Virginian fills in some details of the Revolution

Isle of Wight man brings to light the history of Col. Josiah Parker

January 13, 2002|By Patrick Lynch | Patrick Lynch,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ISLE OF WIGHT, Va. - A mere mention of the phrase - "the Revolution" - sets Tom Finderson turning.

"Unlike Massachusetts," says the Isle of Wight resident, "Virginia never wrote her Revolutionary War history."

Here Finderson doesn't mean that the details of Yorktown are lacking. Quite the opposite. He is frustrated that the headline-grabbing battles and names have obscured the stories about men who weren't generals.

A 10-year search

For the past 10 years, Finderson has been intent on knowing the life of Col. Josiah Parker, a man whose story, Finderson says, has been kept only by history-minded stalwarts within Isle of Wight and the Parker family.

Finderson has pored over the correspondence of Revolutionary War officers, scouring for mention of Parker or for letters he wrote. He has put his hands in the soil of Parker's old plantation, Macclesfield, in Carrollton, in an attempt to find the "lost" Parker family cemetery.

With some help, Finderson found the cemetery near the plantation recently. He and others are working to buy the property and make it a memorial park.

He has compared primary accounts, newspaper accounts and historical accounts of the major battles Parker fought - Trenton, Princeton and Brandywine, all in New Jersey - searching for Parker's name.

In early battles

"Most of the accounts only mention the big names," Finderson says. "There's a group of names throughout Revolutionary War history. But the history books don't tell you what individual units did.

"That's what's so wonderful about the story of Colonel Parker. He is so prominent in those first three decisive battles."

Those three battles would be Trenton, Princeton and Brandywine. George Washington's still-shocking victories at these places in the winter of 1776-1777 came after a series of retreats from New York, after legions of his New England troops left for home.

The victories also coincided with the arrival, Finderson likes to point out, of Virginia's 4th, 5th and 6th regiments, troops from south of the James River. Josiah Parker, then a lieutenant colonel, commanded the 5th.

Finderson, a 61-year-old retired teacher, computer programmer and electrical engineer, arrives at an interview to talk about Parker and makes three trips to the car in order to carry all of his binders, books and photocopied documents that, together, detail Parker's life.

Describing the action at Trenton, an early turning point in a war that Washington and the Continental Army were badly losing, the official military history books don't refer to Parker. Two popular accounts, The Crossing, a dramatized version also made into a screenplay by Howard Fast, and The Winter Soldiers, by Richard M. Ketchum, do not note Parker's role.

This is Finderson's complaint, but also his dilemma. How to generate enthusiasm among even Isle of Wight folks if the subject's life isn't glorified in the history books? How to show Parker's modern-day significance?

`All very relevant'

"This is all very relevant, for all times," he says. "War doesn't change. Human nature doesn't change.

"I didn't know who Parker was 20 years ago. Now, I can draw inspiration from him."

Parker is a "hero," Finderson says, without knowing exactly what he did in these battles. He points to several pieces of evidence:

A 1938 story in The Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch says that the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River, by Emmanuel Leutze, depicts Parker as the man standing next to Washington, who is braving the icy river, one foot propped up, one arm over his chest.

Finderson hasn't been able to confirm this, though historical accounts do show that Parker's regiment was one of the first to cross the river in the early-morning attack.

Parker received the "sword of surrender" at Trenton from Hessian Col. Johann Rall, after the British and the Hessian mercenary forces conceded defeat. This is a symbolic act that does not necessarily imply the recipient was the most important figure in the battle. Finderson maintains, though, that this is an important sign of Parker's significance in the battle.

After Princeton, Washington singled out Parker, saying, "Parker, you have gained more honor today," according to accounts turned up in Finderson's research.

And at Brandywine, according to an account Finderson found in the Virginia Gazette, Parker's regiment "stopped the onslaught of the British." The Gazette called Parker a "hero."

`Long overdue'

"His recognition is long overdue," says Frank Dwyer, a Parker descendant who lives in Winter Springs, Fla. He is speaking of his ancestor, but he could have been talking about his opinion of Finderson.

"Tom has been irreplaceable," says Dwyer, who met Finderson about six years ago. The two quickly became correspondents, often apprising each other of their latest developments in Parker research.

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