Revolutionary War Story: Robert Rankin of the Northern Neck (part 4 of 5)

A hoary old joke goes like this: what is the shortest book ever written? Possible answers: Nixon on Ethics or Bill Clinton on Fidelity. A book titled Robert Rankin on His Revolutionary War Service would challenge them for brevity. Everything Robert had to say about himself is contained in nine pages of his 117-page pension file. Many of his words are boilerplate. Worse, some of what he remembered is demonstrably wrong.

You can’t blame Robert for an occasional memory failure, minor error, or uncertainty about his unit assignment. He wasn’t a rear echelon organizational bigshot (there is a precise military term for that, but this is a family blog). He was a sharpshooter, a scout, a guerrilla who harassed British foraging parties, a soldier who guarded his army’s camps and flanks, a brigade forage master, and a line combat officer.

Unfortunately, misinformation provided by Robert and others is compounded by seemingly endless and endlessly confusing military reorganizations. In an effort to promote clarity, I divided Robert’s story into two sections and an “appendix.” The first section is his basic war story. The second section contains Robert’s own words about himself. The appendix explains military reorganizations affecting him.

Section 1: Robert’s war story, CliffsNotes version[1]

Robert enlisted on July 26, 1776[2] as a private in Capt. William Brady’s Company,[3] Col. Hugh Stephenson’s Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment (the “Rifle Regiment”).[4] That means Robert was a skilled marksman, because the Rifle Regiment recruited sharpshooters.[5] Robert’s pension declaration said he enlisted for the term of “during the War,” although company records prove he enlisted for three years.[6] Robert was promoted to Sergeant by at least January 1, 1777 and possibly earlier.[7]

The Rifle Regiment was decimated at Ft. Washington on Dec. 16, 1776.[8] His brother William Rankin, also in Capt. Brady’s Company, was taken prisoner there.[9] Robert wasn’t in that battle, although we don’t know why. Captain Brady wasn’t at Ft. Washington, either.[10]

Robert was in winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey in the winter of 1776-77 during the so-called “Forage War.”[11] He was probably in the battles of Princeton and Trenton in December 1776 and January 1777, respectively.[12] Both were spectacular victories for Washington’s army. Trenton was the famous surprise attack at dawn after crossing the icy Delaware River. Robert also fought at Brandywine on September 11, 1777 (a terrible rout by the British) and Germantown on October 4, 1777 (a somewhat less humiliating loss).[13] Amazingly, the only battle Robert named in his pension application was the Siege of Charleston.

Robert spent the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge.[14] By the following winter, he was listed on muster rolls as acting Brigade Forage Master in winter camp, located again at Morristown.[15] He was commissioned an Ensign on July 4, 1779, shortly before his original three-year enlistment expired.[16] After that point, he had no “term” of service because commissioned officers serve until they resign or are discharged. Gary, the family military historian, says it is unusual even in wartime for a private to become a commissioned officer.

Less than two weeks later, Robert probably participated in what we would call today an elite temporary unit for a risky mission at Stony Point on July 16, 1779.[17] General “Mad Anthony” Wayne assembled for the assignment a provisional troop of light infantrymen. Wayne and some of the patriots overwhelmed a well-fortified British position with bayonets.

Here’s how they did it.[18] Stony Point was surrounded on three sides by the Hudson River and on the fourth by a marsh. One part of the patriot force feinted a frontal assault across the marsh’s causeway, laying down “a galling fire.” This took place around midnight, at low tide.[19] Two larger parts of the force waded silently through the river to the north and south sides of the hill, carrying unloaded muskets with bayonets affixed. The muskets were not loaded to prevent accidental discharge, which would have ruined the crucial element of surprise. The two patriot forces ascended the hill and overwhelmed the British from both sides. Wow.

In early 1780, Robert’s company was assigned to the enlarged 1st Virginia Regiment. It then began a roughly four-month march to the Siege of Charleston, which was Robert’s last significant military engagement. The siege ended on May 12, 1780 when the entire patriot army defending Charleston surrendered. It was the worst American defeat of the Revolution, with about 6,000 patriots captured.[20]

After the siege, Congress conferred a “brevet” on all participating officers.[21] The brevet designation recognized outstanding service by temporarily promoting an officer to a higher rank. Robert was subsequently promoted to Lieutenant effective January 1, 1780.[22] That is his so-called “date of rank.” Robert thus became a “Brevet Lieutenant” on the date Congress awarded the promotions, but his actual promotion to “Lieutenant” was retroactive to January 1, 1780.

In July 1781, nearly all patriot prisoners in the south were released as part of a prisoner exchange between the United States and Britain.[23] Not long after the exchange, Robert went home on furlough to Frederick County, Virginia. He married his fiancé Margaret “Peggy” Berry there on November 1, 1781.[24]

 After Charleston, the Virginia Line essentially ceased to exist.[25] Robert was “reduced” on January 1, 1783.[26] That means he was listed as a surplus officer having no assignment. In the final “arrangement” of the Virginia Line, Robert was the 37th Lieutenant out of sixty based on the Lieutenants’ dates of rank. Put another way, there were 36 Lieutenants who would have been offered an assignment ahead of Robert. The odds are that Robert never had another duty assignment after the exchange of prisoners from Charleston. He was officially discharged on January 1, 1783.[27]

Along the way, Robert served in Stephenson’s (Rawlings’) Rifle Regiment and the 11th, 7th, and 1st Virginia Regiments. All regimental changes were due to reorganizations. He had five different company commanders we can identify. He only actually changed companies once, and that was when he was commissioned an Ensign.

Here is what Robert himself said …

Section 2: Robert’s pension file declarations

Robert made two sworn declarations, one for a pension and one for a land warrant. He also wrote an unsworn letter supporting the former.

Below is a verbatim transcription of part of Robert’s declaration of July 26, 1828, including a strikethrough in the original. I have omitted boilerplate and material irrelevant to his war story. I inserted footnotes to correct the errors or ambiguous statements noted in boldface.

“ … I, Robert Rankins, of the County of Washington, in the state of Alabama, do hereby declare, that I was an Officer in the Continental Line of the Army of the Revolution, and served as such to the end of the War,[28] and also to the time when the arrangement of the army provided by the Resolves of Congress of the 3rd and 21st of October, 1780, were carried into effect, and was reduced under that arrangement, at which periods I was a Lieutenant in the Third Regiment[29] of the  Virginia line.

“… And I do further declare, that I was one of the officers who served under, and was captured with, Major General Lincoln at the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina, and that every officer in the Army of the said General Lincoln in reward for the signal services rendered by them at that memorable siege Defence was promoted a Grade higher by a Resolve of Congress, but I cannot remember, at this distance of time, whether the Said officers were regularly commissioned, or not. But if my Commission as a Lieutenant, (the grade to which I had been promoted) was ever received, it has, in the long lapse of fifty years, been either lost or mislaid, or destroyed by time or accident, so that it cannot now be produced.

                                        Robert Rankins

Sworn to & subscribed before me this 26th July 1828.” Wm Grimes, clerk of court.

Robert also wrote an unsworn letter dated July 1828 in support of his application with a “few explanatory remarks.” Here are relevant parts.

“… I embarked in the services of the United States, in the capacity of an Ensign in a Regiment of the Virginia Line upon the Continental Establishment (the number of which I do not now distinctly recollect) … A short time after the formation[30] of the said Regiment it was ordered to the South[31] under the command of Majr Gen Lincoln where it was captured, with his whole army, at the surrender of Charleston … [Thereafter, Congress] passed a Resolve raising each officer a grade higher or rather conferring upon them Brevets, and holding them in reserve to fill any vacancies that might thereafter occur in the Army.”

“I have never wanted and never sought relief from my Country, and nothing but the helplessness of age with unlooked for poverty[32] forces me now to ask a portion of the munificence extended by the government.”

Robert made a second sworn declaration in September 1828 in support of a request for a “Bounty Land Warrant.” The underlining and strikethrough are exactly as they appear in the original.

“The State of Alabama

County of Washington

“I, Robert Rankins, aged Seventy five years, do, upon oath, testify and declare, that in the year, one thousand seven hundred and seventy six – I entered the service of the United States for the term of “during the War” in the Third Regiment (to the best of my recollection) under the command of Colonel Hugh Stevenson – of the Virginia Line, and that I continued in the service aforesaid until the close of the War.[33] I do further declare that I entered a private and was afterwards promoted to the rank of Ensign and, before the close of the War, was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, in which capacity I was disbanded or deranged after the conclusion of Peace.”[34]

“Signed, Robert Rankins”

The clerk’s attestation is dated September 18, 1828.

Finally, for the hard-core military historians, here is how Robert’s units were shuffled.

Appendix: military reorganizations affecting Robert

There were three military reorganizations which made it difficult to track Robert’s service: (1) the reorganization of the Rifle Regiment after the battle of Ft. Washington; (2) the 1778 reduction in the number of Virginia Line regiments from fifteen to eleven; and (3) the 1779 reduction of the Virginia Line from eleven regiments to four.

… the Rifle Regiment and its assignment to the 11th Virginia in February, 1777

Robert and his brother William enlisted in 1776 in one of the four newly recruited Virginia companies in the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, AKA Stephenson’s Regiment (later Rawlings’ Regiment). As noted, it was not part of a Virginia Line regiment. Stephenson’s regiment also included a veteran Virginia rifle company under Capt. Abraham Shepherd. The four newly created companies of Virginians were commanded by (1) Capt. William Blackwell (Lt. John Marshall, future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, was second in command, and Robert was not in this company), (2) Capt. Gabriel Long, (3) Capt. Adam West, and (4) Capt. William Brady.

With two exceptions, the Virginia companies in the Rifle Regiment fought and were decimated at Ft. Washington on November 16, 1776. First, Capt. Blackwell’s company (including Lt. Marshall) didn’t reach New Jersey until April 1777, when the main army was in winter quarters at Morristown.[35] Upon arrival, Blackwell’s company was attached to the 11th Virginia Regiment and was never in an engagement as part of the Rifle Regiment. Second, most of Capt. Long’s company did not arrive until after the battle at Ft. Washington.[36]

That left Brady’s, Shepherd’s, West’s, and part of Long’s companies to participate in the awful defeat at Ft. Washington.[37] After that battle, Gen. Washington reorganized the few Rifle Regiment soldiers still fit for service (i.e., alive and not a prisoner). He created two “composite” rifle companies, one composed of Marylanders and the second of Virginians. Capt. Gabriel Long commanded the latter, and Robert Rankin was in his company along with the remainder of his own, Shepherd’s, West’s, and Brady’s companies.[38]

In February 1777, the 11th Virginia regiment was organized. Long’s composite rifle company with Robert Rankin was one of the nine companies assigned to the regiment. Capt. Long’s pay and muster rolls continued to include men identified as being from Shepherd’s, West’s, and Brady’s companies. After Long resigned, Robert remained in the same company under different commanders until he was promoted to Ensign on July 4, 1779. He was then assigned to Capt. William Johnston’s company. He was almost certainly still with Capt. Johnston at Charleston, but there are two more reorganizations to go through before we get there.

… the September 1778 rearrangement of the Virginia Line, effective May 12, 1779.

In response to the expiration of enlistment terms and other manpower losses, the 1778 rearrangement reduced the number of regiments in the Virginia Line from fifteen to eleven. You might want to take a Dramamine here. The 5th, 6th, 8th, and 9th Regiments were combined with the depleted 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Regiments (not in respective order) to restore the latter to full manpower. The former 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th regiments then ceased to exist. The 1st through 4th retained their numbers. The other seven remaining regiments – the 7th, 10th, and 11th through 15th – were renumbered. The 11th Virginia then became the 7th. As a result, Robert Rankin was now serving in the 7th Virginia, where he remained until the next rearrangement. When he was commissioned an Ensign on July 4th, 1779, he was assigned to Capt. William Johnston’s company, still in the 7th Virginia.

… the 1779 rearrangement.

The Virginia Line was reorganized yet again shortly before the march to Charleston. In late 1779, ten regiments of the Virginia Line[39] were consolidated into the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Regiments.  Companies from the regiments formerly designated 5th, 7th, 10th, and 11th were folded into the 1st Virginia Regiment. Ensign Robert Rankin, soon to be Brevet Lieutenant Robert Rankin, was still in Capt. Johnston’s company in the 7th Virginia Regiment as of November 1779.[40] Robert was almost certainly still in Capt. Johnston’s company in the enlarged 1st Virginia Regiment at Charleston. Gary says the odds are slim to none that Ensign Rankin was assigned to any other company or regiment. Capt. William Johnson’s Company in the 1st Regiment of the Virginia Line was among the patriot reinforcements arriving in Charleston on April 8, 1780 and surrendered on May 12.[41]

And that is it for reorganizations. I wish Robert had written his memoirs and provided detail on the battles he was in. While he was at it, he might have identified his parents and siblings. No such luck. We are on our own on that question. Next up: a quest for his family of origin and a look at his family’s oral history.

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] CAVEAT: Gary and I are not historians, although he published an award-winning history of the unit in which he served in Vietnam (Red Markers, Close Air Support for the Vietnamese Airborne, 1962–1975). We are family history hobbyists fond of obscure records. As for this article, some information is from Robert and Peggy’s pension application file, designated “Rankins, Robert No. W26365 or Rankin, Peggy B.L.Wt. 1380-200” (cited herein as “Robert Rankin’s pension application file”). Evidence also includes muster and pay rolls, other original military records, and published histories.

[2] United States Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783, Familysearch.org, Film/Fiche No. 7197156, image 395. Muster roll dated Sept. 1778 for Capt. Charles Porterfield’s Co., 11th Virginia Regiment, says that Sgt. Robert Rankins enlisted for three years on July 26, 1776. Hereafter, I will cite this simply as War Rolls, identifying the film/fiche and image numbers.

[3] War Rolls, Film/Fiche Number No. 7197155, images 590-591. Payroll dated 1 May 1777 for “pay and subsistence to 1 May 1777.” Sgt. Robert Rankins of Capt. Brady’s company listed on roll for Capt. Gabriel Long’s composite rifle company.

[4] Robert Rankin’s pension application file, declaration dated 18 Sep 1828, says he enlisted in Stephenson’s Regiment as a private. Images of Robert’s entire pension file are available for a fee from Fold.3 at ancestry.com.

[5] Part 2 of this series has information about Stephenson’s Rifle Regiment.

[6] See Note 2.

[7] See Note 3. Robert’s pay was £3 per month, the same as other Sergeants. Since that May 1, 1777 payroll was £12 for four months, he was a Sergeant by at least January 1, 1777. Robert may have become a Sergeant before Brady’s company ever left Virginia, since enlisted men sometimes elected their own non-commissioned officers. E.g., Danske Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown (Charlottesville, VA: The Michie Company, 1910), p. 80, online here.

[8]  Part 2  of this series has information about Ft. Washington. So does Part 3,  which is about William Rankin’s Revolutionary War service.

[9] Id. See also William Rankin’s pension application. His declaration in support filed Nov. 22, 1833 said he enlisted in Capt. Brady’s Company, Stephenson’s Regiment, and that he was taken prisoner when Ft. Washington surrendered.

[10] War Rolls, Film/Fiche No. 7197160, image 275, “Arrangement of the officers of the 11th Virginia Regiment” (undated, probably about June 1777). It states that “William Brady was a Captain in the 11th Regiment and has never done any duty. Absented himself without leave.”

[11] Tucker F. Hentz, Unit History of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment (1776–1781): Insights from the Service Record of Capt. Adamson Tannehill (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 2007), p. 21, available online at this link. Units which performed skirmishing duties in the first half of 1777 included Gabriel Long’s composite rifle company. Sgt. Robert Rankin was in the composite company during this time. See War Rolls, Film/Fiche Number No. 7197155, images 590-591, payroll dated 1 May 1777 for “pay and subsistence to 1 May 1777.” Sgt. Robert Rankins of Brady’s company is listed on Capt. Gabriel Long’s composite rifle company payroll.

[12][12] Robert’s widow Peggy didn’t include either Trenton or Princeton in a list of Robert’s battles. Nevertheless, it is likely that the remaining soldiers of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment were engaged in those battles. One “return of the forces” record dated Dec. 22, 1776 appears to include the remnants of the Rifle Regiment “on the banks of the Delaware in the State of Pennsylvania.” Hentz, Unit History of the Mawinterryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment at page 14, note 59. The Battle of Trenton, on the other side of the river, was four days later on Dec. 26, 1776; Princeton was on Jan. 3, 1777. It is almost inconceivable that the soldiers camped on the Delaware River didn’t participate in those two battles. However, the “return” does not identify company captains or enlisted men. It does say there were 108 men fit for combat and two Captains. This profile “fits” with how the two composite rifle companies would have looked after the Battle of Ft. Washington, taking losses into account. The two composite companies were Capt. Alexander Lawson Smith’s (the remaining Marylanders from the Rifle Regiment) and Capt. Gabriel Long’s (the remaining Virginians). Robert Rankin was in Capt. Long’s composite company.

[13] Robert Rankin’s pension application file, declaration of Peggy Rankin of Liberty Co., TX dated March 22, 1844. She said Robert fought at Brandywine, Princeton, Stony Point, and Charleston.

[14] War Rolls, Film/Fiche Number No. 7197155, image 578. A muster Roll for February 1778 for Capt. Philip Slaughter’s company (formerly Capt. Gabriel Long’s company) in the 11th Virginia Regiment stated it was taken at Valley Forge. The list of soldiers includes Sgt. Robert Rankin.

[15] Id., Film/Fiche No. 7197156, image 395. Muster roll for September 1778, Capt. Porterfield’s company, Col. Daniel Morgan’s regiment. Sgt. Robert Rankins was acting as Brigade Forage Master, abbreviated “Act as B.F.M.” For more information, see a resolution of Congress regarding  forage master duties.

[16] War Rolls, Film/Fiche No. 7197160, image 373. Arrangement of the Field Officers and Captains in the 7th Regiment of the Virginia Line states Ensign Robert Rankin’s date of rank was July 4, 1779.

[17] We found no muster roll or other record identifying the soldiers at Stony Point. The only evidence that Robert participated so far as we know is Peggy Rankin’s pension declaration. She had considerable credibility with the judge who took her declaration, who noted her remarkable memory and knowledge of the war.

[18] Samuel W. Pennypacker, “The Capture of Stony Point,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 26, No. 3 (1902), pp. 360-369, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.  A PDF   can be downloaded from JSTOR.

[19] Yes, the Hudson River is tidal  from its mouth upstream for 153 miles. Stony Point is 38 miles upstream of the river’s mouth.

[20] Estimates vary of the number of American troops surrendered at Charleston. One source One source says that an army of “roughly 5,000 men ceased to exist” when Gen. Lincoln surrendered. Carl Borick, who seems to be the leading authority on the Siege of Charleston, says some 6,000 Continentals, militia, and seamen were captured when Charleston surrendered. Carl P. Borick, Relieve Us of this Burthen (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2012). “Burthen” is not a typo.

[21] Robert Rankin’s pension application, declaration dated 26 July 1828.

[22] War Rolls, Film/Fiche No. 7197160, image 395-398, numerical list dated Jan. 1, 1783 of the redundant junior officers in each grade in the Virginia Line. Date of commission for Robert Rankins was Jan. 1, 1780. He was number 37 out of 60 Lieutenants based on date of rank.

[23] Mark Berry article  in “The College Today,” the news site of the College of Charleston, June 25, 2015.

[24] Robert’s pension application file, declaration of Peggy Rankin of Liberty Co., TX dated March 22, 1844. She testified that she and Robert, having been previously engaged, married in Frederick Co., VA on 1 Nov 1781. She believed he was then on a furlough of 60 days.

[25] By the end of 1782, only 730 officers and enlisted men remained active in the Virginia Line. That number is roughly normal manning for only one regiment, compared to fifteen regiments comprising the Line at one time. War Rolls, 1775-1783, Film/Fiche No. 7197160, image 391, “Arrangement Review Board Proceedings” dated January 1, 1783.

[26] Robert Rankin’s pension application, declaration dated July 26, 1828.

[27] Id., Film/Fiche No. 7197160, image 449, list of the officers “deranged” (discharged) on Jan. 1, 1783, included Lt. Robert Rankins, due $80 for 1782 and nothing for 1783.

[28] What on earth did Robert mean by “the end of the war”? He was discharged on Jan.1, 1783. See Note 27.  The “Preliminary Anglo-American Peace Treaty” was signed in Paris on November 30, 1782. Gen. Washington issued the “Declaration of the Cessation of Hostilities” (“an extra ration of liquor for every man”!!) on April 18, 1783. The Treaty of Paris was signed September 3, 1783 and ratified by the Senate January 14, 1784. Peggy testified that her marriage to Robert took place on November 1, 1781, “nearly a year before his service expired.” That suggests she thought his service was over by November 1782. My bet is he had come home to stay about then. He had no assignment at that time and probably no expectation that he would receive one.

[29] For a discussion of Robert’s regimental assignment as a Lieutenant, see the text accompanying Notes 39 and 40, infra. The records establish he was in the 1st Regiment rather than the 3rd.

[30] Gary would scold Robert for using the term “formation” in the context of the Virginia Line Regiments that were “ordered to the South” under General Lincoln. Every time I tried to write “newly formed” or “newly created,” Gary got out his red pen. “A regiment by that number already existed,” he would say. “The existing regiment was just enlarged.” The only time “newly created” was appropriate in this article was to describe the four Virginia companies recruited for the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment in 1776.

[31] See text accompanying Notes 39 and 40, infra. In his July 26 declaration, Robert said he was with the 3rd when his service ended. In this letter, also written in 1828, he cannot recall the number of the regiment that was ordered to the south. Ensign Rankin almost certainly marched to Charleston and fought there with the 1st Virginia Regiment, not the 3rd. Likewise, Lieutenant Rankin ended his service in the 1st.

[32] The letter reveals he was suffering “unlooked for poverty” by 1828, a fact confirmed by other documents in Robert’s pension file. One historian says Robert had a financial reversal around 1819-1820, probably in conjunction with land speculation and the panic of 1819. Ann Patton Malone, Handbook of Texas Online, “RANKIN, ROBERT.” Given his brother William’s statement that he (William) engaged in a good deal of land trading, land speculation and plummeting land values seem a likely cause of Robert’s poverty. See William Rankin’s pension application, declaration filed Nov. 22, 1833.

[33] Robert’s use of the phrases “close of the war” and “conclusion of the peace” in this letter raises the same questions as the phrase “end of the War.” See Note 28.

[34] Stephenson’s/Rawlings’ Regiment, AKA the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, was not part of the Virginia Line. It reported to Congress and was independent of any state regulation. Note that Robert correctly struck through “3rd” in this declaration.

[35] Hentz, Unit History of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, pp. 15-16. Blackwell’s company was still in Philadelphia receiving smallpox inoculations in March 1777 after moving up from Virginia. It joined the main army at Morristown in April.

[36] An advance element of 13 men from Long’s company reached New York ahead of the rest. A muster roll of Long’s company in April 1778 states those 13 men were captured. War Rolls, Film/fiche number 7197155, image 551.

[37] A 1778 report by Col. Moses Rawlings (Stephenson’s successor) names Rifle Regiment officers who died or were taken prisoner at Ft. Washington. Hentz, Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, p. 13. Based on other information in that report, Gary estimates that 264 out of 297 riflemen engaged at Ft. Washington were killed or captured.

[38] The muster and pay rolls for Long’s composite company had a strange format. Rolls were titled “Capt. Gabriel Long’s Company,” but each also contained a listing of the names of soldiers in Captains Shepherd’s, West’s, and Brady’s companies — generally not more than a dozen men from each company. From the army’s standpoint, a soldier enlisted in Brady’s company remained in Brady’s company and was thereafter considered (in Robert Rankin’s case, for example) attached to Long’s company.

[39] The remaining regiment in the then 11-regiment Virginia Line was stationed at Ft. Pitt.

[40] War Rolls, Film/Fiche No. 7197152, image 330. Nov. 1779 muster roll of Capt. William Johnston’s Company in the 7th Virginia Regiment, junior officers included Ensign Robert Rankins.

[41] Capt. William Johnston’s Company, 1st Virginia Regiment, 1st Virginia Brigade is listed among patriot reinforcements here.

Revolutionary War Story: William Rankin of Virginia’s Northern Neck (part 3 of 5)

Part 2 of this series ended with the Battle of Ft. Washington on November 16, 1776. William Rankin was captured there and imprisoned in Manhattan. Against the odds, he survived. His elder brother Robert was not in that battle, so far as we can determine.[1] Their war experience diverged after Ft. Washington, despite the fact that they had both enlisted in Captain Brady’s Company of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment.[2]

Let’s turn to their individual war stories in parts 3 and 4 of this series.  We’ll start with William because there is so much detail in his pension application file. Robert, bless his heart, didn’t have much to say about his war experience.

Private William Rankin[3]

The facts William states in his pension application dovetail with military history to a “t.”[4] His memory is awesome. His military service had been over for fifty-four years and four months when he made his application declaration in November 1833 from Mason County, Kentucky. Here is what his declaration said, in part:

  • He enlisted in July 1776 for a term of three years in Berkeley County, Virginia. He enlisted in Capt. William Brady’s company of Col. Hugh Stephenson’s regiment. He notes that Stephenson soon died and the company was attached to Col. Moses Rawlings regiment. William didn’t say so, but Rawlings was Stephenson’s second-in-command of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment. The regiment to which William’s company belonged didn’t change after Stephenson’s death, it just got a new commander.
  • William marched first to Philadelphia, then went to Trenton by water, then marched to Princeton.[5] All of his regiment went first to Philadelphia, where Washington was having his men inoculated for smallpox.[6] Next, William marched to Ft. Lee and Ft. Washington. [7] He stated the precise date of the battle at Ft. Washington. I’ll bet he could also have testified to the weather conditions.
  • The British imprisoned William in one of the notorious “sugar houses” in Manhattan before transferring him “after some time” to the British ship “the Duttons.”[8] The majority of British prisoners in New York City – four out of five – did not survive captivity.[9] Instead, they died of starvation or disease. William must have been a pretty tough teenager.

OK, that gets us up to the point in Part 2 where we left William.  In February or March 1777, the British paroled him and he went from New York to Philadelphia. In April 1777, said William, “he was sent home by direction of Gen. Daniel Morgan who happened to be a personal acquaintance.”[10] He was recalled from home a year later to rejoin the remains of Rawlings’ Regiment at Ft. Frederick in Frederick, MD.[11] From there he went to Ft. Pitt in Pittsburgh, where he worked as an “artificer” – someone who constructed fortifications.[12] He was discharged at Ft. Pitt when his three-year enlistment ended in mid-1779.

Now let’s go back to when Morgan sent him home from Philadelphia. Thomas Jones filed an affidavit in support of William’s pension application confirming that Morgan ordered him to take William home to Virginia. Jones said “that in the year 1777 he received from the hand of General Morgan … William Rankin in … Philadelphia, a sick soldier … to convey Rankin to Virginia, his former state of residence.”[13]

Jones took William home in a wagon.[14] In my imagination, William was horizontal on the wagon bed, on top of and under (I hope) some blankets. A John Kercheval also filed an affidavit in support of William’s pension application. Kercheval stated that “he met the said William Rankin returning to Virginia then in a low state of health in the wagon of Thomas Jones who lived in the neighborhood.”[15]

Where the heck was William’s home? He was still a teenager in April 1777, about 18. You would think he was going home to recuperate under the care of his family of origin, wouldn’t you? Inquiring minds want to know who they were …

William leaves us dangling on that question. Kercheval was more helpful. In the middle of his affidavit is this attention-grabber: Kercheval said he understood “from Mr. [William] Rankin’s brother Robert Rankin, who was an officer, that his brother William” was at one time ordered to Pittsburgh. Yes, indeed, William Rankin was once in Pittsburgh, where he was discharged. William’s brother is the man I nicknamed “Lt. Robert” in the first article in this series on these Rankins.

William may not have identified his parents, but at least his file proves a brother, who comprises one clue to his family of origin. There’s more. William also provides the link between the Rankin and Kercheval families. William said that “John Kercheval and his wife Jane Kercheval both know that he did serve in the war of the Revolution and the latter recollects the day he marched from her fathers in Frederick County Virginia.”

John Kercheval’s wife was Jane Berry, daughter of Thomas Berry of Frederick County.[16]  One of Jane Berry Kercheval’s sisters was Margaret “Peggy” Berry, who married Lt. Robert Rankin in Frederick County. Seventeen or 18-year-old William Rankin may have enlisted in Berkeley County, but he went marching off to war from Frederick County – to be exact, from Thomas Berry’s house. I will bet a big stack of genealogical chips that Jane Berry and her sister Peggy, both still single, watched Robert Rankin (who was then engaged to Peggy)[17] and his brother William march off to war from their father Thomas Berry’s house in Frederick County. That is a nice visual image – two sisters and two brothers.[18]

Kercheval also testified that “William Rankins not long after the war was done settled in … Frederick” County, where he was still living when Kercheval moved to Mason County, Kentucky about 1798-1799.[19] That tells us William probably wasn’t living in Frederick County before the war. William was definitely in Frederick by at least 1792, though, because a Frederick County lease and release[20] says William was “of Frederick” in that year. The deeds also prove William had a wife named Mary Ann and a son named Harrison.[21] Thomas Berry was a witness to those two instruments.

There is another tidbit or two in William’s pension file. Kercheval also said that William Rankin was “a very respectable man and entitled to credit in any court or county … he is a wealthy farmer of Mason County Kentucky.” Some of William’s wealth undoubtedly came from land speculation, which may have been the financial undoing of his brother Robert. William said that his discharge papers had been “lost long ago or put in the land office in Virginia to get land warrants.”[22] At that point, his memory fogged up a bit. He said he “could not recollect but possibly the latter.” He probably got land warrants but “having traded so much in that business cannot speak certainly.”

William was certainly wealthy by the standards of the day, when wealth was measured in part by ownership of enslaved persons. The 1836 inventory of William’s estate included twenty enslaved persons.[23] The current account of his estate in November 1839 shows an amount to be distributed of $17,911, after payment of an agreed $1,000 fee to the two estate administrators.[24]

That is all of William Rankin’s story I can tease out of the records I have accessed.[25] He died intestate in Mason County on April 12, 1836, leaving a widow and children to collect the remainder of his pension.[26] Unfortunately, William’s pension file doesn’t name them.[27] William may be buried in the Old Washington Cemetery (AKA the Washington Baptist Church Cemetery) in Mason County. [28] The 1810 through 1830 census records for Mason County suggest he had as many as ten children, although I can only prove three (a number of other Rankins were purchasers at his estate sale, and they probably include some children):

  • Harrison Rankin, who was born by 1792 in Frederick Co., Virginia, is conclusively proved by a lease and release.[29] He is most likely the same man who appeared in the 1850 census in Scott County, Kentucky at age 58. He was a merchant, lived in Georgetown, had at least four children, and last appeared in the Scott County census in 1870.[30]
  • John L. Rankin was one administrator of William’s estate.[31] I have not been able to track him with confidence.
  • Robert P. Rankin was also an administrator. He probably moved at some point to Scott County along with Harrison, although I haven’t found Robert in the census there. Some Robert P. Rankin is buried in the Georgetown Cemetery,  b. 1805 – d. 1892. It is also possible that Robert P. Rankin was the man by that name who married Mary C. Withers in April 1832 in Bourbon Co., KY.

If you have evidence for any other children, please post a comment! It would be wonderful to find a living male Rankin descendant from William’s line who would take a YDNA test.

May you rest in peace, William. And now … on to your famous brother in part 4 of this series.

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] Gary and I found no military records to prove Robert’s location in 1776 except for the locations mention in William’s pension application. Consequently, we can only speculate why he wasn’t in the battle at Ft. Washington. Perhaps he was one of the Rifle Regiment’s members who remained at Ft. Lee because of sickness? See Tucker F. Hentz, Unit History of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment (1776–1781): Insights from the Service Record of Capt. Adamson Tannehill (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 2007), p. 12, Note 50, at this link. Perhaps Robert was actually in the battle, but was neither killed nor captured? Statistically, that is highly unlikely.

[2] William’s pension application declaration expressly stated that he enlisted in Brady’s company. Robert’s declaration didn’t name a company. Fortunately, muster and payroll records for Gabriel Long’s composite company of Virginia riflemen consistently name remnants of Brady’s company, including Robert Rankin. Those rolls specifically identify Robert as a member of Brady’s company. The remaining members of the other two rifle companies (Captains Shepherd’s and West’s) that were decimated at Ft. Washington also appear on Long’s composite rifle company rolls.

[3] Information about William Rankin’s military history is largely taken from his pension application file, available for a fee at Fold3 on Ancestry.com. I made screen shots of many of the original images at Fold3 (available free at Clayton Library), but they rarely include the page number assigned to each image by Fold3. Accordingly, I have simply cited to “William’s pension application” with a brief description of the document in question.

[4] William’s pension declaration echoes the history of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, some of which was the subject part 2 of this series.

[5] Pension file of William Rankin, S.31315 (hereafter, “William Rankin’s pension file”), his sworn declaration supporting his pension application dated 22 Nov. 1833 in Mason Co., KY.

[6] Hentz, Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment. See p. 15 re: smallpox inoculations. The Philadelphia location was obviously before the British occupied the city in September 1777 following Washington’s defeat at Brandywine.

[7] William Rankin’s pension file, sworn declaration.

[8] Id.

[9] https://revolutionarywar.us, discussion of “Prisoner of War Facts,” which states “[b]y the end of 1776, there were over 5,000 prisoners held in New York City. More than half … came from the soldiers captured at the battle of Fort Washington and Fort Lee.” Four out of five prisoners died.

[10] Morgan was actually a Colonel when he sent William home, although he ended his career as a General and was undoubtedly referred to with that title by anyone who knew him. Morgan lived on a farm just east of Winchester, Frederick Co., and was apparently acquainted with the Rankin family. https://emergingrevolutionarywar.org/2019/05/27/george-washington-daniel-morgan-and-winchester-virginia-on-memorial-day/

[11] William Rankin’s pension file, sworn declaration.

[12] United States Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783, Familysearch.org, FHL Film/Fiche Number 7197150, image 57, return of Capt. Heth’s Company at Ft. Pitt, listing Private William Rankins as an “artificer.” He must have recovered nicely from his prison ordeal.

[13] William Rankin’s pension file, affidavit of Thomas Jones. I took a few liberties with the affidavit’s spelling.

[14] Id., affidavit of John Kercheval.

[15] Id.

[16] Will of Thomas Berry of Frederick Co., VA dated 20 Feb 1806, proved Frederick Co. 4 Mar 1819. Copy certified and recorded in Mason Co. at Will Book E: 17 et seq. Thomas named his daughter Peggy, who married Col. Robert Rankin (his rank in the KY militia, not the Revolutionary War), and his daughter Jane, who married John Kercheval. Thomas left part of his land in Mason County to Peggy and Jane.

[17] Pension file of Rankins, Robert No. W26365 or Rankin, Peggy B.L.Wt. 1380-200, images of originals available from Fold3.com at Ancestry. Peggy (Berry) Rankin’s declaration dated 16 Feb. 1844 states that she and Robert were married on Oct. 1, 1781 in Frederick County while he was on furlough after his capture at Charleston, they “having been previously engaged.” Peggy’s declaration is at pages 16-19 of their combined Fold3 file.

[18] Presumably, William would not have bothered to mention that Peggy also saw him march off to war. By 1833, she and Robert no longer lived in Mason County and Peggy wasn’t available to provide confirmation. Of course, my mental image of that event is pure speculation.

[19] Id.

[20] A “lease and release” was a two-step land transaction created to circumvent the English Statute of Uses. The two documents were typically executed on consecutive days. Together, they had the effect of a normal conveyance of land in fee simple.

[21] See Frederick Co., VA Deed Book 24A: 152, 155, lease and release (essentially a conveyance) dated 3 Nov 1792 from Fairfax, proprietor of the Northern Neck, to William Rankin of Frederick, 79 acres, part of the “Chestnut Level” in Frederick. Lease for the lives of William Rankin, wife Mary Ann Rankin, and son Harrison Rankin. One witness was Thomas Berry.

[22] William Rankin’s pension file, his declaration of 22 Nov. 1833.

[23] Mason Co., KY Will Book K: 448, inventory of William Rankin’s estate dated 4 June 1836.

[24] Mason Co., KY Will Book L: 538, Nov. 1839 current account of John L. Rankin and Robert P. Rankin, administrators of the account of William Rankin, dec’d.

[25] I haven’t been to the Mason county courthouse or anyplace where one can access land records online. Deeds would probably provide evidence of  William’s land speculation and the identity of other family members who witnessed his deeds or were grantees.

[26] William Rankin’s pension file, letter dated 14 May 1927 from Winfield Scott, Commissioner of the Revolutionary and 1812 Wars (pension?) Section, to an inquiry about William’s record from Miss May Harrison. Scott’s reply noted William’s date of death and failure of his pension file to mention names of wife and children. See also a letter of 17 Sep 1931 responsive to a request about William from Mr. Walter H. Rankins stating the same facts.

[27] I cannot find a distribution in the Mason County will books, which would provide conclusive proof of William’s heirs.

[28] See Elizabeth Prather Ellsberry, Cemetery Records, Mason County, Kentucky, Vol. 1 (Chillicothe, MO: 1965). The contents of that book was the source for the Mason County Cemetery Index database on Ancestry.com.

[29] See Note 21, which should be the 1792 lease for life and & release.

[30] 1850 census, Scott Co., KY, dwelling 20, Harrison Rankin, 58, merchant, Betsey Rankin 48, KY, Martha Rankin 28, Elizabeth Rankin 22, Rufus Rankin 17, and Elizabeth Rankin 8; 1870 census, Georgetown, Scott Co., KY, dwelling 160, Harrison Rankin, 78, b. VA, $5,000/3,000, dry goods merchant, Elizabeth Rankin, 68 KY, Martha Rankin, 44 KY, Rufus Rankin, 35, KY, Lizzie Kenney, 28. Also listed in Harrison’s household: Paul Rankin, 46, doctor, b. KY. Underneath Paul’s name: William Rankin 20, Bettie Rankin 13, and Malvina Rankin 11.

[31] Mason Co., KY Will Book K: 448.