January 17: Teen’s shot saves officer’s life

CowpensAbove: William Ball (left) fires at a British officer during the 1781 Battle of Cowpens.

ON THIS DATE in 1781, a fourteen-year-old African American whose name may have been William Ball saved his colonel’s life during the Revolutionary War Battle of Cowpens.

George Washington biographer John Marshall in 1843 described the young man as “a waiter, too small to wield a sword” when his gunshot felled a British officer intent on slaying William Washington, second cousin of the future first president, during a decisive Continental Army victory in South Carolina.

The shooter is depicted on the left of an 1845 William Ranney painting (above) taking aim at the saber-wielding British officer. His name is often given as William Ball, although some sources say he may have been named Collin, or Collins. He has been alternately described as a waiter, a servant, and a bugler.

Led by Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, American forces won a decisive victory at Cowpens. Many believe the battle gave the patriots confidence that they could actually win their war for independence.

Congress awarded William Washington a silver medal for his valor, but the fate of his fourteen-year-old servant/bugler has been lost to history. The young man failed to file a pension, and William Washington left no papers that told of the servant or bugler’s role in the American Revolution.

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