Lewis Boyer: General Washington’s Bodyguard Lived Here
In July 2018, an unusual ceremony was held at the Old Wesley Chapel Cemetery, located just north of Piqua in Shelby County. People from around the Miami Valley gathered there at the gravesite of Revolutionary War soldier Lewis Boyer to honor him on the 175th anniversary of his death. During the war, Boyer had served as a bodyguard to General George Washington.
Those in attendance included Boyer’s descendants, Revolutionary War heritage society members, local historians and area people who wanted to pay tribute to the old soldier. Boyer is remembered as a local hero.
He was born in the mid-1750s. Historical records have both the dates of 1755 and 1756. Miami County historians Virginia Boese and Leonard U. Hill both wrote that Boyer may have been born near Hagerstown, Maryland in 1755. To understand the time Boyer lived in, we need to look back at that point in American history.
The American Revolution began in 1776 when Boyer was in his early 20s. At that time, people in 13 British colonies, which were along what is today the eastern shore of the United States, began a war against Britain for their freedom. The colonies created their own governing body called the Continental Congress. On June 14, 1775, the Continental Congress established a military force called the Continental Army.
On March 11, 1776, a special unit of the Continental Army was created to protect military leader, General George Washington, along with his baggage and military papers. While the official name for the unit was the Commander-in- Chief’s Guards, it was commonly known as Washington’s Life Guards.
Historical records show the unit was also known as: His Excellency’s Guard, The General’s Guard and Washington’s Body Guards. Washington is said to have referred to the soldiers as “My Guards.” Most stories associated with Boyer use the name Life Guards.
By Judy Deeter
In the beginning, there were 50 Life Guards. Each of the 13 colonies was represented by two men. The number of soldiers in the Life Guard unit varied during the war. It is said that there were as many as 250 Life Guards during the winter of 1779-1780 at Morristown, New Jersey when General Washington and his men were camped near British troops. At that time, there was a particular concern for his safety. The term of military service for these body guards was the same as for other enlisted soldiers. They were chosen on the basis of their sobriety, honesty and good behavior. Those selected were to be from 5-feet-8-inches tall to 5-feet-10-inches tall. Old records, however, indicate that Lewis Boyer was about 6-feet-tall.
An interesting bit of trivia about Life Guards was published in an article in the Chicago Tribune newspaper on October 23, 1875. It says, “…that General Washington’s Body Guard during the war for independence consisted exclusively of Germans,” (either German immigrants or families who had come to America from Germany). The reason for this, according to the newspaper article, was because the Germans had a “trusty and faithful character.”
Boyer served under Major Bartholomew Van Heer, a German immigrant, who is reported to have barely been able to speak English. One historical source said that it was believed Van Heer had once been in the German Army of Frederick the Great. Other records show he was in the Canadian Army.
Life Guards had their own flag and distinctive uniforms. There were threats on the life of General Washington. Historian David McCullough wrote about a plot to kill Washington and his officers in his book 1776. McCullough said that two of the men involved in that plot were Life Guards.
The date of Boyer’s original enlistment has not been found. Local historian Virginia Boese once wrote in a manuscript that Major Van Heer’s troop was originally recruited in Pennsylvania in 1778. Boyer’s discharge paper says that he was a “private Dragoon in the Independent Troop of Horse, Commanded by Major Van Heer.”
Boyer’s discharge paper was signed by George Washington at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 10, 1783. (NOTE: A dragoon was a soldier who rode a horse. Some sources say the word “private” was not used as military rank, but rather because the Life Guards reported directly to General Washington.)
The discharge paper also states that following his discharge Boyer was allowed to keep his military horse, arms and the accoutrements he possessed as a gratuity for his service.
An article published in the Feb. 16, 1963 edition of the Dayton Daily News says of Boyer, “He fought the British and their (German) Hessian mercenaries in many bloody campaigns including the siege at Yorktown….” His obituary in the Sept. 26, 1843 edition of The Piqua Register says, “He was at the crossing of the Delaware, Stoney Point, Saratoga, and the capture of Cornwallis, and all prominent battles from the commencement to the end of the war.”
A complete record of Boyer’s life after his military service has not been found. It is known that in 1789 he married a woman named Rosanna Kerns in Rockingham County, Virginia and they had 10 children.
The Boyer family came to Miami County in 1810. While most historical sources indicate that Boyer’s wife Rosanna came with the family to Miami County, other sources say she may have died around 1800, prior to the move here.
In 1805, Boyer (then a resident of Virginia) was given 100 acres of land in Muskingum County, Ohio for his military service. Muskingum County was an area of Ohio where land was granted to military veterans. In 1810, he moved to Springcreek Township in Miami County where he established his farm. He had obtained 160 acres of land in section 15 of the township. He sold off the west half of his farm in 1814.
Documents show that while living in Springcreek Township he was a farmer, circuit riding preacher and owner of a small distillery on Rush Creek. (A manuscript on file at the Local History Library in Troy says that he also lived for a time with his daughter Margaret and her husband John Millhouse at their farm on Statler Road.)
The 1963 Dayton Daily News story (previously cited) tells the story of Boyer as a circuit riding preacher. It states that “…with Bible and hymn book he preached sermons within a 25-mile radius of Piqua. As he grew older, he gave up horse riding and walked to his prayer meeting.”
Apparently, Boyer liked to talk and monopolized conversations and sermons at religious gatherings. The Dayton Daily News article states, “At one revival (meeting) the women in the congregation got tired of his long-winded sermons and conspired to out-talk the preacher. The old soldier was polite and listened for a while. Finally, he could take no more and jumped to his feet shouting, ‘If you don’t let me talk, I’ll bust!’”
In 1840 the Wesley Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church was built by Boyer’s neighbors. It was located across the Miami-Shelby County line in Shelby County. Leonard U. Hill once wrote that it was “…one half mile directly north from Boyer’s cabin.”
In several stories about Boyer, he is described as “a diamond in the rough.” The term refers to the fact that when a diamond is first taken from a mine, it is not pretty, but when it is chiseled and polished, it becomes something beautiful. In the book HISTORY OF MIAMI COUNTY (published by Beers in 1880) it says, “His exterior was very uncouth but he was one of those few men who are described as being diamonds in rough, and is said to have been an exceptional neighbor and valuable man in the community.”
Records show that Boyer married again after the death of his wife Rosanna. On Sept. 5, 1833, he married Mary Bard/Baird Dey, the widow of a man named Lewis Dey. The book Shelby County Marriage Records has a marriage listed on that date between Lewis Boyer and Mary Dey which was performed by John W. Valentine, Justice of the Peace.
Boyer passed away in September 1843 at the age of 87. Both the dates of September 19 and September 23 appear in historical records. Why the dates differ is not known. The funeral is said to have been held on Sept. 25, 1843. It was one of the largest held in Miami County at that time with 1,500 to 2,000 people in attendance. Funeral participants included the Piqua Light Infantry, Piqua Cavalry and Piqua Band. The funeral procession is said to have been more than a mile long.
Following Boyer’s death, his friend and neighbor Col. John Johnston, a United States Indian Agent (of the Johnston Farm at Piqua), wrote to a publication named the Ohio State Journal asking that they republish the obituary from The Piqua Register newspaper. In his letter of request, Johnston wrote, “Many of your readers will doubtless remember the iron frame and commanding person of the patriot Whig soldier (the name Whig refers to a 19th century political party) who roade (sic) the white horse with war saddle equipment of Washington in the great Whig Convention of 1840, carrying the banner inscribed, ‘The Last of Washington’s Life Guards,’ my old friend, follower and protector of Washington in many a well fought field has gone to the grave full of years and full of honors.” It is believed that the flag Boyer carried in the parade was on his casket at his funeral.
An inscription on Boyer’s tombstone says: “Here Boyer lies, who Britain’s arms withstood, Not for his own, but for his Country’s good. Though victor oft on famed Columbia’s fields To death at last the aged hero yields.”
It was Boyer and his comrades in the Life Guards who protected the General George Washington, who was inaugurated as the first President of the United States on April 30, 1789.
A chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution in the Miami and Shelby counties area is named the Piqua-Lewis Boyer Chapter in his honor. (Several are pictured above clearing Boyer's grave in 2020).
Click HERE to see where Boyer's grave is located.
Information for this story was taken from manuscripts at the Troy-Miami County Public Library Local History Library, a joint collection of research materials with The Troy Historical Society. To learn more, call The Troy Historical Society at (937) 339-5900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.