Love, American (Revolution) Style: the Romances of Otho Holland Williams


February 13, 2024
by Derrick E. Lapp Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

The senate chamber of the Maryland State House was more crowded than usual. It was December 23, 1783. Congress had recently relocated to Annapolis, and now George Washington was in town to fulfill a promise he made eight years earlier.

“I went with several others to see Gen. Washington resign his Commission,” Annapolis socialite Mary Ridout later wrote her mother, “Both Houses of the Assembly were present as Spectators” and the gallery overlooking the chamber was “full of Ladies.”[1] On the floor below, other prominent citizens and soldiers came to witness the event as well. Among the crowd was Otho Holland Williams, one of Maryland’s three general officers in the Continental Army. Williams was part of the delegation that met Washington when the commander-in-chief stopped in Baltimore—where the thanks of the town’s inhabitants were offered on the “happy conclusion of an unequal, precarious and bloody War.”[2] He then accompanied Washington on the final leg of the journey to meet with Congress in Annapolis. In the painting by John Trumbull commemorating Washington’s resignation, Williams is depicted fourth behind the Commander-in-Chief, dressed in his uniform, a blue coat faced with red in the style of the Maryland Line. But as momentous as the proceedings were, there was much more on the mind of Otho Williams that day than the affairs of state—he was in Annapolis also to attend to affairs of the heart.

The object of this affair was a young woman named Sophia. The “fascinating Sophia” as Williams once referred to her. He was smitten in what appears to have been a whirlwind romance filled with secret meetings and “clandestine letters . . . etc.” To one of his comrades from the army, Otho apologized for not writing back sooner due to his being “involved in a little love affair which postpones everything else.”[3] To another close friend, he was less cryptic: “It is true, I am engaged to Miss S.”[4]

Williams had a problem, however. Sophia’s parents did not approve. “The father is biased by the mother, who is obdurate” in her opposition to the match—a match Williams, himself, characterized as “notorious.” In frustration, he complained, “Sophia is so closely confined, or watched when she’s from home, that I cannot possibly speak to her.”[5] It made for a challenging courtship. “Once only” over the course of several weeks was Williams able to “press her to his heart,” and even after months passed, he had to admit to a friend that he could give “no positive assurance of what is to be the result of my fond attachment” to Sophia. All he could do was “stand prepared for the worst, hope for the best, and commit my self to fortune.”[6]

Fortune sent help in the form of Otho’s comrade from the campaigns in North and South Carolina, Henry Lee. “Light Horse Harry” encouraged his despondent friend. “If the lady is worthy, she is sincere. If she is sincere, then she will elope,” he advised.[7] Lee did his best to play matchmaker. He met with the family “on the Hill,” located just outside Annapolis, and vouched for Williams. Sophia’s parents were unmoved. “Every character of distinction, all the former friends of [Sophia’s father] and even his [Sophia’s father] own mother” were interested in Otho and Sophia’s “favor,” Williams complained. But her mother and father remained “inexorable.”[8]

None of the letters extant within the Otho Williams Papers give Sophia’s last name, so it is hard to determine her identity, but there are a couple hints that point to a family name. We know she lived in Annapolis. Henry Lee, as noted above, mentions meeting Sophia and her parents “on the Hill.” Another friend would later reference “Strawberry Hill” regarding Sophia’s residence. There was a home known as Strawberry Hill in Annapolis, located on what are now the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy. This home belonged to Richard Sprigg, a member of a wealthy, influential family of Maryland, and he had a daughter named Sophia. She was born in 1766 and would have been seventeen or eighteen at the time. Otho Williams was thirty-four.[9]

A week before Washington was expected to arrive in Annapolis, Henry Lee sent a note to Williams. “Get down here,” he urged. The only option was for the couple to elope, after which Washington could smooth things over with the family. The idea was to declare the betrothal at one of the many balls being held in Annapolis the week of Washington’s resignation. It was Sophia’s “own plan” according to Otho. She was “prepared to . . . throw herself Under my protection,” he related to Nathanael Greene, “when I was to bear [her] off . . . from . . . a full assembly of the most fashionable people at the Court of the United States.” It was romantic. It was daring. But then Sophia got cold feet.[10]

Before the ball even started, Sophia sent Otho a note. She called it off. What’s more, Sophia proposed they return their previous letters and pledges, and that “the only thing in which [he could] oblige her is never to see or speak of her again.” Dumbfounded, Williams replied with a “delicate but poignant censure of her perfidy.” But he was devastated. To Greene he admitted, “nothing can compensate for the wretchedness to which I have been wantonly exposed. I have suffered the extremity of mental misery.”[11] It was a blow to his heart. It was a blow to his ego as well. Otho had quite an ego. Years later, as president of the United States, and while assessing the characteristics of possible generals to command the army, George Washington noted that Williams was “a sensible man, but not without vanity.”[12] “Sensibility” (a concept we would now term as sensitivity) was easily offended in gentlemen of that age, and in addition to his own emotional pain, Otho worried about his particularly sensitive friend Thaddeus Kosciuszko.[13] Of the aborted elopement he warned Nathanael Greene that Kosciuszko “will be petrified at all this if he hears of it,” although he admitted to not knowing the Polish officer’s whereabouts. “He promised to be here a month ago,” complained Otho. Ironically, Kosciuszko was with Greene at the time.[14]

So far, I’ve not found the “smoking gun”—that definitive explanation, as to why Sophia backed out of the plan. Given that her parents opposed marriage to Williams, this may be what ultimately influenced her decision. We can only speculate about the reason for the Spriggs’ opposition (assuming this was indeed Sophia’s family). Williams was a Continental general and well regarded for his service, especially his participation in the action in the Carolinas. That regard translated into his securing one of the most lucrative positions in the Maryland government—collections officer for the port of Baltimore. “You are now rich!” Otho’s friend and fellow Maryland officer Samuel Smith exclaimed when he learned of the appointment. According to Sam, Otho had just secured “the hansomest appointment in this State,” one worth 1,000 guineas, “against numerous and respectable competion.”[15] So, presumably, wealth and prestige ought not have been the factor for Richard Sprigg and his wife to resist Otho Williams. Perhaps it was age. As noted above, Williams was seventeen years older than Sophia. Her eventual husband, John Francis Mercer, was, by contrast, only seven years Sophia’s senior. The Mercers were married in 1785. Sophia Sprigg Mercer died in 1812.

Otho had come close to marriage before. Early in the war he was taken with a “most amiable creature,” Maria Ogden, whom he referred to as his “Dear Girl.” Unfortunately, there was, as Otho phrased it, the “parity of our fortunes” to consider.[16] Samuel Smith was more blunt about the situation: “Marriage would ruin you,” he cautioned. As rampant inflation devalued the paper currency the Continental Army received, Smith pointed out that an officer’s pay would not even “furnish clothes for yourself” or a prospective wife, and, Sam reminded Otho, “the girl has no fortune.”[17] Smith had his and his family’s dwindling finances to manage in the face of his own pending nuptials. Despite his brave defense of the Delaware River forts following the fall of Philadelphia to the British in 1777 (for which he was awarded a sword by Congress), money and marriage proved the deciding factors in his decision to leave the army. Otho Williams, however, chose another course. “Adieu Maria,” he lamented, “I never felt the weighty curse of poverty so heavily as at this instant.”[18] He remained in the army. It was a testament to Otho’s dedication to the cause. He would fight for American independence, giving up on love in favor of continued hardship in the Continental Army. One has to wonder, however, would he have acted differently had Maria come from wealth. Would he have married had a hefty dowry been available?

In a letter to Smith, Williams noted that Maria went back to Long Island. This suggests he probably met her while on parole in the town of Flatbush, following his capture at the Battle of Fort Washington. Regardless, Maria’s name does not appear again in Otho’s papers. The names of other women, however, do figure in correspondence between Otho and his friends. They wrote about ladies quite a bit, in fact. They compared notes, calling out young ladies of particular interest. Samuel Smith was a notorious gossip. “Miss De Visme is a sweet girl,” he informed Williams, and “Mrs. Provost’s good disposition and elegant manners make up for her want of beauty.” Another of Otho’s friends, William Heth, asked Otho, during the latter’s time in Petersburg, Virginia, “did you happen to meet a most accomplished little Sirene, Miss Briggs of Wales?”[19] (Wales in this case meaning a plantation in Dinwiddie County just west of Petersburg, Virginia.) And Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Nathanael Greene’s chief engineer in the Southern Department, related to Otho his adventures with the ladies in South Carolina, drawing their portraits and being chased by them. Fashionable women of America’s elite class were practically an obsession for the officers in Otho’s circle (most probably this was the case for many an enlisted man as well—we just don’t have as extensive a written record as that available in Otho’s papers[20]).

It’s not a wonder that fascination with the opposite sex proved such a popular topic for Otho and his friends. The war presented the chance for a greater number of people to mingle from across the former colonies than ever before. And young men were eager to attract the attention (and the affection) of young women. After the failed engagement with Maria Ogden, Samuel Smith tried to entice Otho to visit Philadelphia (after the British evacuated the city in 1778) to experience the pleasures of metropolis for himself. “Officers are much Caress’d here,” Smith encouraged Williams, adding, “Arnold likes the Tory ladies and so would you.” It was an interesting observation given the fallout resulting from Benedict Arnold’s attraction to one Tory lady in particular—Peggy Shippen. Who was marrying whom became just as much a topic for gossip as the ladies. A fellow officer who entered matrimony was said to have “gone to the gown.” And as much as the unions were discussed, so too were the near misses. “Major Jack Stewart was dam’d nigh it,” Smith joked to Williams, “How he escap’d I know not . . . her wedding cloth[e]s are made but . . . poor Kitty Crane, you must hug your sheets.”[21] As for Sam, he did marry. His bride was a good Whig, Miss Margaret Spear, daughter of a prominent Baltimore merchant. Smith resigned from the Continental Army and revived his father’s mercantile business and faltering fortunes. Years later, during the War of 1812, Smith would again earn martial fame as defender of Baltimore when the British invaded in September 1814.

Otho Williams appeared to bounce back after both the aborted engagement with Maria and the failed elopement with Sophia. After Maria he resumed the carefree lifestyle of an unmarried man. “I have been a happy—very happy Batchelor,” he once bragged to his friend William Jackson, “successful, and enjoyed much pleasure.”[22] Two episodes in particular hint at just how happy and successful, and the nature of that pleasure. The first involved a case of mistaken identity that worked in Otho’s favor. “I have been none the better for [im]personating you when the little Smiling woman came to look for you in my Tent,” Otho teased Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan while they were on campaign in 1781. “But I should now be none the worse if I should not have taken a violent cold.”[23] Morgan’s biographer, Don Higginbotham, chose to interpret this letter by Williams as informing the Old Waggoner that the “little Smiling woman” was distressed at finding that Morgan had left for Virginia. Higginbotham surmised that Williams “had wished to be in Morgan’s shoes,”[24] when clearly it appears that Otho did more than just wish! (How else could he have caught “a violent cold”?)

The second episode involved an even more risqué exchange, this time between Otho and Maj. Edward Carrington, in which Carrington wrote:

I was somewhat alarmed when I saw in the Postscript of your letter, that you were in & out with the Widow—but when I read further & found that this circumstance happened 8 or 10 times a day, upon a few moments reflection in your time of life, my approbations ceased. Upon the hole I wish you much good luck there my friend, but remember that I am coming & will again be the Father of that Family.[25]

Not having the previous letter from Otho to Carrington, we don’t know who “the Widow” was, but the inuendo (the words underlined for emphasis are Carrington’s doing) hints at a sexual relationship. Was Otho Williams a ladies’ man? He seems to have been popular with women. Nathanael Greene’s wife Catherine (Kitty), herself a reputed flirt, seemed to have believed Otho was coquettish. She once teased her “amiable friend” that his rheumatism was “brought upon you for the tyranny which you have” shown the women. It was a curse visited upon him “for being an old bachelor when so many fine Ladies are in want of good husbands.”[26]

It took a bit longer for Otho Williams to recover after Sophia shocked him in 1783. “The Circe” he would call her in later years. In light of his public embarrassment, he was grateful for the discretion of others. Most people, he informed Greene, “except a few particular friends observe a delicate silence on the subject,” and those friends were sympathetic.[27] His bachelor pal, William Jackson, consoled Otho: “Happiness is not the lot of mortals,” he mused, and then offered a bright observation—Williams probably had a “very fortunate escape from a connexion, which promised so little happiness.”[28] Life was better off without Sophia. Otho agreed. He didn’t need her or any woman for that matter. In a display of bravado, he claimed to not “think less favorably of the Sex, than I formerly did.”[29]

But other friends urged Williams to get back in the game, so to speak. Don’t “condemn the whole sex because one very fair has proved herself faithless,” urged “Light Horse Harry” Lee.[30] Otho immersed himself in his duties as collections officer for the growing port of Baltimore. He also busied himself as secretary for Maryland’s chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati, taking a lead role in procuring and distributing the diplomas given to each member nationwide. But little by little, Williams did reignite his social life. In March of 1784 he reported to a friend how he spent an “afternoon in a clamorous conversation in a congress of belles and beaux.”[31] A month later he was dedicating more time to the belles. While riding in the countryside around Baltimore with John Eager Howard, he “joined a more agreeable—more beautiful and more delightful—party of ladies, with whom we drank tea.” It was so enjoyable, he informed a friend, that he later had “a multitude of them in my little parlor” and made plans for more parties “every fortnight while I am in Town this Summer.”[32] And when not in town, traveling throughout the nation, Williams made sure to take note of the local ladies. For instance, while in Philadelphia for a meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati, Williams gushed how the city was “full of fine women.”[33]

“The past is a foreign country” L. P. Hartley famously mused, “they do things differently there.”[34] But while reading through the letters in Otho Holland Williams’ collection, the arc of his romantic life feels remarkably modern. Finances disrupted his first attempt at marriage. His fiancée left him broken-hearted and embarrassed by calling off his second attempt. During the years in between, Williams lived the life of an unrepentant bachelor. He and his friends discussed women, compared notes, joked about who had “gone to the gown” and who narrowly escaped. Romantic encounters became the subject of bawdy banter not dissimilar to locker room talk in the present day. And female friends chastised and teased him, urging him to settle down. Far from the stiff, formal society most perhaps envision or presume characterized the Revolutionary-era generation, the letters of Williams and his correspondents reveal attitudes and interactions between the sexes that resonate. We can relate to Williams and the tumult his love life.

Otho Williams made one more attempt at finding a bride, and the third time proved the charm. His friend Williams Heth mused that it was likely that Williams’ “late mortifying if not dear bought experience” with Sophia, “qualified him to choose well.”[35] Apparently Otho did choose well this time. Her name was Mary Smith, daughter of William Smith, a wealthy merchant and future congressman from Baltimore, but everyone called her “Polly.” Friends congratulated Williams. Mrs. Randolph said Miss Polly Smith of Baltimore was a “sweet pretty little girl.”[36] More importantly, Polly’s parents approved of the union. In fact, William Smith was quite proud of his son-in-law, and would name his farm located just outside of Baltimore “Eutaw” in honor of Otho’s celebrated participation in the Battle of Eutaw Springs. The two men would maintain a close correspondence, especially while Smith served in the first U.S. Congress.

The wedding of Otho Williams and Mary “Polly” Smith was in October 1785. The weeks building up to the event saw an anxious and busy Williams. He was “horribly hurried,” he complained to a friend, Phillip Thomas, as he managed the renovation of his Baltimore home, rushing to make it ready in time. The whole town was discussing the upcoming event, speculating as to the date, but Thomas was warned by Williams not to divulge it. After the wedding, congratulations poured in. William Heth, Nathanial Ramsay, William Jackson, all wrote to wish “much joy” to Otho on his “change in situation.”[37] To his bachelor pal, Jackson, Otho responded with the suggestion that Jackson inquire to a mutual friend whether matrimony is better than bachelorhood. Answering his own question, Williams exclaimed that he was “Happy even to the extent of my hopes—for my Girl is all I thought her and all I wish her.”[38]

The happiness appears to have been genuine and mutual. Polly referred to her husband as her “dear general” and informed him that he was the first “gentlemen she ever honoredwith a letter.”[39] Williams wrote how he liked to take his wife on moonlight walks. After traveling, Otho related to a close friend, he would take Polly in his arms when she would meet him at the door. The couple had four children, with whom Williams would play soldier in the house on rainy days. But as long as it had taken Otho Williams to find love, his marital bliss proved to be short-lived. His health impaired from campaigns and captivity during the Revolutionary War, Otho died in June 1794, just shy of nine years after his wedding. Polly deeply mourned the loss of her “dear general.” A family friend invited her and the children up to Frederick a few months after Otho’s passing, but she declined. An outbreak of yellow fever in Baltimore had forced the Williamses to leave town for her father’s farmhouse. Polly was exhausted, caring for both her father and the children. Tired and melancholy, she confessed to the friend that she “had done more than she thought she could do.”[40] The bright and vivacious Polly was replaced with sadness. Many years later, a family member recalled how “after her widowhood all smiles forsook her face.”[41] Mary “Polly” Smith Williams died in 1795, just a little more a year after her husband.


[1]Maryland State Archives: Mrs. James N. Galloway and Mrs. Frederick G. Richards Collection, 1784, MSA SC 358-1-2. Letter, M[ary] Ridout to Mrs. [Anne Tasker] Ogle, January 16, 1784.

[2]Otho Holland Williams to George Washington, December 18, 1783, Papers of Otho Holland Williams, Maryland Center for History and Culture. Photocopies of 3 reels obtained by the author. Unless otherwise noted, all correspondence to and from Williams cited hereafter is sourced from the Papers of Otho Holland Williams.

[3]Williams to William Pierce, May 8, 1783.

[4]Williams to Phillip Thomas, May 8, 1783.


[6]Ibid.; Williams to William Jackson, September 22, 1783.

[7]Henry Lee to Williams, December 15, 1783.

[8]Williams to Thaddeus Kosciusco, August 1, 1783. Otho Holland Williams papers, Middle Brook, NJ, Baltimore, and elsewhere, 1778-1790,

[9]Alexander Skinner to Williams, September 9, 1784; A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature 1635-1789 by Edward C. Papenfuse, et. al. p594., A historical marker on the grounds of USNA, located on Phythian Road near the entrance to the USNA cemetery notes the location and evolution of Strawberry Hill.

[10]Henry Lee to Williams, December 15, 1783. Williams to Nathanael Greene, January 14, 1784.

[11]Williams to Greene, January 14, 1784.

[12]“Memorandum on General Officers, 9 March 1792,”

[13]Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army & American Character, 1775-1783(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 85-95. See especially p. 89 regarding “sensibility”.

[14]Williams to Greene, January 14, 1784.

[15]Samuel Smith to Williams, January 9, 1783.

[16]Williams to Smith, December 23, 1778.

[17]Smith to Williams, November 29, 1778.

[18]Williams to Smith, December 23, 1778.

[19]For a possible portrait of “Miss Briggs” see

[20]Private Daniel McCurtin, for example, noted “the unfair number of fine ladies” in New England in the journal he maintained in 1775-1776, in Thomas Balch, Papers Relating Chiefly to the Maryland Line During the Revolution(Philadelphia: T.K. and P.G. Collins, Printers, 1857), 11.

[21]Smith to Williams, November 29, 1778.

[22]Williams to Jackson, November 20, 1785.

[23]Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Nov. 8. Williams, [Otho Holland]. Camp Hillsborough. To Brigadier General Morgan,” New York Public Library Digital Collections,

[24]Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 183.

[25]Edward Carrington to Williams, November 17, 1781.

[26]Greene to Williams, November 12, 1782.

[27]Williams to Greene, January 14, 1784.

[28]Jackson to Williams, February 27, 1784.

[29]Williams to Greene, January 14, 1784.

[30]Henry Lee to Williams, March 12, 1784.

[31]Williams to Philip Thomas, March 12, 1784.

[32]Williams to Thomas, April 27, 1784.

[33]Williams to Thomas, May 11, 1784.

[34]David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), xvi.

[35]William Heth to Williams, October 23, 1785.


[37]Jackson to Williams, November 9, 1785; Nathaniel Ramsay to Williams, November 19, 1785; Heth to Williams, December 5, 1785.

[38]Williams to Jackson, November 20, 1785.

[39]Mary “Polly” Smith Williams to Williams, January 1, 1786.

[40]Mary “Polly” Smith Williams to Thomas October 12, 1794.

[41]Mrs. Mary Smith Williams White, granddaughter of Otho Holland Williams, cited in The Baltimore Sun, April 2, 1905.

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