Dangerous Assumptions

By J. L. Starkey

You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom!

I hope you will make good use of it.

John Adams

There are sixteen men named William Bass in my family tree.

If I recite their names, I sound a little like Bubba from Forrest Gump as he gives his famous “shrimp” speech.

“Well, there’s William Bass Senior, William Bass Junior, and there’s William Beauregard Bass, and William Alexander Bass, William H. Bass, and, uh…William Amonette Bass…”

The first William Bass that I researched was my fifth-great-grandfather. In a family trivia game, he would be called the one who helped prove that Courteney Cox is my sixth cousin. I discovered that surprising connection during an episode of Who Do You Think You Are (you can watch a preview by clicking here), and at first, I was speechless.

“Wait!” I finally said. “Pause that…let me look something up.”

A few clicks later I had my answer. We really did share a common ancestor, which made us sixth cousins once removed. My research matched the work done by Ancestry ProGenealogist Joseph Shumway? Now that was an amazing thought!

Top: Thomas Bass in Courteney Cox’s family tree
Bottom: The same Thomas Bass in my family tree

I was planning to write about my connection to Courteney Cox this week – I really was. But first, I wanted to review a few Bass records to find gaps or inconsistencies, as per my usual routine.

As we say around here, that’ll learn me. Because I just couldn’t get away from those William Bass records. Why did so many researchers list his exact birth and death dates, but provide no citations? Had I missed something? I decided to try (just one more time) to find those missing resources.

Suddenly, my topic changed completely, and my fun post about that neat little bit of family trivia? Well, that went right out the window.

The Rediscovery of William Bass

The court case that broke down the brick wall of my third-great-grandmother Ann Bass was unique because it included the names of both her father and her grandfather. According to that case, Ann was the daughter of James Bass, and the granddaughter of William Bass, Senior [1].

According to most family trees, William was born to Thomas and Judith (Watkins) Bass 10 May 1763. In 1789, he married Sarah J. Shackelford (also spelled Shackleford), and the couple raised eleven children in Powhatan and Chesterfield Counties in Virginia. William died on 10 May 1839 in Chesterfield County, leaving a large estate to be settled – and fought over – by his family [2].

It was easy to find basic information about William, but I couldn’t track down credible sources for those dates. Was there a family bible somewhere? Was there a marriage license that had been lost in a fire? Just where were those records hiding?

On a hunch, I turned to that hidden gem of information, Internet Archive. There, I found a Bass family book that included a short section on William. His birth and death dates were given, along with a reference to his Revolutionary War pension file, which listed his enlistment year as 1779 [3].

“That can’t be correct,” I said to myself. “He was too young to serve in 1779.”

It was an incorrect assumption, and I almost missed the rest of William’s story because of it. My fifth-great-grandfather did indeed serve in the Revolutionary War.

His age at enlistment? He was just fifteen years old.

Boy Soldier of the Revolution

Surreal glimpse into the past – William Bass’s signature on his pension application

According to his pension application, William Bass was born on 10 May 1763, although even William himself had no proof of that birth date, other than what his parents had told him.

Based on his presumed birth date, William was just fifteen years old when he entered the service. According to his sworn testimony, he was drafted in April 1779 and originally served in Captain Creed Haskins’ company at Hood’s Fort in Surry County [4].

Because he was just fifteen years old when he was drafted, researchers would classify William as a “boy soldier.” It seems unbelievable that a fifteen-year-old would be allowed to join the military, much less be drafted into service, but William was not alone. According to some sources, boys as young as nine years old enlisted (and were allowed to serve) during the American Revolution [5].

William’s brother John served alongside him, and the two men completed a total of three tours of duty equaling ten months of service between 1779 and 1781.

Portrait of the Marquis De Lafayette [7]

In 1781, William’s unit was sent to assist with General Lafayette’s Virginia Campaign [6]. As they were en route to Petersburg, they met up with troops “retreating from there after the battle at that place.” The soldiers changed course and joined General Lafayette “just below Richmond,” then traveled to their new duty station.

He didn’t know it at the time, but William was almost a witness to one of the turning points of the war.

More than 3500 soldiers fought at the Battle of Petersburg, which resulted in 150 American casualties compared to only 20 British losses [8]. Though the battle was a loss for America, it would later be known as “one of the opening clashes in the campaign that would decide the war.”

Sketch of the Skirmish at Petersburg [9]

William’s unit just missed taking part in the battle and instead traveled to Sudbury in May of 1781. He turned eighteen on the tenth day of that month.

Just thirteen days later, his life would change forever.

“…being stationed at a place called Sudbury.”

1781 British map of forts in the Portsmouth area [10]

On 23 May 1781, William was captured along with several other soldiers, including his brother John. The men were “…detained under a guard of Hessians who were employed in the British Army at Portsmouth.”

William was probably held near Fort Nelson, which was occupied by the British in 1781. Though he offered no details in his pension application, he probably suffered at the hands of his captors. At that time, the cost of feeding and clothing prisoners of war was the obligation of the soldiers’ own government, not the government that captured them [11].

It was a system that seemed destined to fail, and it did just that.

William Bass was one of approximately 20,000 Americans taken prisoner during the American Revolution. Though an estimated 6,800 Americans were killed in action during the war, the odds of survival were much worse for POWs. Historians estimate that as many as 12,000 POWs died during the American Revolution [12].

“Interior of the old Jersey prison ship, in the Revolutionary War” [Public domain image]

William was one of the fortunate soldiers who beat the odds. He was released in September 1781 as part of a prisoner exchange, and shortly after that, he was discharged from the service.

He was just eighteen years old at that time.

Compensation from a Grateful Nation

Certificate of Pension for William Bass

On 4 March 1834, 70-year-old William was awarded a pension for his service. He earned $33.33 per year, an amount equal to $980.29 in 2019. He would draw his pension until his death on 10 May 1839.

After William’s death, his wife Sarah was granted a widow’s pension in the same amount originally awarded to her husband.

Sarah Shackelford Bass’s signature on widow’s pension application, 1844

It was a small amount of money, certainly not enough to live on, but that did not seem to be an issue for the Bass family. If court cases were any indication, William Bass was a wealthy man at the time of his death.

How did that happen? How did William make the transition from boy-soldier-turned-POW to wealthy landowner?

Funny you should ask about that…and I hope you’ll stay tuned.

William Bass has a few more stories to tell!


  1. Powhatan County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1782-1938, case no. 1872-024, Mary Mann Widow v. William H. Mann Etc., Local Government Records Collection, Powhatan County Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. Retrieved from https://www.lva.virginia.gov/chancery/default.asp#res.
  2. Vernon, Robert W. “Powhatan County Minister’s Returns 1786-1800.” Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, vol. 35, no. 1, 1997, pp. 5–7., Ancestry.com. Virginia Genealogical Society Quarterly [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2002. (See also: Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Original data: Find A Grave.)
  3. Bell, Albert Dehner, 1911-. Bass Families of the South: a Collection of Historical And Genealogical Source Materials From Public And Private Records. Limited ed. Rocky Mount, N. C, 1961. Retrieved from archive.org.
  4. “United States Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Applications, 1800-1900,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:N93H-DPR : 9 March 2018), William Bass, pension number W. 5766, service Va.; from “Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files,” database and images, Fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com: n.d); citing NARA microfilm publication M804 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, 1974); FHL microfilm 970,169.
  5. Cox, Caroline, and Robert Middlekauff. Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution. University of North Carolina Press, 2016. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469627540_cox.
  6. Portrait of Gilbert Motier the Marquis De La Fayette as a Lieutenant General, 1791, Joseph-Désiré Court, http://www.allposters.com/gallery.aspstartat=/getPoster.asp&CID=C208C6E1931040E4BF97BB86371CF38E&frameSku=1350208_4986878-7366768, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org.
  7. “Lafayette and the Virginia Campaign 1781,” Yorktown Battlefield, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/york/learn/historyculture/lafayette-and-the-virginia-campaign-1781.htm.
  8. “The Revolutionary War Battle of Petersburg,” Historic Petersburg website, http://www.historicpetersburg.org/the-revolutionary-war-battle-of-petersburg/.
  9. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Sketch of the skirmish at Petersburg” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1844. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-ee58-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
  10. Stratton, James – https://www.loc.gov/item/gm71000689/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70921444.
  11. Shattuck, Gary, and Don N Hagist. “10 Facts about Prisonsers of War.” Journal of the American Revolution, 27 Apr 2015, allthingsliberty.com.
  12. American Revolution – FAQs, American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/american-revolution-faqs.

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