Did the sons of Charles Witt serve in the Revolution?

It has long been assumed by some Witt family historians that the North Carolina grants in Tennessee to the Witt brothers were payments for Revolutionary service.  However, that is not true.   All of them were straightforward land purchases that were entirely unrelated to military service.   This is more thoroughly explained in the separate document.

A letter written by Mrs. Mary L. Norton and published in Burgess’s Virginia Soldiers of 1776, Vol. 1 (and quoted elsewhere) stating that Joseph, Elijah, and Caleb Witt all served in the military from North Carolina is, I suspect, the result of a misunderstanding of the nature of these land grants.  I can find no record of any kind in North Carolina that any of the three served in any rmilitary unit from that state, although Elijah Witt served in a militia unit in the western part of North Carolina which became Tennessee.

It seems far more likely that they served in Virginia rather than in North Carolina, and in the county militia rather than in the army (as Caleb Witt’s widow claimed in her pension application.)   As militia members, their service was not eligible for land warrants.

Elijah Witt

Elijah Witt is the only one of the three brothers for whom we have certain proof of service, as a Captain of militia from Washington County, North Carolina (later Tennessee).   Two of his men applied for pensions under the Act of 1832, providing us with quite a bit of information about Elijah Witt’s own service.

  • David Denham successfully applied for a Revolutionary pension in 1834, stating that he served four separate six-month enlistments in the militia company commanded by Captain Elijah Witt, under Colonel John Sevier and Major Walton. He first enlisted in Gilford County, North Carolina about 12 September 1780 in Captain Elijah Witt’s militia company which, he declared, took part in the battle of Kings Mountain a few weeks later, although he himself was on medical leave after being kicked by a horse. He declared that he enlisted a second time in Captain Elijah Witt’s company about 14 July 1781 and marched through the frontiers of South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina, guarding the frontiers, until he was discharged in mid-January 1782. He enlisted a third time in Captain Witt’s company two months later and served from March until September 1782 “guarding the frontiers of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina” after which he was discharged in Washington County, North Carolina (later Tennessee). He enlisted a fourth time in Washington County in the same company in March 1783 and served until August 11783 when he was discharged.
  • The 1833 Revolutionary pension application of Tidence Lane Jr. states that he enlisted for a three month tour in Washington County in early February 1781 “at the house of Captain Elijah Witt, near the buffaloe ridge, by Captain Elijah Witt to march in an expedition against the Cherokees on the Tennessee (River)” under Col. John Sevier and Major Wharton(sic).1   The company participated in skirmishes against the Indians and burned one of their towns. He was discharged by Captain Witt in May 1782. In September 1782 he again enlisted “at the house of Elijah Witt” although he served that enlistment in Captain John Hardeman’s company. Interestingly, Rev. Pleasant A. Witt (a son of Caleb Witt) testified as to Tidence Lane’s veracity.

Captain Elijah Witt continued to serve in the militia after the war, as there exist a number of vouchers for Elijah Witt for post-war militia service in Washington County, the earliest of which is dated 12 June 1783, after hostilities with the British ceased.

There is also a record of Elijah Witt cashing a specie certificate with John Armstrong in North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Accounts, but this is not proof of service.  It merely indicates that he came into possession of paper money, not that he was the original recipient.  Specie certificates were bought and sold like any other valuable, and substituted for paper money during and immediately after the war.  Indeed the North Carolina law required that all land grants in Tennessee had to be paid for in specie certificates.   (This was North Carolina’s way of eliminating as many of those certificates as possible in order to reduce its war debt.)

Militia service was not acceptable for grants in Tennessee.  And, unfortunately, militia records are much scarcer than regular army records.   Thomas Jarnigan, for example, did not receive a military warrant either, yet we can easily prove he served in the militia for at least four years.

Caleb Witt

We can prove that Caleb Witt served for seven days.  While it is likely that he served for a longer term than a week, no proof has been found.   His widow’s pension application, in which she claimed that her husband served from Halifax County, was rejected for lack of proof. 2

His widow had no first-hand knowledge, as she didn’t marry Caleb Will until after he moved to Tennessee.   Further, she applied for the pension in 1844, seventy-odd years after the event.  She was surely repeating what her husband told her, but her memory must have been somewhat vague on details by that time.

She stated that Caleb was living in Halifax County, Virginia in 1779 when he was “drafted for the term of two years but served only eighteen months the first tower (sic) but afterwards entered the service again” for a period of six months, serving as a private. “She believes that the name of his Captain was James Hill and that his Colonel was Harry otherwise Henry Conway and that her husband was at the battle of Little York at the time Cornwallis surrendered.” Charles Horner Witt, the son of Caleb Witt, testified on behalf of his mother, adding that his father’s residence in Halifax County was ”not far from a place called Doby’s Old Store, that he was present at the siege of York , and in active service in said battle for seven days, and witnessed the surrender of Cornwallis.” [The surrender occurred in October 1781.]   Evin Young (who was aged 76 in 1844 and therefore only about 11 years old when Caleb Witt entered service) testified in support of the application, stating that Caleb Witt was drafted “at Dobes Old Store” under Captain James Hill and served eighteen months culminating with the surrender of Cornwallis.   Samuel Lane (who was aged 74 in 1844 and testifying about an event that happened when he was 9 years old) testified that Caleb Witt enlisted in 1779 under Colonel Campbell and Captain Hill, serving eighteen months, and later enlisted for six months in Col. Henry Conway’s regiment.

On 29 October 1853 the Pension office rejected the application, stating that “he only served seven days”. On 10 June 1854 letter the Pension Office, apparently in response to an appeal of the rejection, wrote a letter stating that “the only record of service found is for seven days. There is no record on file to rebut the presumption that he served no longer.”

A check of the records shows some inconsistencies with the pension claim. It’s likely that his wife and children misunderstood or misremembered the information Caleb shared with them after the war. The lengthy period of service they claimed suggests that Caleb Witt served in the regular army, not the militia. Yet no record of Caleb Witt appears in the records of the regular army or state troops, a fact noted by the Pension Office in its initial rejection of the pension application in 1845.

Research uncovered a few possible explanations:

  • It appears that Caleb Witt served under Colonel Henry Conway after the war in the Tennessee militia. Henry Conway was a Captain — not a Colonel — in the 10th Virginia and 14th Virginia from November 1776 to March 1779 according to muster rolls, and (according to affidavits in his pension file) continued to serve in the regular army as a Captain through the end of the war.3  Indeed, he was awarded a land warrant on the basis of seven years of service as a Captain of the Continental Line.   Henry Conway had moved to Greene County, Tennessee (later Washington County) by 1783 and it was there that he served as a militia Colonel. It would seem that Caleb Witt’s widow and children were referring to his post-war militia service in Tennessee when they testified that he served under “Colonel Conway”. Henry Conway was relatively famous – he was state treasurer and senator, and two of his daughters married sons of Governor John Sevier – so he was surely well known to other settlers like Caleb Witt and his wife.
  • There is no known record of a “Doby” or “Dolby” in Halifax County, and nothing similar appears on the extant tax lists, but there was a well-known store run by Hugh Dobbins called “Dobbin’s Store” several miles south in Granville County, North Carolina, which was a regular mustering place for militia. Over 2,000 members of the North Carolina and Virginia militia gathered at this store prior to marching to the battle of Guilford Courthouse in early 1781. For instance, Thomas Chumley’s application for pension reads “..Thence he marched in said company 20 miles to one Hugh Dobbins’s in North Carolina, a noted place of rendezvous, where they joined four other companies …
  • James Hill was a militia Captain in Halifax County, who evidently never served in the regular army. There are a number of pension applications from other soldiers who served in the Halifax County militia. At least three of them mention Captain James Hill, who served as a Halifax County militia captain until 1781.4
  • Colonel Campbell was likely William Campbell, who in 1780 became a Colonel of the Washington County militia in western Virginia. He led a militia regiment at the battle of King’s Mountain in October 1780 and later at the battle of Guilford Courthouse in March 1781. At least some of the Halifax County militia was under his command in the latter battle. He was promoted to General but died in August 1781.

Although Caleb’s widow may have mixed up a few facts, there is enough truth to her claims that it seems to me to support Caleb Witt’s service in the local militia, despite the lack of records.

Joseph Witt

Revolutionary War service by the third brother, Joseph Witt, is the least supportable. There is no evidence whatsoever that he served either before or after the war. It is perhaps significant that his widow lived long enough to apply for a widow’s pension, but did not do so. Like Caleb Witt, he most likely served in the local militia.

  1. Revolutionary Pension File W3777. []
  2. Revolutionary Pension File R11755 []
  3. Revolutionary Pension File W6719. His widow, living in Washington County, Tennessee, applied for a pension in 1837. She and three officers files affidavits that Henry Conway served from March 1777 through the end of the war as a Captain in the Continental Line. Conway was, incidentally, from Pittsylvania County, Virginia. []
  4. Revolutionary Pension File Numbers S16422 (William Irvine), S4555 (John Ligon), W5787 (James Bates). []