John Cropper and the British skirmish at his Accomac home

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COURTESY PHOTO Gen. John Cropper lived at Bowman’s Folly, the historic home near Accomac.

BY CURTIS BADGER, Shore First columnist

In February 1779, during the American Revolution, the British made a raid on Joynes Neck, east of Drummondtown, now named Accomac. It was more of a harassment than a skirmish, but in making the attack the British committed a grave tactical error. They made John Cropper mad.

John Cropper lived on the north bank of Folly Creek on family land called Bowman’s Folly. In 1776, as the war for Independence was beginning, Cropper was commissioned a captain in the 9th Virginia Regiment. In 1777 he was commissioned a major in the 7th Virginia Regiment and in September was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine. In 1778 General Lafayette appointed him lieutenant colonel in command of the 11th Virginia Regiment, and in June he participated in the Battle of Monmouth. In the fall he took a six-month furlough from the war and returned to Bowman’s Folly to recuperate and spend time with his wife, Margaret, and their infant daughter, Sarah.

Cropper was 23 at the time and had been at war for three years, distinguishing himself not only as a tactician on the battlefield, but also as a leader of men. Before Cropper could leave for his next assignment, his life was changed by a contingent of British sailors aboard the ship tender Thistle, which accompanied a larger Navy vessel anchored offshore. 

Late on a February night, just days before Cropper was to return to the 11th Virginia Regiment, a detachment from the British ship rowed through Metompkin Inlet and up Longboat Channel. They approached Bowman’s Folly with muffled oars and landed a short distance from the house where Cropper and his wife and baby were sleeping. The detachment surrounded the house, entered, and surprised the Croppers in their bed chamber. While the Croppers were held hostage, the attackers ransacked the house, pocketed the family jewelry, and destroyed the furniture.

The British troops discovered Cropper’s stock of liquors in the cellar, and soon the raid turned into a raucous party with most of the invaders quite drunk. Two men were guarding the bedroom where the family was being held, but as the guards became increasingly besotted, Cropper was able to slip away. He ran two miles in his skivvies to the house of the nearest neighbor, who also was engaged in the war, and the two of them loaded three muskets and returned to Cropper’s home. When they neared the Croppers’ home they fired the three muskets in quick succession and began hollering loudly. “Let’s go, boys. We’ve got them now!”

The British decided the party was over and soon were heading seaward down Longboat Channel. Cropper freed Margaret and Sarah, who had been taken to an outbuilding, and as dawn came the Croppers made a grim discovery. A trail of gunpowder had been placed around the perimeter of the house, and if Cropper had not acted when he did, the house would have been destroyed.

No one was seriously injured in the attack, but the Cropper’s home was wrecked, their furniture ruined, and their stock of brandy and single malt Scotch exhausted. The event terrorized the young wife, and it intensified Cropper’s hatred toward the British. 

Cropper was a young man, but he was a career soldier. As such, he abided by a certain code of ethics, and he expected others to do the same. To engage on the field of battle was one thing, but for soldiers to attack a private home at night and terrorize a family was unthinkable. The British had committed a serious transgression.

In March Cropper was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 7th Virginia Regiment, but he was not comfortable leaving his young family alone again at Bowman’s Folly. In August he resigned his commission, which the army refused to accept, and he remained at home on an indefinite leave of absence.

Cropper had a vindictive streak — he was not one to turn the other cheek — and although he was officially on leave of absence, he continued to harass the British at every opportunity. 

Ralph T. Whitelaw, writing in “Virginia’s Eastern Shore,” relates an incident in which Cropper led a group of local militia in an attack on a British barge at Henry’s Point, which was just down Folly Creek from Bowman’s Folly, at a point where Folly Creek merges with Cross Creek. 

Cropper volunteered to fight the British in the Chesapeake Bay in the Battle of the Barges in 1779, and was wounded during the fight.

When the war was over, Cropper lived the life of a gentleman planter and politician. He served in the House of Delegates and Senate and was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Regiment of the Virginia Militia. 

When war with France was threatened in 1779, President Washington wrote Cropper and asked him to assume charge of raising troops from 24 Virginia counties. In 1815, he was commissioned Brigadier General with the 21st Brigade of Virginia Militia. General Cropper died on January 15, 1821, at age 66.

The Croppers are one of a number of prominent families to have lived on the seaside of the Eastern Shore east of the Drummondtown area. 

These families provide an example of how closely knit the rural aristocracy was on the Eastern Shore. To the south were the Parramores of Bellevue Plantation, and to the north the Wises, Joyneses, Croppers, Baylys, and Bowmans. Gen. Cropper was married twice. His first wife, Margaret, was a Parramore. His second wife, Catherine, was a Bayly.

The general and Margaret had a daughter, Sarah, who survived the British invasion of her home in February 1779. Sarah married John Wise, and their son, Henry A. Wise, became the first Virginia governor to have been born on the Eastern Shore.

Curtis J. Badger is a Delmarva native who majored in English at Salisbury University and, with the exception of four years traveling as a U.S. Air Force photojournalist, has enjoyed a career photographing and writing about his native coast. His books include “Salt Tide: Cycles and Currents of Life Along the Coast,” “Bellevue Farm: Exploring Virginia’s Coastal Countryside,” and many others. He lives in Accomack County.

   

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