Robert White (March 29, 1759 – March 1831) was a distinguished early American military officer, lawyer, judge, and politician in the U.S. state of Virginia.
White represented Frederick County in the Virginia House of Delegates (1789–1792) and served as a judge of the General Court of Virginia (1793–1831). Prior to his political and law careers, White served in the Virginia militia and Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
White was the grandson of Virginia pioneer settler and physician Dr. Robert White (1688–1752), thus he was a member of the prominent White political family of Virginia and West Virginia. He was the nephew of United States House Representative Alexander White (1738–1804) and the brother of United States House Representative Francis White (1761–1826).
==Early life and education==
Robert White was born on March 29, 1759 in Winchester, Virginia. He was a son of John White, one of the justices serving on the first Bench of Magistrates of the Frederick County court, and his wife, Ann Patton White. White was also a grandson of Dr. Robert White, an early physician and pioneer settler of Frederick County. White received his primary education at a grammar school near Marsh Creek in Pennsylvania under the direction of Reverend Craighead, a Presbyterian minister. At the age of 16, White undertook a hiatus from his education to serve in the American Revolutionary War.
In 1775, White enlisted as a private in the Virginia militia company under the command of Captain Hugh Stephenson (or Stevenson), which had been organized in Berkeley County, Virginia (present-day Jefferson County, West Virginia). Stephenson’s company departed for the Boston campaign “a few days” before Daniel Morgan’s company departed from Winchester. White, along with Stephenson’s company, departed on June 20, 1775 from Morgan’s Spring near Shepherdstown and marched to Boston to reinforce commander-in-chief of the Continental Army George Washington’s forces who had besieged the British Army forces there.
While in Boston, White’s “chivalric bearing” received the attention of Washington, who “saw in the boy the germ of that remarkable decision of character.” On March 17, 1776, British forces withdrew from Boston thus ending the Boston campaign. In the summer of 1776, White was elevated to the rank of ensign. White then fought as a lieutenant at the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777 under Major William Darke of Berkeley County. Throughout the spring of 1778, White was engaged in attacking British Army detachments.
Later in 1778 at Short Hills, New Jersey, White suffered a fractured femur caused by a musket ball and received a wound to the head from the stock of a British Army grenadier’s musket. Following the engagement at Short Hills, White was taken as a prisoner of war by the British forces. White had fallen unconscious and was taken to a the tent of “an amiable and accomplished” British officer who had rescued him from death. He was later exchanged and in the autumn of 1778, White returned to Winchester “by slow and painful efforts, exceedingly lame, weak and emaciated by acute and protracted suffering.” His wounds had not yet healed by the time of his return to Winchester, however, following the removal of bone fragments, the wound began to close. White remained permanently physically disabled as a result of his injuries.
While “not fully recovered from his wounds,” White received the commission of a captain of cavalry in 1779. White commenced the recruitment and training of American troops in Philadelphia to fight in the war, but due to the severity of his injuries, he retired from military service at the age of 20 and returned to Winchester. White was inducted as an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati for his military service during the war.
==Law and political careers==
Following his military service and return to Winchester in 1779, White studied jurisprudence under his uncle, Alexander White, one of the most preeminent lawyers practicing in the Shenandoah Valley. During the course of his four years of law studies, White read the legal treatises of William Blackstone and Edward Coke among others while lying on his back or propped up on a couch recovering from his injuries. White was admitted to practice law at Winchester in December 1782, after which he engaged in the practice of law for 11 years.
White’s health continued to improve, and his law practice was “an extensive and profitable” one. In a May 1837 biographical sketch of White published in the Southern Literary Messenger, White was described as “an able lawyer, clear and cogent in argument, but not eloquent, his voice rather harsh and shrill, and in the impetuosity of debate his enunciation was sometimes affected even to stammering.” White maintained a “lofty eminence” within the Frederick County bar for over a decade. During this time, White served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1789 to 1792 representing Frederick County.
==Judicial career and later life==
White was appointed as the first judge serving Virginia’s tenth judicial district which was composed of five counties, including Hampshire County of which he served as one of that county’s earlier judges. Winchester was chosen by an act of the Virginia General Assembly as the “center point” of the tenth judicial district, where all judicial records were kept. White was the first judge to preside over this district. His appointment as a judge of the tenth judicial district paid a meager compensation of 1,600 dollars per annum.
White was then appointed a judge of the General Court of Virginia on November 16, 1793 and he continued to hold that office until his death in 1831. While serving on the court, White served as the president of the General Court of Virginia for several years before his death. Serving on the General Court of Virginia required White to travel to Richmond in June and November of each year. Until 1825, White served as both a judge on the General Court of Virginia and a judge of Virginia’s tenth judicial district.
During the War of 1812, White took a dislike to the “encroachment of military power” as Winchester began to attract a sizable number of recruits going off to fight in the war. White refused to permit military officers to appear before him in his courtroom with their swords by their sides. Several of White’s judicial opinions became well known as “powerful specimens of sound learning and extensive research” including the Hyers case, in which the defendant was tried for murder, and the Preston case, in which there was a legal question regarding estoppel. From his office, White conducted the teaching of jurisprudence to John Buchanan, a notable Maryland jurist who later served in the Maryland House of Delegates and as an associate justice on the Maryland Court of Appeals.
In the spring of 1825, White was en route to serve on the court of Loudoun County and stayed the night at a tavern along the Shenandoah River. He was discovered by the proprietor the following morning suffering with paralysis. White remained stricken with paralysis for several weeks and returned to his home in Winchester on a litter. His position as judge of the tenth judicial district was assumed by two judges: William Brockinbough and John Scott. White remained paralyzed for the remainder of his life. On July 1, 1825, White gave power of attorney to his son, John Baker White, for the management of his affairs. White later died at his residence in Winchester in March 1831.
==Personal life and family==
White married Arabella Baker, the daughter of John Baker of Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia). White and his wife Arabella had three children:
* Juliet White Opie, married a Mr. Opie and died without issue
* John Baker White (August 4, 1794 – October 9, 1862), married first to Alcinda Louisa Tapscott, and married second to Frances Ann Streit
* Robert Baker White
White and his family resided in Winchester on Washington Street south of Cecil Street “for many years” until White’s death in 1831. White’s house was one the “earliest built brick houses” in Winchester. The old house built by White was destroyed by fire and its site later became the residence of George H. Byrd, who later deeded the property to his brother, Colonel William Byrd, hence forth it was known as the “Byrd House.”
In the 1970s, three restored portraits painted in 1799 of White, his wife Arabella Baker White, and their son Robert Baker White and daughter Juliet White Opie, were donated to the Historical Society of Winchester by Baker Hall of Huntington, West Virginia and Louisa Tabb Hall of Charles Town, West Virginia. All three portraits were painted by renowned painter Charles Peale Polk, a nephew of the well-known painter Charles Willson Peale.