The pedestal in the Martinsburg Town Square has sat empty ever since completed in 2012. There have been several suggestions for a permanent fixture including the Dough Boy statue or a town clock. For a few brief hours it held a toilet, but that is another story altogether. The pedestal seemed like the perfect location for a bust of General Adam Stephen. The one problem is that no one knows what our founding father looked like.
Why Don’t We Know What Adam Stephen Looked Like?
No portrait exists of Adam Stephen, the man who served under George Washington in the American Revolution. He also served on the House of Burgesses and lent his influence to the town we call home.
There are rumors about why no portrait or likeness exist. The most popular rumor claims that General Stephen was a bit of a lush. His supposed drunkenness cost him the Battle of Germantown, which led to his court-martial. Military portraits are often the only images we have of our early historical figures. According to legend, no military portrait exists of Adam Stephen because of this disgrace.
I visited the Adam Stephen House to learn more about our faceless founder. I first met with Dale, a delightful and funny museum volunteer. While we got comfortable, he placed a call to another gentleman to help with the interview. It is, by the way, quite a faux pas to sit on the chairs in the museum.
Keith, a bit of an Adam Stephen aficionado, is a somber and serious man who comes alive when discussing the Father of Martinsburg. He told me of Stephen’s early life and education in Scotland. His family, Keith said, was likely prominent as they do have a family crest; a leopard’s head. I was unable to see the crest because it is currently locked away in a vault and unavailable for public display. We discussed General Stephen’s lifelong patriotism and service to the Continental Army. When he wasn’t busy forming a country, he was Doctor Stephen, practicing medicine in the house that is now a museum. His bone saw and other implements of healing are on display for visitors to see.
General Stephen’s mysterious nature is not an illusion. He did father one child, a daughter named Anne, but no one seems to know the name of her mother. Dale explained that there are several women it could have been. However, there is only on with whom General Stephen had a lifelong connection. Keith interrupted, making it clear that there was no room for speculation. If it wasn’t fact, he said, it was not to be reported. He did say that General Stephen’s daughter was the only female mentioned in his will. If Adam Stephen had married, it is likely that his wife died before him.
Are The Rumors Fair?
When I asked Keith and Dale about the lack of visual likenesses, they offered no speculation. I did learn that during his hearing, the court dismissed the charges of drunkenness during the Battle of Germantown. Unfortunately, he was also dismissed from service for “conduct unbecoming an officer.” When I asked Keith if the General was a “bit of a drinker,” he was having none of it. He reminded me that drinking was not uncommon at the time because the water was not safe.
There are those that believe that Stephen was a political scapegoat for General Washington. A booklet written in 1975 by Mary Vernon Mich supports this theory. Most reports of the Battle of Germantown indicate that a heavy fog rolled onto the battlefield, obscuring visibility. The British and French on the field wrote home about the valor of this “upstart army” of Continentals. Even George Washington reported to Congress that he found no other reason for the lack of victory. However, he began to feel political pressure and criticism which only worsened after the military defeat. With reports of drunken officers and lack of management, he was able to shift the blame onto Stephen.
Honoring Adam Stephen
I left the interview with a newfound respect for our faceless founder. General Stephen was not a drunken mess who dishonored his country in a pivotal battle. He was a man who persevered, even after the blow of being stripped from his command. More than just a dishonored military hero, he was also a respected surgeon and unwavering patriot. He is worthy of the honor of holding a place on our Town Square and in the hearts of Martinsburg’s citizens. Until then we can visit his burial site on S. Queen Street or tour the Adam Stephen House to pay our respects.
To learn more about Adam Stephen and the history of Martinsburg, visit the Adam Stephen House, located at 309 E. John Street. It is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from May through October until 5 PM.
For more information about the Adam Stephen foundation, please visit their website.
(Photo Credit: Nicholas Trietsch)