The 8th Virginia was composed of ten companies of 68 enlisted men, each led by four officers (captain, 1st lieutenant, 2nd lieutenant, and ensign). The overall regiment was commanded by three field officers (colonel, lt. colonel, and major), assisted by several staff officers (chaplain, adjutant, surgeon, surgeon's mate, and quartermaster). One inherited company was composed men on 1-year enlistments that began in December of 1775. The other nine companies served 2-year enlistments, beginning in the spring of 1776 and ending at Valley Forge in the spring of 1778. An 11th regiment was raised to replace that of the 1-year men in 1777. Replacements recruited in 1777 served 3-year enlistments. The 8th existed from the spring of 1776 to the fall of 1778, when it was merged with other depleted regiments.
I have posted an outline of the regiment's structure, naming the original officer and a handful of enlistment men I have blogged about. This is not intended to be a "roster" of the regiment, but rather a look at its structure, origins, and organization.
Fifteen year-old William Eagle enlisted in the 8th Virginia on Christmas Eve, 1776. He was one of the first to sign up when the regiment came limping back to Virginia from its encounters with redcoats and (far more dangerous) malaria in South Carolina and Georgia.
Colonel Muhlenberg brought the regiment back home to refill its ranks. Hundreds of men had died, deserted, or been left behind. Recruiting had been easy ten months earlier. Now, with Washington fleeing the British across New Jersey and the effects of camp disease staring them in the face, few men were willing to sign up. The regiment was never again at full strength. After Valley Forge, the original enlistments expired and very few of those men signed up for another three years. After the Battle of Monmouth, the regiment was combined with 4th and the 12th Virginia regiments and then folded into the 4th Virginia. A year later, even that unit had to be paired with the 3rd Virginia.
William Eagle was one of the few who enlisted during the Revolution’s darkest hour (literally two days before Trenton restored people’s faith in the cause). Nearing the end of his three-year term, he was “discharged for inability” on September 1, 1779. Tradition has it that he had a broken arm. Whatever his injury was, it saved him from a repeat of the 8th Virginia’s 1776 march to Charleston. This time, the entire Virginia line would be captured after the Siege of Charleston in 1780.
William Eagle’s grave is by Eagle Rocks, a steep peak near the headwaters of the Potomac in West Virginia’s remote Smoke Hole Canyon. Ross B. Johnston wrote in his book West Virginians in the Revolution that the veteran named his son George Washington Eagle, and nearly lost his life one day climbing his namesake peak in an attempt to capture some baby eagles.
On March 5, 1833 an old man named John Duncan walked into the Franklin County, Illinois courthouse and applied for a Revolutionary War pension. His father, he said, had been killed by Indians in Washington County, Virginia, when he was nine or ten years old. He recorded his own 20-year story of virtually nonstop Indian fighting, including the famous Vincennes campaign led by General George Rogers Clark (younger brother of 8th Virginia Captain Jonathan Clark). “He never was regularly mustered into or out of service," he said. "He never was discharged regularly. He received some little pay, but does not now recollect how much. He is unacquainted with the names of any Regular or Continental officers or companies, nor ever served with any.... He never was regularly enrolled in any company or corps, unless it might be Genl Clark’s or Col Hays’s. He belonged to none at home. He has no documentary evidence of his service; he knows of no living witness who can testify personally as to his service....”
Duncan’s life of fighting, colorful as it was, did not qualify him for a pension. Most of it happened after the war was over (he was about 18 at the time of the victory at Yorktown). The pension affidavit, however, is great reading for anyone interested in early frontier history. It was transcribed by C. Leon Harris and is one of thousands Harris and his partners at RevWarApps.com have transcribed and put online. These affidavits have long been largely ignored by historians, who have been suspicious of them as the late memories of old men eager for money. Viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism, however, they are a great resource to my research—especially when they corroborate each other or fill in blanks in the record. Duncan’s affidavit can be read here. (Though he lived for a time in an area that recruited men for the 8th Virginia, Duncan was never connected with the regiment.)
Abraham Bowman Whiskey is named for the only field officer who commanded the 8th Virginia for its entire two-year existence. Originally distilled by his descendants, the whiskey is a good tribute.
Americans drank rum in colonial times. After the Revolution, however, they drank whiskey. Rum was made from Caribbean molasses, but whiskey was purely home-grown. “The Revolution meant the decline of rum and the ascendancy of whiskey in America,” writes Mary Miley Theobald. “When the British blockade of American ports cut off the molasses trade, most New England rum distillers converted to whiskey. Whiskey had a patriotic flavor. It was an all-American drink, made in America by Americans from American grain.”
Nowhere was whiskey more popular than on the Virginia frontier. Whiskey came to America with the “Scotch Irish” (Irish Protestants) who settled the frontier of Virginia, the same area that produced the 8th Virginia Regiment. They fought for the right to settle west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which the King had forbidden. After the war, many of them led their families and neighbors into the woods of Kentucky. Abraham Bowman was among the very first to go. They began making whiskey out of corn, aging it in charred oak barrels, and (eventually) calling it "Bourbon."
Bowman was commissioned in 1776 to be the 8th Virginia’s original lieutenant colonel. A year later he was promoted to colonel to replace Peter Muhlenberg, who became a general. The Bowmans were not Scotch-Irish; they were German—but after a generation or two there wasn’t much difference. After a few more generations, the Bowmans were back in the Old Dominion, and opened a whiskey distillery the day after Prohibition ended. For many years it was the only legal whiskey distillery in Virginia. Today, you can take a tour and go home with a bottle of good Bourbon whiskey named after a true revolutionary hero.
October 4, 1777 was a bad day for the 8th Virginia and the Continental Army.
Colonel Bowman’s men had seen combat, most notably at Brandywine—but disease and cold had caused more casualties than enemy musket balls or bayonets. The Battle of Germantown was different. Confused by fog and under the command an allegedly drunk major general, the 8th Virginia suffered severely on this day, 238 years ago.
At least one soldier, Henry Saltsman of Captain Croghan’s company, was killed in the battle itself. Charles Sanders of Captain Stephenson’s company was never seen again. At least ten and perhaps as many as sixty men were wounded. Another 25 men were captured, mostly in the companies commanded by captains Westfall, Slaughter, and Higgins.
Wounds in that era were not easy to recover from. In 1818 veteran Jonathan Grant reported that he “was wounded in the leg” at Germantown, “in consequence of which wound I am now rendered incapable of labouring for my support” and living “in reduced circumstances.”
The men who were captured may have suffered the worst fate. They were carted off to the notoriously filthy and disease-ridden prison ships, where they were lucky to live more than another four months. The regiment's new lieutenant colonel, John Markham, was charged with "Having left the regiment I time of action ... and also, on the retreat of the same day" and with "Delay when ordered to support the advanced guard." A court martial unanimously found him guilty and he was cashiered. General Stephen was also tried but found innocent of being drunk during the battle. He was, however, found guilty of being inappropriately drunk at other times and of other misdeeds, and also cashiered.
[Post Updated 10/5/19]
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.
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