HEATH, WILLIAM. (1737–1814). Continental Army general. Massachusetts. Born at Roxbury on 13 March 1737, Heath was a farmer, militiaman, and politician before the Revolution. He represented Roxbury in the Massachusetts General Court in 1761 and again from 1771 until its dissolution by General Thomas Gage in 1774. Then he became a member of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts and of the committees of correspondence and safety. He described himself candidly as "of middling stature, light complexion, very corpulent, and bald-headed" (Heath, p. 15). Interested in soldiering from an early age, he read every military work he could get his hands on. He saw no action during the final French and Indian War but joined Boston's Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company in 1765 and later became captain of his local militia company; as war approached he was active in rousing the militia. On 9 February 1775 the Massachusetts Provincial Congress appointed him one of its five brigadier generals. The first American general on the scene as the British retreated to Boston from Lexington and Concord, he ordered the initial dispositions for what became the siege of Boston. Promoted to major general of Massachusetts troops on 20 June, he was appointed a Continental brigadier general two days later. On 13 March 1776 he led the first detachment of troops from Boston to New York City and became Israel Putnam's second in command when the latter arrived on 3 April.
Heath was elevated to major general on 9 August 1776 and a month later was one of three senior officers who voted in a council of war to defend New York City. Washington recognized Heath's limitations and during the New York and New Jersey campaigns posted him where no major threat was expected. On 12 November Heath was placed in command of troops defending the Hudson Highlands. His best chance for distinction as a field commander resulted in the mismanaged diversion against Fort Independence, New York, on 17-18 January 1777. Washington wrote him privately that "your conduct is censured … as being fraught with too much caution by which the Army has been disappointed, and in some degree disgraced" (Twohig, p. 240). On 11 February 1777 Heath left Peekskill for a short leave. He reached Roxbury on 19 February and on 14 March had started back toward his headquarters when he received orders to succeed Artemas Ward as commander of the Eastern Department. The highlight of this tour of duty was his temporary custody of Burgoyne and the Convention army. He remained in Boston until 11 June 1779, when he left to join the main army on the Hudson. On 23 June he took command of troops on the east side of the river, the advance posts of which were then at Peekskill. He remained in the Highlands for the rest of the war except for the period from 16 June to 1 October 1780, when he was in Providence to handle the reception of the Comte de Rochambeau's French expeditionary force. On 1 July 1783 he returned to his farm at Roxbury. He was a member of the state convention that ratified the Constitution, served as a state senator in 1791–1792, and then became a probate judge. He published his valuable Memoirs in 1798. Heath was the last surviving major general of the Revolution when he died on 24 January 1814, in the house where he had been born.
Heath, William. Heath's Memoirs of the American War. Edited by Rufus R. Wilson. 1798. New York: A. Wessels Company, 1904.
Twohig, Dorothy, et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series. Vol. 8: January-March 1777. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.
revised by Harold E. Selesky