“Winged Messenger of Death”: Captain Edward De Coursey’s Letter to a Friend

Captain Edward De Coursey’s April 1777 letter to his friend James Hollyday is one of the most unique documents relating to an individual soldier from the Maryland 400. As the third lieutenant in the Seventh Independent Company, De Coursey fought at and survived the Battle of Brooklyn, but became a prisoner of the British at some point in the engagement. While the British did not formally exchange De Coursey until September 27, 1777, De Coursey’s letter is proof he received a parole, returned home to Maryland, and continued to serve in the army prior to his exchange.

“Edward Coursey to James Hollyday, April 12, 1777.” Hollyday Papers. 1677-1905. MS. 1317. Manuscripts Department. Maryland Historical Society.

“Edward Coursey to James Hollyday, April 12, 1777.” Hollyday Papers. 1677-1905. MS. 1317. Manuscripts Department. Maryland Historical Society.

At the time of his writing the letter, De Coursey was serving as captain in Colonel John Patton’s Additional Continental Regiment, having received a promotion to captain on January 13, 1777. The “additional regiments” were sixteen regiments authorized by Congress at the end of 1776. Although Patton’s Regiment was mostly composed of soldiers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, it is unlikely that De Coursey was the only Marylander in the unit. While his relationship with Colonel Patton is unknown, Patton’s former commanding officer, Colonel Samuel Miles, was a prisoner of war with De Coursey and possibly recommended him to Patton.

Although De Coursey’s letter focuses on his courtship of James’ sister, Anna, and his fear of rejection from her, the letter provides great insight to the mentality and life of a company-grade Continental Army officer. Like other veterans of the Battle of Brooklyn, De Coursey had witnessed the horror of war and was acutely aware of the lurking presence of the “winged messenger of death,” that accompanied service in the army. De Coursey also refers to the time consuming duties of an officer, which would “prevent me from having much time to reflect on my unhappy fate,” should Anna rebuff him.

While De Coursey declared his intention to resign his commission and devote himself to Anna, he did not resign from the army until August 1778, more than a year later. It seems likely that, as he had feared, Anna turned down his request and he remained in the army to help cope with the failed relationship. Since he did not resign until August 1778, De Coursey would have likely fought in Patton’s Regiment at the major battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth during the Philadelphia Campaign. Though he wrote that he did not wish to preserve his life if rejected, De Coursey managed to survive the war and much longer after that, living until April 26, 1827. De Coursey appears to have eventually gotten over his love of Anna, as he later married Ann Nicols and had three children with her.

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