Walter Stewart – Continental Army General


Walter Stewart (1756 – 16 June 1796) was born in Ireland and began his military career as captain of a Pennsylvania infantry company at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. He served as an aide de camp to Horatio Gates for a year with the rank of major. Given command of the Pennsylvania State Regiment, which later became the 13th Pennsylvania Regiment, Stewart led his troops with distinction at Brandywine and Germantown in 1777. Again showing bravery, he was wounded while leading a detachment at the Battle of Monmouth in the summer of 1778.

Because of his strikingly good looks, the ladies of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania called him the “Irish Beauty”. He helped cool tensions during a 1780 mutiny of the Connecticut Line. He wed Deborah McClenichan in 1781 before going south with the army to fight in the Siege of Yorktown. He was deeply involved in the Newburgh Conspiracy. After a term as Inspector General he retired from the army at the beginning of 1783. After the war he became a successful Philadelphia businessman and general of militia. He died on 16 June 1796 during an outbreak Yellow Fever.

==Early career==

Stewart was born into a Scotch-Irish family in Ireland in 1756, probably in Londonderry. He settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania around 1772 and worked for a relative named Conyngham. In January 1776 he was appointed captain of Company F, 3rd Pennsylvania Battalion. The eight company strong 3rd Battalion was authorized on 9 December 1775 and organized between January and March 1776 at Philadelphia. It joined George Washington’s main army on 11 June 1776 and was assigned to Thomas Mifflin’s brigade. However, in May Stewart was promoted to major and became aide de camp to Horatio Gates when that general transferred to the Northern Department. In December 1776, Gates returned to the Philadelphia area with the Northern Department’s New Jersey and Pennsylvania regiments. That November, Congress voted Stewart a $100 sword as recognition of his services.

One Continental Army private recalled that the ladies of Philadelphia called the good-looking Stewart the “Irish Beauty”. Another observer described him as, “of fair, florid complexion, vivacious, intelligent and well-educated, and, it was said, was the handsomest man in the American army”. On 17 June 1777, Stewart was named commander of the Pennsylvania State Regiment, which later became the 13th Pennsylvania Regiment.

Stewart who was Gates’ subordinate for over a year, took his former chief’s side in the political struggle between Gates and his rival Philip Schuyler. When Gates assumed command of the Northern Department in August 1777, Stewart wrote him, “You can’t Imagine my Dear Sir, the Satisfaction it gives me your being sent back to your proper Command. It is so great a thing, to get the better so Nobly of that petty party, for I can call them by no other Name.” In another letter to Gates, he wrote of his fellow Pennsylvanian Anthony Wayne having to dig trenches, “We are throwing up a few works at Wilmington, where Wayne is like a mad bear, it falling to his brigade. I believe he heartily wishes all engineers at the devil.”

==Philadelphia campaign==

At the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777, the Pennsylvania State Regiment fought with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 10th, and 14th Virginia Regiments in George Weedon’s Brigade. Another authority wrote that the 2nd Virginia Brigade consisted of the 2nd, 6th, 10th, and 14th Virginia, but it is possible that some units were attached and others detached. That day, Washington with 11,000 men offered battle to British General Sir William Howe’s 12,500 troops. While 5,000 British and Hessians under Wilhelm von Knyphausen threatened the American center, Howe took 7,500 men in a wide turning movement that crossed the Brandywine beyond the American right flank. Belatedly detecting Howe’s column, Washington deployed the divisions of John Sullivan, Lord Stirling, and Adam Stephen to halt the attempted envelopment. After severe fighting, Howe’s force cracked the American line. Leaving Wayne to hold off Knyphausen, Washington ordered the division of Nathanael Greene to block Howe.

After his brigade endured a three or four mile double-time march in 45 minutes, Weedon arranged his troops on a reverse slope behind a fence. He swung the right flank forward behind a fence and some woods so as to take any attackers in enfilade. Henry Monckton’s 2nd Grenadier Battalion blundered into Weedon’s trap as dusk fell. As his men came under heavy fire, Monckton asked Hessian Captain Johann von Ewald to ride and get help. The Hessian found James Agnew who brought up his 4th Brigade on Monckton’s left. One of Agnew’s regiments, the 64th Foot was roughly treated, losing 47 of its 420 men in the vicious firefight that followed. The Pennsylvania State Regiment was evidently part of the thrown-forward right flank. One witness recalled the unit’s colonel, “Stewart on foot, in its rear, animating his men.” An officer in the regiment wrote that, “Our regiment fought at one stand about an hour under incessant fire, and yet the loss was less than at Long Island; neither were we so near each other as at Princeton, our common distance being about 50 yards.” With the assistance of some artillery, the British finally forced the Americans back, but the exhausted victors did not pursue in the dark.

Stewart led a detachment of his regiment at the Battle of Germantown on 4 October 1777. As Greene’s wing advanced on the British positions, Stewart’s unit covered Weedon’s left flank where a gap had developed between that brigade and Alexander McDougall’s Connecticut Brigade. After driving off two British light infantry companies, his men captured an earthwork near Luken’s Mill. He wrote Gates, “I took a little redoubt with three Pieces of Cannon from them”. He noted that, “It was cursed Hot work for it before they left them”. He noted that his men started fighting {convert|1.5|mi|km|1} from Germantown and penetrated the British lines as far as the Market House. Another officer recalled that the Pennsylvania State Regiment had overcome all resistance in its front. When it was attacked on its left and rear, “Gen. Steven [Stephen] ordered Col. Stewart to evacuate the ground”. On 12 November 1777, the regiment was renamed the 13th Pennsylvania Regiment.


After Sir Henry Clinton evacuated Philadelphia and marched toward New York, George Washington moved his army northeast from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. After crossing the Delaware at Coryell’s Ferry, the Americans reached Hopewell, New Jersey on 23 June. From there, they moved to intercept Clinton’s retreat. Washington appointed his second-in-command Charles Lee (general) to lead his advance guard. Lee’s division included Varnum’s 300-man Brigade under John Durkee with two cannons, William Grayson’s 600-strong detachment with two guns, William Maxwell’s 1,000-man New Jersey Brigade with two cannons, Henry Jackson’s 300-strong detachment, Charles Scott’s 1,440-strong command with four guns, and Anthony Wayne’s 1,000-man command with two guns. There were seven special detachments of troops averaging about 350 men each and these were probably drawn from their parent brigades and other units. Scott led four detachments while Wayne led three detachments. Wayne’s command included detachments led by James Wesson of Ebenezer Learned’s Massachusetts Brigade, Henry Livingston, Jr. of Enoch Poor’s New Hampshire and New York brigade, and Stewart.

Very early on 28 June 1778, Wilhelm von Knyphausen’s division set out from Monmouth Court House, followed a few hours later by Cornwallis’ division. Lee neglected to scout the area and announced to his subordinates that he had no plan of battle other than to act according to circumstances. He only began moving forward at 7:00 AM with 5,000 troops to bring on the Battle of Monmouth. When Lee began to threaten the British rear guard, Clinton turned back to help with powerful forces. After some tentative attacks, Lee’s troops began withdrawing in confusion but not panic. Clinton rushed in pursuit.

Washington met Lee’s retreating division late in the morning and took measures to halt Clinton’s advance. Washington relieved Lee of command, but later allowed him to patch together a defensive line with the available troops. Lee put Varnum’s Brigade, now under the command of Jeremiah Olney behind a hedgerow. Livingston’s detachment filed into line on Olney’s left. On the left flank of the position, Washington asked Stewart and Nathaniel Ramsey, who took over from the wounded Wesson, to hold off the British until he could get the main army in position. The two readily agreed. Soon after, Anthony Wayne appeared and ordered the two detachments to hold a thick wood. Ramsey formed on the extreme left with Stewart to his right. Lee’s chief of artillery, Eleazer Oswald placed two cannons on Olney’s right and two more in support of Stewart and Ramsey. As the 1st Guards Battalion came abreast of the woods, the Americans riddled their flank and dropped British Colonel Henry Trelawney and 40 guardsmen. But the crack Brigade of Guards and two companies of the 1st Grenadier Battalion stormed into the woods. Early in the action, Stewart went down, shot in the groin, and was carried to the rear. The outnumbered Americans were pressed back from the trees and attacked by the 16th Light Dragoons in the open. Ramsey was wounded and captured by the dragoons while the Americans made a dash for the bridge across the ravine. After another epic struggle on the other flank, Olney, Livingston, and Oswald were forced back. But the holding actions gave Washington time to deploy Lord Stirling’s division athwart Clinton’s advance.


After Monmouth, enlistments ran out for most of the men of the 13th and the remaining men were consolidated with the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment on 1 July 1778. Being the senior officer, Stewart assumed command of the 2nd Regiment. He earned a good reputation with his soldiers by paying close attention to their needs. In fall 1778 he traveled to Philadelphia to secure some items for his troops. He wrote his friend Anthony Wayne, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that the ladies, “have really got the art of throwing themselves into the most wanton and amorous postures”, when he was around. When elements of the Connecticut Line mutinied in 1780 at Morristown, New Jersey, a “dependable” Pennsylvania regiment surrounded them and restored order. At the time, Stewart and other Pennsylvanians reassured the soldiers that their problems were no worse than in other units. Stewart then spoke with the Connecticut officers on behalf of the disgruntled rank and file. Connecticut private Joseph Plumb Martin recalled that Stewart was highly regarded by his own men.

The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny occurred on 1 January 1781 at Morristown. The soldiers had a number of grievances including being owed back-pay, seeing newer recruits receive generous bounties and promises of land, and being required to serve past the end of their three-year enlistments. The soldiers assembled under the direction of their sergeants, armed themselves, and began to march on Philadelphia. Orders from their officers were ignored and three officers were slain. Significantly, the soldiers did not molest the civilian population and they handed over British agents to the authorities. At Trenton, New Jersey, the troops negotiated with representatives of Congress and won important concessions, including the new bounty. At the beginning of the mutiny, most of the 2nd Regiment’s soldiers balked. After being threatened by the mutineers, the 2nd Regiment joined the march. Afterward, the Pennsylvania Line was reorganized with Stewart in charge of a new combat unit.

Stewart married Deborah McClenachan on 11 April 1781. His 17-year old bride was the eldest daughter of Blair McClenachan a noted Philadelphia businessman. Besides being known as a founder of the First City Troop, Stewart’s father-in-law bought Cliveden from Benjamin Chew in September 1779. The home was the focus of heavy fighting during the Battle of Germantown and was badly damaged. His first son William was born on December 27, eight months and 16 days after the wedding. On 6 July 1781, he led a Pennsylvania battalion at the Battle of Green Spring. At first, his troops formed the reserve of Wayne’s 500-man advance guard. After being reinforced to 900 men by the addition of one light infantry and two Pennsylvania battalions, the Americans walked into a British ambush. Outnumbered seven-to-one, Wayne ordered a counterattack. This bold action and the approach of nightfall allowed the Americans to escape with only 28 killed, 99 wounded, and 12 missing. The British suffered 75 casualties. In fall 1781, Stewart participated in the Siege of Yorktown as commander of the 1st Pennsylvania Battalion in Wayne’s Brigade of Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s Division. In John Trumbull’s painting Surrender of Lord Cornwallis the artist painted Stewart standing at the far right in the line of American officers. Stewart retired from the army on 1 January 1783. However, Washington convinced him to stay on as Inspector General of the Northern Department. Soon after, he became involved with the Newburgh Conspiracy.


While the Continental Army camped at Newburgh, New York in the winter of 1782–1783, the army’s situation neared a crisis. With the war all but won, officers and soldiers realized that they needed to get Congress to give them their back-pay before the army was disbanded. Meanwhile, one faction in Congress wanted the army dissolved in order to reduce expenses and return power to the states. Another faction wanted to use the army as a lever to push through higher taxes and a stronger central government. Washington was sympathetic with his officers but was afraid of the consequences of a large-scale mutiny. He notified Congress that he would do all that he could to stop the army from rebelling.

Earlier in the war, the Second Continental Congress promised officers they would receive a life pension of half-pay beginning on 21 October 1780. The army was well aware that Congress had made no effort to back up this promise. In January 1783, a committee of officers drew up a petition listing their grievances and Alexander McDougall presented it to Congress in company with Matthias Ogden and John Brooks. Differing from earlier petitions, this one spoke for the entire army, not just the officer corps. Behind the scenes, Washington wrote to members of Congress that the officers’ claims were legitimate. Unfortunately, the Congress defeated a measure that would have given the officers full pay for five years as compensation for the promised pension.

According to historian Mark M. Boatner III, Stewart was the real mover behind the Newburgh Conspiracy. He warned his fellow officers that Congress planned to disband the army so that it would not have to meet their demands. He urged the other officers to stand together and force Congress to pay them immediately. Stewart sensed that Washington did not agree with his approach so he turned to the sympathetic Horatio Gates, his former superior. Matters came to a head on 10 March 1783 with the publication of the first Newburgh Address. John Armstrong, Jr., Gates’ aide de camp was credited with writing the address, but at least one historian believed the address may have been authored by Gouvernor Morris. It read partly as follows,

If this be your treatment while the swords you wear are necessary for the defense of America, what have you to expect from peace, when your voice shall sink and your strength dissipate by division; when those very swords, the instruments and companions of your glory, shall be taken from your sides, and no remaining mark of military distinction be left but your wants, infirmities and scars? Can you, then, consent to be the only sufferers by this revolution, and, retiring from the field, grow old in poverty, wretchedness and contempt? Can you consent to wade through the vile mire of despondency, and owe the miserable remnant of that life to charity, which has hitherto been spent in honor?

Gates approved the address in advance. Alexander Hamilton also urged the army to take action against Congress. A second address appeared on the 12th that tried to co-opt Washington into the conspiracy. Washington moved quickly to quell the impending mutiny by calling an officers’ meeting on 15 March. He also notified Congress that it needed to act soon on the army’s grievances. At the officers’ meeting Washington appealed to his audience not to carry out, “any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained.” At the end of his speech he took out a letter to read. Unable to read it, he took out his spectacles and said, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind”. Some of his officers were reduced to tears. In a unanimous vote, the officers expressed confidence in Congress and repudiated the Newburgh Addresses. On 22 March Congress voted to adopt the compensation plan which the officers then accepted.

Armstrong tried to revive the plot in April but gave it up when someone revealed the plan to Washington. Gates’ aide later complained that a “timid wretch discovered it to the only man from whom he was to have kept it”. Historian Robert K. Wright, Jr. noted that the wretch whom Armstrong referred to was either Stewart or Brooks. Armstrong went on, “to be more explicit he betrayed it to the Commander in Chief – who, agreeably according to the original plan, was not to have been consulted till some later period”. For his part Gates quietly dropped out of the conspiracy.


Stewart finally retired from the army later in 1783 with the brevet rank of brigadier general. He and his wife Deborah settled in Philadelphia across the street from George and Martha Washington. He became a successful businessman and major general of the state militia. The couple had eight children, including one born in Ireland and another in England. The oldest, William died at sea and the youngest child, Washington was born two months after his father’s death on 16 June 1796. Stewart died in that year’s deadly Yellow Fever epidemic and was interred in the burial ground of the old Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church. His children were William (1781–1808), Robert (1784–1806), Ann (b. 1786, married Phillip Church), Walter (1787–1807), Henry (1788–1823), Mary Ann (1791–1844), Caroline (died in infancy), and Washington (1796–1826).