Who Was Sgt. William Jasper?

The name of Sergeant William Jasper is found in every history of South Carolina written since the American Revolution, but in reality we know little about the man behind the famous name.  He is remembered as the brave soldier who stood atop the American fortifications at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island on 28 June 1776, and again at the Battle of Savannah in October 1779, to rally his comrades to persevere in the face of an overwhelming British artillery barrage.  Sergeant Jasper unfortunately received a mortal wound during the action at Savannah, but the legend of his heroic deeds took root and grew over successive generations.

Detail from J. B. White's 1826 painting of the Battle of Fort Moultrie (collections of the U.S. Senate)

Sgt. Jasper appears in this detail from J. B. White’s 1826 painting of The Battle of Fort Moultrie (collections of the U.S. Senate)

In the course of time, some narratives of William Jasper’s military exploits have included questions about his origins and background.  A sampling of the published literature about the man reveals a wide variety of opinions and interpretations, some based on limited facts and some born of pure conjecture.  We find, for example, that Jasper was either born in Germany, Ireland, England, Wales, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia.  Most historians estimate his age in 1779 at about 25 to 30 years old, but this range is apparently based solely on genealogical conjecture.  As a historian, I lament the fact that Jasper’s biography is clouded by a dearth of reliable information taken from primary sources.

While trolling through materials at the Charleston Archive at CCPL recently, I stumbled into a previously unknown chapter of the Jasper family history that sheds new light on the biographical mystery.  Among the surviving records of the Charleston Poor House (renamed the Alms House in 1856), I found numerous references to a humble, destitute widow named Elizabeth Brown.  Mrs. Brown first came to the Poor House in the summer of 1836 to apply for rations.  The affluent commissioners of the institution considered her situation and then approved her application.  She lived alone and did not become an inmate of that institution, but for the next several years she visited the Poor House on Mazyck (now Logan) Street thrice weekly to receive her city-funded rations of beef and bread.

In the course of her visits to Poor House, Mrs. Brown probably chatted with the staff and mentioned her famous father.  Word of Sgt. Jasper’s impoverished daughter spread around town, and in the summer of 1837 an anonymous correspondent interviewed the aged widow.  In a report published in the Southern Patriot, “Ramsay” described Elizabeth Brown as “a resident and a native of Charleston” whose family had not “ever received a cent of aid, from the State or Federal Government.”  According to the correspondent’s conversation with Mrs. Brown, her father, William Jasper, was “a native of Ireland” who was “about 45 years of age” at the time of his death in 1779, and who had “married a lady in the interior of this State.”  Reflecting back on the impoverished condition of the Jasper family, “Ramsay” posed the question, “would it not be well to pay a just debt due to Jasper, by applying to Congress to make the last days of his now aged daughter comfortable, by giving her the benefits provided by the pension law, for persons of her description?”

The community concurred with this suggestion, and on 5 March 1838 Hugh Swinton Legare of South Carolina presented a resolution on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to consider granting a petition to Mrs. Elizabeth Brown, daughter of Sergeant William Jasper, “who gallantly fell at the battle of Savannah, after rendering the most important service to his country.”  The matter was referred to the House Committee on Revolutionary Claims, which simply refused to consider the case.  Mr. Legare attempted to bring the matter before the full House of Representatives again in late May 1838, but did not succeed.

Elizabeth Brown’s situation thus remained unchanged for the next several years.  At the end of 1844 she was still receiving a regular diet of simple rations from the Charleston Poor House, but her fortune was about to change.  In late November 1844, Henry Laurens Pinckney of Charleston presented a petition from Elizabeth Brown to the South Carolina House of Representatives.  After due consideration by the legislature, Mrs. Brown’s petition was approved, and on 18 December 1844 the state government ratified “An Act to Grant a Pension to Elizabeth Brown.”  According to that law, Mrs. Brown, “the daughter of Sergeant Jasper,” was to receive $100 per annum in quarterly payments “for and during the period of her natural life,” retroactive to the first day of March 1844.

Beginning in December 1844, Elizabeth Brown received quarterly payments of $25 until the last week of November 1845, when she died of “anasarca” (extreme generalized edema caused by liver and/or kidney failure) and was buried at Charleston’s Bethel Burying Ground.  Among the surviving death records held at the Charleston Archive, she was approximately 70 years old, though she was probably a bit older than that.  The state pension may have improved Mrs. Brown’s quality of life, but it certainly didn’t make her rich.  Until her final days in late 1845 she continued to receive her regular thrice-weekly rations from the Charleston Poor House.

This brief narrative of the life of Elizabeth Brown does not firmly settle the debate over her father’s origins, but it presents some credible information that might help us eliminate the red herrings from our search for facts.  I’m on the hunt for more “new” information about the family of William Jasper, and I’ll be presenting my findings in an upcoming program titled:

“William Jasper: An Enigmatic Hero”

Saturday, June 27th at 12 noon 

Edgar Allan Poe Library, 1921 I’On Avenue, Sullivan’s Island, 29482.


Wednesday, July 8th at 6 p.m.

2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, contact Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.