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A Huggins thorn in George Washington’s revolutionary side

Like so many other Irishmen from the province of Ulster, young Thomas Huggins ventured out to the American colonies in the early 1770s, to seek his fortune. It seems unlikely that a Revolutionary War was a part of the 18th century American Dream that Thomas sought—but that, indeed, is what he got. Equally, it is difficult to imagine how Thomas Huggins’ childhood—raised in a genteel home, and lollygagging on the pastoral plains that bordered the west bank of the river Blackwater—could possibly have prepared him for the rigours of war, let alone the demanding post to which he was assigned.

“Election of Officers by the Jan. 1776 Convention.” The Evening Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), 13 May 1913. Digital image online at (accessed 28 Dec. 2020).

Thomas, his wife, Nichola, and wee infant, Samuel, lived in the village at the head of the Elk river, in Cæcil county, Maryland. Situated at the northern reach of Chesapeake Bay, the Head of Elk was the crucial rendezvous point between the northern and the southern states during the revolutionary war. Thomas was the local Quarter Master responsible for the transport by water into and out of the Head of Elk, and overland to points north and south, of troops, provisions, artillery, ordnance, horses, and wagons, to the ever changing theatres of war—not to mention the safe conveyance of the casualties of that conflict—the sick, invalided, and weak men.

It appears that things started to unravel for Thomas by the early months of 1778. Various Generals complained to George Washington about his tardiness, unreliability and inattentiveness, and his willingness to discount payments to suppliers. Finally, in late February 1778, Washington penned a scathing letter to General Smallwood, instructing him to impel Colonel Blaine to remove Thomas Huggins from his post. Frankly, Washington had a lot else to consume his time and attention. The winter of 1777/78 was particularly severe. The soldiers were suffering from starvation and exposure. When provisions and pay were not forthcoming, men began to desert their posts. Food and provisons of all kinds were becoming increasingly scarce and, consequently, more expensive. With the new government still in the experimental stages, some of the citizenry had fallen into the practice of smuggling, and a general lawlessness prevailed in many parts. The last thing George Washington needed was a Quarter Master not performing up to snuff, or Generals making complaints to that effect.

As time would tell, Thomas retained his post. Interestingly, by the spring of 1778, Lieut.-Colonel Henry Hollingsworth was ordered back to his home at the Head of Elk, to assume control of procurement and arrangements for conveyance, by sea and overland, through the Head of Elk. It is tempting to read into this turn of events, that it had suddenly dawned on the authorities, at the very highest levels, that one man, alone, was insufficient to the increasingly difficult tasks of procurement and conveyance through such an important crossroads as the Head of Elk. Unlike Thomas Huggins, Henry Hollingsworth had the power that attached to military rank, wealth, and long term ties to Cæcil county, to bolster his new position as Deputy Quarter Master General.

After the war, Thomas Huggins worked with other civic minded men to introduce improvements to the Head of Elk. He witnessed the legislative enactment that elevated the village of Head of Elk to the town of Elkton.

In the midst of this post-war optimism, Thomas died in June, 1788, his wife having predeceased him at least five years earlier. Thomas’ estate was administered as an insolvent debtor, overextended by a sizeable, and leveraged, investment in a mill that he and another entrepreneur had undertaken during the war. His young son’s welfare was consigned to the mercy of the Orphans’ Court of Cecil County.

It is doubtful that Thomas Huggins, and legions like him, had gone to the colonies, intending to parlay their talents and, if they had inherited, their modest fortunes, to suffer the economic burdens of a long, expensive war. Yet, during his brief mortal career, Thomas Huggins lived and breathed the American Revolution. I wonder if he thought that was enough.—(penned 23rd December 2015).

Please note that a biographical sketch for Thomas Huggins (1748–1788) is pending. (penned 28th November 2020.)

Source citation for this page: — Kilpatrick, Alison. “A Huggins thorn in George Washington’s revolutionary side.” Citing the American Revolutionary War experience of Thomas Huggins (1748–1788), formerly of Glenarb, county Tyrone, Ireland. Published to Arborealis, online at, accessed [insert date of access].