Stephen’s dismissal after the battle of Germantown in 1777 and his subsequent return to what was then “back country” in the Shenandoah Valley are possible reasons why a portrait might not exist, University of Richmond emeritus professor Harry M. Ward said in a telephone interview.
Ward confirmed he was unable to locate a portrait of one of Washington’s most controversial generals for his book, “Major Gen. Adam Stephen and the Cause of American Liberty,” which was published in 1989.
The biography is among several books and hundreds of other writings by Ward about the Revolutionary War era in his many years of teaching and research as an American Revolution scholar and historian.
“I’ve been a student of the American Revolution,” said Ward, 84.
The apparent absence of a portrait of Stephen has been cited as one of the challenges in commissioning a statue of the town founder for Martinsburg’s recently redesigned square, but Ward said Stephen is no less deserving of being recognized in such a manner.
“He was one of the few founding fathers who had a real education,” Ward said of Stephen’s training and practice as a physician before becoming a leading military figure in commanding Virginia troops in the French and Indian War.
After being kicked out of the Army, Stephen remained politically active, serving in the Virginia Assembly.
He later spoke and voted in favor of accepting the U.S. Constitution at the Virginia ratifying convention in 1788.
Washington replaced Stephen with Marquis de LaFayette. The move ultimately led to more French aid, which historians say was critical to eventually winning the Revolutionary War.
In his book, Ward concluded that Stephen exaggerated reports and had moments of conflict of interest during his military career. He also noted alcoholism was “probably a major factor in the deterioration of Stephen’s relationship with his brigade commanders and certain other officers and contributed to a flippant attitude unbecoming a general in the Revolutionary army.”
Overall, Ward wrote that Stephen was an “able soldier, if not especially suited for high command.”
Ward said Tuesday that Stephen spoke his mind and Washington, who approved of Stephen’s dismissal from the Army following court-martial, was politically ambitious and didn’t like competition. Years earlier, Stephen unsuccessfully ran against Washington for a seat in the House of Burgesses.
Outside of politics, Stephen saw opportunities on the frontier and took them, Ward said.
Stephen amassed thousands of acres of land in becoming part of the Virginia gentry, if not necessarily a Virginia gentleman, Ward said.
“He had to start from scratch,” Ward said.
He continued his practice as a physician upon leaving the Army. He also served as the first sheriff of Berkeley County, which was formed in 1772 and laid out the town of Martinsburg, which was incorporated in 1778.
While a portrait has never been found, Ward said it is clear Stephen was “very small” in stature based on the size of his uniform waistcoat, which has survived through the years.
Regardless, Ward said statues often are not precise in their resemblance of a historical figure.
Ward said established portrait painters in Stephen’s day would have stayed in fledgling nation’s cities to make money and would not have traveled to the frontier unless they were paid a large sum.