Flip Jennings of Frenchtown doesn’t know exactly what John Verner Jr. did at the Battle of Cowpens in 1781.
But Jennings is living proof that Verner survived and began begetting.
Five generations and 236 years later, Jennings counts his great-great-great grandfather as his ticket into the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, a patriotic service organization for men who can prove their family ties to the Revolutionary War.
Verner, a young private with the South Carolina militia, helped defeat the British that cold January day. It was a key victory for the Americans in the pivotal year of the war, and one reason why we don’t drive on the left side of the road.
“A real big battle at the very end,” Jennings said last week. “It was featured, roughly, in that movie, ‘The Patriot’ with Mel Gibson.”
Jennings, a retired insurance agent, knows this because he has Verner’s 1833 pension application for service in the Revolution. It helped him become a charter member of the Liberty Tree Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution in Missoula, which took root one year ago.
Monday is Patriots Day. On Tuesday, the Liberty Tree Chapter holds its first annual meeting at the Missoula Country Club. And Wednesday marks the 242nd anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord outside of Boston, where “the shot heard ‘round the world” signaled the start of the war for independence from Great Britain in 1775.
The Liberty Tree roster is already up to 20 names.
“And we’ve got two more in the application process, so we’re off to a good start,” said Larry Mylnechuk, the driving force behind the new chapter.
There was one more: Chapter members scrambled to get World War II hero David Thatcher in the club shortly before he died last June. They’re looking for more men from the Greatest Generation to enroll.
Mylnechuk is a tall man who is retired from a 30-year career in the pension fund consulting business. He has researched and found direct family ties to three privates, a captain and a minuteman who served in the Revolutionary War. Earlier this month he was elected president of the Montana State Sons of the American Revolution (SAR).
The SAR was organized in 1889 and incorporated by Act of Congress in 1906. It’s a separate but sibling organization to the Daughters of the American Revolution, which has had a presence in Missoula through its Bitter Root Chapter since 1919.
The Sons have chapters in the Flathead, Great Falls and Bozeman, and Mylnechuk said the state organization is hoping to open new ones in Helena and the Butte/Dillon area.
The Liberty Tree Chapter of Missoula, in conjunction with the state SAR and local DAR chapter, plans to make service recognitions a common occurrence – for veterans and Eagle Scouts, teachers and law enforcement, firefighters and students. It presented its first award, a Silver ROTC Medal, to University of Montana cadet Adams Stevens at the end of March.
Mylnechuk owns a couple of handcrafted Revolutionary War-era uniforms, one that he wears to classrooms as Capt. John Grover, his great-grandfather times five, who fought with the New York militia at Saratoga in 1777. You can expect to see it, and him, in color guards at civic events around the valley such as Flag Day.
He’s a relative newcomer to Missoula. His wife, Sandy, grew up in the Anaconda area and they retired here from Oregon two years ago to be close to family. He’d been a part of SAR in Portland since 1993 but Mylnechuk has been tapped into historic research for 50 years.
Most recently, he joined Warm Springs Productions and other Missoula researchers to help produce “Lies and Legends: The Patriots,” a 10-part Fox News series on the Revolutionary War. Mylnechuk researched and wrote story outlines for episodes on Benedict Arnold and on African American soldiers.
Last year he enlisted the help of Dennis Tate, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran who tried unsuccessfully to start an SAR chapter in 1988, to get an SAR chapter rolling.
Tate’s wife Blanche is the regent (president) of the DAR Bitter Root Chapter, which among other projects is on hand at naturalization ceremonies in Missoula and presents Good Citizen awards to area high school seniors.
“She was the one that kind of got me interested in this,” Tate said. “In those days you didn’t have the internet. We had to do it by traveling here and there and digging out the information, and it resulted in a 521-page book I wrote on our family.”
Featured prominently in the book is Robert Tate, an ensign in the Virginia Militia who fought on the winning side in the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780.
The objects of the Sons of the American Revolution are threefold: patriotic, historical and educational.
“I’m hoping that our organization will help to continue to keep the flame alive of the reasons why we became an independent nation and why it’s important to study the Revolution time frame,” said Jim Hutcheson, an Army veteran and charter member of the Missoula chapter. “Because of our country, many, many other countries have followed suit (in gaining independence.) Our own young people need to continue to know why we were founded and how they can be of service to the nation going forward.”
Hutcheson, who moved to Missoula from California 33 years ago, is tied to the Revolution by Judge Paul Carrington of Virginia, who served in various Revolutionary Conventions in 1775 and ’76. He was appointed to a Committee of Safety during the war and later served in the Virginia Senate. With nary a stumble, Hutcheson can reel off the names of each of the four forefathers (and mothers) between him and Carrington.
Jennings has his connections to Pvt. John Verner on paper if not all in his head.
Eight months before the Battle of Cowpens, Verner’s brother James died a prisoner in the hands of the British after the fall of Charleston, South Carolina. According to his 1833 pension application, John Verner entered the service as a substitute for another brother, David. When he turned out as a volunteer with Col. Robert Anderson’s South Carolina state militia after Charleston, and fought at Cowpens, he was 17 years old.
We can only guess at what young Verner saw and did at the battle. He must have been among the militia summoned by Gen. Daniel Morgan to the well-known crossroads and frontier pasturing ground in northern South Carolina. Here Morgan waited to take on the British troops under a hard-charging Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton on Jan. 17.
Morning dawned clear and bitterly cold, according to an account of the battle by the National Park Service. Morgan organized his troops into three lines, with selected sharpshooters out front. They picked off 15 of Tarleton’s Dragoons, then retreated 150 yards to join Verner and the militia under Andrew Pickens. After firing two volleys, the second line retreated back to the third but were chased by the fearsome Dragoons.
“As the militia dodged behind trees and parried saber slashes with their rifles, William Washington’s Patriot cavalry thundered on the field of battle, seemingly out of nowhere,” the Park Service history reported. “The surprised British Dragoons, already scattered and sensing a rout, were overwhelmed.”
They retreated at a trot, to their own beating drums and fifes and “shouts of halloo.” But Tarleton had held his 71st Highlanders in reserve. Now they charged, “the wild wail of bagpipes adding to the noise and confusion.”
The Patriots retreated, but upon Morgan’s command they did an about-face and, on order, fired in unison. A fierce bayonet charge turned the tide. Enclosed, the British infantry began a mass surrender, though Tarleton and others fought on valiantly before turning tail toward the camp of Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis.
The battle had lasted less than an hour and proved a complete victory for the undermanned Patriots. British losses were 110 dead, more than 200 wounded and 500 captured. Morgan counted 12 of his men killed and 60 wounded. He quickly retreated north to join Gen. Nathaniel Greene, who outraced Cornwallis to Virginia for supplies.
Verner, however, didn’t leave South Carolina. He returned home to Abbeville, where he survived a bout of small pox and rejoined the militia in May and June for the “Siege of 96” in western South Carolina. Later he guarded against "Tories and Indians" on the “frontiers” of South Carolina. In all, young John served the Patriot cause for more than 14 months, all before he turned 20. The flintlock rifle Verner used at Cowpens is now in the museum there, a gift from a cousin or a second cousin, Jennings said.
Verner went on to marry Rebecca Dickey, and they had 11 children. They still lived in South Carolina in 1815 when one of them, Ebenezer Pettigrew Verner, was born.
For Flip Jennings of Frenchtown, so it began.