Thomas Erskine Birch, Chaplain

Thomas Erskine Birch. The Rev. Thomas E. Birch is one of five Continental Navy Chaplains listed in Mess Night Traditions by Charles J. Gibowicz (2007). Most genealogical sources note Birch’s birth as 22 August 1763 at either St. Kitts or St. Christopher in the British West Indies. Thomas Erskine Birch was born to Dr. Charles Birch (1729-1768) of St. Kitts and Christina Frye (1732-1778) of Monserrat. Thomas came from a long line of Church of England clerics that included two uncles- Rev. John Neville Birch of Leasingham and Rev. Thomas Birch of Thoresby, both in Lincolnshire, England- and his grandfather the Rev. Jonathan Birch, Vicar of Bakewell in Derbyshire. According to family historian Bernie O’Neil, Thomas E. Birch “briefly attended Oxford through the efforts of his uncle Rev. John Neville Birch”. Everything of what is published concerning Thomas Erskine Birch’s naval service during the Revolutionary War can be traced to several applications to the DAR or SAR and specifically a document prepared for one of those applications by grandson James H. Birch. The testimony of this descendant relied heavily on the statements of his father, the oldest son of Thomas Erskine Birch, Judge James Hervey Birch and of Daniel Miller- the brother of Thomas’ second wife Mary. James H. Birch’s oft repeated statement in support of the DAR application of his aunt Mary M. Birch Dudley, a three year old toddler at the time of her father’s death, was subsequently published in The American Monthly Magazine of June 1907. According to family history which the writer acknowledges as “traditionary”, Uncle Daniel “heard him (Thomas E. Birch) detail his experiences while in the Navy, some of them of such a character as to impress them very vividly on my mind to-wit: A Lieutenant on duty came on deck and calling to a sailor said: ‘Extinguish that nocturnal luminary.’ The sailor did not understand such language and did not move to obey, which greatly enraged the Lieutenant, when Ensign Birch, who crossed the ocean twice, over from St. Christopher Island to England, where he was educated and thence across to the Colonies, spoke up and said: ‘Let me have it done’ and followed up by saying, ‘Jack, douse the glim.’ Many other facts I gathered from him about his wounds, etc., from which he died, cancer finally setting in.” In his testimony James further relates how the service of his grandfather affected his own service during the Civil War over eighty years later, “my father impressed the fact on me, as a family matter, more particularly in the following interview. During the winter of 1861 when the Southern States were passing ordinances of succession, my father came into the library and said: ‘My son, I have a statement to make to you and get a pledge from you. In 1821 your grandfather, Thomas Erskine Birch, when Iying on his death bed, sent for me. I was then entering my nineteenth year. After requesting me to take a seat close to him, he said: ‘My son, I am near my death and before I died I want to tell you something and then get your promise to do as I tell you, then I will give you my blessing and die contented.’ My son, I was educated in England and took my orders afterward in the old English Church, but instead of going back to my home, I came to the United States at the commencement of the war of the Revolution. Reaching Virginia, I pulled off my gown and put on the uniform of an Ensign and entered the Virginia Navy. While in the Service I was wounded in the groin. From that wound I am now dying, and my days or even hours, are short. I desire to call your attention to the great cloud of discussion that is now spreading over the country. Raising himself as it were for a last great effort, with his eyes burning with excitement, he placed his hand on my head and said, ‘I helped to establish this government and have christened it with my blood. I see in this movement the hand of Great Britain. I know the English people well for I spent six years there in school and I know the selfishness of the English politics and English statesmen. They have long since seen that on this continent is to grow the only nation that can ever rival Great Britain and they are ready to do anything necessary to destroy this Government and the best way is to divide it, and the Slavery question will be the great weapon in her hands, fermenting antipathy to it in the North and resistance in the South. This cloud will blow over, but it will return and continue to return until war will be the result and with war the result and England’s help cannot be foreseen. Here is to be the final climax of political existence among men, but this danger must be avoided, if not avoided, must be met. And now I want you to pledge me, for yourself and for your children, that you will never under any circumstances nor for any reason, consent to the dissolution of the Union. I gave your grandfather my promise and received his blessing. The task was too great for him and he fell back, calling for his wife, expired in her arms.” In addition to the biographical details included in the preceding deposition, DAR and SAR applications suggest that the Reverend Birch was settled in Richmond prior to the war and a Lineage Book published in 1915 states that John Paul Jones was a parishioner in Thomas Erskine Birch’s Episcopal Church. All of the applications claim that Thomas E. Birch served on the Bonhomme Richard under Jones and was wounded in her action with the Serapis on 23 September 1779. One application notes in the fight, Birch “received a wound in the thigh from which he always suffered, and from which he finally died.” Some record that upon his return, the reverend participated in recruiting activities to support the war effort. With regard to these claims, this author has not yet been able to confirm wartime service with either the Virginia State Navy or the Continental Navy. Although some records of the Virginia State Navy are reputed to have been lost in a Richmond fire in 1811, additional research among the papers of the State Navy located in the Virginia State Library should confirm the ensign’s service record. The Virginia State Navy was authorized in December 1775 with a Navy Board established in May 1776. While some vessels made voyages to the West Indies and Europe, the fleet was primarily used for protecting the Chesapeake and other state waters. Only the service of the presumably unrelated Benjamin Birch who was posted as Master’s Mate of the Virginia Navy galley Diligence from 6 February 1777 to October 1779 and George Burch pressed into Virginia  service on his father’s sloop William & Mary has been identified to date. The tradition of John Paul Jones being one of Birch’s parishioners also seems highly unlikely. Jones first arrived incognito to Virginia in 1773, a fugitive from British authority. Earlier that year when he first entered the colonies in North Carolina, John Paul added the surname Jones. The following year, his brother William Paul died in Fredericksburg and was buried at St. George’s Churchyard. Jones came to Fredericksburg, about sixty miles overland from Richmond, to handle his brother’s estate. It is implausible that Thomas E. Birch officiated at the Episcopal church in Fredericksburg during his teenage years or that John Paul Jones visited Richmond, Birch’s first reputed call to the Anglican Church in Virginia. In May of 1775, Jones was in Hampton Roads, VA and by December he was ordered to report to the Continental frigate Alfred as First Lieutenant where his naval career began its trajectory into history. Yet another family story which relates Birch was running trade routes from England to the West Indies early in the American Revolution when he was captured by the Continental Navy and drawn into service appears to hold the most water. He may in fact be the Thomas Burch listed on the muster-roll of the 12 gun sloop-of-war Providence under the command of Jones included in the “Letters of John Paul Jones” edited by Edward Duff Balken (1905). One of nine men taken on the brigantine Favourite bound from Antigua to Liverpool with a cargo of sugar on 6 September 1776, Thomas Burch was rated as a boy when entered on the Providence’s book the following day. Burch was placed aboard his former vessel on 8 September 1776 as a member of the prize crew. Lieutenant John Paul Jones had been temporarily transferred from the Alfred and placed in command of the Providence beginning in May 1776. On 21 August 1776, the Providence departed Philadelphia on a forty-eight day cruise during which the enterprising Jones would take sixteen prizes, including Burch’s Favourite, while eluding capture by British warships on two occasions. The Continental Navy sloop Providence returned to Newport Harbor on 8 October 1776, apparently from whence the boy Thomas Burch followed John Paul Jones to his next command on the Alfred, entering onboard on 20 October 1776 according to the records of the Providence. A muster-roll listing Alfred’s compliment of 140 men dated 2 November 1776 has not yet been examined for Burch’s presence; however, Volume 2 of “Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War” (1896) indicates William Burch appears on both a list of men entitled to prize shares in the ship Alexander taken by the Providence and a list of men entitled to prize shares in the ship Mellish and brig Active taken by the Alfred. In July 1777, John Paul Jones arrived in Portsmouth, NH to take command of the ship Ranger and it is not known if the young Burch followed his captain yet again. Despite many family claims and Charles J. Gibowicz’s assertion in Mess Night Traditions, no record has been located of Thomas Erskine Birch’s service as chaplain of the Bonhomme Richard although it is conceivable the well-educated fourteen year old from a ministerial family background may have been asked by Paul Jones to offer Sunday prayers on the Alfred as a layman. The only record of a chaplain serving on Jones’ ship names William Sturgess, who is associated with the Bonhomme Richard about the time of her engagement with the Serapis. Birch does not appear on a list of the officers and men of the Bonhomme Richard who participated in the action of 23 September 1779, including those who were wounded, published in the “Life and Character of the Chevalier John Paul Jones” by John Henry Sherburne (1825). Neither does Birch appear on the crew list taken prior to the engagement on 26 July 1779 which is published in “The Logs of the Serapis, Alliance and Ariel: under the command of John Paul” edited by John Sanford Barnes (1911). Furthermore, he does not appear on the roll of the frigate Alliance under Captain Peter Landais dated 3 October 1779, shortly after the engagement. Many of the men of the Bonhomme Richard who were displaced by the confiscation of the captured Serapis in Holland returned to Boston on the Alliance after her former commander Landais essentially hijacked the ship from under Jones’ nose in France. Birch also does not appear in crew lists for the ship Ariel in 1780 where the balance of Jones’ men from the Serapis eventually landed. Finally, he is absent from the 1785 list of men entitled to bounty money from prizes captured by the Bonhomme Richard just prior to her destruction in the famous battle. After the war, Thomas Erskine Birch was first married to Elizabeth Bohannon Murray in Prince Edward County, VA in 1792. Born at Chesterfield, VA on 5 February 1773, Elizabeth was the oldest daughter of Captain Alexander Murray (1733-1789) and Elizabeth Marvell Clay (1752-1840). The couple shared five children: Charles Clay born in 1793 who married Martha Dilworth in 1815 and died in 1830; and John Neville born 6 June 1795 who married Ann Dilworth, sister of his brother’s wife, in 1817 and died in 1835; James Alexander born 1796; Mary Alice born 1797 and died 1801; and Mary Ann born 1800 who married William R. Marcey and died 1901. The oldest two children were born at Petersburg, Prince Edward County, VA. After the death of his first wife in 1801, the Reverend Birch was married a second time to Mary Magdalene Miller on 1 June 1803 in Montgomery County, VA. Born on 28 July 1782 near New Bern, Mary was one of ten children of James Miller, Sr. and Margaret Wygal of Back Creek in present day Pulaski County, VA. Their children included: James Hervey born 27 March 1804 who married Sarah Holstead in 1825 and died 1878; Weston Favell born 1805 who married Harriet Ann Campbell in 1826 and died 1881; Tryphosa born 11 October 1806 who married Daniel M. Turney in 1828 and died 1879; Olivia Honor born 17 November 1807 who married James Pomeroy in 1824 and died 1833; Anna M. born 17 March 1809 who married Alexander McClintock in 1832 and died 1878, Tryphena Wellesley born 18 June 1810 who married Jeremiah Bassett in1828 and died 1895; Thomas Erskine II born 24 November 1815 who married Elizabeth Morrow in 1841 and died 1892; Margaret born 1817 who died in 1857; Mary Magdalene born 14 February 1818 at Washington, Mason County, KY who married first Abraham Ferguson and second Abram F. Dudley in 1870 and died 1909; and Martha W. born 21 January 1821 in Harrison County, KY who married Ira A. Dudley in 1838 and died 1875. The episcopal clergyman Rev. Birch was teaching in Montgomery County, VA as early as 1804, when he was described in a later remembrance as Presbyterian turned Methodist minister William Patton’s first and best teacher. An examination of records in the Diocese of Virginia may shed light on Birch’s ordination and early pastoral activities. In 1792 an academy to teach oratory was established on the ‘Anchor and Hope’ plantation of Colonel John Buchanan near Fort Chiswell in Wythe County, VA. The Rev. Thomas E. Birch was engaged as both the instructor and minister of the settlement, teaching there until 1810. While teaching at Anchor and Hope, Thomas Erskine Birch authored The Virginian Orator: Being a Variety of Original and Selected Poems Orations and Dramatic Scenes; to Improve the American Youth in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence & Gesture published at Richmond in 1808. The 1810 Census records the Thomas E. Birch residence as Christiansburg, Montgomery County, VA. The household appears to include Birch and his wife with sons James Hervey and Weston Favell along with their sisters Tryphosa Wellesley, Olivia Honor and one year old Anna M. Living next door is Isaac Miller, presumably a relative of the second Mrs. Birch. His tenure at Anchor and Hope Academy over, Thomas E. Birch became the schoolmaster of Abingdon Male Academy in Washington County, VA. The academy was chartered in 1803 and in 1808, Irish-born benefactor William King bequeathed the school a substantial endowment from the fortune he acquired mining salt. An advertisement appearing in the Abingdon newspaper Political Prospect in 1812 reads, “The trustees of this institution have the happiness to announce to the friends of Erudition, that the Muses are about to pour out their treasures from the Pierian Springs in this seminary. To the American youth who thirst for literary acquirements, they offer the draughts of: LANGUAGE AND SCIENCE under the Rev. Thomas Erskine Birch, whose talents as a preceptor have been so universally authenticated that any encomium is unnecessary. PRICES FOR TUITION. For a novitiate $10.00 Reading and writing $12.00 English grammar, arithmetic, etc $15.00 Language and mathematical science, elocution, philosophy, Belles-lettres and astronomy, bookkeeping, geography and navigation, etc $20.00.” During Birch’s time there, he prepared future Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston for a West Point education. Also during his time at Abingdon between November 1811 and March 1812, Birch carried on a correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, making reference to the statesman often in his writing and poetry. One of his odes to the Jefferson administration praises, “ah might it worthier be, Its scanty foliage all is due to thee.” Thomas Erskine Birch’s love for oratory, his adopted Virginia and care for the common man made the Wythe County Court House his pulpit on election day Tuesday 14 April 1812. Arguing against a clause in the Virginia Constitution which permitted only landholders of one hundred cultivated acres, or fifty with building improvements, the right to vote; the Reverend Thomas E. Birch delivered this summation in his ‘Appeal for Manhood Suffrage’- “We can now ramble unmolested along the vale of civil life; and taste all the innocent satisfaction that flows from domestic tranquility. Should insurrection take place, instead of walking with security and complacency in this happy land, we should meet the sable butchers of Ethiopia with their weapons and be obliged to abandon our habitations, and embrace a rock for shelter. Instead of being amused with the sweet society of the snowy bosomed partners of our cares and the delightful prattle of our babes, we should be alarmed with the piteous and heartrending screams, we should be shocked with the frightful images of garments rolled in blood and with a ruffian’s blade reeking from a brother’s heart. Instead of internal peace with her cheering olives sheltering our abodes; instead of justice with her impartial scales securing our goods; murder and devastation would shake their “gory locks”. To prevent all these calamities must be the care of our young warriors. What an important charge is imposed on you. In ancient Rome, the man who saved the life of a single citizen was entitled to the city wreath; and shall not those who are to defend the lives of millions be entitled to so much consideration of a single vote. A far greater and more anxious care is imposed on the militia of Virginia and the southern states, than on the northern. The New England states have nothing to fear from within, whilst we have everything to guard against. We appeal to the magnanimity, dignity and justice of our legislature; to the feelings of the respectable and patriotic freeholders in our own respective counties and of the state in general. We invoke the genius of the constitution. We do most earnestly invite all our landless fellow citizens, in every county, city and town, in Virginia, to join their hearts and hands with ours, to petition the General Assembly of Virginia, at the next session, so to alter our state constitution as to allow us who pay our annual taxes, and have taken the oath of allegiance to the commonwealth the right of suffrage, and most earnestly entreat their representatives to use every effort in their power to insure success to the humble petitions with which they may be entrusted; and we do most solemnly declare that when this grievance shall be redressed, we shall consider ourselves bound by the sacred ties of gratitude and honor, to hold ourselves ready to march at a moment’s warning to defend the land, constitution and laws against external and internal enemies, at the risk of our lives, fortunes and sacred honor.” On 9 December 1813, Colonel John Tate of Moccasin Valley and others from Russell County including teacher Thomas Birch, petitioned the State of Virginia to charter the Amity Hall Academy, a school near Lebanon already operating with thirty students. The subscribing signatories indicated they were, “duly impressed by the consideration that in all free states intelligence was the life of liberty, and that they were desirous to cooperate with other counties in the state to promote the grand cause of education.” The Virginia Legislature passed an act incorporating the trustees of the academy and apparently Birch was teaching there by the time of publication of a poem in the Virginia Argus on 2 April 1814. Dedicated with affection to his former students of the Volunteer Rifle Company at Abingdon recently called to service in the War of 1812, the poem concludes, “My muse shall not forget to mention you; And every brave and faithful volunteer, Has the best wishes from a heart sincere: May God protect you in the battle’s rage, While you for Right a righteous war shall wage; And while you keep these forty lines in view, Your friend and teacher, breathes a pray’r for you.” The verse is dated 15 March 1814 at their former preceptor’s new school- Amity Hall Academy. Signs of discontent at Amity Hall are suggested within the year with the filing of a lawsuit in Russell County by Thomas E. Birch on 6 February 1815 against Thomas Boucher, Joseph McFarlane and Enagy Price. The first two defendants were represented by Martin Fugate and Chrisopher McFarlane with Enagy Price answering the complaint on his own behalf. The case was not heard before June 1815 and a final adjudication is not reported. However, by the end of 1816, the Reverend Birch must have planned a move to accept the call of a congregation or school in Kentucky. Some family sources suggest that Birch established Washington College in Mason County, probably located several miles south of Maysville in Old Washington, KY. The (Kentucky) Union of 2 May 1817 advertises, “The Rev. Thomas Erskine Birch. Late preceptor of Amity Hall Academy in Virginia, having established himself in Washington, offers the following branches of ERUDITION to the aspiring youth of Mason Co.” Charging ten dollars for a 24 week session, Birch obviously met with early resistance to his teaching plans as evidenced in a second Union newspaper advertisement just one week later. An announcement in the 9 May 1817 edition reads, “We the undersigned, having been requested to examine certain certificates testifying to the moral and literary character of the REV. THOMAS ERSKINE BIRCH: Do Certify that the said certificates represent him to us as unexceptionable in both respects and that those certificates are signed by many persons of the first respectability in Russell and Wythe Counties, Virginia: the counties in which Mr. Birch last resided as preceptor of both those academies for many years: and that those certificates are under the seals of said counties. Given under our hand this 6th day of May 1817.” Perhaps it was persistent opposition from the eight individuals who endorsed this attack on Birch’s character and ability which led him to solicit President James Monroe on 17 August 1819 to employ him as a teacher among the Cherokee, although no evidence has been identified of his services ever being accepted. The 1820 Census records Thomas E. Birch residence as Marysville (Maysville), KY. The Birch household at that time appears to include the reverend and his wife, sons James Alexander, James Hervey, Weston Favell and Thomas, Junior along with daughters Tryphosa, Olivia, Anna, Tryphena, Margaret and two year old Mary Magdeline. The Reverend Thomas Erskine Birch died on 3 January 1821 at Cynthiana, Harrison, County, KY just eighteen days before the birth of his youngest daughter. His death at that place suggests the elderly clergyman moved his residence the forty-two miles from Maysville to Cynthiana between the time of the 1820 Census enumerated on 7 August 1820 and his death five months later. He is buried at Battle Grove Cemetery at Cynthiana. Mary Magdalene Miller Birch followed her husband in death in January 1845. Sketches of the life of Rev. Thomas E. Birch, ancestor of over 2,000 Birches in America, are included in the “Birch Family History” (1998) written by Bernerd (Bernie) L. O’Neil, M.D. and Volume 2 of “Early Adventurers on the Western Waters: The New River of Virginia in Pioneer Days, 1745-1800” (1982) authored by Mary B. Kegley.

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One Response to Thomas Erskine Birch, Chaplain

  1. Matt Kenney says:

    I’m a descendant of the Thomas Birch of this biography, and found your write-up very well done. You appear to have found original sources that many members of the extended family are unaware of. I’m especially interested in the mention of a letter to President Monroe. Would it be possible to get a copy of this? You don’t list a citation, and I’ve been unable to find any reference to such a letter in the Library of Congress. Owing to the numerous myths and legends that have sprung up around Birch, I’ve been attempting to put together a comprehensive account of his Revolutionary War service to correct some of the many errors that have entered the historical record over the years. This letter is the final piece or primary evidence that I’m aware of but do not have a copy of. Thanks so much!

    -Matt Kenney

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