Two hundred and forty years later, most of us celebrate America’s independence with cookouts and fireworks. Colonel Peter Muhlenberg’s soldiers experienced the event in its original context, and learned of it many days after the fact. News traveled slowly.
About three months before July 4, 1776, the regiment’s ten companies began to rendezvous in Suffolk, Virginia. Recruited from the Old Dominion’s vast frontier territory, stretching from the Carolina line to Pittsburgh, many of the officers and enlisted men were meeting each other for the first time as they arrived. Suffolk was then a small town, on the south side of the Chesapeake Bay near modern Virginia Beach.
On the way, each company stopped in Williamsburg (the capital of Virginia) where the officers received their commissions. Tidewater Virginia was abuzz with military affairs and politics. Lord Dunmore, the colonial governor, had fled the capital—but was doing everything in his power to regain control. From the safety of a British naval vessel, he had promised freedom to slaves who fled their masters and took up arms for the king. He had recently met with British General Henry Clinton who had come south with a sea-born army of redcoats. Where those redcoats were headed was unclear; Williamsburg expected an attack at any time.
Peter Muhlenberg arrived on April 16, probably at the head of a cluster of companies from the lower (northern) Shenandoah Valley. Virginia’s defiant revolutionary assembly voted in favor of Independence on May 15—empowering its delegation to propose it in Congress. The very next day, the 8th Virginia was ordered to march south into the Carolinas to protect whatever target Henry Clinton had in mind. The order came before all ten companies had arrived. Captain James Knox’s company from Fincastle County (now southwest Virginia and the State of Kentucky) arrived just in time. Captain William Croghan’s company from Pittsburgh didn’t make it, nor did dozens of stragglers from the other companies. Croghan’s frontiersmen had to walk 350 miles to get there. It was too late for them to catch up with Muhlenberg, so they remained behind in Williambsurg.
About the time of Croghan’s arrival in Williamsburg, one of the great events in world history occurred there—the adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. This document, written primarily by George Mason, served as the direct inspiration for the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and even the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. It declared, in words that may sound familiar, that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights of which . . . they cannot deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
Less that a month later, Thomas Jefferson produced a similar Declaration for all the colonies asserted it to be “self-evident” that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Jefferson’s document also contained a long list of indictments against the King, which included some that were of particular importance to the men of the 8th Virginia. At the end of the French and Indian War, the victorious British King had allowed the Canadians to maintain their French laws. Moreover, he had extended the Province of Quebec south to the banks of the Ohio River—while also barring new settlements west of the Alleghenies. This obstructed the dreams of Virginia’s frontiersmen—and offended the convictions of those who hated (and had fought against) the French. The French, and their Catholic faith, were universally hated and believed to be synonymous with tyranny. The Declaration of Independence accused the King and Parliament of “abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.”
George Washington and many of Virginia’s senior officers were veterans of the French and Indian War. Braddock’s defeat in 1755 had unleashed an era of conflict with the Indians that would not really end until the War of 1812. There was already strong evidence that the the King’s agents were stirring up the Cherokee and the Shawnee to create a two-front war for the Americans. Of special relevance for the 8th Virginia was Jefferson’s charge that the King “has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
News of Jefferson’s declaration arrived in Williamsburg on July 19. A large organized celebration was held on July 25. Early in August, Dunmore, already defeated at the Battle of Gwynn Island, left Virginia for good.
Colonel Muhlenberg and the main body of the 8th Virginia, meanwhile, were in South Carolina preparing for battle. A large fleet of powerful British warships was parked outside Charleston harbor working to navigate its way around a reef so they could attack. Muhlenberg’s men joined in the desperate preparations. The primary defense was a half-finished fort on the southern tip of Sullivan’s Island commanded by Colonel William Moultrie, a local officer who had pointedly refused to submit himself to the authority of Major General Charles Lee, commander of the newly-arrived Continental force.
When the battle began, Moultrie faced off against the British warships while a group of riflemen worked to fend off a cross-channel attack by Henry Clinton’s redcoats on the north end of the island. Among the men blocking this infantry advance was a detachment of about three companies from the 8th Virginia under the command of Major Peter Helphenstine. The rest of the regiment was in Charleston, waiting for the attack that was thought to be inevitable.
Miraculously, the defense of Sullivan’s Island succeeded. The fort, made of soft palmetto wood and sand, simply absorbed the enemy’s cannonballs as Moultrie—carefully shepherding his ammunition—calmly fired back. Good American marksmanship and a sea swell stopped Clinton’s redcoats’ north-side infantry crossing. At sunset, the British sailed off with their wounded.
The Battle of Sullivan’s Island was a major early victory in the Revolutionary War. It deserves to be better-remembered. (According to one explanation, northern historians had little good to say about the south when much of the Revolution’s folklore was fixed around the war’s 1876 centennial.) The Founders understood the victory’s importance, however, and delegates to Congress in Philadelphia were ecstatic as the news arrived soon after the Declaration was proclaimed.
News of the Declaration arrived in Charleston on either July 31 or August 2. On an “intensely hot” day, August 5, all of Charleston was assembled and paraded out of the city to the South Carolina’s Liberty Tree for the first formal reading of the document. There was, according to Henry Laurens, a “Procession of President, Councils, Generals, Members of Assembly Officers & Military &c &c amidst loud acclamation of thousands.” The troops were assembled along with civilians. The tree was located north of town in an open area that would not be built on until after the war. “Thither the procession moved from the city…embracing all the young and old, of both sexes, who could be moved so far. Aided by bands of music, and uniting all the military of the country and city, in and near Charleston, the ceremony was the most splendid and solemn that ever had been witnessed in South Carolina.”
For South Carolina and for Muhlenberg’s men, this was the high point of the war. The Battle of Sullivan’s Island was a tremendous victory that defied all odds and expert predictions. By the start of August, Americans had inflicted heavy blows upon the British regulars at Lexington and Concord, Ticonderoga, Bunker Hill, Great Bridge, Norfolk, Moore’s Creek Bridge, the siege of Boston, and now also at Charleston. The only major loss had been in Canada.
Muhlenberg’s men had left Virginia just days before the Convention voted to empower its Philadelphia delegates to support independence. Now, perhaps just as the giddiness of the victory on Sullivan’s Island was fading, came word of the Declaration. The war was going well. America was winning.
As summer turned into fall, however, fortunes changed. Washington suffered a series of major defeats in New York and New Jersey. The 8th Virginia headed now to Florida on a mission they could not complete. At Sunbury, Georgia (now a ghost town), the regiment’s mountain boys succumbed to the low coutry’s heat and ubiquitous mosquitos. For weeks, those mosquitos had been quietly spreading malaria among the men. Those who had the weakest resistence, the ones born and raised in the mountains, began to die.