William Maxwell Full Biography
I was born in County Tyrone, Ireland to ScotchIrish parents in 1733. My ancestry was the source of the name “Scotch Willie” that many people later called me. I came to America with my parents in 1747 and we settled on a farm in what is now Warren County in northern New Jersey.
Early in life I decided to make my career in the military and enlisted in the army in 1754. At the age of 21 I took part in the disastrous Braddock expedition against Fort Duquesne in western Pennsylvania during the French and Indian War. Afterwards, I was commissioned as ensign in the New Jersey Regiment and promoted to lieutenant by the time of our attack on Fort Ticonderoga in 1758. Afterwards, I served as a colonel in the British commissary at Mackinac until 1774.
When I resigned from the British army to join the Patriot cause in New Jersey in 1774, I was an experienced professional military officer. In May 1775, I was chosen to be a member of the New Jersey Provincial Congress and in August was named chairman of the Committee of Safety for Sussex County. However, my military experience was needed and I was appointed colonel in the Continental army on November 7, 1775 and recruited men for the Second New Jersey Regiment. I led my regiment in the unlucky and disastrous invasion of Canada in 1776, during which my regiment suffered heavy casualties.
I was not satisfied with simply being a colonel and wanted to be made a general. I achieved this goal October 23, 1776 when I was named brigadier general and given command of 800 New Jersey militiamen at Morristown. I was almost captured at the engagement at Short Hills on June 26, 1777. After Short Hills the British left New Jersey and sent an army to take Philadelphia. When that British army landed at the north end of Chesapeake Bay, I fought at Cooch’s Bridge, Delaware on September 3, at Brandywine about a week later, and then at Germantown near Philadelphia in October. On August 30, during this Philadelphia campaign, General Washington ordered me to take command of an elite 700 man corps of light infantry to be an advance guard and to scout and harass the enemy. This was the first official Continental army light infantry corps.
Men jealous of my successes severely criticized my personal lifestyle. This criticism resulted in charges brought against me in 1777 of misconduct at Brandywine and drinking to excess. The court of inquiry met in October and I was naturally acquitted of all charges. I continued to command the New Jersey brigade during the winter at Valley Forge, and then led it during the Monmouth campaign in June 1778. My brigade played an active part in General Charles Lee’s morning advance east of Monmouth Court House and helped hold the hedgerow line at noon.
That winter, my command was stationed at Elizabethtown facing the British troops on Staten Island. We were relieved by New Jersey militia so we could take part in General Sullivan’s expedition during the summer of 1779 to destroy the Iroquois homeland in New York. A year later at the battle of Connecticut Farms, New Jersey, on June 7, 1780, I commanded the troops that held off a British force of 6,000 with only 1,500 men.
I always worked hard to convince the civilian and military authorities to provide the necessities to my men and I know they respected me for this. However, in spite of my successes, after the battle of Springfield, I tendered my resignation from the army. I know that people wondered why I did this. Some people felt I was disappointed at not being promoted or for some other reason. Actually, I soon reconsidered and tried to withdraw my resignation on July 23, 1780, only to find that Washington, although he valued me as a resourceful and reliable officer, had already forwarded it to Congress and Congress accepted it on July 25.
I retired to my 1,000 acre family farm in Greenwich, near Phillipsburg, New Jersey and was elected to the New Jersey Assembly representing Sussex County in 1783, but otherwise lived in quiet retirement. After a brief illness, I died on November 4, 1796 and was buried in the Old Greenwich Presbyterian cemetery in Stewartsville. I never married and left no children. My home burned down after the war, destroying all my personal papers and records; making it very difficult for historians to learn about my personal life.
The epitaph on my grave stone reads in part: “a genuine patriot, he was a firm and decided friend to the constitution and government of his country; in private life, he was equally devoted to its service, and to the good of his community” … an honorable and charitable man, a warm and affectionate friend.”
Yesenko, Michael R, General William Maxwell and the New Jersey Brigade during the American Revolutionary War. Union, NJ: MRY Publishing Company, 1994.
Ward, Harry M. General William Maxwell and the New Jersey Continentals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.