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Martinsburg's founder is difficult to picture

Apparent absence of Adam Stephen portrait makes commissioning a statue of him a challenge

April 30, 2013|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthewu@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Revolutionary War Major Gen. Adam Stephen, Martinsburg’s founder, was a rival of George Washington’s in Virginia politics before he was removed from his post in the Army, his biographer said Tuesday.

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.

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“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.

“He lived in the back country,” Ward said.

Roger Lewis, chairman of the Martinsburg City Council property committee, said Tuesday the lack of a portrait is not as concerning as finding the funding for the statute.

Lewis said he would be “very supportive” of a community fundraising effort to raise the estimated $50,000 to $60,000 for the statue.

“It would make a nice community project,” said Lewis, who represents Ward 4.

Lewis said the city had planned to pay for the statute with general revenue as part of the town square project, but unexpected cost overruns sapped the city’s budget for the redesign, which cost about $1.8 million. The city’s share of the project’s cost was about $360,000.

Since the project’s substantial completion, the city’s tax revenues have continued to lag, which prompted city leaders to hold off on spending money for the statue, according to Lewis.

“We have to be very prudent with our budget,” Lewis said.

On Monday, Lewis and other members of the city property committee meeting Monday declined to recommend City Council consider alternatives to the Adam Stephen statute. The monument is envisioned to be placed on a pedestal that was built in the square.

Architect Matthew Grove told committee members that pedestal was designed for a “static” bronze figure of the town founder, which he estimated would weigh about 2,000 pounds. 

Modern art, a clock and relocation of the “doughboy” monument near the old federal building on King Street have been suggested as alternatives to the Adam Stephen statue, but the committee did not reach a consensus on any of the options.

Lewis told fellow committee members the doughboy monument isn’t owned by the city and was deeded to The Arts Centre by the federal government.

Grove told committee members that there is no electric service in the pedestal to power a clock.

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