Elizabeth Jackson: a Forgotten Revolutionary War hero
By Bill Fitzpatrick
In the early 1760s, a young couple that lived in Ireland’s Ulster Plantation made the decision to leave the near and dear in the hopes of finding a better life in America, a land of economic opportunity and religious freedom.
When Andrew and Elizabeth Jackson and their two young boys arrived in South Carolina’s Waxhaw region to claim their land grant, the backcountry was rough, untamed and lawless. There were no sheriffs patrolling the streets and no convenient courts to settle a grievance. Bandits reaped what you sowed and came back for seconds. The Cherokee were unhappy because the lands they believed theirs were being taken by white settlers. When backcountry leaders met with the Lowcountry elites with a list of wants, they returned with pockets full of promises.
Still, the Scots Irish, known then for their clannish ways and cantankerous personalities, may not have minded so much. After arriving in the Waxhaws and greeting familiar faces who had already established their lives in the area, Elizabeth and Andrew set about making their own way. The team effort did not last very long.
In 1767, Andrew dies in a logging accident. We can imagine the fear that the widowed Elizabeth now felt. We cannot imagine what she felt when we consider the madness of her husband’s burial.
Elizabeth and her sons, Hugh and Robert, climb into a wagon bound for the cemetery, her husband’s body in place on a mule-drawn sled. The men who are leading the procession are sipping whiskey, and who can blame them for that, until it is time to blame them for that; when they near the cemetery, they notice that the coffin has slipped off the sled and has gone missing. They retrace their steps. In near darkness, they find the coffin on the steep banks of Waxhaw Creek.
Did I mention that Elizabeth was pregnant during this debacle? I should have.
Weeks after burying her husband, she gives birth to Andrew Jr., a future president.
Let us take a breath and summarize.
You are in a strange and lawless land. Your husband is dead. You are the mother of three young sons. You might be able to manage your own home, but you decide it best to move in with your sister and brother in-law, the Crawfords.
“Mrs. Crawford was an invalid,” wrote James Parton, an early Jackson biographer, “and Mrs. Jackson was permanently established in the family as housekeeper and poor relation.”
Elizabeth likely spent her time knitting, weaving and cooking for the extended family, being a nurse to her ailing sister, and mother to her three sons and the default mother to the Crawford’s eight children. Despite these hardships, she had had high expectations for her children, including Andrew, Jr. She wished to give him a liberal education in preparation for the Presbyterian ministry. But such plans were all forgotten when the British arrived in earnest.
In 1779, Hugh, who had gone to the Lowcountry to fight for the patriot cause, dies from heat exhaustion during the battle of Stono Ferry.
Elizabeth is now down a husband and one son. The losses do not stop her from reminding her remaining sons of how their grandfather had fought against the British in Ireland. Robert and 13-year-old Andrew join the militia. The predictable happens.
In 1781, both are captured and sent to the Camden jail. They contract smallpox. A desperate Elizabeth manages to include both her boys in a prisoner swap. She makes the long journey to Camden, collects them both, and staggers home. Once there, Robert dies.
Elizabeth is down a husband to an accident and two sons who died in service to the American Revolution.
Andrew’s life hangs in the balance, but he survives.
Once Andrew’s condition stabilizes, Elizabeth travels to British-controlled Charleston. Some believe her motive was to nurse any capture patriot soldiers in need of care. Perhaps so. But it is more likely that she went to ensure that two of her nephews were included in an upcoming prisoner exchange.
When she arrived, she finds that one of the two has already died.
In the nasty conditions of the prison ships of Charleston harbor she gets sick. Her situation is dire. Friends from the Waxhaws who live in Charleston take her in and give her care. She does not get better and soon dies. Later in his life, Andrew will make several attempts to find the place where his mom was buried. He will not be successful.
In a few years, visitors will learn about the exploits of men like Andrew Pickens, William Richardson, Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion and John Laurens. Stories of the enslaved and the Black Loyalists will also be told. And women? There will be no shortage of stories of our state’s female heroes.
Rebecca Motte, for example, provided patriots troops the arrow that once lit and shot would burn down her own home, thus rendering it of no value to the approaching British. Another winner is the story of Dicey Langston, the precocious young girl who snuck out of her parent’s home at midnight, rode through the darkness and crossed the Enoree River to warn her brother that the British were planning a morning attack, and then getting back home in time to cook breakfast for her unknowing ma and pa. Fine story, too, is the one of Martha Bratton whose backbone did not bend when the British threatened her neck in the story of Huck’s defeat.
But does not Elizabeth Jackson belong on the list of great American heroes? What else could this not-so-ordinary woman have given to the cause of freedom? When I first visited the Waxhaw Presbyterian Church cemetery, I frankly overlooked her story, so great was my interest in examining the exquisite cemetery stones that are scattered on the sacred land.
It is on this land, and in a previous church building, that Elizabeth, sons Robert and Andrew, and members of the community, cared for the men who had fought in the nearby bloody Battle of Waxhaws. When quarter was asked none was given, that is what the patriot soldiers who survived the alleged massacre recalled. “Remember the Waxhaws” became a rallying cry for patriot troops at Kings Mountain and through the rest of the war.
Andrew Jackson, Sr. is buried in this cemetery, along with two of the couple’s sons, Robert and Hugh. President Andrew Jackson, Jr. is buried at the Hermitage in Nashville, Tenn.
The founder of UNC Chapel Hill, William Richardson Davie, is buried on these grounds. He is no longer among the common graves of the past, but due to the actions of a future descendent, he and a few family members were re-interred inside a gated and locked enclosure.
But what about Elizabeth? Her life was here but her remains are in Charleston.
In 1949, the Catawba Chapter of the DAR installed a memorial to her life in the Waxhaw Presbyterian Church cemetery. It is there that a stray visitor can spend a few minutes learning the barest details of her life. And it is there where I wonder what her thoughts might have been when she drew her last breath?
Did she regret a life not lived back in her home country, or did she believe she had found that better life in America?
Bill Fitzpatrick chairs the board of Preservation South Carolina, a statewide non-profit preservation organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the historic and irreplaceable architectural heritage of South Carolina. Fitzpatrick is the author of South Carolina’s Sacred Spaces, a book that features 70 churches that helped share the state’s history and culture.