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Who is recognized as the first Colonel of the U.S. Army and was taken prisoner in Canada during the American Revolution?

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Brigadier General William Thompson (5 June 1736 – 3 September 1781) was born in County Meath, Ireland, and emigrated to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1752, at age 16, he became a soldier and later served as captain of a troop of mounted militia in the Kittanning Expedition during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), also known as the Seven Years War. At the onset of the Revolution after receiving news of the Battle of Bunker Hill (17 June 1775), "Thompson quickly volunteered or willingly accepted an offer and was elected, in the manner of those days, to the command. Thompson's Battalion, as it was to be known then and to history despite a variety of official designations, came into being on June 25, 1775. It was on that date that Thompson was issued his commission, signed two days later by Congress President John Hancock." As Colonel of the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment, he was sent to Massachusetts to aid in the defense of Boston. While it is acknowledged that the Continental Congress had granted earlier commissions to others such as George Washington, followed by those of a dozen generals, William Thompson is recognized as the very first to receive a commission as Colonel of the "army of the United Colonies" – the predecessor to the Continental Army. Thompson's commission can be found in the Hamilton Library at Carlisle.

These were the first troops raised under the direction of the Continental Congress and which arrived at the camp in Cambridge, Massachusetts prior to 14 August 1775. After Thompson's company of sharpshooters drove back a British landing party at Lechmere Point on 9 November 1775, Colonel Thompson was promoted to Brigadier General 1 March 1776, to the displeasure of General George Washington, who had reservations about his abilities. Eighteen days later, on March 19th he relieved General Charles Lee of the command of the forces at New York and the following month, he was ordered to Canada to reinforce General John Thomas' troops. He met the remnant of the Northern Army on its retreat from Québec and following the death of Thomas (having contracted smallpox) on 2 June, Thompson assumed the chief command until he relinquished it to General John Sullivan when he arrived on 5 June at Sorel. During the Battle of Trois-Rivières fought on 8 June 1776, Thompson on the orders of General Sullivan made a disastrous attack drawn into a swamp. Five days later, after the British finished rounding up the stragglers, there was a total of 236 captives taken – including General Thompson and seventeen of his officers made prisoners – as well as an estimated 30 to 50 Americans killed during the battle. Thompson was paroled but remained a captive for four years until he was exchanged for Hessian Army officer Baron Friedrich Adolf Riedesel in 1780. He then returned to his home near Carlisle where he died the following year at the age of 45.

Thompson married Catherine Ross on 29 March 1762 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She was the sister of George Ross Jr, the last of the Pennsylvania delegation to sign the Declaration of Independence.

William Thompson's memory is perpetuated at several sites including Carlisle (Pennsylvania), New York (New York), and Trois-Rivières (Québec). Shown in the photograph is General Thompson's burial site located at the Old Graveyard in Carlisle. Its focus point is a large Celtic cross that represents his Irish roots along with a large commemorative granite slab that was "placed in grateful memory by his fellow Americans" in 1987 as part of the Thompson Battalion Memorial Project. Engraved upon it are the words "COMMANDER / THOMPSON'S PENNSYLVANIA / RIFLE BATTALION / 1775 – 1776" and "THE FIRST COLONEL OF THE U.S. ARMY". Also engraved inside the shape of a keystone – symbolizing the state of Pennsylvania – are the images of a war eagle colonel rank insignia and crossed rifles representing the Army. Thompson's actual grave is located immediately behind the Celtic cross with his remains covered by its original raised stone slab. There is also a bronze commemorative tablet affixed on the heavy iron gate that surrounds the family plot which has inscribed: "BRIG. GEN. WILLIAM THOMPSON / 1736-1781 / THE FIRST COLONEL OF THE U.S. ARMY / PLACED IN HIS HONOR / BY / THE MILITARY ORDER OF THE WORLD WARS / THE DONEGAL SOCIETY OF WILKES-BARRE / THE GOGIN GUARDS OF CARLISLE / 1987".

In New York City's Greenwich Village and SoHo neighborhoods of Manhattan, there is Thompson Street named in his honor as well as the adjacent Thompson Playground (now better known as Vesuvio Playground). In Trois-Rivières, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected in August 1985 at Parc Champlain a commemorative bronze tablet "IN MEMORY OF THE AMERICAN SOLDIERS WHO LOST THEIR / LIVES DURING THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AT THE BATTLE / OF TROIS RIVIERES, 8 JUNE 1776 UNDER THE COMMAND OF / BRIGADIER GENERAL WILLIAM THOMPSON".

On this day, 3 September 2021, we commemorate the 240th anniversary of the death of Brigadier General William Thompson and mark more than 246 years since his commissioning as the first Colonel of the U.S. Army.

André M. Levesque

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