Last Man Standing: The Search for the Oldest Revolutionary Veteran

By the mid-1800s, the reality began to set in that the number of Revolutionary War survivors was quickly diminishing. As people began inquiring about the remaining veterans still living across the country, many newspapers took to the task of finding out exactly who was left of those who had bravely fought in the country’s war for independence. Throughout the next few decades, newspaper writers used several means to gather information on the surviving veterans including researching pension records, printing inquiries in papers, and simple word of mouth. Although none of these methods were error-proof, they did shine some light on the fast-fading era of revolutionary heroes.

The Daily Phoenix (Columbia, S.C.) reported in July 1865 on what was believed to be the only four remaining veterans of the Revolutionary War.

In 1843, a list circulated in newspapers throughout the country of over 100 surviving Revolutionary War veterans. A little over twenty years later, in July 1865, the Daily Phoenix out of Columbia, S.C. printed a small paragraph stating that according to pension records, only four soldiers from the Revolutionary War remained alive. The write-up included the soldiers’ names, dates of birth, and potential whereabouts. Just over a year later, in October 1866, the Daily Phoenix printed the death notice of a man (not mentioned in the previous article) who had fought in the war. And by December 1866, the paper had received word that another soldier who had not been previously listed was also still alive. However, by February of 1867, the death notice written for Samuel Downing presumed that with his passing no other veterans “who actually bore arms” in the war survived. In 1869, the Daily Phoenix printed a conclusive article stating that there were no longer any soldiers on the pension list (there were, however, many widows and children still recorded).

A photograph of Samuel Downing who was thought to be the last Revolutionary War veteran at the time of his death in 1867. (via americanrevolution.org)

Over the next couple of years, newspapers reported that more veterans were still living who had not been previously recorded on the pension rolls.  In 1870, the Anderson Intelligencer wrote about John Kitts, a Revolutionary soldier who had recently been received by the President and members of Congress in recognition of his service to the country. In 1871, the Daily Phoenix included a brief paragraph stating that two more soldiers were alive, but only one, D. F. Bateman, was on the pension list.

In 1871, the Daily Phoenix (Columbia, S.C.) prints that another two veterans remain alive.

Around this same time, a newspaper reporter from Birmingham inquired with the London Times to see if any British veterans remained. In June 1869, the Anderson Intelligencer published the reporter’s findings which stated that a veteran who had served as a drummer boy in the war was still alive.

As the numbers dwindled of those who actively fought, focus turned toward others who had some sort of connection to or memory of the war.  In 1868, the Anderson Intelligencer reported on an African-American man known as Old Father Robinson living in Detroit. Robinson had been born on the plantation of a Colonel in 1753 in Maryland. When the Colonel went to serve in the Revolutionary War, Robinson served alongside him as his bodyguard and was present for Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown which ended the war.

The Anderson Intelligencer (Anderson Court House, S.C.) reports in 1884 on the surviving widows.

There were also many widows and children of soldiers still living and wives of soldiers could continue collecting their husbands’ pensions from the government even after their passing. In 1884, the Anderson Intelligencer reported that 82 widows remained on the pension lists. In 1890, the Keowee Courier stated that only 25 were still alive. And by 1899, only 5 widows from the pension list were known to still be alive. As pointed out in the article, over 115 years had passed since the end of the war but since many older veterans had married younger women, the government was still paying pensions even a century later.

Using the newspapers alone, it becomes clear that conclusively finding the “last man standing” from the Revolutionary War is not as easy as it may seem. The topic is still contested today of just who was the last surviving veteran of the war. Try searching Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers to locate more articles about survivors of the Revolutionary War. Use a combination of words such as “revolution,” “veteran,” “pension,” or “widow” to locate different results.  Let us know in the comments below if you locate anything of interest!

 

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