Revolutionary War

George Washington’s “Superlative Villain” Signs a Receipt for Beacons for Use on the Potomac River at the Start of the Revolutionary War, evocative of Paul Revere's, "one if by land, two if by sea"

George Washington’s “Superlative Villain” Signs a Receipt for Beacons for Use on the Potomac River at the Start of the Revolutionary War, evocative of Paul Revere's, "one if by land, two if by sea"

 

To warn of British ships sailing up the Potomac River, the Virginia Committee of Safety and the Maryland Council of Safety agreed to appoint two commissioners each to select locations for signal beacons along the shores of the Potomac at regular intervals that could alert patriots upriver of the approach of British ships. These receipts are a part of that story.

 

William Thomas, Autograph Document Signed, Receipt, to John Dent, April 20, 1776. 1 p., 6.25" x 3.25"; also John Price Posey for John Tayloe II, Autograph Document Signed, Receipt, to John Dent, June 16, 1777. 1 p., 8" x 4.375", expected folds. First receipt is missing some text on right margin.

 

Complete Transcript:

April 20th 1776 Received of John Dent one of [the Commissioners appointed by the Council of Safe[ty of? Maryland to cooperate with those from Virgini[a in? erecting Beacons on the River Potomack, for [? sage of any Boat & Hands for the Purpose aforesa[id the? sum of ten Pounds & four Pence half Penny Co[mmon? Currcy Recd per me

                                                                        William Thomas

 

June 16 1777 Received of John Dent fifty pounds common Money in Part of fifty Eight pounds Virginia Currcy for ten Lamps or Beacons for use of the State of Maryland Recd per me

                                                                        John Price Posey

                                                                                    for

                                                                        John Tayloe

 

On March 9, 1776, the Virginia Committee of Safety in Williamsburg wrote to the Maryland Council of Safety, “The great length of Potomack River from its mouth to Alexandria where men of war can go & the probability of some attempts being made by the enemy in that Quarter make it prudent in our opinion to erect beacons or signals for communicating intelligence of their approach up the river in a more speedy manner than can be done by land.” The Virginia committee appointed Colonel Hugh Mercer (1726-1777) and Colonel William Peachey (1729-1802) to examine the river and decide on appropriate points for the beacons, and asked the Maryland Council to appoint commissioners to cooperate with Mercer and Peachey.

 

On March 19, the Maryland Council appointed Colonel George Plater (1735-1792) and Brigadier General John Dent to act with Virginia commissioners in constructing the beacons. By April 30, the commissioners from the two states had selected twenty sites, thirteen of which were in Maryland—one in Prince George’s County, nine in Charles County, and three in St. Mary’s County. They also agreed on “the Form of the Alarm-Post, which is to be a kind of Iron Grate suspended by a Chain on the end of a Sweep fixed with a Swivel so as to be turned agreeable to the Wind.”  On May 28, Richard Barnes replaced George Plater as commissioner for placing the beacons along the Potomac.

 

John Dent (1733-1809) was born in Maryland and had an estate in Charles County, Maryland, along the Potomac River south of Washington, D.C. He represented Charles County in the Maryland legislature in 1781-1782. He was a local justice of the peace from 1764 to 1799. He was a brigadier general in the Lower District, Western Shore, in 1776.

 

John Price Posey (1752-1788) was the nephew of Revolutionary War general Thomas Posey and a childhood playmate of George Washington’s stepson. He grew up near Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation and was a frequent guest there. Posey managed a plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, for Washington’s stepson, and served as a justice of the peace. When his stepson died in 1781, Washington learned that Posey had been embezzling money from the estate. He was fined £225 and stripped of his position as justice of the peace. Washington described him in correspondence as a “Superlative Villain.” In 1787, Posey was arrested for assaulting a sheriff and sentence to a month in jail. He escaped and returned and set fire to the jail and the county clerk’s office. Again arrested, he was convicted of arson, which was a capital crime. He was hanged in Richmond on January 25, 1788.

 

John Tayloe II (1721-1779) was one of the richest plantation owners in colonial Virginia. He raised tobacco, wheat, corn, and livestock, and operated the Neabsco Iron Works. Between 1760 and 1765, he constructed a plantation house at Mount Airy in Richmond County, Virginia.

 

 

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