an essay on German-American soldiers
Through the research of a number of genealogists who are descendants of John May we have learned of his service in the Revolutionary War. The following is a summary from my book, The Shoemaker's Children, telling John's story during the years of the Revolution. He was one of thousands of young German-Americans who took up arms in defence of their country. He, like most of these men, was born in America and was swept up in the call for independence that rang throughout the Colonies. John had lived in Lancaster, PA until 1768, when he was eight years old, and then his father [Francis Peter] and uncles [Daniel & Leonard] moved their families to Virginia. They settled first in Loudoun County and then Francis and Daniel moved to Berkeley County. This was John's home when Congress first called for companies of riflemen in June of 1775. The next year John was old enough to volunteer.
About the last week of October, Captain Cherry and his four officers marched their small column north thirteen miles towards Watkin's Ferry. Once across the Potomac, they set off on a northeasterly course, crossing Maryland along the remaining 162 miles of the "Great Waggon Road" to Philadelphia. This route had been well-traveled in the thirteen years since the end of the French and Indian War by thousands of families on their heavily loaded wagons. The clear, cool nights of the fall season had already begun to give early indications of the cold winter that lay ahead. The stopping points along the 96-mile route from the ferry to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, certainly a destination of great interest to John May, were: "The Stone-house Tavern" (14 miles); "the other (west) side of the mountain" (25 miles); "the mountain at Black's Gap" (7 miles); "Hunter's-town" (3 miles); "Abbott's-town (10 miles); "York-town" (15 miles); "Wright's (ferry) on Susquehannah" (12 miles); "Lancaster" (10 miles). The remaining distance from Lancaster to Philadelphia was 66 miles.
Sarah provided sufficient information for us to piece together some of her husband's experiences in the Army:
From these statements we learn that John's company, at least for part of his service, was led by a "Captain Cherry." This was William Cherry, the owner and operator of Cherry Tavern in Charles Town, Berkeley County. Some of John's service, which we can conclude to have occurred over a period of about two and a half years, was with Virginia battalions under the command of General Charles Lee, also of Berkeley County. Captain Cherry's company marched from Martinsburg to the banks of the Hudson, a trek of about twenty days. They probably arrived at Fort Lee, New Jersey by mid-November, 1776, in the heat of a series of critical battles. These historic events provided John a rich source for stories he recounted many times throughout the remainder of his life.
The battles of this winter were vividly recalled by John throughout his life. They had been impressed on the mind of a sixteen year-old soldier who, with no formal military training, had been thrust into the terrible reality of war. During these initial tragic days of service, he saw men wounded and killed for the first time in his life. The size of the British fleet at New York Harbor and the number of men fighting on both sides must have overwhelmed this green recruit. The British had over 32,000 disciplined, professional soldiers, including about 9,000 German mercenaries, and over 350 ships manned by 10,000 sailors, in the attacks on Long Island and Manhattan Island. Eyewitness accounts of events of such historic importance were a valuable legacy to pass down to his children.
In a deposition taken in Prestonsburg, Kentucky in 1845, John's son, Samuel, stated:
Sarah's 1845 Declaration doesn't mention any other battles that John witnessed or fought. However, a review of historical events that followed the British victories at the mouth of the Hudson in November, 1776, provides a wealth of information to illustrate what John must have witnessed and personally experienced in the waning days of that fateful year. After Washington's retreat across the Hudson he led his troops south to the Delaware River, pursued by General Cornwallis. It was on this trek that Thomas Paine wrote "The Crisis," a phamphlet issued on December 23rd that '"flew like wildfire through all the towns and villages." It begins:
Sarah stated that John "had a charge in the artillery." If this was his first duty, he probably served under Henry Knox, who accompanied Washington as he made his now-famous crossing of the Delaware after dark on Christmas Day, as 1776 was coming to an end. Four of Knox's twelve cannons went with John Sullivan to Trenton to support one wing in a classic pincers attack. Washington and the rest of Knox's cannons moved with the other wing, led by Nathanael Greene. Two of the guns were under the command of a nineteen-year-old captain, Alexander Hamilton. A neighbor of the May family in Martinsburg, brigadier-general Adam Stephen, led one of the regiments in the victory at Trenton on the morning of the 26th. Three Hessian regiments were smashed and nearly a thousand men were captured.
The British had assembled a force at Princeton, less than ten miles away, to stage a counter attack. but they were repulsed by Knox's artillery. Washington led a movement in the middle of the night to launch a surprise attack on the morning of January 3, 1777 against the British garrison at Princeton, and took three hundred more prisoners. These brief but decisive victories have been called "the first important turning point of the war." The next day, Washington marched his troops out of Princeton on their way to winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey. Two days later John May, far away from home and family, quietly celebrated his seventeenth birthday.
We have no good clues regarding the remaining years of John's service but Sarah said she "is satisfied he must have been in the service two years."
May's Sons in the Revolution
Johannes May is said
to have been a Revolutionary soldier. From letters exchanged
between two May genealogists in 1983 we learn that he "served
in the Pennsylvania Light Infantry." He later lived
and died in Bedford, Pennsylvania. Notes from another May genealogist
show that George May, a resident of Loudoun County, was listed
as a private at Fort Frederick and as a member of the 3rd Virginia
Regiment from Loudoun County that served at Valley Forge. A record
from a Revolutionary War veteran, Peter Borders, gives an account
of entering service in 1781 as a substitute for a John May -
called Michael May in a later account - of Loudoun County, Virginia.
This probably was Johann Michael May, Leonard's youngest son,
who turned sixteen sometime in the early 1780s. The duty he hired
Borders to do was "guarding prisoners who were sent to
Winchester Barracks in Frederick County, Virginia."
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