Robert Hanson Harrison: lost hero of the Revolutionary era

IT WASN'T until 1840 that Maryland closed the books officially on the case of Robert Hanson Harrison. He was an important though largely forgotten figure in the Revolution as well as the state's early history. In that year, the General Assembly authorized the payment to Sarah Easton and Dorothy Storer of a sum of money equal to three year's half pay of an aide-de-camp to the commander-in-chief of all American military forces.

The payment was like a pension, a belated recognition of Harrison's service during the war. The two women were Harrison's daughters. Two years earlier, Virginia granted those heirs a land bounty for Harrison's war years.


Harrison's name doesn't come to mind quickly when Maryland's leaders in the Revolutionary era are listed. Perhaps it was because he declined too often.

Harrison, for example, was one of the first five delegates elected by the General Assembly for the Constitutional Convention in 1787, along with Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Thomas Stone, James McHenry and Thomas Sim Lee. Harrison declined the opportunity.


When President Washington selected Harrison to be one of the first justices of the newly established Supreme Court, Harrison again declined.

The state tried to honor him by appointing him chancellor of Maryland, an important judicial post at the time. But the position would have required his presence in Annapolis. "I must be leave to decline the appointment," he replied to Gov. John Eager Howard.

Harrison had also resigned from the military. He served as as a key military aide to General Washington from 1775 to 1781. His father had died that year. He had been widowed earlier, so there was no one to care for his two young daughters, Sarah and Dorothy. Washington was disappointed to lose him. He once described Harrison as, "the only gentleman of my family that can offer me the least assistance in writing," and added that he would be "distressed beyond measure" to lose him.

When Maryland offered him the post of chief judge of the general court, he did accept. But the duties were not onerous. He would have considerable time on his own.

Harrison simply wasn't a man of burning ambition. He preferred a simple home life by the banks of the Potomac in Charles County where he was born. And his hard years at war had left him with serious physical problems. His letters tell of his "indisposition" to travel and carry on arduous tasks.

Maryland honored Harrison with more than a judicial appointment. In the country's first election in 1789, all the state's presidential electors cast all their votes for Washington as president and Harrison as vice president. That put him third in the balloting behind John Adams and John Jay.

A sketch of Harrison in the Maryland Historical Magazine describes him as, "a lost man of Maryland." The reason for the title, in part, is that Harrison left no deeds or monuments in his life. The author, George T. Ness, Jr., found that no one was sure exactly where he lived. And there is no certainty as to where he is buried.

He probably lived at Walnut Landing, his father's estate and his mother's burial site. He may have been buried there as well. But a brother was rector of the church of Durham Parish. Maybe his grave is there. Or as a good churchgoer, he may have been laid to rest at the old Episcopal church cemetery at Port Tobacco, but that burial ground was silted over long ago and all burial markers destroyed.


Harrison was born in Charles County in 1745. His family was long established; it had been in Maryland for a century or more. One of three sons, he was related to other prominent men from southern Maryland like John Hanson, the first president of the Congress of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, and Thomas Stone, one of the state's four signers of the Declaration of Independence.

A lawyer, Harrison practiced across the Potomac in Alexandria. By 1769, he was well established, and among his clients were George Mason of Gunston Hall and George Washington of Mount Vernon. Washington's diaries record legal payments to Harrison. They also had a close social relationship; Harrison a frequent visitor to Mount Vernon. The two men also hunted together.

Harrison served on Alexandria's Committee of Correspondence before the war. Soon after Washington was named commander-in-chief of the American forces, Harrison, already a lieutenant in the 3rd Virginia Regiment, was named an aide. An military note from November 1775 commands that "all orders, whether written or verbal, coming from the general through Mr. Harrison are to be punctually obeyed."

Harrison served with men like Alexander Hamilton and such Marylanders as Alexander Contee Hanson, James McHenry and Tench Tilghman on Washington's staff. Described as "a good and ready writer," Harrison was one of Washington's most trusted aides, someone who was far more than a mere transcriber of the general's words and ideas. There is evidence that through all those harsh war years, Harrison suffered from a series of ailments.

Tilghman once wrote that the "weight of his (Washington's) business falls upon Mr. Harrison and myself, but as he (Harrison) is often troubled with a painful disorder I then work double tides." At the court martial of Gen. Charles Lee, Harrison was a major witness. And in the difficult task of exchanging prisoners, it was Harrison who was deeply involved in most of the negotiations.

Widowed early, Harrison may have been looking for a new mother for his daughters when he visited Baltimore in 1779. Gen. Sam Smith wrote to a friend that Colonel Harrison was in town "paying unsuccessful but exceedingly assiduous court to 'Miss N. B.' " Smith was correct for Harrison never married again.


His resignation from the military after seven years of service was obviously painful. In a letter to Hamilton, Harrison apologized. But with his father gone, he explained that his "little fortune" was nearly gone, the old house a shambles and his daughters required his care as well as an education.

When he died in 1790, just 45 years old, the state mourned. "Lament, O Maryland! thy loss deplore;" the Maryland Gazette wrote in a long poetic tribute after a fulsome eulogy, "the virtuous Harrison is no more." The lost man was not lost in his own time.