John May
Revolutionary Soldier

Volunteering | Service | First Cousins
A summary from The Shoemaker's Children

Also see an essay on German-American soldiers
German Patriots in the Revolutionary War

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.

In October of 1776, the Virginia Assembly passed an act preparatory to "raising six battalions of infantry on Continental Establishment." Berkeley County was required to send a total of eighty-four men, including one captain, one first lieutenant, one second lieutenant, and two ensigns. Dating from the French and Indian War, the general instructions issued for recruitment began with the phrase: "That no Officer shall list any men under Sixteen, or above Fifty years of age." Though a list of the names of the men who responded to this call for volunteers doesn't exist, we can conclude from his known war experiences that John May, at the age of sixteen, was among the young men who lined up on the Public Square in Martinsburg for the first muster of these eager Berkeley recruits.

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.

Revolutionary Soldier
Most of the information we have on John May's Revolutionary War service comes from a declaration made by his widow,Sarah Phillips May, in open court in Pike County, Kentucky on September 15, 1845. She made the declaration "in order to obtain the benefit of the provision made by the act of Congress passed July 7th 1838 entitled, 'an act granting half-pay and pensions to certain widows'." Even though this was recorded over thirty-two years after the death of her husband, Sarah, at the age of eighty-six, said she had a distinct recollection of many of the facts.

Sarah provided sufficient information for us to piece together some of her husband's experiences in the Army:

John "entered the services in the county of Berkeley and state of Virginia and her recollection is that his captain's name was Cherry and a portion of the time she thinks he was under the command of General Lee,"

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.

Sarah said that he "frequently spoke of being on the opposite side of the river from the battle of Long Island," and saw George Washington's retreat "over the river."

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:

"I recollect to have frequently heard him speak of having served in the army in the Revolutionary War, . . . and of having been married very shortly after the expiration of father's service in the army."

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:

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."

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."

Leonard May's Sons in the Revolution
During the extended period of the war from 1775 to 1783, Leonard May's five sons --first cousins to John-- came of age to serve in the army. When the first call went out for volunteers in Virginia in June, 1775, the ages of his sons were: Frantz Peter, 23; Johannes, 21; Johann Daniel, 18; Johann Georg, 16; and (Johann) Michael, 9. It is likely that most, if not all, of them served in some capacity in the Revolutionary cause. A through search for records of these young men wasn't undertaken for this essay, but we have a few to recount.

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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© 2003 Fred T. May