July 5, 2019
As an historian you never stop documenting the current, investigating the past, and learning more about those that came before. Thomas Peters, as many of you have read, was an early brewer in the city of Baltimore. He opened his industrial brewery on the Jones Falls in 1784, just after his service in the Revolutionary war. What most don’t know is the extent of his service and his affiliation with George Washington. Details of Thomas Peters’ service in the Continental Army has come to light from his 4th great grandson, Wilmer “Pete” Barnes. Barnes, a 26 year Air Force Veteran carried on the family’s birthright of military service and commitment to our great nation. Pete was kind enough to share the details of his namesake’s heroic deeds.
Thomas Peters’ father William hailed from Liverpool, England, but Thomas was an American born and raised in Pennsylvania. He was a founding member of America’s very first military unit organized in defense of the colonies in 1774. After the first Continental Congress was held in Philadelphia, three members of the Committee of Correspondence along with twenty five concerned citizens which included Thomas Peters formed the Light Horse Cavalry of the City of Philadelphia to defend the colonies. This all-volunteer unit equipped at their own expense with horses, sabers, a carbine and two flintlock pistols with saddle holsters. The uniforms were those of the fox and hound hunting club that many of the founders claimed membership in. This much heralded unit is still in existence today, renamed the 1st Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry and stands as the oldest serving cavalry unit in the Republic. The flag of the regiment is the first to visually depict the thirteen colonies, represented by 13 stripes festooned along the top left of the flag.
Thomas Peters’ service was nothing short of exemplary. He and his troop served as the rearguard escorting George Washington across the Delaware River in 1776. At the battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776 a Light Horse Cavalry detachment was responsible for capturing Hessians (the German mercenaries from Hesse hired by King George III as auxiliary troops during the American Revolution). This was critical to the American victory at Trenton. Thomas Peters was also deployed with Colonel Joseph Reed, Adjutant General and his small team of Light Horse Cavalry members sent on a reconnaissance mission that successfully captured enemy dragoons and revealed the number of British soldiers Washington was to face in battle. Thus, knowing he was outnumbered Washington marched through the night to Princeton where he would launch a successful counterattack against the British with the Light Horse Troop at his side, routing three of Cornwallis’ regiments. Many military historians argue this was the turning point for the revolution. It most certainly kept the Americans in the fight and the British on their heels. Peters’ war time service did not stop there however as he was subsequently appointed commissary general of prisoners in York, Pennsylvania.
That was merely the beginning of the story for Thomas Peters, as through his service he developed a fine kinship with the man whom he fought beside and would later become our first President, George Washington. After the conclusion of the war Peters set about opening his brewery in Baltimore. One of the most curios aspects of this endeavor was not only Peters building one of the largest, most expansive industrial breweries in the nation at the time, but his continued relations with George Washington. This is best captured in the various correspondence between them in the years following the conclusion of the war. When Peters opened his brewery, he did not have his own malting operations- that would come with the initial expansion a year later. The concern for Peters was getting the proper barley supply for the purpose of malting. This is where General Washington came into the picture, along with a few other notable figures.
The planting of grain to aid recovery efforts after the destruction levelled upon the fields during the Revolutionary war was impressive, and an agricultural boom was in full swing. Not all of the seed sown was the best for planting in certain climates or suitable for malting, however. Washington relied upon Thomas Peters as brewer, and maltster with access to suitable barley seed, and harvested bushels. Peters also supplied vital technological aid to Washington, taking advantage of the latest inventions of the time aiding agricultural production. In one correspondence, Washington thanked Peters for the recommendation of an efficient barley cleaning machine that reduced the work of men. It is unclear which machine he was referring to, but most likely it was the grain cleaning machine of J. Savory.
Shortly after the war, great difficulty existed in finding barley that was not compromised with oats, or finding the right type of barley for malting and spring barley was scarce. Peters engaged with John Beale Bordley, the famous agriculturalist who specialized in growing hops and malting grains for his own brewing and distilling operations on Wye Island. This was one of his prime sources of barely. Bordley was integral to supplying the beer ration to Washington’s Continental Army along with many other goods during the war. Peters was also able to procure spring barley for the purposes of malting from George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation by 1788, when seed and grain accessibility was more abundant. Washington also relied upon the grains to supply his own brewing and distilling operations at Mount Vernon.
Many of the letters detail the deep connections between the brewers in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania- a network of allies working together once again for a common cause- good beer. Like so much of the past this is not unlike the brewers of today, the networks they developed amongst one another to aid in common cause and develop a lasting kinship.
Thomas Peters’ legacy is one of heroism and determination. His brewery would eventually change hands and become known as the Star Spangled Banner Brewery where Mary Pickersgill sewed the stars on the garrison flag that flew proudly over Fort McHenry during the British bombardment September 13- 14, 1814. Peters’ story also serves to illuminate the close relationships that developed among colonists and brewers in our nascent country. It truly was a small world, yet a very connected one in which a brewer, a president, and a farmer from diverse regions would consort for a common, noble cause and remain steadfast friends until death.