Stephen, Adam

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Stephen, Adam

STEPHEN, ADAM. (c. 1721–1791). Continental general. Virginia. Educated as a surgeon in Scotland and England and a former naval surgeon, Stephen emigrated to Virginia in 1748. Finding too many physicians in Virginia and ambitious to enter the ranks of the gentry, he acquired a huge plantation in the Shenandoah Valley and produced flour and livestock, among other commodities; during the Revolutionary War he established an arms manufactory on his property. While serving in the French and Indian War, Stephen—as a lieutenant colonel—was second in command to George Washington in the Virginia Regiment. Thus, he participated in the clashes with French and Indian troops at Little Meadows and Great Meadows in 1754, the ill-fated Braddock expedition of 1755, and in the Forbes expedition of 1758. He himself conducted the heroic defense of Fort Ligonier in July 1759. Stephen commanded the Virginia Regiment in operations against the Cherokees in 1761. During the war Washington was almost always absent from his troops, who were stationed at Forts Cumberland and Loudoun and elsewhere, and hence Stephen had the responsibility of immediate command. Washington early developed a dislike of Stephen, considering him conniving and insubordinate. The relationship became somewhat humorous. The two men ran against each other for a seat in the House of Burgesses from Frederick County, Virginia; Washington accused Stephen of engaging in dirty politics, while the future commander in chief was doing much the same thing.

Appointed colonel of the Fourth Virginia Regiment on 13 February 1776 and brigadier general on 4 September 1776, Stephen jeopardized Washington's Trenton raid by sending an unauthorized patrol across the Delaware on Christmas Day, coming across Stephen's wandering troops after he himself had crossed the Delaware. Washington turned on Stephen in one of his occasional bursts of flaming temper. "You sir," said Washington, "may have ruined all my plans." As it was, the premature crossing worked in favor of the Americans; the Hessian commander at Trenton mistook this episode as the one reported to him in intelligence of an American crossing, and therefore took no further precautions to impede an American attack.

As a major general (appointed 19 February 1777), Stephen sent troops on missions of his own devising and submitted exaggerated reports of their success. On 10 May he attempted to surprise the Forty-second Highlanders at Piscataway, New Jersey. Although repulsed and driven back toward his own camp, he reported a gallant success in which at least two hundred of the enemy were killed. Washington questioned Stephen's veracity and pointed out to Stephen that "your account … is favorable, but I am sorry to add, widely different from those I have had from others."

The divisions of Stephen and Wayne collided during the Battle of Germantown on 4 October 1777, a misfortune that probably caused the panic of Washington's attacking force. Shortly afterwards, Stephen was brought before a court of inquiry and then a court-martial, where in the latter he was charged with "unofficerlike behaviour" in the march from northern New Jersey preliminary to the Philadelphia campaign and during the battles of Brandywine and Germantown and also charged with "drunkenness." He was found guilty for not restraining retreating soldiers at Germantown and also for being "frequently intoxicated since in the service." Despite his appeal of the verdict to Congress, Stephen was "dismissed" (not cashiered) from the army. The case against Stephen had not been strong. Working against him was his advanced age (fifty-six years), flamboyance, and outspokenness. Upon Stephen's removal, Washington assigned Stephen's division to Lafayette.

Stephen retired to his plantation in western Virginia. He founded Martinsburg (later in West Virginia), which was incorporated in 1778, and reestablished his residence there at an eight-room stone house finished in 1789. The house and grounds became an historical park with a small museum. Evidence that his dismissal from the army was considered an injustice is his service in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1780 to 1785 and in the state convention for ratifying the U.S. Constitution in June 1788. Stephen never married but had a daughter by his mistress; the daughter, Ann, married Alexander Spotswood Dandridge, brother-in-law of Patrick Henry and second cousin of Martha Washington.


Mish, Mary V. "General Adam Stephen, Founder of Martinsburg, West Virginia." West Virginia History 28 (1961): 63-75.

Stephen, Adam. "Colonel Stephen's Life Written by Himself for B. Rush in 1775." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 18 (1894): 43-50.

Van Metre, Thomas E. "Adam Stephen—the Man." Berkeley Journal (Fall 1970): 12-21.

Ward, Harry M. Major General Adam Stephen and the Cause of American Liberty. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989.

                              revised by Harry M. Ward

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