other countless soldiers and sailors of the American Revolution, William Tiller passed into the realm of memory.[9]


[1]William Tiller June 1777 Muster Roll,; Note No. 1, Richard Peters to George Washington, October24, 1776, Founders Online,; David Hackett Fisher, Washington’s Crossing(New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 242; William Tiller January 1777 Pay Roll,; William Tiller 1821 Pension Application, S38443,

[2]Journal of William Tiller, Pension Papers of William Tiller, Transcription by Will Graves. Mr. Graves transcribed Tiller’s journal, which is very difficult to read, and modernized the horrible spelling. I am indebted to his labor. Undated Roll, Lapsley’s Company,

[3]Journal of William Tiller; William Tiller Pay Roll August 1778,; Robert K. Wright, Jr., The Continental Army (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1983), 321; Undated Roll,; General Orders, July 22, 1778, Founders Online,

[4]Washington to John Sullivan, November 26, 1778, Founders Online,; Journal of William Tiller; General Orders, June 7, 1779, Founders Online,; General Orders, July 8, 1779, Founders Online,; General Orders, June 12, 1779, Founders Online,; Inspection Return of Gist’s Regiment, May 27, 1779,

[5]Field & Staff Muster, 1st Virginia State Regiment, July 1779,; General Orders, June 15, 1779, Founders Online,; Don Loprieno, The Enterprise in Contemplation (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2004); Enclosure: Plan of Attack, July 15, 1779, Founders Online,; Journal of William Tiller.

[6]Journal of William Tiller; Enclosure, Plan of Attack; Masters Log, HMS Vulture, July 16, 1779, ADM 52/2073, The National Archives, United Kingdom.

[7]Journal of William Tiller; William Tiller Pay Roll August 1779,; Henry Lee to Washington, August 22, 1779, Founders Online,; Washington to Lord Stirling, December 9, 1779, Founders Online,

[8]Journal of William Tiller; Benjamin Lincoln to Washington, April 9, 1780, Founders Online, Muhlenberg remained in Virginia to rally militia, while Woodford took the troops the remainder of the way southward. George Kotlik, “Brothers Mourn the Death of Captain Thomas Moultrie,” Journal of the American Revolution, (March 19, 2019),; Amy S. Mercer, “Living History Event Highlights CofC’s Role in American Revolution” College of Charleston, My thanks to Ph. D candidate Benjamin Schaffer for his assistance in the history of the Siege of Charleston.

[9]Journal of William Tiller.

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