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John Watson Tadwell Watson
(1748 - 1826)

This oddly named Knight of the Mischianza rose to fleeting prominence during the later phase of the Southern Campaign, but his overall life remains obscure. Aside from some brief accounts of his military service in 1780-81, I have had little luck in tracking down information on him. In a paper presented in 1977, Robert Bass commented that even the Scots (3rd) Guards, Watson's career-long regiment, could provide him with no information beyond the bare dates of Watson's promotions.1

Watson was born in London, and began his military career when he joined the 3d Foot Guards as an ensign, probably some time in 1768. (His commission date was April 13, 1767, but since his name does not appear in the Officers' List for that year, it was likely backdated.) On April 28, 1773, he rose to the rank of lieutenant and captain in the same regiment. He would remain with the 3rd Guards throughout his years of active service, but like many of his contemporaries he also commanded provincial and militia forces during the Revolution. According to Bass, "he had been living right high around London prior to [the] Revolution. He'd gotten himself thoroughly entangled in gambling debts and when there was an opportunity to come to America on full pay... he asked for it, because he figured he could save enough to pay himself out of debt and get started again."2

Watson's service in America began in March, 1777. By the early part of 1778 he was in command of the Light Infantry Company of the Brigade of Guards, stationed in the Philadelphia area. This Brigade had been formed in Great Britain in February 1776, composed of detachments from the existing three regiments of Guards (the First Guards, the Coldstream Guards and the Third Guards). The personnel were divided into eight battalion companies, one light infantry company and one grenadier company. They embarked for America, under the command of Brigadier General Edward Mathew (Captain and Lieutenant Colonel of the Coldstream Guards) on May 2, 1776 and arrived at Sandy Hook on August 12. At the orders of Lieutenant General William Howe, they were reorganized into two battalions of five companies each. The Grenadier Company was assigned to the First Battalion and the Light Company was assigned to the Second Battalion.3

Over the winter garrison in Philadelphia, Watson also served as captain of the Black Knights in the Mischianza. A newspaper account of the pageant provided this description of the guardsman in full regalia: "Captain Watson, of the guards, as Chief, dressed in a magnificent suit of black and orange silk, and mounted on a black managed horse, with trappings of the same colours with his own dress, appeared in honour of Miss [Rebecca] Franks. He was attended in the same manner as Lord Cathcart. Capt. Scot bore his lance, and Lieut. Lyttelton his shield. The Device, a Heart, with a Wreath of Flowers; Motto, Love and Glory.4

The winter garrison had not necessarily been a quiet one for him. A few weeks before the Mischianza, he fought a sword duel with a fellow officer, Colonel West Hyde, about "their people pulling down some old house" and ran Hyde through the arm.5

In June, after the army had retired to New York, the Bucks County Light Dragoons were attached to the Light Infantry Company of the Brigade of Guards. (Earlier in the year, Watson seems to have held temporary command of that Provincial troop while its regular commander, Captain Thomas Sandford, was a prisoner with the rebels.) He also briefly commanded the other core cavalry units of what would become the British Legion. The entry in the orderly book of the Brigade for July 28, 1778 announced that "Captain Watson will, until further orders, take charge of the Provincial Light Cavalry, ( Hovenden, James, Kinlock's Troops ) attached to the Light Infantry Company of the Brigade of Guards." But it was an easy-come/easy-go command. Mere days later, on August 1, another entry announced that the three cavalry units were to become part of the newly formed British Legion.6

On November 20, 1778, Watson was promoted to Captain and Lieutenant Colonel of the 3d Foot Guards and Lieutenant Colonel in the Army. Bundled with his promotions were orders to remain in America, even though it was customary for Guards officers to be rotated home at the end of two years of service.7

He commanded the four flank companies of the Guards which accompanied Major General Edward Mathew on his expedition to the Chesapeake from April 28, 1779 to May 24, 1779. (The four flank companies were the two light and two grenadier companies of the two guard battalions). Afterwards, he returned to New York City and rejoined the rest of the Brigade of Guards. On October 12, 1779, the War Office announced "Lieutenant-Colonel John Watson Tadwell Watson to be Captain of a Company [of the 3d Regiment of Foot Guards], vice Charles Earl of Harrington.8

Later that year, he was offered command of the post at Kingsbridge, but turned it down on the assumption that it would be an inactive assignment. In lieu of that appointment, he joined Sir Henry Clinton's staff just in time to sail south with the expedition bound for Charleston (December 1779) as an aide-de-camp. He was afterwards detached to command the newly formed "Provincial Light Infantry," a unit consisting of six detached Provincial Light Infantry Companies taken from The Loyal American Regiment, The Kings American Regiment, DeLancey's Brigade (3rd Battalion), and the New Jersey Volunteers (1st, 2nd and 4th Battalions). Without its new commander, who was ill at the time, the battalion accompanied Alexander Leslie on a second expedition to the Chesapeake. That assignment lasted from October 20, 1780 until November 12, 1780 when Leslie received orders from Charleston to proceed south to join Lord Cornwallis. Leslie arrived in Charleston on December 16, 1780, and Watson, who had remained behind in New York until he recovered, caught up with it there.9

When Cornwallis advanced north after Greene, Watson remained with Lord Rawdon's forces. By leaving him behind, Cornwallis seems to have essentially been getting rid of Watson, whom he apparently did not like. When he made the assignment, he wrote to Rawdon, "I know I am not making you a great present. But, my Lord, at least you can make him obey you. I'm not taking him with me on campaign, because his troops are light troops and Tarleton's troops are also light troops and there would be constant friction between the two men." In another letter, written to Tarleton on December 18, 1780, the Earl commented, "Lord Rawdon very readily agreed to undertake Watson so we shall be relieved of that plague."10

Those two statements, combined with Watson's duel with West Hyde and a modern writer's comment that Watson "was so convinced that he had a right to whatever rations he felt necessary that when a commissary refused him a few extra rations to provide for a guest in his household, he complained bitterly and indignantly to Clinton" would seem to indicate that Watson was not an easy man to work with. But the evidence is circumstantial at best. The fact that Watson was a former aide and favorite of Clinton's could as easily explain Cornwallis's hostility towards him as his personality or abilities.11

Whether it was for that or other reasons, Rawdon didn't try to get along with him immediately. (In fact, years later in a letter to Harry Lee, he would comment, not-quite-accurately, that Watson's corps had never formed part of his garrison.) Rather than calling Watson to join him at Camden, Rawdon dispatched him on an extended patrol "for the purpose of dispersing the plunderers that infested our eastern frontier." Watson was less than thrilled with the assignment, and complained about it to Nisbet Balfour, who convinced him that this detached command was more prestigious than simply functioning as part of the regular army. Watson petitioned for more men, ammunition and wagons, all without success, then finally got down to business. Over the course of the next five months, his mission would bring him into near-constant conflict with Marion, Sumter and other rebel partisan leaders.12

Watson began his tour of duty at Wright's Bluff, about sixty miles from Charleston, where he designed and built "Fort Watson," a small communication post situated atop an Indian mound. Due to his sound engineering, it and its approximately 110-man garrison were taken by the rebels in April, 1781 only after a difficult, five-day siege, while Watson and his main force were absent. Through the early part of 1781, Watson used the post as a staging base for raids, and Marion reported to Greene that it seemed unlikely it could be surprised and taken.13

In early March, 1781, Rawdon dispatched his Volunteers of Ireland under Lt. Col. Welbore Ellis Doyle to join Watson's force in a two-pronged attack against Marion's headquarters at Snow Island. Doyle succeeded in destroying the base, but Marion led Watson on a costly chase, peppering his route with traps and ambushes. The constant warfare ate away at Watson's force, which at that point is variously described as consisting of "the wing companies of... several volunteer corps", some regulars, and John Harrison's Rangers.14

In addition to skirmishing with weapons, Watson and Marion exchanged a flurry of accusations and counter accusations concerning atrocities, the dishonoring of flags of truce, and other forms of dirty warfare. They consist largely of a "did!"/"didn't!"/"DID!" level of articulation -- especially on Marion's side, since he was a man of few words -- but on March 9th, Watson fired off a particularly eloquent diatribe, elaborating on how rebel methods of warfare looked from his side of the fence:

It is with less surprise that I find a letter sent by you in all the apparent forms of a flag of truce, attended by an armed party who concealed themselves within a certain distance of a place that pointed itself out for the delivery of it, than to see the contents of it exhibit a complaint from you against us for violating the law of nations. I believe, sir, it would be as difficult for you to name an instance of a breach of it in his Majesty's troops, as it would for them to discover one where the law of arms or nations has been properly attended to by any of your party. An enumeration of the various particulars of such practices on your side, beginning with the very disgraceful conduct of Congress respecting the Convention troops, and the incessant instances that from that time to this hour have occurred in the different provinces, would be needless. I think it however right to mention one, as I meant to inform Gen'l Sumter of it. A few days ago, after Gen'l. Sumter had taken some waggons on the other side of the Santee, and the escort to them had laid down their arms, a party of his horse who said they had not discharged their pieces came up, fired upon the prisoners and killed seven of them. A few days after we took six of his people. Enquire how they were treated. As to reflecting on our practice of hanging your followers whom the chance of war puts into our hands, I have to answer, that if your followers are composed of our people... who have broken their paroles, they must expect to suffer that punishment (which in opposition to the late cruelties exercised by those who say they belong to you) it becomes necessary for us to inflict and which the law of nations justifies. The houses of desolate widows have been laid waste -- even burnt by these people. By these people too, many individuals defenceless, without arms, and taking side with neither contending party, but residing peaceably in their own houses, have been murdered. By what law are these proceedings justified? does martial any more than civil law countenance such people? If ever they fall into our hands, they will meet with the punishment due to their crimes. When noble enemies make war, such men are protected by no side. ... With respect to your threat of retaliation -- so long as you will permit us by a return of similar behaviour, we will make war with that generosity, that is the boast of Britons is the characteristic of their nation. Men like his Majesty's troops, fighting from principle for the good of their country, with hearts full of conscious integrity, are fearless of any consequences. War itself bears with it calamities sufficient. Take care then, sir, that you do not, by improper behaviour to our people who may from its chance of war become your prisoners, add to its natural horrors.15

During this period Watson also received his badge of being a somebody from rebel storytellers. That is to say, he joined the ranks of Huck, Ferguson, Tarleton and Wemyss by having the mandatory bardic encounter with the predictably spunky rebel housewife. His version is quite charming, and more sympathetic than is typical. His spunky rebel housewife was one "Widow Elizabeth Jenkins" and they started out with the typical conversation concerning the whereabouts of her menfolk. That duty fulfilled, Watson asked for a glass of wine, and proposed a toast to King George.

Mrs. Jenkins drank the toast. She then slyly refilled the glasses. As he raised his, she cried: "Health to George Washington!"

Watson made a wry face, but being a gentleman he cheerfully toasted the American Commander in Chief.16

While Watson and Marion were chasing each other through the swamps, Rawdon received intelligence that Greene's army had given up the pursuit of Cornwallis and were returning southward. He tried to recall Watson's detachment, which was roughly 500 strong, but Marion's force lay between them. "The position which Marion had taken near the High Hills of Santee precluded the hope of Lieut.-Colonel Watson's joining me," Rawdon wrote to Cornwallis a few weeks later.17

Unable to get back to Camden, Watson was eventually forced to retreat to Georgetown to find aid for his wounded. The detour meant that Rawdon was left on his own to face Greene's army, at the battle of Hobkirk's Hill (April 25, 1781), and that when he finally did reach Camden, Watson would discover that one of his subordinates had surrendered Fort Watson to Marion and Lee on April 23.18

After a stopover at Georgetown to rest and refit his detachment, Watson eluded his pursuers and made his way back to Camden. Buchanan's Ferry, where he finally managed to cross the Santee, had been left unguarded because Marion considered it impractical for him to cross there. He then proceeded to Camden "without molestation" along a route which required his force to "wade across six creeks, build a sixty-foot bridge over a seventh, and cut 'for about a Mile and half through the canes that grow in those swamps.'" On May 24, Rawdon reported to Cornwallis that, "On the 7th of May Lieutenant-colonel Watson joined me with his detachment, much reduced in number through casualties, sickness, and a reinforcement which he had left to strengthen the garrison at George town."19

Camden was evacuated on May 9. By the end of the month, Rawdon's health was seriously failing, and at the beginning of June, a rebel intelligence report noted that Watson had taken over his command while Rawdon lay in Charleston, "very sick."20

Shortly thereafter, Watson returned to New York carrying dispatches from Rawdon, leaving his executive officer, Major Thomas Barclay -- a New York City loyalist from the Loyal American Regiment -- in command of the Provincial Battalion. What happened to him after that is the subject of argument. Bass reports that he served with the garrison at Charleston until it was evacuated, but it is likely that he is referring only to the Provincial Battalion, which served there until December, 1781, when it was dissolved. Another modern source states that after Watson left the south, he returned to England -- which he did eventually, of course, but not until at least December, 1782. During the intervening time, he again served on Clinton's staff and commanded the Guards detachment. On June 5, 1782, he was one of several officers who wrote letters of protest to George Washington over the threatened execution of Captain Asgill.21

On July 28, Sir George Osborn wrote to the commander-in-chief from London that "Lieut. Col. Watson's presence is greatly needed in his regiment which is ordered home," adding that he hoped Watson would not be detained in America. On Nov. 17, a reply was sent, informing Osborn that Watson would "take the first opportunity of going home." His signature on various minor documents in New York indicate his continued presence there until at least Dec. 24, 1782, after which he finally returned home.22

Watson remained in the army until his death, working his way up the ranks. He became Colonel in the Army on November 20, 1782, and on December 15, 1783, the Morning Herald announced his promotion "by brevet" to colonel of the 3d Foot Guards. On April 1, 1795, he was given a regular commission as first major of the regiment, and remained in that post until 1801. In 1802, he vanished from the roll of the Guards -- reduced to half pay perhaps? -- then resurfaced in his final service post as Colonel of the 8th Royal Veteran Battalion on December 29, 1804. He was named Major General on December 20, 1793, Lieutenant General on June 26, 1799, and became a General on April 25, 1808.23

Beyond that, all I can find is a notation that at some point he married a daughter of John Hinchliffe, Bishop of Peterborough, and that he died in Calais, France, on June 11, 1826. At the time of his death, he was the eighth senior general in the army (two slots below Rawdon, and six above Tarleton), but unlike most of the men whose names surrounded his on the list, he had earned neither knighthood nor title.24

Some time after the war -- probably c1791, based on a statement on the length of his military career -- Watson wrote a "narrative" of his military accomplishments for a noble patron. This document, which is now part of the Clinton papers, gives his version of his participation in the Southern Campaign. Unfortunately, it doesn't fill in any significant blanks from other parts of his life.

[Thanks to Don Gara for providing copies of the Bass and Dornfest articles, Watson's narrative and the website documents on the Guards.]

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1 Robert D. Bass, "John Tadwell-Watson, Builder of Fort Watson," The Independent Republic Quarterly 12 (1978): 10. I believe the 3rd Guards took on the name "Scots Guards" at a later period, but I'm not certain. [ back ]

2 Grant Wilson and John Fiske, Appleton's Cyclopaedia Of American Biography, 6 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1887-89), 6:393. A List of All the Officers of the Army: Viz. the General and Field Officers; the Officers of the Several Troops, Regiments, Independent Companies and Garrisons... in Great Britain; (War Office, published annually), 1768, 1775 editions. Bass, "Watson," p10. (He gives no source for the information, but it is possibly from a memorial by Watson in the Clinton Papers.) Mark M. Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994), p1172. Bass, "Watson," p11. [ back ]

3 A Brief History of the Brigade of Guards on, accessed c. Jan., 2004. "Roll of Officers of the 3rd Guards who served in the American War of Independence," on, accessed c. March, 2004. Both listings were provided to me in hard copy. The latter no longer works, though at the moment (22-May-2007), it can still be access via (Thanks to John Robertson for the info.) [ back ]

4 Gentleman's Magazine (August, 1778), p355. [ back ]

5 John Peebles, The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776-1782, ed. Ira D. Gruber (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998), p173. [ back ]

6 Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 36 (1912):256. It is from a note and query page which lists miscellaneous items. The entry is from an orderly book of the Brigade of Guards in the Library of Congress, which covers the period January 30, to August 9, 1778. Another article from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 35(1910) entitled "Loyalist Muster Rolls 1777-1778" lists Watson in command of the Bucks County Light Dragoons on the April 24, 1778 muster roll. [ back ]

7 Officers of the Army, 1780 edition. Walter T. Dornfest, "John Watson Tadwell Watson and the Provincial Light Infantry, 1780-1781," Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 75 (1997): 220-1. [ back ]

8 Carl Leopold Baurmeister, The Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776-1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces, trans. and ed. B.A. Uhlendorf (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1957), letter dated May 3, 1779, p271, 279. London Gazette, 09-12 Oct 1779. [ back ]

9 Peter Russell, "The Siege of Charleston: Journal of Captain Peter Russell, December 25, 1779, to May 2, 1780," ed. James Bain, Jr., American Historical Review, 4 (1899):479. Baurmeister, letter dated Oct 29, 1780, p385. Dornfest, p221-3. Boatner, p1172. [ back ]

10 Bass, "Watson," p12. Robert D. Bass, The Green Dragoon; The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson (New York: Henry Holt and Company; 1957), p140. [ back ]

11 R. Arthur Bowler, Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in America, 1775-1783 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975), p172, citing the CP, Col. Watson to Clinton, 14 July 81. [ back ]

12 Rawdon to Henry Lee, Jr., 24 June 1813, in Henry Lee, The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee, ed. Robert E. Lee (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), p615. Rawdon to Cornwallis, 26 April 1781, in K.G. Davies, ed., Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783, 21 vols. (Dublin: Irish University Press, c1977-1982), 20:122-124. Dornfest, p224. [ back ]

13 Boatner, p388-9. Bass, "Watson," p12. Marion to Greene in Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (London: Printed for T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1787), p471-473. Nathanael Greene to Francis Marion, 25 January 1781, in Nathanael Greene, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, ed. Richard K. Showman, Dennis M. Conrad et al., 11+ vols. (Chapel Hill, N.C. and London: The University of North Carolina Press for the Rhode Island Historical Society, c1976-), 7:194-195. [ back ]

14 Robert Stansbury Lambert, South Carolina Loyalists in the American Revolution, (Columbia, South Carolina: the University of South Carolina Press, 1987), p168. Baurmeister, p439. Sir Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion. Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative of his Campaigns, 1775-82 ed. William B. Willcox. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), p295-6. Rawdon to Cornwallis, 26 April 1781, in Davies, 20:122-124. Balfour to Germain, 1 May 1781, in Davies, 20:130-131. It is common to see the other officer involved in the raid referred to as (future Sir) John Doyle. Both brothers were in the Volunteers of Ireland, but John, although the older of the two, was inferior to his brother in rank. [ back ]

15 Watson to Marion, 9 Mar 1781, in R. W. Gibbes, ed. Documentary History of the American Revolution, 3 vols. (Spartanburg, S.C.: The Reprint Company, 1972), 3:33-35. [ back ]

16 Robert Duncan Bass, The Swamp Fox, The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion (Orangeburg, South Carolina: Sandlapper Publishing Co., Inc., 1974), p165. I assume most of these encounters took place in some form or other, but I'd love to know if any of the conversations actually took place in a recognizable form. Or were they all "it makes a better story this way" embellishments from a later date? [ back ]

17 Rawdon to Cornwallis, 26 April 1781, in Davies, 20:122-124. [ back ]

18 Rawdon to Cornwallis, 24 May 1781, in Tarleton, p475-479. in Charles, Marquis Cornwallis, Rawdon to Cornwallis, 25 April 1781, in The Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, 2d edition, ed. Charles Derek Ross, 3 vols. (London: J. Murray, 1859), 1:98. Dornfest, p227. [ back ]

19 Greene/Showman, 8:215n, citing Watson to unnamed correspondent, n.d., Clinton Papers. Rawdon to Cornwallis, 24 May 1781, in Tarleton, p475-479. [ back ]

20 Greene, 8:355n, referencing a letter from Maham to Huger, 4-5 June 1781. [ back ]

21 Peebles, p455. Bass, "Watson," p16. Dornfest, p228. Watson to Washington, 5 June 1782, in Davies, 19:303. [ back ]

22 Sir George Osborn to Sir Guy Carleton, 28 Jul 1782, in Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on American Manuscripts in the Royal Institute of Great Britain, 4 vols. (London: Printed for His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1901-9), 3:41. Sir Henry Clinton to Sir George Osborn, 17 Nov 1782, Ibid., 3:226. Watson's signature appears on a variety of documents, including John W. Watson to Major. Fred. MacKenzie, 10 Dec 1782, Ibid., 3:257-8, "Account of 183 Days' pay for chaplain and surgeon's mate of the [Brigade of Foot Guards], signed J.W. T. Watson, Lieutenant Colonel, 25 Jun - 24 Dec 1782, Ibid., 3:281, etc. [ back ]

23 Officers of the Army, 1783, 1796, 1801, 1805, 1815, 1826 editions. Morning Herald, 15 December 1783. [ back ]

24 Cornwallis/Ross, 1:98n. Wilson and Fiske, 6:393. [ back ]

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