From Prisoner to Schoolmaster: The Revolutionary War Story of Lt. Thomas White


September 9, 2020
by Alex White Also by this Author


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Thomas White, a twenty-two-year-old farmer in Chester County, Pennsylvania, answered the call to fight for the establishment of a new nation. The choice altered his fate irrevocably and nearly cost him his life before taking him to the edge of the frontier to start anew. Thomas White was many things in his seventy-year life: A farmer, soldier, and prisoner of war held in New York and on Long Island by the British after the disastrous Battle of Fort Washington. He was also a pioneer, schoolmaster, and father of seven. In addition to all of this, he named the town of Greenville, Illinois, and founded the first log cabin school in Bond County.

Oxford Beginnings

The story begins on March 5, 1754 when White was born as the first son to John White, a Scots-Irish farmer and weaver, and his wife Margaret who owned a one-hundred acre farm in Oxford, Chester County, Pennsylvania. By the early 1770s Thomas, in his teens, was farming in Oxford in his own right, as shown by tax records for the township. His father died in 1775, leaving him the modest sum of £16 in his will and a fifth of the remainder of the estate that was earmarked for his mother upon her passing. He might have stayed in Oxford farming and raising a family as had his father before him if not for the events of the year 1776.[1]

A page from the White family Bible recording the birth of Thomas White, the very first line. (Author)

A Life Suddenly Disrupted

When war broke out, White joined Col. William Montgomery’s Pennsylvania 1st Regiment Flying Camp, later led by Lt. Col. Thomas Bull, and left home on July 12, 1776 on the heels of the Declaration of Independence. Part of Montgomery’s Flying Camp marched through Philadelphia on July 18 and 19 and arrived at Perth Amboy, New Jersey by July 24.

By August 20, six Pennsylvania Flying Camp battalions, including Col. Montgomery’s Chester County forces and battalions from Bucks, York, and Lancaster Counties, had reported to Fort Lee, directly across the Hudson River from Fort Washington.[2] They then crossed to Fort Washington in New York on November 15. There they were led by Col. Robert Magaw and were surrounded by the British forces in the area. The British had sent overwhelming naval firepower to crush the rebels, including the Pearl, a thirty-two-gun frigate anchored in the Hudson.[3]

Capture at the Battle of Fort Washington

Three thousand soldiers prepared to defend Fort Washington against up to 13,000 enemy, but on November 16 their defenses faltered as they found themselves outmanned and under a sustained attack from multiple directions. Surrender became the only option for most. Gen. George Washington, who had watched the battle from across the river at Fort Lee, slipped away and headed south through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania to continue leading the war effort.[4]

Thomas White was among the 2,837 soldiers who were taken by the enemy. In an 1819 letter asking authorities for his long overdue war pension, White said of this experience “we were taken prisoners on the 16th of November, 1776, and taken to New York, and there indeed, sir, we suffered all but death, with cold, hunger, and vermin.”[5]

Prisoners captured at Fort Washington, such as William Darlington, a private in Capt. Benjamin Wallace’s company of the Flying-Camp of Pennsylvania, were treated inhumanely in a manner that belies belief. He testified to two ministers that about 800 of the rebels taken prisoner were marched south to Manhattan and kept in a house called New Bridewell, which had no windows and allowed the bitter November cold to enter. They were not given food for more than two full days after the battle. From then the rations for each man meant to last three days were “one half pound of biscuit, half a pound of pork, a half pint of peas, half a gill of rice, and half an ounce of butter. The whole not more than enough for one good meal.” They had no straw to lie on for beds and were only allowed one fire for cooking and warmth every three days. “They began to die like rotten sheep . . . the enemy seemed to take a kind of infernal pleasure in their sufferings,” Darlington said. Another prisoner, Samuel Young, testified that he was kept in stables with five hundred other prisoners, deprived of food, later moved to a non-Anglican church, and finally to a ship where they were kept below deck with no warmth.[6]

Though White may have experienced hardships at the beginning of his confinement, as an officer, he was probably separated from the enlisted men on the third day after capture. He then was allowed parole by the British.[7]

Officers, on the other hand, were treated as gentlemen and were put on their honor by signing a statement of parole. They were permitted to roam at large during daylight hours, provided they remained within a given area and observed certain other restrictions. The officers taken captive in late 1776 were first paroled on Manhattan Island and limited to the City of New York . . . In January, the paroled American officers were moved from Manhattan to King’s county on Long Island and housed among the Dutch inhabitants in the communities of New Lots, Flatbush, Gravesend, New Utrecht, and Flatlands. They were assigned to houses in pairs, or on occasion three men would be assigned to one house.[8]

Lt. Jabez Fitch, a prisoner of the same rank, reported being given free reign of the city of New York to go walking, shopping, dining, and visiting friends until January 21, 1777, when he was loaded with his baggage on to a boat with other prisoners and let off in “Brookline,” eventually arriving in the village of New Lots. Today, New Lots is part of the East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn.[9]

White may have been moved to similar confines. “Sometime in January, ‘77, we were sent to Long Island. There I remained until the 27th of May. Shortly before this I had received a letter from home. All the family I had left there was a widowed mother and younger brother. My brother was sick, not expected to live, and my mother entirely helpless. This made me very uneasy. I ran away from the British, and got home on the 27th of June.”[10]

White’s rank may explain how he was able to escape from British captivity in May 1777. After his escape he collected $144 of pay from the encampment in Middlebrook, New Jersey. A free man once again, White returned home to tend to his sick brother, Isaac, and assist his mother. In the fall of 1778, he moved south with his brother to North Carolina. Though there is a record of a Lt. Thomas White being freed in a prisoner swap in 1780, this does not fit the attested timeline of Thomas White of Montgomery’s Regiment.[11]

Possible Participation in the Battles of King’s Mountain and Cowpens

It has been reported by authors such as L.C. Draper and half a dozen others, and the White family itself, that Thomas White fought at the Battle of King’s Mountain as a lieutenant and at the Battle of Cowpens as a captain under Maj. John Barber. Muster rolls for the 6th North Carolina Regiment show a Thomas White who joined in 1776 and served under a Captain White, and retired in 1777; this does not fit the timeline of the Thomas White of Pennsylvania. Further primary source evidence to prove these claims is required.[12]

Restarting Life After the War

After the war, White settled for a time in Greenville, North Carolina. About 1789, he married Isabella Torrence, the daughter of a Revolutionary War soldier, and began their family. In 1816, for reasons not recorded in family correspondence or lore, the entire clan—at least ten people ages thirteen to sixty-two packed their possessions into a wagon drawn by five horses with twenty-two-year-old James driving and crossed the Blue Ridge and Cumberland Mountains, traversing hilly, rugged, and nearly impassible terrain. They were then ferried over the Ohio River on a flatboat pushed along by poles. Upon arriving in Illinois in 1818 in the spot chosen for the settlement they turned to Thomas White to name the town.

When the town was first surveyed, the question of name for same came up and the bystanders said we will leave it to Mr. Thomas White for a name as he is the oldest man present, and Mr. White responded as he cast his eyes over the green wood and prairie around “everything looks so nice and green we will call it ‘Greenville’.” Others have claimed he named it in honor of Greenville, NC from where he recently emigrated.[13]

Settling in a New Home

In the new town of Greenville, White set up a farm on 320 acres. In 1819, he went one step further and started the first one-room schoolhouse in Bond County, near Greenville. The school was built of logs with puncheon floors, weight pole roofs, and wide chimneys of wood and clay. The cost of tuition was $1.50 to $2 per student per quarter, which parents were expected to pay out of their own pockets. Parents would also pay tuition with valuables such as honey, venison, and furs.[14]

Mr. White, this time in the role of schoolteacher, reportedly cut a domineering figure, weighing 333 pounds and wearing a huge cape as an overcoat. When students would let their attention wander, White would stamp his foot on the floor boards to gain their attention, once stomping so hard that he broke through the wooden beam and tore his trousers, much to the delight of his students.[15]

Thomas and his son Alexander tried several times to obtain a pension for his Revolutionary War service to no avail. In 1791 and 1792, he visited Philadelphia in an effort to obtain his pension funds, which amounted to about $1,300 with interest. In 1819, he wrote to the War Department to express his displeasure and saying quite bluntly: “Sir, I feel myself neglected by my country and seek redress through the medium of your honor and the other gentlemen from this state.”[16]

Thomas White died in 1824 and one report says he was buried on Mitchell farm two and a half miles northwest of Greenville. Another record states he was buried in Sugg Cemetery in Pocahontas, Bond, Illinois. In 1917, a new gravestone was erected there by the Daughters of the American Revolution.[17]For White, the high cost of the war came with a level of freedom and of independence he could scarcely have dreamed of before 1776. He earned honor, adventure, a wife, a new profession, and a chance to be the co-founder of a frontier settlement.


[1]White Family Bible, eighteenth and nineteenth century, unpublished family document; Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Records of the Comptroller General, RG-4, Tax and Exoneration Lists 1762-1794, Microfilm Roll 322; Chester County, Pennsylvania, Estate Papers, 1714-1838, Last Will and Testament of John White, 1775.

[2]Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the War of the Revolution, April 1775 to December 1783 (Washington, DC:Rare Book Shop Publishing Company, 1914), 587; Thomas White to War Department, August 12, 1819; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, 1894 – ca. 1912, Publication Number M881, Record Group 93: War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, 1709 — 1939, (Washington DC: National Archives); Francis E. Devine, “The Pennsylvania Flying Camp, July-November 1776,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (January 1979), 61-63.

[3]George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels and Redcoats (New York, NY: Mentor Books, 1961), 224.

[4]Arthur S. Lefkowitz, George Washington’s Indispensable Men: Alexander Hamilton, Tench Tilghman, and the Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 82; Edward J. Lowell, The Hessians and the Other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War (Berwyn Heights, MD: Heritage Books, 2009), 81; Robert P. Watson, The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 2017),28.

[5]Thomas White to War Department, August 12, 1819.

[6]Depositions relative to the Conduct and Behavior of the British Army, December 15, 1776, Series 5, Vol. 3, p. 1233. Northern Illinois University, American Archives, online collection.

[7]Danske Dandridge, American Prisoners of the Revolution (Charlottesville, VA: Michie Company), 17.

[8]William R. Lindsey, Treatment of American Prisoners of War During the Revolution (Emporia, Kansas: Kansas State Teachers College, 1969), 20.

[9]Jabez Fitch, Jabez Fitch Diary (New York, NY: The New York Public Library), 192-193.

[10]Thomas White to War Department, August 12, 1819.

[11]Thomas White to War Department, August 12, 1819; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, 1894 – ca. 1912.

[12]Lyman C. Draper, Kings Mountain and Its Heroes: History of the Battle of King’s Mountain, October 7, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It (Cincinnati, OH: P.G. Thomson, 1881), 478; J.D. Lewis, NC Patriots 1775-1783: Their Own Words, Volume 2, Part 2(Little River, SC: JD Lewis, 2012), 1085; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, 1894 – ca. 1912.

[13]White Family bible; William Henry Perrin, ed., History of Bond and Montgomery Counties, Illinois (Chicago, IL: O.L. Baskin & Co, 1882), 43-44, 79.

[14]Perrin, 51; “Historian’s Notes” Benjamin Mills DAR.

[15]Perrin, 50; “Historian’s Notes” Benjamin Mills DAR.

[16]Thomas White to War Department, August 12, 1819.

[17]Daughters of the American Revolution, Report of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Volume 18 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1916), 272.


  • Alex:
    Congratulations on a wonderful family story of the Revolution. It makes me want to know more about Thomas White. Do you have any details of his incarceration? While enlisted men were brutalized, officers were generally allowed to pay for their own room and board in approved housing. Connecticut Col. Samuel B. Webb and three of his Captains were held for 3 years. The younger men were all facing bankruptcy upon their release. As a POW Lt. Col. William Smith Livingston of Webb’s Regiment purchased meals from a New York pub for several of his fellow officers. That was expensive; he retired early to cover his losses. After the war, the practice continued, prisoners were required to pay for their room and board in debtor’s prison (See Charles Rappleye’s biography of Robert Morris p. 509). No one ever recovered such expenses.
    Phil Giffin – Baggs, WY

    1. We have precious few details of his life while a prisoner in New York. But it’s likely he was lodged at someone’s home and was thus able to escape. It took him a month to travel from Brooklyn to Oxford, Pennsylvania!

  • Alex: Very interesting history – thanks for sharing. I have done some research on these officers/prisoners. Abdiel Mc Lure’s pension file has a hand written list of the officers and with whom they were billeted on Jan 20, 1777 in Flatlands. Lt. White was with Lt. Brown (color coordinated!!) in the home of Garret Strykers. Mc Lure’s file is on with subscription.
    According to some of my notes Lt. W. Wynn escaped in 7/77. Like Lt. White he is on the list of exchanged soldiers in 1780; maybe they were still listed/exchanged although they broke their parole.
    Mc Lure’s file also has a testimony from his son where it is claimed Mc Lure and one other officer were missed when the original paroles were signed. He claims after some time on the Island, they escaped, went to Washington’s headquarters, reported on the dire condition of their fellow prisoners…and then returned to New York and re-surrendered to the British. According to the testimony, Washington promised them to be exchanged with the first of their rank. As Abdiel’s depreciation pay was only 62 pounds for his time as a POW compared to the many Lt.’s held the longest (who all got 345 Pounds depreciation)…maybe some truth to story!
    Many of these prisoners who survived became leading citizens in Pennsylvania after the war. Lt. Robert Brown (White’s roommate) was a future US Congressman and militia general. Isaac Van Horn also served in the Penna and US Houses.
    Some very interesting stories from this group of patriots.
    Best regards – Tom

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