He watched General George Washington weep – our ancestor and his connection to the founding father and first American president

By Max Uechtritz

It has been said that the Declaration of Independence was signed in ink on July 4th, 1776, in Philadelphia, and was signed again in blood on August 27, 1776, in Brooklyn.

OUR four-greats grandfather stood next to General George Washington and watched him weep.

The scene was the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn (August 27-29 1776) in the American Revolutionary War, also known as the American War of Independence. It was the first major battle since the American declaration of independence on July 4. It would be the biggest of the war.

Our direct line ancestor – great great great great grandfather Jonas Coe – was a bodyguard to General Washington, founding father and first American president. As such, Coe was with Washington in every single battle on the victorious ride to independence. 

But the Battle of Long Island was a bloody, early defeat at the hands of the British and history records Washington weeping at the slaughter of his brave men.

History books and documents also record that our ancestor Jonas Coe “was a body guard for Washington in the Battle of Long Island and was close enough to see the tears roll down his cheeks when he saw the defeat of  the Americans.”

It is not recorded whether Coe actually heard Washington utter his famous battlefield lament : “Good God! What brave fellows I must lose this day!” He may well have.

So, how did this all come to pass and how are we so fortunate to have such detailed family records?

Well, the Coe family (direct line ancestors on our father’s side) are included in Hotten’s Original Lists of Persons of Quality of early immigrants to America and played significant roles in recorded USA history for centuries. History that keeps divulging secrets and minutiae through digitisation of old records. More on this later, but one of our ancestors was the central figure in the revolution wresting New Amsterdam (New York) from the Dutch.

As for Jonas Coe, it’s recorded that at the tender age of 16 he and his four brothers and their father had fought alongside each other in one Revolutionary War battle. 

Throughout the war, George Washington’s personal bodyguard was an elite corps of infantry and mounted men. It was officially entitled The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, but was more commonly known as The Life Guard.

The guard’s purpose was to protect General Washington. However they were further assigned the responsibility of protecting the Continental Army’s official papers as well as the general’s baggage.

This was the proclamation for their recruitment: 

The General being desirous of selecting a particular number of men, as a Guard for himself, and baggage, The Colonel, or commanding Officer, of each of the established Regiments, (the Artillery and Riflemen excepted) will furnish him with four, that the number wanted may be chosen out of them. His Excellency depends upon the Colonels for good Men, such as they can recommend for their sobriety, honesty, and good behaviour; he wishes them to be from five feet, eight inches high, to five feet, ten inches; handsomely and well made, and as there is nothing in his eyes more desirable, than Cleanliness in a Soldier, he desires that particular attention may be made, in the choice of such men, as are neat, and spruce. They are all to be at Head Quarters to morrow precisely at twelve, at noon, when the Number wanted will be fixed upon. The General neither wants men with uniforms, or arms, nor does he desire any man to be sent to him, that is not perfectly willing, and desirous, of being of this guard. They should be drill’d men.”

The corps’ flag (pictured above, right) was white silk on which the following was neatly painted: A guardsman is holding the Life Guard’s banner and is in the act of receiving a flag from the ‘Genius of Liberty’ who is personified as a woman leaning upon the Union Shield. She stands alongside the American Eagle and above is the motto of the corps, ‘Conquer or Die,’ written upon a ribbon.

Washington worried about how his largely untested army would stand up under fire. In an attempt to motivate his men, he wrote out general orders and had them read to his troops. “The time is now near at hand, which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their homes and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the conduct and courage of this army . . . . We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die… “ 

In the Battle of Long Island , 10,000 Americans stood against 20,000 British and Hessians (German auxiliaries). Writing to his brother John, General Washington offered a blunt assessment of the situation: “We expect a very bloody summer at New York … and I am sorry to say that we are not, either in men or arms, prepared for it.”

The battle was more complex than this but the culmination was described thus:

The First Maryland Regiment was deployed to bring up the rear and, sensing imminent disaster, it did the unthinkable. Rallying his remaining 400 men, Major Mordecai Gist turned them toward the massive British war force. Believing the British commanding general was stationed in a stone house at the army’s center, the regiment shocked the overwhelming British war force with an unexpected, targeted assault. The Marylanders attacked the British six times, losing scores of men with each surge, then regrouping and hurling themselves again and again at the dazed Brits, in what can be best described as a bloody street brawl.

In the end, only a handful of Marylanders managed to escape; the majority were killed. The rest were captured or mortally wounded. Washington was brought to tears as he watched the selfless bravery of his young soldiers. He was heard crying, “Good God! What brave fellows I must lose this day!” But the young patriots had succeeded in diverting British attention long enough for Washington and the army to escape. On the evening of the 29th, a fog settled in, making the Americans invisible.

On the morning of the 30th the fog lifted. When the British advanced on Brooklyn Heights, the Americans were gone.  All through the night, Washington had ferried them across the river to the relative safety of Manhattan.  He and his bodyguards left on the last boats when the British were beginning to search the area. 9500 men including Jonas Coe were saved.

Of course Washington learned from this defeat and went on to win the war. In Prospect Park, New York, the Maryland Monument bears the words of Washington’s cry of anguish.

After the war, Jonas Coe took to the cloth and became one of the nation’s leading churchmen. He was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Troy, New York for nearly thirty years, gained degrees from Princeton and Rutgers University and became Regent of New York University.

He was known for “his ardent piety, sympathetic tenderness and indefatigable labours”.

Rev Jonas Coe

Earlier I mentioned that the first Coes arrived in New England in the first waves of Puritan settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. Robert Coe and family sailed from England on the Francis and, thus, are included in Hotten’s Original Lists of early emigrants to America.

Robert Coe moved to Connecticut and started Wethersfield plantation, established the town Hempstead then pushed further into Long Island. Coe bought land from the Indians and founded Middleburg, which changed its name to Newtown, but at this stage the area and all the English settlers came under the control and administration of the Dutch.

His son John Coe was a prime agitator for the annexation of Long Island to the English State, Connecticut. The English made him a Captain; he formed a militia and started the revolution.

The official history The Annals of Newtown record it this way: “In the revolution of Long Island from the Dutch government in 1663, Captain John Coe was the most prominent leader…at the head of a force of three hundred men, he marched through the English towns in the western part of Long Island, overturned the Dutch government and threatened the Dutch towns with attack.”

New Amsterdam became New York. Captain John Coe became magistrate of Newtown and, later, Sheriff of Queen’s County. His father Robert was also the High Sheriff of Yorkshire County from 1669 to 1671. He was described as “a man of vigorous physique, restless energy, strict integrity, strong convictions, and a great force of character”.

One of John Coe’s descendants, Daniel Coe, would eventually have a Presbyterian college named after him in Cedar Rapids, Iowa – Coe College. Coe College is one of the country’s best liberal arts colleges and in 2012 was ranked as one of the top producers of US Fulbright Students. Other early Coes were prominent judges – one served in the New York Assembly –pastors, theologians and soldiers. One, Jonas Halstead Coe, was a navy admiral who commanded both the Uruguayan and Argentine Federation fleets and took part in independence and civil wars in South America.

So, how do we, the Australian branch, descend from Reverend Jonas Coe? It’s through his grandson Jonas Mynderse Coe. The link is fascinating and we know a lot about him through books and even the 1988 tele-movie Queen Emma of the South Seas –  in which he was played by American actor Hal Holbrook.

Jonas M Coe was born in Troy, New York in 1823. When both his parents died young, five-year-old Jonas M Coe was adopted by his aunt Eliza Maria Coe who had married James Brown, founder of the eminent investment banking house Brown Brothers and Co.

Young Jonas began a mercantile career and was set to inherit part of the Brown Brothers fortune. * Brown brothers merged with Harriman Brothers in 1931 and, today, Brown Brothers Harriman and Co has $1.2 trillion in assets and administers $3.3 trillion

But a restless, rebellious Jonas ran away to sea as a teenager. He was shipwrecked and washed up on a beach in Samoa where he fell in love with the island and the people. So much so that Jonas Coe married a Samoan princess of the royal Malietoa family and became United States Consul at Apia for fifteen years.

Jonas had 18 children and some of them became famous South Seas pioneers in frontier New Guinea. One, Emma (Coe) Forsayth became known as Queen Emma of the South Seas while another was Phebe (Coe) Parkinson, who married famous Danish anthropologist and scientist Richard Parkinson, son of the Danish Duke of Augustenberg. The trio established the first plantations in New Guinea and Emma reigned over a multi-faceted trading empire.

Richard and Phebe Parkinson were our great grandparents. 

One of their daughters was Johanna “Dolly” Parkinson. One of her sons was our father, Alfred Max Parkinson Uechtritz.

Alf married Englishwoman Mary Louise Harris and they produced 10 children: Peter, Richard, Gordon, Maryann, Max, Rita, Catherine, Bernard, Paul and Anthony.

Three of the siblings married Americans and together have nine children who are American and Australian citizens. Some of them have children.

For centuries hereon there’s a dinner party showstopper for the clan about how our ancestor guarded George Washington and watched him weep at the tragedy of a defeat which spurred him to win the war of independence.

Postscript: It was a stroke of serendipity that I discovered this family link to George Washington on the day that Donald Trump – the most anti-democracy president in US history and most glaring anti-Washington president in deed and thought –  made his first, oblique ‘concession’.   

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