The 19 Century America wasn’t easy time for women. By the middle of the century 80 to 100 babies in a 1000 died in infancy, and childbirth itself was sufficiently dangerous that many women looked upon it with equal parts excitement and dread. Everyone knew someone whose child or children died before adulthood, and the indescribable pain of losing a child was common. Add in the general mortality rates of adults via disease, war and other dangers, and the picture of life for anyone in early America was one of hardship. One woman, Priscilla Decatur McKnight Twiggs, dealt with incredible loss from her very beginning to her very end, but by all accounts she survived with strength that can only be imagined.
Born in Philadelphia on January 26, 1802, the fourth child of Anne Pine Decatur McKnight and James McKnight, her mother was a sister of Captain Stephen Decatur, who would become of the United States first Naval Heroes for his bravery during the Barbary Wars and War of 1812, and her father was a Captain in the United States Marine Corps serving on board the famous “USS Constitution”. On October 14, 1802, Captain McKnight was involved in a duel with another Marine officer in Livorno, Italy, and was killed, leaving baby Priscilla fatherless at only eight months old. It was the first tragic event in her young life; it wouldn’t be the last by far.
She and her three siblings were eventually taken after her father’s death by her Uncle Stephen, who doted on them and became the father-figure to the children. Her mother eventually did re-marry in 1808 to Dr. William Hurst, having two children with him. When she was only 10 the War of 1812 began, which would bring her family triumph and tragedy. During the war on the sea her uncle, commanding the “USS United States”, captured the powerful British warship “HMS Macedonian”. Later in the war, while commanding the “USS President”, he fought a valiant and bloody battle against three British vessels that ended with his capture. While he was a “guest” of the British, word came that Priscilla’s older brother, Stephen D. McKnight, then serving as a Lieutenant in the Navy, was lost at sea on board the “USS Wasp”.
Rough times followed Priscilla. After the war ended her beloved uncle came back safe, and a National Hero. Just a few years later, though, her mother Anne died in September 1819, which facilitated Priscilla and her sister Mary to eventually move in with Uncle Stephen. Then, less than a year later, on March 22, 1820, war hero Commodore Stephen Decatur met death at Bladensburg, Maryland, in a famous duel with another Naval officer, Commodore James Barron. Priscilla tragically lost the only father figure she knew the same way she lost her actual father – through the folly of dueling over honor – only months after losing her mother. Despite the terrible beginning to the decade, the 1820s would prove to be a happy time for young Priscilla. In November 1822 she married Lieutenant Levi Twiggs of the US Marine Corps. Lieutenant Twiggs had served with Commodore Decatur on the “President” during the War of 1812, and had been held in captivity with him. Thrown into to the life of a Marine Corps Officer’s wife, she made a home wherever he was stationed, and had three children – daughters Anna McKnight in 1823 and Augusta Chauncey in 1825, and son George Decatur in 1828. The 1830s, though, had a turn for the worse for the Twiggs. Promoted to Captain in 1830, Levi Twiggs home station was now the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC. The city proved unhealthy for newborns, and death became again a constant companion for Priscilla and her family. She bore four children in the decade, and none of the them lived past childhood. Daughter Julia was born in 1830 and daughter Mary Elizabeth was born in 1833, but both children died within two weeks of each other in April 1833. In 1836 daughter Arabella Louisa was born, but she lived only a year and a half, dying in August 1837, while Priscilla was pregnant with her seventh child. That baby, born a son in April 1838 and named William Coleman, lived only nine months, dying in January 1839. All four infant Twiggs children were buried in the same plot in Washington, DC’s Congressional Cemetery, where they rest today. The worst tragedy a mother could have, the death of a child, had struck Priscilla again and again over the span of six years.
She carried on. On February 21, 1840 she and Levi had what would be their last child, a daughter named Frederica Constantia. Death did not take her away in childhood, as they had her older sisters and brother, and the family gained some respite from the terrible scourge. Still, for Priscilla, more tragedy was yet to come. In 1846 the United States declared war on the Empire of Mexico, and the nation as a whole marched off to war for the first time in thirty one years. Now a Major in the Marine Corps, Levi Twiggs unquestioningly felt it was his duty to serve his country in the field during the time of crisis. Priscilla, probably always dreading the day, nevertheless had lived the life of a Marine’s wife for twenty four years, and knew such a day would come. The war held more than just worry for her career military husband’s life, though. Her only living son, George Decatur Twiggs, had volunteered for the army, and was a Lieutenant on the staff of Major Folliot T. Lally, 9th United States Infantry. When Major Twiggs sailed to command the Marine detachment in General Winfield Scott in June 1847, their young son was already in Mexico. On August 12, 1847, only days after the Major had arrived to lead his Marines, the fear of a Soldier’s mother was sadly realized. In an attack on a place called Puente National, young Lieutenant Twiggs was assisting under fire an effort to place an artillery piece in position when he was shot in the head and died instantly. Priscilla lost a fifth child to the conventions of war. It would not be the last stab of tragedy the war would send her.
After learning of his son’s death, Major Twiggs continued on, doing his duty despite all odd like a marine would. He led his men as they participated in General Scott’s celebrated march from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, where on September 12, 1847 United States forces were stymied by strongly entrenched Mexican resistant in and around an ancient structure called Chapultepec Castle. There, while his marines were pinned down by Mexican gunfire, Major Twiggs stood up to rally his men for a charge, and was shot down, dying instantly (his men would eventually charge the castle, and that event is what is referenced by the line in the Marine Corps Hymn that goes “From the Halls of Montezuma…”). Priscilla Decatur McKnight Twiggs, in the space of a little over a month, again suffered multiple loss in her life. At the age of 45, she had now lost both her parents, the uncle who was a father to her, her brother, five children, and her husband of twenty-five years. Life and fate had taken so much from her by the time she buried her husband and son next to each other in Philadelphia and erected an elaborate sandstone monument over their graves. No one could have blamed her had her will to live been finally exhausted at that point. Yet, she still lived on, and still saw even more tragedy visit her before her time was over.
Her three remaining children, daughters Anna, Augusta and Frederica, remained close with their mother. Anna married Francis Murray Wynkoop, who like her father served in the Mexican War, commanding the 1st Pennsylvania Volunteer regiment. In December 1857 he was killed in a hunting accident, adding a son-in-law to Priscilla’s list of lost loved ones. Anna later re-married Charles Rueben Hale, a clergyman who served as a Navy chaplain and rose to be an Episcopal Bishop. In 1884 Reverend Hale and his mother-in-law Priscilla saw one final loss, as eldest child Anna died that year. Remarkably, and almost beyond belief given what befell her throughout her whole like, Priscilla Twiggs persevered another six years in until January 28, 1890, when she died just two days after her 88th birthday, a lifetime of tragedy over.
Augusta and Frederica, together with their families, had her interred on a wintery 1890s day next to their father, brother and sister in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. Augusta lived on until 1909, and Frederica until 1914. They too repose in Laurel Hill, although in different sections than their parents. The sandstone monument that marks Levi and Priscilla’s final resting spells out the heroic deaths of Father and Son. The long life of tragedy and perseverance of Priscilla got no mention.