What Almost Bankrupted Gen. Anthony Wayne
The story behind the patriot’s ill-fated second career as a plantation owner.
You know that age-old advice about not looking a gift horse in the mouth?
Do it anyway.
In 1782, the state of Georgia gave Gen. Anthony Wayne of Paoli not one, but two rice plantations, totaling 1,300 acres near Savannah. The plantations were a big thank-you for Wayne’s role in that year’s campaign that chased British forces out of the state during the Revolutionary War. Wayne’s troops, of course, received their usual lousy pay.
Keeping the gift was another matter. Both plantations—Richmond and Kew—had been confiscated from Loyalists and abandoned for several years. Making them profitable would be a lot of work—not for Wayne personally, but for the slaves he bought to get it done. To pay for it, he mortgaged his Paoli farm, Waynesborough, and nearly lost it as a consequence. “[The plantations] were a gift that was to cause the general considerable financial difficulty over the next decade,” wrote local historian Bob Goshorn.
But Wayne was not the sort to shirk an opportunity, either military or financial.
Born at Waynesborough, Wayne and his siblings were the third generation of the family to live in Chester County. Their grandfather, also Anthony, had immigrated to Pennsylvania from Ireland in 1724, after fighting on the Protestant side in the Battle of the Boyne.
As a boy, Wayne occasionally clashed with his father. Isaac Wayne had planned on turning his son into a farmer, but he “discovered that the labors of the field did illy accord with his son’s propensities.”
Nor was his son a particularly good student. But faced with a choice between studying and shoveling manure, Anthony eventually managed to master mathematics and became a surveyor.
Surveying was an excellent career for a well-raised, good-looking, amiable young fellow. Chester County was rapidly growing, so there was demand for surveyors to run boundaries, locate roads, and prepare sites for homes and barns. “Quickly making a reputation for competency, thoroughness and dependability in his line of work, Wayne’s circle of acquaintances expanded to include many of the more famous Pennsylvanians of the age,” observed biographer Paul David Nelson.
Among them was Benjamin Franklin, who, in 1764, invited the 19-year-old surveyor to join a group of investors seeking to buy and colonize land in Nova Scotia. Wayne had nothing to invest. But for acting as agent and surveyor, he would be an equal partner.
The venture ultimately failed, though it wasn’t due to any fault of Wayne’s. In the end, he came out of the venture no worse off financially—and with quite a few important friends.
But, alas, he was also back in Chester County, surveying and working in his father’s tannery. By 1774, Wayne was probably screaming bored. So, as the colonies’ troubles with the mother country sharpened, his natural itch for action led him to adopt the most aggressive position. While others sent polite petitions of grievance to London, he organized a militia. “Given the romanticism and love of things martial within Wayne’s character, it is not surprising that he was not so bothered by the prospect of war as were some of his more cautious brethren,” wrote Nelson. “Warfare offered for him an escape from the prosaic existence of rural life.”
In 1774, Anthony Wayne was elected Easttown Township’s representative to a provincial convention to discuss ways of protesting England’s coercion of Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party. The convention organized committees of safety in each county, and Wayne headed the Chester County committee. “Wayne’s outspoken and bold style of public conduct immediately attracted the attention of his Pennsylvania neighbors,” wrote Nelson.
He was also better educated and, at 30, had already seen more of the world than most. Plus, Wayne was affluent, so his willingness to risk everything gave him a sort of credibility. “He certainly had his glaring faults—among them, vanity, overconfidence, boastfulness, impatience and impetuosity,” wrote Nelson. “But his colleagues, both civilian and military, were willing to overlook these in light of his better points.”
Wayne was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, where—although publicly denying any thoughts of independence—he immediately took the side of radicals making military preparations. When the assembly established a militia, Wayne was appointed colonel. From then on, military affairs were his sole focus: He resigned from the assembly, recruited a regiment, and spent nearly all of his time equipping and drilling the men.
Naturally, he was a disciplinarian. “He began to punish troopers severely for breaches of military regulations under Pennsylvania’s Articles of War,” said Nelson. “Deserters were handled with special severity, and six of them in less than three months received between 15 and 39 lashes each.”
In 1776, Wayne became colonel of the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment, which took part in Benedict Arnold’s unsuccessful invasion of Canada. Wayne was recognized both for fighting a successful rear-guard action as the Americans retreated and for fortifying U.S. positions should the British pursue. He was promoted to brigadier general the following year.
At the Battle of Brandywine, Wayne held off Hessian forces for three hours until ordered to retreat. A week later, at the current site of Malvern, his camp was routed and 53 Americans killed when British regulars attacked in a nighttime bayonet strike. Wayne retaliated with his own bayonet attacks at the battles of Germantown and Stony Point.
Following the latter battle, George Washington praised Wayne in a letter to Congress: “He improved upon the plan recommended by me, and executed it in a manner that does signal honour to his judgment and his bravery.”
Through the rest of the war, Wayne was often the favored choice to lead risky operations against superior odds. In 1781, he put down a mutiny among Pennsylvania troops, then helped drive Cornwallis’ troops into the trap Washington had laid on the York River in Virginia.
After the surrender at Yorktown, Wayne was delegated to the task of getting the British out of Savannah, which they still occupied. It was a tough assignment: He had far fewer men, and he was also expected to win over local Tories, pacify the Indian allies of the British, and support the state government.
Wayne’s strategy included a series of small attacks that kept his enemy bottled up. Parties of Indians who were trying to reinforce the British were captured, lectured and released, rather than killed. Pardons were offered to anyone who deserted the British forces—and, immediately, 38 mounted Tory militia crossed over.
Gen. Anthony Wayne arrived in Georgia in January 1782. The British garrison in Savannah surrendered in July.
Also in July, the Georgia Assembly informed Wayne that, in gratitude, the state was giving him Richmond plantation. The property had belonged to Alexander Wright, son of the last royal governor of Georgia. Kew plantation was added later. Getting clear titles to the plantations took several years, during which they continued to deteriorate.
Experienced rice farmers told Wayne that the plantations could produce 800-1,000 barrels of high-grade rice, worth more than 3,000 pounds. That sounded good to the general. But getting the land into production shape would require slaves to repair dikes and make various other improvements to the properties.
Rice production was a labor-intensive business. Male slaves cleared the land, but female slaves generally did the planting, which involved pouring rice seedlings onto a swamp’s water-soaked soil and pushing them into the muck with bare feet. Threshing was done by hand, with mortars and pestles.
Rice was not grown in Europe, so this was a form of agriculture in which Anglo-Americans, including Wayne, had little experience. West Africans, however, had rice-growing skills and, according to historian Peter Wood, were specifically targeted by slave traders for that reason.
The idea of moving south—and escaping “a climate harsh enough during the winter to freeze ink in his pen”—grew on Wayne. However, the economy was in a slump. Money was hard to borrow, and he couldn’t sell Waynesborough for what he thought it was worth.
Finally, he decided to mortgage the Pennsylvania property for about 5,000 pounds—on terms that, as it turned out, he didn’t fully understand. For Wayne, the penchant for bold action that was such an asset in battle was leading him into financial danger.
In 1785, Wayne contracted with an agent who bought 47 slaves—15 men, 11 women, nine boys and 12 girls—and hired an overseer to direct them. The slaves cost 3,300 pounds, with about a third needed up front and the remainder paid in five annual installments.
He would need a good rice crop to make the payments. “But the farm was in such wretched repair after years of neglect that even 47 workers were too few to get the fields ready for a crop in 1785,” wrote Nelson.
Tools had to be ordered from the north, but did not arrive until late in the year. According to Goshorn, half the seed rice “disappeared,” along with four horses, their harnesses and other livestock. The overseer was lax, and the slaves inefficient. The first rice crop was less than 10 bushels.
About this time, Wayne discovered he didn’t really have the loan he thought had been approved. Again, Wayne tried to sell Waynesborough, but found no takers. Over the next several years, he sank into debt. In Chester County, his creditors filed liens against Waynesborough.
Wayne saw a unique solution: He’d get elected to Congress. In 1791, he took his Georgia seat in the Second Congress, which he later lost when a House committee found electoral fraud. But by then, Wayne’s creditors had agreed to take the Georgia properties—as well as the slaves—as payment for his debts.
Wayne went home to Pennsylvania. Two years later, he went out to Ohio to battle Indians.
Ultimately, fighting is where Wayne excelled. Assessing the value of gifts—not so much.