Of all the Tories engaged in the brutal southern theater of the Revolution, none has a worse reputation than Colonel David Fanning. His savagery was matched only by his loyalty to the Crown. After the war, he referred to the Treaty of Paris as “the act of oblivion.” Fanning’s career and writings offer an unfamiliar perspective on the war and its aftermath.
Fanning used fear and violence to keep his part of North Carolina loyal, or at least neutral. “On one occasion, Fanning and his troop called at a smithshop to get their horse shoes repaired, where he met with a young man of the name of Bland, who had for a time served under him, but had withdrawn himself with a hope that he would be permitted to live at home in peace; Fanning charged him with being a deserter, stabbed him several times with his sword, and then shot him, and after turning him over with his foot to see that he was dead, said the d—-d rascal would never deceive him again.”
In a better-remembered incident, “He and his raiders first rode to Col. [Andrew] Balfour's plantation. When they arrived, the Loyalists immediately opened fire. Absalom Autry fired at Col. Balfour and the shot broke his arm. Col. Balfour made his way back into the house to protect his daughter and his sister. The Loyalists rushed the house and pulled Col. Balfour away from the women, then riddled his body with bullets. Even Col. Fanning fired his pistol into Balfour's head. The women were kicked and beaten until they fled to the home of a neighbor.”
Fanning left an account of his service, which includes interesting reflections of a loyalist in Canadian post-war exile. Like combatants everywhere, he had far more sympathy for his comrades than for his enemy. Reflecting on the fate of the loyalists he had commanded, he wrote, “Those people have been induced to brave every danger and difficulty during the late war, rather than render any service to the Rebels. .... As to place them in their former possessions, is impossible—stripped of all their property, driven from their Houses—deprived of their wives and children—robbed of a free and mild government—betrayed and deserted by their friends, what can repay them, for the misery? Dragging out a wretched life of obscurity and want, Heaven, only, which smooths the rugged paths, can reconcile them to misfortune. Numbers of them left their wives and children in North Carolina, not being able to send for them; and now in the West Indies and other parts of the world for refuge, and not returned to their families yet. Some of them, that returned, under the act of oblivion passed in 1783, was taken to Hillsboro, and hanged for their past services that they rendered the Government whilst under my command.”
Fanning’s memoir, written just a few years after “act of oblivion,” begins with a scriptural citation. Quoting 1 Samuel 15:23, he writes, “Rebellion according to the Scripture is, as the Sin of Witchcraft; and the propagators thereof, has been more than once punished; which is dreadfully exemplified this day in the now United States of America but formerly Provinces; for since their Independence from Great Britain, they have been awfully and visibly punished by the fruits of the earth being cut off; and civil dissention every day prevailing among them; their fair trade, and commerce almost totally ruined; and nothing prospering so much as nefarious and rebellious Smuggling.”
Indeed, the first years of Independence were messy. Even as Fanning was completing his memoir, the First Congress was meeting in New York under the new Constitution and working with the nation's first president to craft a more perfect union.
A close read of 1 Samuel 15 puts Fanning’s scripture quote in context, providing food for thought. The full verse reveals that it is a king (Saul, the predecessor of King David) who has rebelled against the will of God. (I quote here from the King James version, the version Fanning would have read.) “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.” This, at least to modern minds, turns the meaning of the verse on its head. However, Saul’s confession turns the meaning around one more time. “And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. (1 Samuel 15:24)
Kings owe their allegiance to God, not to the people. To Fanning, evidently, that was an important distinction.
Near Lexington, Kentucky, there is a Greek revival house, built in the early 1800s called “Helm Place.” Originally called “Cedar Hall,” the house was built either by 8th Virginia Colonel Abraham Bowman or his son. In documentation submitted to add it to the National Register of Historic Places, the building is described as “impressive." It “sits on a hill overlooking the South Elkhorn and gives one the impression of a Greek Temple.”
The Bowman family prospered in Kentucky. They began as pioneers, however, and lived originally in pioneer fashion. Colonel Bowman’s first Kentucky home, a log cabin, survives just a quarter mile from Helm Place. “The cabin,” says the National Register paperwork from 1979, “a single-pen log structure with half-dovetail notching…faces southeast. There is a step-shouldered stone chimney on the south side and the exterior stair to the loft on the opposite end. The significant details of half-dovetail joinings of the logs and the outside staircase date this building to the late 1780s. The half-dovetail joining was characteristic of other log houses in this part of the state. The log house is also unique in that it contained a stone basement, which, in effect, created a three-story building.”
A log cabin is not the sort of structure one might expect to survive for more than two centuries. Nonetheless, stone foundations and clapboard coverings have protected many of these pioneer dwellings into the 21st century. Here is an earlier post about 8th Virginia Captain Robert Higgin's cabin in Moorefield, West Virginia.
The Battle of Monmouth Courthouse (June 28, 1778), was the last engagement for the 8th Virginia Regiment in the war. Shortly after, the seriously depleted regiment was folded into the 4th Virginia Regiment. (In fact, at Monmouth, the regiment had already been provisionally merged with two others as the "4th, 8th, and 12th Regiment.") Monmouth was fought exactly two years after the 8th Virginia's first real battle at Sullivan's Island, South Carolina.
Very few of the original enlistees were still in the regiment at Monmouth. Aside from deaths from disease and battle, all of the original enlistments from 1776 expired during the Valley Forge Encampment. Some of the original officers still remained, however. Some of the original recruits had also reenlisted. Monmouth, however, was the end of the road for the storied 8th Virginia, a unit that first began as a Virginia provincial regiment led by a pastor and loyal (technically, at least) to the King. The Virginia legislature had intended it to be a German unit and commissioned German field officers for it (Col. Muhlenberg, Lt. Col. Bowman, and Maj. Helphinstine). It recruited men of other ethnicities, however, and was never as German as originally envisioned.
Some of the men, commissioned and enlisted, continued to fight on to the end of the war. In September, the regiment was merged with the 4th Virginia under the latter's number. Other regiments were consolidated as well, and the regiment previously known as the 12th became the "new" 8th Virginia. In 1779, the consolidated 4th was provisionally merged with the 3rd Virginia and known for a time as the "3rd and 4th Virginia Regiment." Lastly, the handful who remained were included in the 2nd Virginia Brigade sent to reinforce General Benjamin Lincoln at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780. Some of them were under the command of Captain Abraham Kirkpatrick, who had begun the war as a lieutenant in William Croghan's Pittsburgh company of the 8th Virginia. Croghan, now a major, was also at Charleston. All of them were taken prisoner when Lincoln surrendered on May 12, 1780.
Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg, the regiment's original colonel, and Lt. Colonel William Darke, one of the regiment's original captains, were both at Yorktown. They may be the only men of the original 8th Virginia who served at Yorktown as members of the Continental Army. Darke, who had been captured at Germantown, paroled and then exchanged, held a Continental commission but led militia at Yorktown. Malaria, to which men from the frontier had no resistance, prompted his militiamen to return home before the surrender of Cornwallis, but he remained (presumably having developed a resistance after the regiment's ordeal in Georgia in 1776). Private Bean Smallwood, an original 8th Virginia recruit in Captain Berry's company, was at Yorktown as a militiaman.
Here is an excellent overview of the Battle of Monmouth.
George Washington knew how to bite his tongue. His response to insubordination and criticism was usually a dignified silence. Like most people, he was most open when communicating with family. And so, we see his unvarnished opinion about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in a letter to John Augustine Washington, written October 18, 1777. “[W]ith truth,” he wrote, “…it may be said, that this State acts most infamously, the People of it I mean, as we derive little or no assistance from them. In short they are, in a manner, totally, disaffected, or in a kind of Lethargy.”
He wrote this two weeks after the Battle of Germantown. It is a revealing quote in many respects. It shows a normally very careful Washington speaking his mind to a trusted confidant. At the same time, it is an informed assessment. At Germantown and Brandywine before it, he had suffered from poor local intelligence, bad guides, and incompetent local militia support. In addition to the usual proportion of Tories and loyalists (generally a third, according to John Adams), a large number of Pennsylvanians were pacifists—Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites—and unwilling to resist established authority. Many more simply had little faith in the cause. Washington had, after all, just lost three battles in a row.
Even though Philadelphia was the seat of the Congress for most of the war, eastern Pennsylvania was never a hotbed of revolutionary fervor. Some of the city’s most prominent citizens remained openly loyal to the crown. The war’s most fervent revolutionary patriots came from New England and the mostly Scotch-Irish settlements of the western frontier. Many observers, then and now, have ascribed this to the one thing New England and the Appalachian settlements had in common: Reformed (Congregational and Presbyterian) Christianity. Washington himself belonged to the Church of England, proving that things were not that simple.
On September 22, 1776, William Croghan’s detachment of men from the 8th Virginia arrived at Fort Constitution, high on a cliff looking over the Hudson River and the island of Manhattan. Very soon, they would be part of the most famous campaign of the war.
Months earlier, when the 8th Virginia first formed, its ten companies were ordered to rendezvous at Suffolk, Virginia—south and across the James River from the provincial capital at Williamsburg. Those from the far frontier were the last to arrive. Captain James Knox’s company from Fincastle County (now the state of Kentucky and parts of far southwest Virginia) arrived just in time to join the Regiment as it headed south to with General Charles Lee to defend Charleston.
Captain William Croghan’s company from Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh, now in Pennsylvania) came too late. His company and several dozen stragglers from other companies were attached for the season to the 1st Virginia and sent north to reinforce Washington at New York. After a march that took more than a month, the 1st Virginia arrived at the fort overlooking the Hudson. It was commanded by Nathanael Greene and was charged with maintaining patriot control of the strategically critical waterway. It was called Fort Constitution, but was soon renamed Fort Lee after General Lee got (partially deserved) credit for the glorious June 28 victory at Charleston.
Sergeant William McCarty recorded their arrival. After ferrying across the Passaic River they “marched to the fort, which we came by several camping places and camps on top of a high hill by the North [Hudson] River.” They “halted in sight of the fort and river till Colonel [James] Read [of the 1st Virginia] went to speak to General Greene.” He “returned shortly” and “ordered us to march back up the hill a piece, where it was late when we pitched camp.”
For the next few days, the roughly 140 8th Virginia men detached under Captain Croghan rested and celebrated after their long march. They were issued flour, beef and rum. They got paid for the first time. On the third day there, McCarty wrote “We lay there and our men drunk very hard as they had plenty of money.”
Things soon turned serious, however. The day after their arrival, soldiers across the river were assembled to witness the execution of a man—bound, blind-folded, and kneeling—for cowardice (Washington gave him a last-minute reprieve). Croghan’s men must also have soon learned that the Hessians and Scottish Highlanders had given no quarter at the Battle of Long Island the month before, and had shot as many as seventeen Americans in the head after they had surrendered at Kip’s Bay. If they did not already know it, they learned here that there is no romance in war.
Four days after their arrival, still at Fort Constitution atop the Jersey Palisades, they watched British maneuvers in the river below. McCarty wrote, “The force heard the cannon fire very brisk from the shipping of the English, and we could see them land. We could easy see their camps and every turn they would make.”
Their stay at the fort was brief. They crossed the river to Fort Washington and Harlem Heights where they joined the 3rd Virginia to form a small, temporary brigade. Private Jonathan Grant later attested that they traveled through the Jerseys “to fort Lee on the North River & thence crossed the River to Fort Washington. The enemy at that time was in New York.” Similarly, Private Henry Gaddis recalled that they traveled “to Fort Lee, then we crossed over the North river to Fort Washington.” Days later, they were with the main army and thrust into battle—first at White Plains and later at Trenton. After the latter ordeal, just a handful of them were well enough to participate in the critical victory at Princeton.
The site of Fort Lee and its surrounding camps and artillery emplacements has been partially preserved. Judging purely from McCarty’s account it appears that much of the camping area has been blasted away to make room for the George Washington Bridge. Some of what remains has been preserved as Fort Lee Historic Park. The visitor center and its displays date from the 1976 Bicentennial and, though deteriorated, still tell the story well. Reconstructed buildings and artillery batteries show the site’s purpose, though the existence of trees and surrounding skyscrapers make the site look very different from they way it was in the fall of 1776. The position of the actual fort is in the middle of the town of Fort Lee and called Monument Park. An artistic monument records the presence of the fort and the events that occurred there.
Fort Lee was abandoned during the retreat through New Jersey, a retreat the fort’s namesake pointedly did nothing to assist with. Lee was in fact captured by the enemy and began to advise them on how to defeat the Continentals—a story told in this earlier post. One has to wonder how many people who live in Fort Lee today have any idea that their town is named for a traitor.
What did Peter Muhlenberg look like? The most frequently-seen image of the General is the oil-on-canvas portrait in the collection of the Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The gallery, however, identifies this portrait as the work of an unknown artist, created on an unknown date: “circa 1800-1900.” Judging purely from that date range, there is a good chance that this familiar portrait was not made from life. Muhlenberg died in 1807.
The second-most commonly-seen image is the statue that stands in the United States Capitol, one of two statues representing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This statue, which was created in 1889 by Blanche Nevin, hardly resembles the Martin Gallery portrait, though it is possible to imagine similarities. It depicts Muhlenberg as the new colonel of the 8th Virginia Regiment, removing his pastor’s robe to reveal a military uniform. (Muhlenberg was made a general after serving as the regiment's colonel for about a year.)
Directly upstairs from that statue, in the Capitol Rotunda, there is another image of Muhlenberg which may be the most reliable. It is a partially-obscured side image of General Muhlenberg in John Trumbull’s grand depiction of The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis. According to the Architect of the Capitol, Trumbull created this giant painting “between 1819 and 1820, basing it upon a small painting … that he had first envisioned in 1785…. In 1787 he made preliminary drawings for the small painting. Although he struggled for a time with the arrangement of the figures, he had settled upon a composition by 1788.”
Trumbull worked hard to make his depiction of the people in his history paintings as accurate as possible. He wrote that “to transmit to their descendants, the personal resemblance of those who have been the great actors in those illustrious scenes” was one of the goals of his patriotic painting. A war veteran from a prominent Connecticut family, Trumbull knew many of his subjects personally.
“To create portraits from life of the people depicted in this and other paintings," the Capitol architect's website says, "Trumbull traveled extensively. He obtained sittings with numerous individuals in Paris (including French officers at Thomas Jefferson’s house) and in New York. In 1791 he was at Yorktown and sketched the site of the British surrender. He continued to work on the small painting during the following years but did not [immediately] complete it; nevertheless, in January 1817 he showed it and other works in Washington, D.C., and was given a commission to create four monumental history paintings for the Capitol. Surrender of Lord Cornwallis was the second of these large paintings that he completed. He exhibited it in New York City, Boston, and Baltimore before delivering it to the United States Capitol in late 1820. He completed the small painting around 1828; it is now part of the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.”
If he even needed a sitting, Muhlenberg would not have been a hard man for Trumbull to find. The retired general served in Congress and as vice president and de-facto governor of Pennsylvania during the earlier years of Trumbull’s project. Though Trumbull’s portrait should be considered the most reliable, it is worth taking a moment to compare the Trumbull side-image to the anonymous portrait at Muhlenberg College. They are quite similar. In both depictions he has a long nose, slightly angled eyes, and slightly jowly cheeks. If the college has not made an effort to research the origin of the portrait in its collection, it should.
At the start of September, 1777, Washington was doing all he could to block the British advance on Philadelphia. He had four natural barriers to work with: the Christina River/White Clay Creek, the Red Clay Creek, the Brandywine River, and the Schuylkill River. Washington tried to use each of these barriers to block General Howe’s Army.
The first effort was at the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge, where William Maxwell’s light infantry (an elite, but temporary unit) engaged a much larger Hessian and and British advance guard. The 8th Virginia’s Captain William Darke led a contingent of men from General Charles Scott’s Brigade (including 28 men from the 8th Virginia). One of his men, William Walker, later complained that “no historian” had noticed the “very bloody conflict,” and declared, “For myself I can say that this detachment on that day deserved well of their country.”
Cooch’s Bridge is still not well remembered. But for those who are interested, the site is well-marked and reasonably intact. The Cooch family has preserved much of the surrounding land for more than two centuries. The folks at the Pencader Heritage Are Association are doing a great job making sure the story is remembered and told. Their ten-year old museum, the Pencader Heritage Museum, has excellent displays and is staffed by volunteers who are eager to tell the story of the September 3, 1777 battle and other events in local history.
Admission is free, but the museum is only open on the first and third Saturdays of each month. It is a very easy stop off of I-95 if you ever happen to be traveling that way on the right Saturday. Outdoor markers by the museum and battle site are worth the visit even if the museum is closed. The museum gets absolutely no government support—so think about lending it some of yours!
Yes indeed he did.
As I research the career of the 8th Virginia Regiment, I am frequently reminded of the close historic relationship the Shenandoah Valley has with southeastern Pennsylvania. I have lived in Virginia for many years, but I grew up in Chester County, Pennsylvania and later lived just to the west in Lancaster. The vast majority of the Shenandoah Valley’s early settlers traveled from Philadelphia and nearby ports through both of these counties along the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, which is now U.S. Route 30 in Pennsylvania and U.S. Route 11 in Virginia. The ten companies of the 8th Virginia were raised in the Shenandoah Valley and other parts of the Virginia frontier. Many of the men were born in Pennsylvania or raised by parents who had lived in or traveled through it. There remain many ethnic, religious, and even architectural ties between the two regions.
My interest in the Revolutionary War was probably first sparked by a tiny cemetery near my childhood home. It was the final resting place of twenty-two soldiers who died during the encampment at Valley Forge, a few miles to the east. The church across Ridge Road from the cemetery, used as a hospital for those men, is where I received my first Bible when I was about six years old. It has always felt like hallowed ground for me.
In my studies I’ve looked at the French and Indian War and at Dunmore’s War, the conflicts in which many 8th Virginia men first experienced combat. I’ve looked at Peter Muhlenberg’s famous 1776 sermon in Woodstock, Virginia, to see if I can figure out what is fact and what is legend. I’ve followed the regiment’s travels south to Williamsburg, the Carolinas, and Georgia. (Their planned invasion of Florida was called off.) I’ve followed them north into Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York where the regiment (or a large detachment from it) fought at White Plains, Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine and the “Battle of the Clouds.” Brandywine and the “Battle of the Clouds” were both fought in Chester County, but not the part I come from.
From the Battle of the Clouds, it took the Continentals fourteen hours to retreat just six miles to the village of Yellow Springs in a torrential downpour. One soldier (not from the 8th) declared the nighttime trek to be “one of the Hardest Marches known by any Soldiers in our army.” (I worked in Yellow Springs as a landscaper one summer when I was in college, knowing little of its history.) From there, seeking the only bridge across French Creek (which I used to swim in) the soldiers marched north on what is now Kimberton Road. (I graduated from the Kimberton Farms School.) The army (after passing my old Little League fields) reached what is now State Route 23 and took a left across the creek. (For nearly two centuries, the General Pike Inn stood on the left at that intersection, built in 1808. I bought a beer there shorlty after turning 21. It was torn down in 1994 to make way for a Rite Aid pharmacy. For a somewhat briefer time there was a Hardee’s on the far side of that intersection. It has also been replaced—by a McDonald’s.)
After crossing the creek, Washington took the army farther west (past the little cemetery and the church where I received my first Bible) and on into the northwest Chester County iron country. Iron extraction, furnacing, and forging were big business there as early as 1717 at places like Coventry and Warwick. (For three years I rented a converted outbuilding at the Coventry Forge iron master’s house).
The exhausted and sometimes barefoot patriots’ long march of more than thirty miles from Yellow Springs to Reading Furnace occurred on September 18, 1777. The next day, they retraced their steps and crossing the Schuylkill river at Parker's Ford (where I once had a post office box).
The 8th Virginia and the Continental Army went on to bitter defeat at Germantown, a cold winter at Valley Forge, and (for new and re-enlistees) an encouraging standoff at Monmouth Courthouse. For me, however, the two days they spent trudging along the roads of northern Chester County will always be the most personally relevant and meaningful part of the war.
In the largest battle ever fought between Native Americans and European Americans, the “whites” lost—miserably. At the Battle of Wabash, in 1791, more than a thousand Americans were killed or wounded. (This puts the much more famous Battle of Little Big Horn--“Custer’s Last Stand”, where about 270 U.S. soldiers died--into context.) Reputations were ruined, too. The only reputation that seems to have survived intact was that of Lt. Colonel William Darke, a veteran of the 8th Virginia Regiment of Foot. During the battle, Darke saw his own son take a wound that would kill him after several days of agony.
Darke is a poorly remembered hero of the American frontier. He served in virtually every frontier conflict from the French and Indian War to the Whiskey Rebellion. He was among the first captains to recruit a company for the 8th Virginia in 1776 and was captured at the Battle of Germantown a year-and-a-half later. After a prisoner exchange he immediately recruited a regiment of frontier militia and was present for the victory at Yorktown. An Ohio county and a West Virginia town are named after him. He was well-known to George Washington, who personally asked him to serve in General Arthur St. Clair’s army of 1791.
Washington clearly knew Darke and respected him. They may have served together in General Braddock’s army in 1755—though this is unproven and seems unlikely. If they served together in the French and Indian War it was more likely during the less well-known frontier conflicts that followed, when Darke served as a ranger. After the revolution, they had a business relationship though the Potomac Company, formed by Washington and others to make that river navigable. Darke Visited Mount Vernon in 1786 and 1787. Washington visited with Darke near the latter’s home close to Harper’s Ferry in 1790. In 1791, Washington wrote to Darke asking him to recruit officers for St. Clair’s army in advance of the campaign to pacify the Indians in Ohio. In that letter Washington bluntly and unapologetically told Darke that he was his third choice to command a regiment—pending a reply from his second choice (his first choice was “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who declined).
Intriguingly, what may be the best evidence of a close (but certainly unequal) relationship between Darke and Washington is a gift. According to longstanding tradition—apparently perpetuated by descendants of Washington’s nephew—Darke presented Washington with a sword. The date of the presentation is unknown, but it is believed by at least one researcher to have been worn by Washington at his presidential inauguration. The sword itself is real—it is on display at the Washington’s Headquarters Museum in Morristown, New Jersey.
The men of the 8th Virginia learned of the Declaration of Independence on the heels of a major victory. For nearly all of them, it was the high point of the war—and was followed by very deep lows.
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, which meant learning of it many days after the fact. News traveled slowly. When they heard it, the list of grievances probably meant more to them than the high-minded statement of principles we focus on today.
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 Hampton Roads between Williamsburg and Norfolk.
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.
When Clinton sailed south, the 8th Virginia was ordered to follow him (on foot), to counter him where ever he might attack. They departed just as Virginia’s defiant revolutionary assembly voted in favor of Independence on May 15—empowering its delegation to propose it in Congress. Less than a month later, Thomas Jefferson produced a Declaration for all the colonies asserting 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 parents of many 8th Virginia men had fled French armies in Germany. The French, and their Catholic faith, were hated by the English who saw them as champions of tyranny. The Declaration of Independence, in reference to Canada and Ohio, 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.”
The French were not their only enemies. Most of the army'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 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 had "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.”
Colonel Muhlenberg and the main body of the 8th Virginia were in South Carolina when the Declaration was signed. At the end of June, a fleet of British warships was parked outside Charleston harbor working to navigate its way around a reef so they could attack. Muhlenberg’s men joined the locals in their desperate preparations. The primary defense was a half-built 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 Continental force.
When the battle began on June 28, 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 main 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 in American minds around the war’s 1876 centennial.) The Founders understood the victory’s importance, however, and delegates to Congress in Philadelphia were ecstatic at the news.
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 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. The war was going well. America was winning and America had declared its independence.
As summer turned into fall, however, fortunes changed. Washington suffered a series of major defeats in New York and New Jersey. The 8th Virginia marched on to Florida on a mission they could not complete and the regiment’s mountain boys were already succumbing to the low country’s heat and ubiquitous mosquitos. For weeks, those mosquitos had been silently spreading malaria among the men. Those who had the weakest resistance, the ones born and raised in the Virginia mountains, began to die.
(Post revised 7/3/18)
is researching the history of the Revolutionary War's 8th Virginia Regiment. Its ten companies formed on the frontier, from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh.
© 2015-2018 Gabriel Neville