Soldier. Washington was born on February 28, 1752, in Overwharton Parish, Stafford County, Virginia, the son of Bailey Washington and Catherine Storke, and he was a second cousin of President George Washington. Having no middle name, he is often confused in history with his distant cousin William Augustine Washington (1757–1810). At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, in 1775 he was elected a captain of Stafford County Minutemen, which was integrated into the Third Virginia Regiment in 1776. After marching north with his unit later in the year, Captain Washington led a successful charge against a Hessian artillery battery at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776. Wounded in this action, he was rewarded with a promotion to major of the Fourth Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons.
By the end of 1779 Washington had advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel, commanding the Third Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons, and was ordered to join the patriot forces of General Benjamin Lincoln in Charleston, South Carolina. By March 1780 Washington’s regiment was detached with the light forces near Moncks Corner to reconnoiter and screen against the advancing enemy. On March 26, 1780, he had his first encounter with British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton near Rantowle’s Bridge. Washington’s command was soundly defeated by Tarleton at Moncks Corner on April 14 and again at Lenud’s Ferry on May 5. After refitting in North Carolina, Washington captured Rugeley’s Fort near Camden and then defeated a marauding band of Tories at Hammond’s Old Store in the Little River District later in the year. On January 17, 1781, Washington commanded a combined cavalry force at the Battle of Cowpens that was instrumental in the victory there. For his intrepidity in this engagement, Congress awarded him a silver medal. Always at the head of his regiment, Washington fought valiantly at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, in March and, on returning to South Carolina, at Hobkirk Hill in April. At the Battle of Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781, he was seriously wounded while leading a charge and was subsequently captured by the enemy. The British commander in the South, Lord Cornwallis, would later comment that “there could be no more formidable antagonist in a charge, at the head of his cavalry, than Colonel William Washington.”
As a prisoner of war, Washington spent the remaining war years in Charleston. There he married Jane Reily Elliott on April 21, 1782, and consequently gained Sandy Hill plantation and other properties in St. Paul’s Parish. The marriage produced two children. Pursuing the life of a successful lowcountry planter, Washington represented the parish in the General Assembly from 1787 to 1804. He also accepted a post as brigadier general commanding the Seventh Brigade of state militia in 1794. During the anticipated hostilities with France in 1798, he was appointed a brigadier general in the U.S. Army commanding South Carolina and Georgia, serving until 1800. After a lingering illness, Washington died on March 16, 1810.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Haller, Stephen E. William Washington: Cavalryman of the Revolution. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 2001.
Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.
Warley, Felix B. An Oration, Delivered in Saint Michael’s Church, in the City of Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday, the 19th June, 1810, on the Death of the Late Gen. William Washington. Charleston, S.C.: W. P. Young, 1810.