The adventures of 8th Virginia Captain James Knox have been unfairly overshadowed by those of Daniel Boone. This may be true generally, but it is definitely—and literally—true at the site of a memorial marker in Greene County, Kentucky.
The 8th Virginia’s recruitment area was vast—covering almost the entire Virginia frontier, which at that time stretched from Pittsburgh to the Cumberland Gap—a distance of 450 miles. Those two places were, at that time, the only practical access points to the “Kentucky Country”—all of which was, at the start of the war, part of Fincastle County, Virginia. To get there, you could float down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, or you could travel overland through the Cumberland Gap. Few had taken the latter route, however, when James Knox led a hunting party that way in 1770.
Knox was one of the original “Long Hunters,” who entered Kentucky on months-long or even years-long hunting trips, intending to return with large quantities of pelts. Daniel Boone is by far the most famous of the long hunters, but that is partly because there is only room for one of these little-remembered adventurers in public memory.
In 1770, James Knox and his team established a hunting camp and pelt repository (a “skin house”) by the north bank of a creek now known as Skinhouse Branch. Years later, a church was built on the same site. Today, the 187-year old nondenominational church sits at the intersection of Skinhouse Branch and Long Hunters Camp roads—neither of which carries enough traffic to warrant painted markings. It is surrounded by farms growing corn, tobacco, and soybeans. Two stone markers were put there long ago by local citizens to memorialize James Knox and the hunting expedition of 1770. In front of them, and closer to the road, is an official Kentucky state historic marker noting that Daniel Boone was also there—a year later.
Early in 1776, Knox recruited one of the 8th Virginia’s ten companies. His men were decimated by malaria during the South Carolina expedition of that summer and fall. By the spring of 1777, only a handful were left. Knox became a captain in Morgan’s Rifles and commanded a company at the victory at Saratoga. He took a few of his 8th Virginia men with him, and his 8th Virginia Regiment company ceased to exist. He was a prominent citizen of Kentucky in his later years, but has always been overshadowed by Daniel Boone.
Read More: "Searching for Captain Knox" (3/29/18)
8th Virginia Colonel Abraham Bowman’s frontier cabin looks better than has in 200 years.
Frontier log cabins, usually built of American Chestnut on stone foundations, were very durable structures. A surprising number of them survive today, including the cabin 8th Virginia Colonel Abraham Bowman built about 1779 or 1780 when he moved to Kentucky. Nevertheless, after two centuries, the Bowman cabin showed signs of deterioration (and alteration) when images of it were submitted to the National Park Service in 1979.
Bowman and his brothers are remembered as accomplished equestrians, reportedly known back in the Shenandoah Valley as the “Four Centaurs of Cedar Creek.” Appropriately, most of his land in Kentucky is now part of one of the most important equestrian facilities in the world. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Emir of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, is a horse enthusiast and owner of a global thoroughbred stallion operation which stands stallions in six countries. Soon after acquiring the property in 2000, Sheikh Mohammed had the Bowman cabin repaired and restored, along with other properties built long ago for Bowman’s children.
The unique cabin, which features a basement and an exterior staircase to a second floor, has never looked better. The most notable change from the restoration is the reorientation of the exterior stairs, presumably to their original position and providing more headroom over the basement stairs.
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.
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 Pittsburgh 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 a fort overlooking the Hudson. It was called Fort Constitution, but was soon renamed Fort Lee after General Charles Lee got (only partially deserved) credit for the glorious June 28 victory at Sullivan's Island in South Carolina. Fort Lee was commanded by Gen. Nathanael Greene and, with Fort Washington across the river, was charged with maintaining patriot control of the strategically critical waterway.
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 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). In addition to that news, Croghan’s men also 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 now understood that there was no romance in war.
Four days after their arrival, still at Fort Lee 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. 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.” They joined the 3rd Virginia to form a small, temporary brigade commanded by Col. George Weedon. Now part of the main arm, they were thrust into battle—first at White Plains and later at Trenton. In January, only a handful of them were still well enough to participate in the critical victory at Princeton.
The site of Fort Lee and its surrounding camps and artillery emplacements have 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 a bit worn down, still tell the story well. Reconstructed buildings and artillery batteries illustrate the site’s purpose despite the massive bridge and surrounding skyscrapers that make the area 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.
Read More: Fort Lee's Despicable Namesake
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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!
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.
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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.
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Part of the key to the flag's survival is its construction from "unweighted silk." According to RareFlags.com, "One of the most luxurious and expensive of all fabrics, the use of silk in American flags is typically reserved for the finest quality flags, most often for military or official use. Several qualities of silk make it an exceptionally good fabric for use in flags. The material is light-weight, exceptionally strong, tightly woven and weathers well. Its shimmering appearance is beautiful and impressive. For military standards, silk allows for large flags that are light and which dry quickly. The fineness of the material allows for the application of painted decorations, as is often seen in the painted stars and decorative cantons of flags produced for wartime use, especially those of the American Civil War.
One unfortunate problem with antique silk flags is that large numbers of them, including many Civil War era battle standards, were made of "weighted silk". Sold for centuries by length, merchants shifted from selling silk by length to selling it by weight, beginning in the early 19th century (circa 1820-1830). In order to earn more money for their silk, merchants frequently soaked the silk in water laden with mineral salts. Once dried, the mineral salts remained in the silk fibers and added weight to the silk, thus bringing the merchant more money. Unfortunately, these mineral salts proved to be caustic and caused severe breakdown in the silk fibers over time. Many flags made of weighted silk are very brittle, often deteriorating under their own weight. Yet flags made of unweighted silk, some of which are decades older than later weighted silk flags, remain in a remarkable state of preservation.
Thank goodness the dishonest practice of weighting hadn't begun when this flag was made!
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Croghan commanded the remnants of a 140-man detachment that included his own company from Pittsburgh, and another seventy 8th Virginia soldiers who had missed the spring rendezvous at Suffolk, Virginia. For the year, Croghan's men were attached to the 1st Virginia Regiment. That regiment's field officers (colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major) were all sick or wounded, so a man of Croghan's own rank was in command: Capt. John Fleming from Goochland, Virginia. In a week, even Fleming would be dead. There is good reason to think that Croghan was also too sick to command his men and that Lt. Abraham Kirkpatrick (also from Pittsburgh) stepped up to lead.
The crossing and the all-night march to Trenton were arduous. The bloody footprints in the snow we learned about in school were very real. Men who sat too long on the way to Trenton froze to death. But the suffering resulted in a victory over the Hessians that revived the American cause. “[B]eat the damn Hessians and took 700 and odd prisoners,” wrote Sgt. Thomas McCarty in his diary. The march back was even worse than the approach. A week later, at the battle of Princeton, only a handful of Captain Croghan's men were fit for service.
At Trenton, Croghan's men fired on the enemy just yards in front of General Washington and alongside the soldiers of Colonel George Weedon's 3rd Virginia. Their victory, though small in military terms, revived a dying cause. Afterward, the overconfident British became more cautious and Washington found a tactical model for victory against an enemy that was better trained and equipped.
Thereafter, Christmas would always carry a special meaning for those who were there. After the war George Weedon wrote a song that was sung each year at a large party he held at his home in Virginia. The song was remembered by the orphaned son of Gen Hugh Mercer, who died at Princeton. The younger Mercer knew Weedon as his “uncle and second father.” He recalled that for “many years after the Revolution my uncle celebrated at ‘The Sentry Box’ (his residence, and now mine) the capture of the Hessians, by a great festival—a jubilee dinner, if I may so express myself—at which the Revolutionary officers then living here and in our vicinity, besides others of our friends, were always present. It was an annual feast, a day or so after Christmas Day, and the same guests always attended. …I was young, and a little fellow, and was always drawn up at the table to sing ‘Christmas Day in ’76'…. It was always a joyous holiday at ‘The Sentry Box.’”
Christmas Day in '76
On Christmas Day in seventy-six
Our ragged troops, with bayonets fixed,
For Trenton marched away.
The Delaware ice, the boats below,
The light obscured by hail and snow,
But no signs of dismay.
Our object was the Hessian band
That dare invade fair Freedom’s land,
At quarter in that place.
Great Washington, he led us on,
With ensigns streaming with renown,
Which ne’er had known disgrace.
In silent march we spent the night,
Each soldier panting for the fight,
Though quite benumbed with frost.
Green on the left at six began,
The right was with brave Sullivan,
Who in battle no time lost.
Their pickets stormed; the alarm was spread
The rebels, risen from the dead,
Were marching into town.
Some scampered here, some scampered there,
And some for action did prepare;
But soon their arms laid down.
Twelve hundred servile miscreants,
With all their colors, guns, and tents,
Were trophies of the day.
The frolic o’er, the bright canteen
In center, front, and rear, was seen,
Driving fatigue away.
And, brothers of the cause, let’s sing
Our safe deliverance from a king
Who strove to extend his sway.
And life, you know, is but a span;
Let’s touch the tankard while we can,
In memory of the day.
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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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