With no actionable intelligence, General Washington had to guess where British Maj. Gen. William Howe was taking his army. So in July 1777, he led the Continental Army north from New Jersey into what was then a rough, dangerous, and little-known pass through New York’s Ramapo Mountains. He had guessed incorrectly, however, and they were soon racing south again. Two hundred and forty-two years later, one of the last vestiges of this frantic Revolutionary detour may fall to a bulldozer.
After wasting much of the spring of 1777 trying to lure Washington’s army out of the Watchung Mountains, General Howe moved his army out of New Jersey and back to Staten Island. The preceding twelve months included the battles of Long Island, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Trenton, Assunpink Creek, Princeton, and Short Hills, but Howe was now literally back where he had begun. Together, the eight battles had earned the British little more than possession of Manhattan.
In July, Howe’s soldiers began to board ships. This was big news, but not actionable intelligence. Washington needed to know where the enemy planned to go. Howe’s ships could take the Crown troops any place near navigable water. The Continentals, on the other hand, would have to race on foot to meet Howe’s Anglo-German army, planning their first movements on nothing more than an educated guess. This was an extreme disadvantage for the Americans. Washington reported to congressional President John Hancock, “The amazing advantage the Enemy derive from their Ships and the Command of the Water, keeps us in a State of constant perplexity and the most anxious conjecture.”
Conjecture focused on two primary possibilities: Howe might move up the Hudson River and seize the Hudson Highlands, a strategic choke point on the river next to the site where the United States Military Academy was later built and sixty miles upriver from New York City. With Gen. John Burgoyne’s forces moving south from Canada, this maneuver would complete the British plan of achieving control of the critically important Hudson-Lake Champlain corridor. The other scenario was an attack on Philadelphia, the target Howe had seemed intent on taking through the spring. If the seat of Congress was in fact his target, a landing on the west bank of the Delaware River now seemed most likely.
...continue to Journal of the American Revolution
In a 2016 post, I asked, "How close was William Darke to George Washington?" That question was prompted in part by a sword Darke gave the general that is now in the collection of Morristown National Historic Park. Two years of additional research resulted in this essay, just published in the Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society (edited by Jim Glymph). Jefferson County, West Virginia--then part of Berkeley County, Virginia--was Darke's home throughout his adult life.
A Forty Year Bond
William Darke and George Washington
in Politics, Business and War
By Gabriel Neville
When George Washington arrived in Williamsburg in September, 1781 an old associate from Berkeley County approached him, causing a stir. Without being summoned, Lieutenant Colonel William Darke broke protocol by walking right up to the commander-in-chief to initiate a conversation. “I have never been able to account for such a motion,” wrote a junior officer who witnessed it. “I suppose it was the Colonel’s usual fire and rashness…. It was in my opinion an extraordinary and, I think unnecessary temerity.”
Darke lived near Duffields, which is now in Jefferson County. Initiating a conversation with the commander in chief was inappropriate then and would still be today. Darke, however, was no respecter of persons. Moreover, he and the general had known each other for twenty years and would remain connected for twenty more. In his own mind, he did not need anyone’s permission to talk to George Washington.
Darke and Washington had much in common. They both grew up in Virginia on the south bank of the Potomac River in Lord Fairfax’s vast proprietary lands. They were both physically large men and belonged to the same generation, born just four years apart. They were both veterans of the French and Indian War and they both committed themselves to the War for Independence in 1775.
There was much that separated them as well, including seventy-five miles of river between their homes. Wealth, education, social standing, and military rank all put the colonel below the future president. Their personalities were almost opposite—Darke had that “fire and rashness” while Washington was famously patient and reserved. Washington was refined, while Darke was described as having “unpolished manners.” Nevertheless, war, business, and politics bound them together off and on throughout their adult lives.
The French and Indian War
They first encountered each other during the French and Indian War. Washington established his military reputation in Major General Edward Braddock’s disastrous expedition to Fort Duquesne in 1755. Darke’s earliest biographer dedicated nearly a fifth of his 1835 essay to describing the expedition and its outcome, asserting that in “the nineteenth year of his age” Darke “united himself to the army under the ill-fated Braddock.” The biographer, who is identified only as “a Citizen of Frederick County, Maryland” may have known Darke. A Charlestown Free Press account cited in (and published sometime before) an 1858 Harpers New Monthly Magazine article asserted that Darke “was one of the Rangers of 1755 (then nineteen years old), serving under Washington, in Braddock’s ill-managed march toward Fort Duquesne.” The idea that Darke was with Washington under Braddock has been doubted by some, including Shepherdstown historian Danske Dandridge. She, in 1910, acknowledged the tradition but made a point of saying she had “seen no proof.” Supporting the tradition, however, is Darke’s own statement in a 1791 letter to President Washington that he had “bean in the Service of my Country in allmost all the wars Since the year 1755 in one Capassoty or other.”
After Braddocks’ defeat, the western frontier exploded in violence and Washington “retreated” to Winchester where he established Fort Loudoun as a base of operations. We have firmer documentation of Darke’s rank as a corporal in Captain Robert Rutherford’s Rangers in 1758 and 1759, still during the French and Indian War. Governor Robert Dinwiddie authorized Washington to form this unit to patrol the woods with the goal of encouraging settlers to remain on their homesteads. Rutherford thought highly of Darke, who was his neighbor. Three decades later, he wrote to President Washington recommending him for a high-level command.
How much Corporal Darke and Colonel Washington actually interacted with each other during this period of service is hard to say.It is safe to say that Darke was more aware of Washington than vice versa. Washington was in active command at Fort Loudoun until he left at the end of June, 1758 to join the successful Forbes Expedition against Fort Duquesne. His orders to Captain Rutherford as he left were to appoint his 20 “worst” rangers at the fort, while the rest were “to be employ'd in the Ranging Service as they now are, or otherwise, as shall be judg'd most conducive to the safety of the People.”
Darke’s French and Indian War service evidently concluded in 1759; Washington’s ended the year before. They had both gained valuable military experience. Still in their twenties, they now focused on their domestic lives. Washington married Martha, the widow of Daniel Parke Custis, in January of 1759 and spent the next fifteen years at Mount Vernon. Darke also married a widow, Sarah Deleyea, whose husband had been scalped and killed by Indians while sleeping under an elm tree. Darke and Washington both raised the sons of other men. Unlike the Washingtons, however, the Darkes also had four children of their own. Nothing else is known of Darke’s life in the 1760s other than an unsupported 1888 assertion that he “was engaged in defending the Virginia frontier against the incursions of the savages.”
The Upper Potomac region responded enthusiastically to the call for troops in 1775. Among the first units to be authorized by Congress was Hugh Stephenson’s company of riflemen from Berkeley County, which competed with Daniel Morgan’s Frederick County company in a race to Boston. Two more companies were raised across the river in Frederick County, Maryland. At the same time Virginia organized two regiments of provincial regulars, some independent companies for the defense of the frontier, and a network of minute battalions. When six more regiments were authorized by the Commonwealth in December, Darke was ready to go with a company of men. It became the first newly-created company of the 8thVirginia Regiment of provincial regulars and he was commissioned to be its captain.
The 8th Virginia was commanded by Colonel Peter Muhlenberg, the “fighting parson” who was at the time of his appointment the rector of Beckford Parish, the Anglican Church name for Dunmore County (now Shenandoah County). The regiment was conceived as a “German” one and was mostly recruited west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This region was ethnically, culturally, and religiously distinct from tidewater and piedmont Virginia. The regiment’s original field officers were German but the company officers and enlisted ranks included other ethnicities, notably many Scotch-Irish. The recruitment zone was huge, including all but one of the counties stretching from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh (which was claimed by Virginia). In time, the regiment was transferred into Continental service.
The regiment’s rendezvous point was Suffolk, a choke point in Virginia’s terrain between Williamsburg and Tory-dominated Norfolk. In the spring of 1776, they kept watch over Tories and stopped slaves from joining Governor Dunmore’s army of Loyalists. After the arrival of Major General Charles Lee, commander of the Southern Department, they marched south to protect Charleston, South Carolina. Darke’s men were present for (but probably not directly engaged in) the Battle of Sullivan’s Island on June 28. Other 8thVirginia men helped fend off an enemy landing on the north end of the island but they were not involved in the famous defense of Fort Moultrie at the island’s southern end.
After they fended off the British a greater danger appeared: malaria. Most of Muhlenberg’s men had no resistance to it. As he headed farther south to attack Florida, Lee left a large group of sick men behind in Charleston. The advance never made it past Sunbury, Georgia. According to an 1802 account, “The troops that went to Georgia, suffered exceedingly by sickness; at Sunberry, 14 or 15 were buried every day, till they were sent to the sea Islands, where they recruited a little.” Darke lost nearly half his company to the disease.
Among the first to get sick was 8th Virginia major Peter Helphinstine, who returned home to Winchester and died. On the day the army marched south from Charleston, Lee appointed Captain Richard Campbell to replace Helphinstine. In doing so, he passed over Darke, who was the senior eligible captain. No reason is given in the record, but the best explanation is that Darke was sick, left behind, and perhaps not expected to recover. Congress confirmed Campbell’s new rank.
The promotion became a source of controversy when the regiment returned to Virginia and Campbell began to oversee recruitment for the 1777 campaign. Unable to address the matter himself, Muhlenberg appealed to Washington for help. An aide de camp responded to him, writing, “Congress having confirmed Majr Campbell in his Office, leaves his Excellency no power to remove him, but for the Commission of some Offence.”
Controversies related to rank and promotion were common in the Continental Army. Muhlenberg himself was made a brigadier general at this time, which caused problems of its own. Darke’s case was handled delicately. On May 13, Congress gave Washington the authority to look into Darke’s case and resolve it. Explicitly authorized to make the decision, Washington promoted Darke to major. For purposes of seniority, the promotion was made retroactive to January 4, but its effective date was delayed until the end of September. This was evidently Washington’s way of looking out for a trusted soldier and compensating Darke for an injustice. Major Campbell kept his rank but was transferred to another regiment.
While the controversy was sorted out, Darke was put on detached duty, sometimes performing jobs that might have been assigned to a major. In June, Washington put Darke in command of 150 Virginia riflemen alongside General Anthony Wayne and Colonel Daniel Morgan. They harassed the enemy as Howe withdrew from New Jersey and they were centrally engaged in the Battle of Short Hills.
When Howe’s army sailed away, Washington sent Morgan’s Rifles, an elite unit, north to join the forces under Major General Horatio Gates opposing British General John Burgoyne. Howe, however, was headed in the opposite direction. When that was discovered, Washington rushed his army south and on August 28 ordered his brigades to each supply 117 of their most capable men to form a new light infantry force under the command of New Jersey’s General William Maxwell. Specifically, each brigade was to provide“one Field Officer, two Captains, six Subalterns, eight Serjeants and 100 Rank & File.” William Darke was chosen for this service by General Charles Scott, his brigade commander, possibly at Washington’s direction. Maxwell’s Light Infantry was the sole Continental unit at the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge and played an important role on both sides of the river at Brandywine a week later.
Maxwell’s Light Infantry was disbanded late in September. After months of controversy and delay, Darke at last became the major of the 8th Virginia. He was entitled to it by seniority and had earned it through capable service, but he acquired it only through patience—which does not seem to have been his strong suit. Yet, after all it had taken to get the promotion, he served in the role for less than a week. At the Battle of Germantown Major Darke boldly led a forward detachment of men into the thick morning fog and did not return.
Darke spent the next three years in captivity. He was initially kept on a prison ship and was then moved to Long Island, New York in the company of other American officers. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel while a prisoner but would later have to defend the promotion’s validity since he had been unable to perform his duties.
In May of 1780, Darke and other captive officers wrote to Governor Thomas Jefferson asking for financial support. The only thing of real value Virginia could offer them was tobacco, which the prisoners could barter with or sell. Jefferson wrote to Washington, who was encamped near New York, advising him that the Virginia legislature had authorized a shipment of tobacco for the prisoners and asked him to see if the British would allow it. If not, the tobacco was to be sold for hard money, which would then be sent to the men. Washington advised that the latter course would have to be followed. 
The general and the governor were both interested in getting Darke and his comrades home, perhaps on parole (honor bound not to fight) or properly exchanged (free to take up arms again). Jefferson had the necessary leverage. In February, 1779 Virginia state troops had captured Henry Hamilton, the lieutenant governor of Quebec and the Crown’s superintendent of Indian affairs. Based at Fort Detroit, Hamilton had been in command of British military efforts in the northwest and was hated by Virginia frontiersmen. On October 25, 1780 Jefferson played this valuable card. Hamilton and a few other British prisoners were traded for several American officers on Long Island.At last, Darke was free. Washington wrote to Congress that a total of fifteen American officers were on their way home. “The Military Chest being totally exhausted,” he wrote, “they will with difficulty be enabled to get as far as Philada. I must solicit you to procure them a supply there, sufficient to carry them home. Their long and patient sufferings entitle them to attention and to every assistance in getting themselves and Baggage forward.”
Darke returned home just as the British were making their first forays into Virginia. The war had shifted to the south and the British saw an invasion of Virginia as necessary to keep the Old Dominion from sending supplies into the Carolinas. An initial invasion under British General Alexander Leslie was recalled after the patriot victory at King’s Mountain on October 7. Then, on December 30, just a few weeks after Darke arrived at his home in Berkeley County, the traitor Benedict Arnold (now a British general) arrived with 1800 troops on thirty ships with orders to control the mouth of the Chesapeake and to make forays up the James River toward Richmond. Arnold sacked Richmond, the new state capitol, in January. An army of mostly inexperienced Virginia militia was defeated near Petersburg in April.
Things escalated significantly in May when Lord Charles Cornwallis invaded Virginia and occupied Richmond with a large army. The Virginia legislature fled to Charlottesville, but was pursued by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarlton’s dragoons. The alarmed legislature appealed to the recently-promoted General Daniel Morgan for help. The hero of the Battle of Cowpens (January 17, 1781) had returned home to Winchester suffering from sciatica and other ailments. Governor Jefferson wrote to him on June 2, urging him to raise an army in the Shenandoah Valley and come to the commonwealth’s rescue. Morgan agreed, but found men reticent to leave home as the harvest season approached. This led him to “call on the best aid I could possibly get” in convening a group of “Gentlemen who I esteem of most influence.” This group met on June 15 to plan and prepare. Among them were General Gates, Lieutenant Colonel Darke, and a handful of other prominent military men from Frederick and Berkeley counties. 
They set about recruiting men to defend the Commonwealth, urging the legislature to “provide some decisive measure for procuring the number necessary.” Properly equipping the recruits also proved challenging. At last, Morgan and Darke arrived with reinforcements on July 7, the day after the Battle of Green Spring. Morgan’s health, however, soon forced him to return home again. For the time being, the Americans remained in camp near Williamsburg while Cornwallis established a base at Yorktown. Meanwhile, the French persuaded Washington that there was an opportunity in Virginia, and they proceeded south with the main army from New York.
Washington arrived in Williamsburg on September 14. The troops formed up so he could review them. Many or most of these soldiers had never seen the great general before. The following day the officers lined up to greet Washington at a reception. It may have been at this event that Darke inappropriately “made the first motion” to the commander-in-chief. It was George Bedinger, one of Darke’s captains, who wrote, “I have never been able to account for such a motion. I suppose it was the Colonel’s usual fire and rashness,and, that Washington perhaps had a desire to know what the enemy would do on such an occasion. It was in my opinion an extraordinary and, I think unnecessary temerity.” Darke may simply have been eager to express his gratitude for his freedom.
“A few days after the review,” remembered one of Darke’s soldiers, “we started for Little York and there joined the main American Army under the command of Ge[nera]l Washington. After we joined the army, we went to entrenching. …The British kept up a Cannonading on us, and while we were entrenching every now and then a man was killed. One man was killed a rod or two from me.” Once again in a malarial region, many of Darke’s men predictably contracted the disease and were sent home. Captain Bedinger was hauled home in a wagon. Darke, however, was present for the history-making surrender of the British on October 19.
Business and Politics
After the war, Colonel Darke focused on his home and his family. He and his wife raised their own four children, an older son from Sarah’s first marriage, and a local orphan. In addition to whatever farming he engaged in, Darke made forays into both business and politics. He was now a man of stature in his community.
He became deeply involved in America’s first interstate public works project, working closely with (and for) Washington. As the Kentucky country filled up with settlers, it became apparent that there were economic, political, and strategic imperatives for connecting the Ohio watershed with the east. For Kentuckians, it was significantly easier to transport goods down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Spanish New Orleans than it was to transport them upstream and overland to ports on the Atlantic coast. To counteract this, there was intense interest in creating a junction between the Ohio and Potomac Rivers via the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers. Success would keep Kentucky tied to the United States and keep the value of its produce headed east.
In 1785, the Potomac Company was formed, with George Washington as president and William Darke as the company’s key upriver agent at Shepherdstown. An essential first step in the plan was making the upper Potomac navigable, which meant clearing it of rocks and debris and digging canals around its waterfalls. The location of Darke’s home near the mouth of the Shenandoah put him in a position to personally profit from the project. Washington and Darke worked together, meeting at least three times between 1786 and 1790 to plan and coordinate.
In 1789, the river was sufficiently clear for Darke to make news in Richmond’s Virginia Gazette and Weekly Advertiser.
We cannot but congratulate our readers on the fair prospect of Patowmack, becoming soon the common channel of conveyance for the produce of the fertile country through which it runs. The water carriage is already so far established, that five wagons are kept constantly plying between waters’s branch, the common landing, of George-Town. Colonel Darlk’s boat last week, brought down a load of 262 barrels of flour from Shepherds-Town, in Virginia, and passed Shanandoah and Seneca Falls, with safety and ease.
Ultimately, the project was unsuccessful. Dry weather left the river impassible while too much rain flooded the bypass “canals.” The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was later built to replace it (on the other side of the river). Even that canal never connected the Potomac and Ohio rivers.
Washington’s other great project during this period was the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution. The proposal was controversial in Virginia, with leading figures like Patrick Henry and George Mason opposed to it. A convention was called to ratify (or reject) the document and Darke was elected to be one of two delegates from Berkeley County. His partner was retired Major General Adam Stephen, who had ordered Darke into the fog at Germantown. Both of them supported the Constitution, prevailing in an 89 to 79 vote.
Washington was elected President in 1789. At his inauguration in New York City, he wore a sword that had been given to him by Darke and is believed to have been the President’s favorite. It was not a gentleman’s ornamental sword, but rather a type of smallsword known as a spadroon--double-bladed and designed to be lethal in battle. A tradition that the sword was used “to kill Indians” has been discounted as romantic but is in fact entirely plausible.
After taking office, President Washington signed legislation authorizing the location of a new capital city on the Potomac River “at some place between the mouths of the Eastern-Branch and Conogocheague.” In other words: somewhere between Georgetown (then in Maryland) and Williamsport (still in Maryland), an 85-mile stretch of river. In October of 1790, Washington visited Shepherdstown and met with Darke and other locals to discuss the possibility of locating the capital at Sharpsburg—just across the river. He also visited Hagerstown and Williamsport, but ultimately selected the Georgetown location.
War with the Indians
In 1791, Darke was elected to the Virginia General Assembly. His time in that office was short, however, because Washington had other plans for him. Rapid settlement of Kentucky had enraged Indians in Ohio who used Kentucky as their hunting grounds. By one account, as many as 1,500 settlers were killed over a period of just a few years. A campaign against the Indians in 1790, led by Brigadier General Josiah Harmar, had been a failure. An earlier campaign under Colonel William Crawford had resulted only in the colonel’s capture, brutal torture, and execution. Shortly after Darke’s election, he received a letter from President Washington asking him to lead a regiment of “levies” in a major new campaign. Levies were federal soldiers on short-term (six month) enlistments. Washington asked Darke to “appoint from among the Gentlemen that are known to you, and who you would recommend as proper characters, and think likely to recruit their men, three persons as Captains, three as Lieutenants, and three as Ensigns in the Battalion of levies to be raised in the State of Virginia, for the service of the United States.”
The army that ventured into the Ohio wilderness was composed of two regiments of full-time, professional troops (though one was new), two regiments of levies, a company of dragoons, and militiamen from Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Darke commanded the 1st U.S. Levy Regiment, which included three battalions of Maryland, Virginia, and “overmountain” men from the frontier. Darke reported to Major General Richard Butler, who had command of all the levies. The entire force was commanded by Major General Arthur St. Clair, a Pennsylvanian who was also governor of the Northwest Territory. George Bedinger served again under Darke, this time as the regiment’s major. Darke’s son, Joseph, was a company captain in the Virginia battalion.
The advance looked much like General Braddock’s march of 1755, and concluded much the same way. They cut a road through the wilderness as they went, needing it to run a supply train. Insufficient supplies, poor morale, expiring enlistments, bad weather and bickering officers all contributed to a horrific defeat on November 4. Surrounded, General St. Clair’s army—camp followers included—was sniped at and then butchered to pieces by the Indians as men fled in panic back down the road. Their flight was made possible by a desperate charge through the Indian lines led by Colonel Darke. General Butler and Darke’s son were both among the hundreds of dead who made up the largest loss for any U.S. Army in any war before the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.
Though painfully wounded in the leg, Darke was the only senior officer to survive the massacre with both his life and his reputation intact. This was in part because of his conduct and in part because he sent his own report on the battle to the President in a letter he made sure was public. This enabled him to influence public perception of the disaster before any investigations or recriminations began. In his letter to Washington Darke was critical of General St. Clair but placed the greatest blame on Major John Hamtramck of the 1stU.S. Regiment, whom he openly accused of cowardice. Two months later, on his way home, he sent a blistering criticism of St. Clair to a member of Congress who leaked the letter to the press.
Darke wasn’t just playing the blame game. He was angry and he was grieving. His son, Joseph, died “after twenty-seven days of unparalleled suffering.” Another of Darke’s three sons, John, died shortly after the colonel returned home from the battle. John’s death was probably a coincidence, but at least one historian seems to have interpreted it as another battle casualty. Darke’s old French & Indian War commander, Robert Rutherford, reported the second death to President Washington in March. “I Indeed sympathize Very tenderly with him on the death of his sons,” he wrote, “as that of his youngest was followed by the death of his eldest son, a few days after his return home and who left a small family.”
St. Clair’s terrible defeat was the subject of the first Congressional oversight investigation. Darke left home for Philadelphia in mid-March and testified against St. Clair. The general was exonerated, but his reputation never fully recovered. Darke also visited the president during this trip and had a private conversation with him about the next campaign. Washington asked Darke for his views on who should command. Darke recommended Daniel Morgan, Charles Scott, and Henry Lee—all Virginians. Darke did not realize, and Washington did not say, that for political reasons the commander could not be a Virginian. Lee, known as “Light Horse Harry” from his service in the Revolution, was well regarded but had only been a lieutenant colonel in the Revolution. Washington said he was concerned that officers, including Darke, who had outranked Lee would refuse to serve under him. Washington pressed Darke on the question. Darke does not seem to have given a clear answer, which apparently confirmed the president’s view. Washington, however, told Darke that he had a high opinion of Lee, and Darke left with the impression that Lee was going to get the job.
Darke then spoke separately with Secretary of War Henry Knox, who was less guarded and told Darke that Lee would not get the job. Darke thought he knew otherwise and that Knox was wrong. Darke later admitted to Lee that he didn’t give a clear answer to Washington about the rank issue. “I did not answer though I Confess I think I Should,” he wrote in letter. He blamed it on “being so distressed in mind for Reasons that I need not Mention to you,” but said he “Intended to do it before I left town.” Instead, on his way home from Philadelphia, Darke wrote to the President, saying, “I wanted much to have seen you before I left the City but judging you were much ingaged in business of grate importance, did not wish to intrude. I wanted to know who would Command the army the insuing Campaign and I am informed Genl St. Clear has resigned…. Should you think me worthy of an appointment in the army I should want to know who I was to be Commanded by.”
Washington chose General Anthony Wayne, of Pennsylvania. Wayne was a controversial choice, especially in Virginia, and Darke was surprised. He said so to Lee, telling him that Washington had expressed a high opinion of him. He also noted that Knox had indicated Lee would not get the job. Lee took that to mean that Knox had undercut him, and complained to the President in a letter that Knox had “exerted himself to encrease certain difficultys which obstructed the execution of” Washington’s wishes.
Read together, the letters can be interpreted to indicate compounding misunderstandings and perhaps an overreaction on Lee’s part. Nevertheless, Washington was clearly annoyed with Darke. He told Lee that it was all nonsense and “declared” that “the conduct of Colo. D___ is uncandid, and that his letter is equivocal.” Wayne went on to achieve a major victory against the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Darke was not asked to serve.
The Whiskey Rebellion
He did, however, get a chance to serve under Henry Lee. While Wayne’s campaign was the largest military enterprise of 1794, it was not the only one. Darke and Washington were both more directly involved in another: the Whiskey Rebellion. A new federal excise tax on distilled spirits was seen as unfair by western farmers, who found whiskey far easier to transport and sell to eastern markets than raw grain or flour. When the Whiskey Rebellion grew out of control, Washington ordered a military operation to suppress it.
Since the entire American Army was in Ohio, Washington had to create a new one. The Militia Acts of 1792, passed in response to St. Clair’s defeat, allowed this to happen. These federal statutes created uniform standards for state militia and empowered the President to federalize the militia to respond to invasions or insurrections. The militia of Virginia’s counties were organized into brigades of two to six counties each. The brigades were organized into four divisions. The Virginia assembly made Darke a brigadier general and made Daniel Morgan a Major General, the former commanding a brigade and the latter a division. When Washington decided to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion at Pittsburgh, the militia under Dark and Morgan were activated.
The entire Virginia force was under the command of the man Darke had recommended to Washington. Henry Lee was now the Governor of Virginia and decided to personally lead the Commonwealth’s forces. Lee estimated in a letter that the Pittsburgh tax protestors had about 16,000 men in arms, but predicted, “The division of sentiment among them will greatly diminish this force, and 8 or 9,000 will probably be the ultimate point they can reach. They abound in rifles, and are good woodsmen. Every consideration manifest the propriety of hurrying the march of the troops….”
Morgan ordered his men to rendezvous at Winchester on September 15. Darke and his men arrived on time, but “having neither arms, ammunition, or any kind of military stores” General Morgan thought it best to furlough them for a week. Finally, on October 6, another officer reported, “The State Arsenal has furnished us with 3,000 stand” of arms. “This supply enabled us to forward 2,000 men completely equipped on Saturday last. They marched under the command of General Dark. General Morgan follows to-day.”
President Washington personally led the advance of other troops from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Darke and the southern troops rendezvoused with Washington at Cumberland, Maryland, and were reviewed there by the president. Washington then returned to Philadelphia, but left a letter commending the soldiers for their “patriotic zeal for the Constitution and Laws” of the nation. “No citizen of the United States can ever be engaged in a service more important to their country,” he wrote. “It is nothing less than to consolidate and preserve the blessings of that Revolution, which at much expense of Blood and Treasure constituted us a free and independent nation. It is to give to the world an illustrious example of the utmost consequence of the cause of mankind.”
Washington was very concerned about maintaining the moral high ground, seeking only to quell the uprising and enforce the tax law. He warned about acts of extrajudicial “justice” against the whiskey rebels. Daniel Morgan personally intervened to prevent such acts. Moreover, William Findley recalled that Morgan’s left wing (Darke’s men included) behaved better than the right wing of Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops. Findley wrote:
In one or two instances, where there was danger of some foolish men who mixed with that wing being skewered, general Morgan, by pretending to reserve them for ignominious punishment, saved them, till they could be safely dismissed, or kept his men from killing them by threatening to kill them himself.
No accounts of General Darke’s conduct during the operation have been found, but the record shows that the men under Morgan restrained themselves. Findley noted that, “There was not so much of the inflammatory spirit observable in the left wing of the army as in the other, nor was there any persons killed by them, by accident or otherwise.”
Before the army left, a separate corps was formed to encamp near Pittsburgh and “cause the laws to be duly executed.” It was a combination of men from the expedition force and of locals, some of whom “were said to have been the most troublesome of the insurgents.” It is not known if Darke was part of this force, which remained behind for another three months.
Nor is it known whether Darke and Washington spoke to each other at Cumberland when the President reviewed the troops there. Some contact seems almost certain given their relationship and Darke’s new rank as a general. Either way, it was probably the last time they encountered each other. The Indian war in the Northwest Territory was over and Washington was half way through his second and final term as President. Five years after the rebellion was put down the Father of the Country was dead. Two years after that, in 1801, Darke was dead as well. His last public office was an appointment to the court (government) of the newly-formed Jefferson County. The court met for the first time just two weeks before Darke died.
On January 19, 1800, Henry Holcombe—a Revolutionary War officer turned Baptist preacher—delivered a prominent sermon on the life of Washington. He observed that Washington’s greatness was rooted in his freedom from pride and his trust in God. He said Washington’s “boldness and magnanimity, could be equaled by nothing but his modesty and humility.” Moreover, “he displayed an equanimity through the most trying extremes of fortune, which does the highest honor to the human character. He was the same whether struggling to keep the fragments of a naked army together in the dismal depths of winter, against a greatly superior foe, or presiding under the laurel wreath over four millions of free men!”
General Darke had his own virtues. He was brave, determined, and loyal. He was, however, sometimes also guilty of these virtues’ darker cousins: he could be reckless, stubborn, and prejudiced. Washington, though not perfect, was the better man. Still, Darke achieved more than most men of his time. He served his country in four conflicts over four decades and he helped ratify the Constitution. He oversaw a significant part of the nation’s first major interstate infrastructure project and he raised six children, including a stepson and an orphan. It is true that he started out with a few advantages: some inherited land, basic literacy, and perhaps some connections. Those gifts had little to do with his most important achievements or his perseverance through great adversity.
Danske Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown (Charlottesville: The Michie Company, 1910), 261.
Peter Force, ed., American Archives, (Washington: M. St. Clair Clark and Peter Force, 1837), 4th Ser., Vol. VI, p. 1556.
“From John Hurt,” January 1, 1792, The Papers of George Washington, W.W. Abbott, et al., eds. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987-),Presidential Series, 9:358-366.
“Biographical Sketch of Gen. William Darke of Virginia by a Citizen of Frederick County, Maryland” in The Military and Naval Magazine of the United States, 6 (1835): 1-9; Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown, 256; William Darke to George Washington, July 25, 1791, Jefferson County Museum manuscript collection, Charles Town, West Virginia; “Memoirs of Generals Lee, Gates, Stephen, and Darke,” HarpersNew Monthly Magazine,17 (1858): 509-510.
David Preston, Braddock’s Defeat (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 180-182, 338-340; René Chartrand, Monongahela 1754-1755: Washington’s Defeat, Braddock’s Disaster (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2004), 56-57; Samuel Kercheval, A History of the Valley of Virginia (Winchester: Samuel H. Davis, 1833, repr. Heritage Books, 2001), 67; Robert Rutherford affidavit, Berkeley County Land Bounty Certificate, 1780, cited in William Armstrong Crozier, Virginia County Records(Baltimore: Southern Book Company, 1904; reprinted as Virginia Colonial Militia: 1651-1776, Genealogical Publishing, 2000), 2:44; “From Robert Rutherford,” March 13 1792,” Papers of Washington, Presidential Series, 10:97-100.
 “To Robert Rutherford,” June 24, 1758, Papers of Washington, Colonial Series, 5:239.
Kercheval, History of the Valley of Virginia, 86-87;Virgil A. Lewis, “General William Darke, A Distinguished West Virginia Pioneer,” reprinted in F. Vernon Aler, Aler’s History of Martinsburg and Berkeley County, West Virginia (Hagerstown, Md.: Mail Publishing, 1888), 193-199.
Robert K. Wright, Jr., The Continental Army (Washington: Center for Military History, 1986), 24-25; William Walter Hening, The Statutes At Large, Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature in 1619 (Richmond: J. and G. Cochran, 1821) 9:16-25, 78, 80; Force, American Archives, Ser. 4, 6:1556; Guide to Military Organizations, 43. On June 8, the Virginia Convention heard a claim for expenses incurred by Darke and by Isaac Beall “for the expenses incurred in supporting their two Companies of Riflemen from the time of their being imbodied till the passing of the Ordinance directing the same to be raised.” Darke’s company was junior in seniority by John Stephenson’s company, which was transferred from independent service into the regiment.
Jonathan Clark, Diary,June 24, 1776, Filson Historical Society manuscript collection, Louisville, Ky.; Charles Lee to John Armstrong, July 14, 1776, in The Lee Papers,Henry Edward Bunbury, ed., 4 vols. (New York: New York Historical Society, 1871-1875), 2:139-140; William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, So Far as it Related to the States of North and South Carolina, and Georgia, 2 vols.(New York: David Longworth, 1802), 1:186; George M. Bedinger, The George Bedinger Papers: Volume 1A of the Draper Manuscript Collection, transc. Craig L. Heath (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2002), 68; John Robert McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 203,229. Lee had other regiments under his command, so the deaths of 14 or 15 men a day does not reflect mortality rates in the 8thVirginia alone.
Peter Muhlenberg to James Wood, September 29, 1801 and Peter Muhlenberg affidavit, December 10, 1802, both in Peter Helphinston file, Revolutionary Bounty Warrants, Library of Virginia; Journals of the Continental Congress, 7:52. Captain John Stephenson was senior to Darke, but his company’s term ended in the fall of 1776 and he left the regiment.
George Johnston to Peter Muhlenberg, March 9, 1777, Papers of Washington,Revolutionary War Series, 8:429.
“To Brigadier General William Woodford,” March 3, 1777, Papers of Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 8:507-508; JCC,7:351-352; John Fitzgerald to Richard Campbell, August 4, 1777, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, Series 3b, Varick Transcripts, Letterbook 4:13; “To John Hancock,”May 16, 1777, Papers of Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 9:438-439; Washington, General Orders, September 29, 1777, Papers of Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 11:343; Compiled Services Records of American Soldiers Who Served in the Continental Army During the Revolutionary War, 1042:116, 118-119, 134, 146.
“Narrative of Sergeant William Grant,” in John Romeyn Brodhead, ed., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York Procured in Holland, England, and France, (Albany: Weed, Parsons and Co., 1857), 8: 728-734; Clark, Diary,June 22-24; “To Major General Israel Putnam,”August 16, 1777, Papers of Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 10:642; McGuire, Philadelphia Campaign, 1:45-52.
“General Orders,” August 28, 1777, Papers of Washington,Revolutionary War Series, 11:81-82; “Narrative of William Grant,” 733. Grant describes how, in a skirmish, Darke “divided his men into 6 parties of 25 each.”
“From Major General Adam Stephen,” October 9, 1777, Papers of Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 11:468–470.
Elizabeth Paschal O’Connor (Mrs. T.P. O’Connor), My Beloved South(New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1913), 100-101; CSR, 1042:120, 121, 129, 133.
“Memorial of the Officers of the Virginia Line in Captivity,” May 24, 1780, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), 3: 388-391; “To Benjamin Harrison,” June 22?, 1780, Papers of Jefferson, 3:458; “To George Washington,” July 4, 1780, Papers of Jefferson,3:481; “To Governor Thomas Jefferson,” August 29, 1780, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937), 19:468.
“To George Washington,” October 25, 1780, Papers of Jefferson, 4:68; “To the Board of War,” November 4, 1780, Writings of Washington, 20:291-292.
Michael Cecere, The Invasion of Virginia 1781 (Yardley, Pa: Westholme, 2017), 8-10, 13-14, 22-23.
“To Daniel Morgan,” June 2, 1781, Papers of Jefferson, 6:70-71; William P. Palmer, ed., Calendar of Virginia State Papers (Richmond: Sherwin McRae, 1881), 2:162-163.
Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 161-166, citing Morgan to Nelson, June 26, 1781, Charles Roberts Autograph Collection, Haverford College Library.
Ebenezer Denny, Military Journal of Major Ebenezer Denny (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1859), 38-39; James Carter pension, 1833, C. Leon Harris, transc., revwarapps.com (viewed 12/17/17); Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown,261.
James Carter pension, 1833; Dandridge,Historic Shepherdstown, 260-261
Oliver Evans, The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide (Philadelphia: Oliver Evans, 1795), 500-507.
Sarah Peter, Private Memoir of Thomas Worthington, Esq. of Adena, Ross County, Ohio (Cincinatti: Robert Clarke & Co., 1882), 4, 9-10; Douglas R. Littlefield, “The Potomac Company: A Misadventure in Financing an Early American Internal Improvement Project,” The Business History Review, 58 (1984): 562-585. An Ohio-Potomac junction would certainly have required an overland portage as well, but the sources consulted don’t mention one.
Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds, The Diaries of George Washington (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia: 1979), 5:6,151-152; “From Henry Bedinger and William Good,” Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 7:1.
Virginia Gazette and Weekly Advertiser, May 14, 1789.
Littlefield, “The Potomac Company,” 576, 583-584.
Hugh Blair Grigsby, The History of the Virginia Federal Convention of 1788 (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1891), 2:363-366; Earl G. Swem and John W. Williams, A Register of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776-1918 and of the Constitutional Conventions (Richmond: Davis Bottom, 1918), 34, 36, 243, 366.
Erik Goldstein, Stuart C. Mowbray, and Brian Hendelson, The Swords of George Washington (Woonsocket, RI: Mowbray Publishing, 2016), 63-68; Merrill Lindsay, “A Review of All the Known Surviving Swords of Gen. George Washington: How Many Swords Did George Washington Wear at His Inauguration?” American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin, 32 (Fall, 1975), 37-49.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/19/Residence_Act_of_1790.jpg; Kenneth R. Bowling, The Creation of Washington D.C: The Idea and Location of the American Capital (Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press, 1991), 123-125, 210-211.
Earl G. Swem and John W. Williams, A Register of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776-1918 and of the Constitutional Conventions (Richmond: Davis Bottom, 1918), 34, 36, 243, 366; “To William Darke,” April 4, 1791, The Papers of George Washington,Presidential Series, 8:55-57. Darke’s appointment was made after two higher-profile officers declined the job.
John Winkler, Wabash 1791(Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2011),21, 29.
Wilson, “St. Clair’s Defeat,” 379; Winkler, Wabash,59-73; “Shiloh,” American Battlefield Protection Program, https://www.nps.gov/abpp/battles/tn003.htm(accessed 7/27/18).
Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown,261; “From William Darke,”November9-10,1791,” Papers of Washington, Presidential Series, 9:158-168; Arthur St. Clair, Narrative of the Manner in Which the Campaign Against the Indians in the Year One Thousand Seven Hundren and Ninety-One, Was Conducted, Under the Command of Major General Arthur St. Clair (Philadelphia: Jane Aitken, 1812), 29; “Extract of a letter from Colonel ____, Commanding Officer of a Frontier County, to a Member of Congress—dated Lexington, January, 1792,” Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser,February 10, 1792, cited in Papers of Washington, 10:156-157.
“Biographical Sketch,” Military and Naval Magazine,8; Wiley Sword, President Washington’s Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790-1795 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press), 193; “From Robert Rutherford,” Papers of Washington, Presidential Series, 10:97-100. John Darke is not included on Ebenezer Denny’s list of officers wounded and killed in the battle. (Denny, Military Journal, 172-173.) Darke’s third son, Samuel, died four years later.
“From Robert Rutherford,” March 13, 1792, Papers of Washington, Presidential Series, 10:97; “To Henry Lee,” June 30, 1792, Papers of Washington, Presidential Series, 10:506-509.
“From William Darke,” circa April 25, 1792, Papers of Washington, Presidential Series, 10:314-315; “From Henry Lee,” June 15, 1792, Papers of Washington, Presidential Series, 10:455-457.
“To Henry Lee,” June 30, 1792, Papers of Washington, Presidential Series, 10:506-509.
“To Henry Lee,” June 30, 1792, Papers of Washington, Presidential Series, 10:506-509.
 A Collection of All Such Acts of the Virginia General Assembly of Public and Permanent Nature as are Now in Force(Richmond: Samuel Pleasants, Jr. and Henry Pace, 1803), 282, 310; Brent Tarter,"William Darke (1736–1801)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Darke_William, accessed January 14, 2017); Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 184, citing “Morgan’s militia commission” in the Myers Collection, New York Public Library. The General Assembly transferred the power to appoint future militia generals to the governor on December 10, 1793.
“Henry Lee, Governor to General Wood, Lieutentant-Governor,” September 19, 1794, Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 7: 318. Henry Lee was the father of Robert E. Lee, who was born in 1807.
Daniel Morgan to the Governor, September 16, 1794, Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 7: 315-316, 341-342.
George Washington to Henry Lee, October 20, 1794, Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 7:356.
William Findley, History of the Insurrection in the Four Western Counties of Pennsylvania in the Year MDCCXCIV (Philadelphia: Samuel Harrison Smith: 1796), 148. See also Hugh H. Brackenridge, Incidents of the Insurrection in the Western Parts of Pennsylvania, in the Year 1794 (Philadelphia: John McCulloch, 1795), 61.
Findley, History of the Insurrection, 148.
Findley, History of the Insurrection, 321.
Tarter, “William Darke.”
Henry Holcombe, “A Sermon Occasioned by the Death of Lieutenant-General George Washington; first delivered in the Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia, January 19, 1800, and now published, at the request of the Honorable City Council” (Savannah: Seymour and Woolhopter, 1800), (text posted at www.consource.org/document/a-sermon-occasioned-by-the-death-of-washington-by-henry-holcombe-1800-1-19/).
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.
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 summer of 1777, General Washington sent Daniel Morgan’s rifle battalion north to help fend off the enemy advance down the Hudson valley. One of Morgan’s companies was led by 8th Virginia Captain James Knox who, along with a handful of enlisted men, was technically still in the 8th but on detached duty. With Morgan and Knox gone, the main army was without a light infantry battalion.
Washington formed a new one, under the command of General William Maxwell. Colonel William Crawford—half brother of 8th Virginia captains John and David Stephenson—seems to have been in active command of this force. Maxwell’s Light Infantry played the central role at the battle of Cooch’s Bridge (September 3) and a key role at the Battle of Brandywine (September 11).
As a temporary force, only hints about how Maxwell’s Light Infantry was organized survive, but it seems the soldiers were organized by their home brigades, as one would expect. The 8th was part of the 4th Virginia Brigade, commanded by General Charles Scott. The recollections of a deserter from the 12th Virginia make it fairly clear that the 8th Virginia’s Captain William Darke was one of two captains sent to lead Scott’s men.
William Walker, also from the 4th Brigade (but a different regiment), left this colorful recollection of the events just before the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge: “At this place [a unit was formed composed of] 8 hundred men, chiefly volunteers, called the detached light infantry, I being among them. The following are the names of the field officers commanding this party, [Lieutenant Colonel] Rich[ard] Parker, [Lieutenant] Colonel [William] Heath [Heth] with a glass eye, Colonel [William] Crawford with his leather hunting shirt, pantaloons and Rifle, Colonel [Alexander] Martin from North Carolina. General [William] Maxwell being the commander, we marched to a place called Iron Hill where we remained until the 2nd of September, the enemy being as yet stationary, when a very bloody conflict ensued.”
A week later, the unit spent many hours skirmishing with the enemy during the early hours of the Battle of the Brandywine—most of it exposed and alone on the enemy’s side of the river.
Until recently, I had little hope of identifying which men of our regiment were detached to Maxwell’s command. Notes on the August, 1777 muster roll, however, appear to tell us who they were. The roll, taken September 2, lists one sergeant and 28 privates as “at the lines” or “on command at the lines.” The day before the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge when the 8th proper was not engaged but Maxwell's men were in the thick of battle, this seems to be a fairly clear indication of who was serving in the new light infantry battalion. Here’s the list. Note that only half the regiment's companies are represented. This reflects among other things the uneven effects of malaria on the troops the year before (Knox's company didn't exist anymore, and Darke's and Higgins' had only a handful of men).
Pvt. George Ashby
Pvt. Abraham Hogman
Pvt. George Lair
Pvt. Daniel Nichols
Pvt. William Shovel
Pvt. Barton Whitehorn
Pvt. Ezekiel Abel
Pvt. Moses Crawford
Pvt. Jesse Davis
Pvt. Jonathan Grant
Pvt. Aneas Lany
Pvt. Thomas Owens
Pvt. John Reed, Sr.
Pvt. John Reed, Jr.
Pvt. David Williams
Pvt. William Campbell
Pvt. Joseph Delaney
Pvt. William Fincham
Pvt. William Robert
Pvt. Richard Roberts
Pvt. John Rosson
Pvt. Elzaphan Rucker
Pvt. James Vowels
David Stephenson’s Company:
Pvt. Cornelius Cain
Pvt. William Donavan
Sgt. Edward McCarty
Pvt. Richard Cain
Pvt. Zachariah Pigman
Pvt. John Williams
A captain (William Darke), a sergeant (Edward McCarty), and 28 rank-and-file soldiers represent nearly all of the men of our regiment who served in Maxwell’s light infantry. Missing from the list is an unknown number of additional officers. Each brigade was ordered to furnish “one Field Officer, two Captains, six Subalterns, eight Serjeants and 100 Rank & File from each brigade.”
[Post updated 8/7/17 to add Pvt. William Donavan.]
Contemporary narratives of the Revolutionary War from enlisted soldiers are as rare as hens' teeth. Below is a very rare extended narrative from William Grant, a school teacher turned Continental soldier from Staunton, Virginia. Grant deserted and defected to the British side just before the Battle of Brandywine, having served against the Cherokee and the Shawnee in the west, and for a few months in the east. Apparently directed to give a full account of his service, he claimed never to have believed in the American cause.
Grant was a soldier in Michael Bowyer's company of the 12th Virginia Regiment, a regiment that served alongside the 8th Virginia under Brigadier General Charles Scott in 1777 and 1778. Coming from Augusta County, a county that also raised men for the 8th Virginia, his narrative is very important in my work compiling a history of the 8th Virginia. It is only through this record, for instance, that we know Captain William Darke performed important service under General William Maxwell at Cooch's Bridge and Brandywine. Notably, Grant calls Darke a "Dutchman," apparently assuming he was German because of his connection with the 8th Virginia. (Darke wasn't German.)
It also portrays both of the war's two fronts--the frontier war against the Indians and the eastern war against the British and Hessians. The frontier war is little-remembered today, but was top-of-mind to the men of the 8th Virginia. The western war was begun by their fathers in the French and Indian War and would not really end until the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
Grant's personal story is also interesting It gives a perspective that is rarely remembered--that of a frontier Tory, too afraid to let his true inclinations be known. The entire narrative is transcribed below, with minimal corrections and broken into paragraphs for ease of reading.
About the beginning of July 1776. the Cherokee Indians, excited by a number of the friends to Government, in that place commonly called Tories, who had fled from North Carolina, fell upon the Western frontiers of Virginia; whereupon the Committees of the several Counties detached severall small parties of militia to stop their progress thro’ the Country, untill such time as an army could be raised to oppose them, which at that time was very difficult, as the major part of the youth who were zealous for the cause, were already in the service against the King's troops.
In this juncture they were obligated to have recourse to the Militia law, which compels every male from the age of fifteen to sixty, after having settled three months in one place, to take up arms against all enemys; upon their refusal they forfeit the sum of £20 of that currency. By virtue of which law they collected about 1200 men before the middle of August, the chief command of which was conferred upon Col. [Thomas] Smith, a native of that country.
He immediately assembled his new Army at Staunton, a small town in Augusta County, lying about 20 miles to the Westward of the South Mountain, from whence he marched Aug[us]t 18th and proceeded directly to Holstein [Holston], a settlement upon the frontiers where the Indians were then ravaging; but upon the approach of the army retreated with their booty. The Col. finding they would not come to a decisive engagement so far from home, determined to pursue them to their towns, to expedite which he encamped his army on an island formed in the river Holstein, generally known by the name of the Long Island, untill such time as he could be reinforced with provisions and men, upon which there were severall draughts taken out of the Militia[.]
General Washington at the same time petitioning for more troops, and a draught of the Militia being granted, it fell to my lot to go as one. At that time I taught a school in Augusta County, but being zealous for government was determined not to go, but finding I was not able to withstand their power, which was very arbitrary in that part, I thought it better to enter into the service against the Indians than to go into actual service against my Countrymen. Accordingly some troops were raising at that time by Act of the Convention of Virginia (to be stationed at the different passes on the Ohio to keep the Shawneese &c in awe and to prevent their incursions) upon these terms, vizt that they should enlist for the term of two years, that they should not be compelled to leave the said frontiers or be entred into the Continental service without their own mutual consent, as also that of the legislator.
Taking this to be the only method of scree[n]ing myself from being deemed a Tory and also of preventing my being forced into the Continental service, I enlisted the third of Septemb[e]r into Capt. Michael Bowyers's Company of Riflemen, to be stationed at the mouth of the Little Kennarah [Kanawha] upon the River Ohio.
Soon after we marched in company with 150 militia, to the assistance of Coll. Smith, who still continued on the Long Island. We had several skirmishes with the Indians during our march, without any considerable loss on either side. Sept[embe]r 19th we joined the main body, and on the 22d decamped and proceeded towards the Cherokee towns. The enemy continued to harrass us in our march with numberless attacks, sometimes appearing on our front, sometimes upon our flank, so giving us a brisk fire for some minutes, would immediately retreat into the woods. Thus we continued our march thro' the woods the space of three weeks, about which time we received intelligence from our spies and from some prisoners that had escaped, that the Indians had removed every thing from their towns into the mountains, had cut down their corn & set fire to every thing they could not carry away which they thought might be of service to the white army.
Upon the confirmation of this account Coll. Smith being persuaded they would never hazard a general engagement, and knowing that his army was but badly supplied with provisions, sent severall companys back into the different Settlements where the Savages were still making incursions and murdring the inhabitants; the Company to which I belonged was one of this number. We were sent to a place lying in the Allegany mountains (upon the banks of the River Monongalia) known by the name of Tygar's [Tygart] Valley where we were ordered during the winter, in order both to defend the Inhabitants and to make canoes to carry us down the river to the place where we were to be stationed the ensuing Spring; in which place I was made Serg' in which I continued during my stay in the army.
In the mean time the Indians, finding the Virginians fully bent to search them out and an army of Carolina troops approaching on the other side, sent Deputies to Col. Smith to sue for peace, which was granted upon their delivering up the prisoners, and restoring the goods that they carried out of the Settlements. Hereupon the Militia was disbanded, and the other troops that were enlisted on the aforementioned terms were distributed amongst the frontier settlements during the winter.
About this time the war was very hot in the Jerseys, and the Congress determining to recruit their army as soon as possible in the Spring, sent a remonstrance to the Convention of Virginia, alledging that they had a number of troops on their frontiers that were of very little or no service to the country, as the Indians were peacably inclined. Therefore they desired that they should be sent to the assistance of the Continental army as early in the Spring as they possibly could. The Convention immediately repealed the Act on which the troops were raised and directly entered them into the Continental service, and issued forth commissions for the raising of six new Battalions, amongst which the troops formerly raised for the defence of the back frontiers were to be distributed.
Agreeable to this new Act we received orders to march to Winchester, there to join the 12th Virga Regt commanded by Col. James Wood; pursuant to which orders we marched from Tygar's Valley in the begining of Aprill and proceeded with all expedition; which march we compleated in the space of eight days; after having rested a few days at Winchester we proceeded to join the Continental Army, which at that time lay partly in Morristown, partly at Boundbrook a small town on the Rarington [Raritan] river about 6 miles from New Brunswick, where His Excellency Generall Howe had his head quarters. May 19th we joined the grand army which then consisted of 20000 foot (chiefly composed of Virginians, Carolinians, and Pennsylvanians, the major part of whom were volunteers, altho’ for the most part disaffected to the rebel cause, they being for the most part convicts and indented servants, who had entered on purpose to get rid of their masters and of consequence of their commanders the first opportunity they can get of deserting) and about 300 light horse commanded by General Washington assisted by Lord Stirling, Major Generalls Stephens, Keyn [?], Sullivan; Brigadiers Weeden, Millenberg [Muhlenberg], Scott, Maxwell, Conway, which latter is a French man. Likewise a number of French officers who commanded in the Artillery, whose names or ranks I never had an opportunity of being acquainted with.
Nothing worthy of notice happened untill the 30th of that Inst on which the Continental Army decamped and retreated about 2 miles into the Blue [Watchung] Mountains and incamped at Middle Broock, where they were joined in a few days by the other part of the army that lay at Morristown.
Here they lay for some considerable time, during which they were employed in training their troops who were quite undisciplined and ignorant of every military art. Their Officers in general are equally ignorant as the private men, through which means they make but very little progress in learning. Wherefore it is generally believed by the unprejudiced part of the people that the rebells never will hazard a generall engagement, unless they are so hemmed up that they cannot have an opportunity of waving it; from which reason and the deplorable state the Country in generall is now reduced to, which in many places near to the seat of war is entirely destitute of labourers to cultivate the ground, insomuch that the women are necessitated for their own support to lay aside their wonted delicacy and take up the utensils for agriculture. From these and many other weighty reasons it is generally supposed that they cannot continue the war much longer.
Nothing material was transacted on either side till about the 24th of June, when a party of General Howe's army made a movement and advanced as far as Somerset, a small town lying on the Rarington betwixt Boundbroock and Princetown, which they plundered, and set fire to two small churches and several farm houses adjacent. General Washington upon receiving notice of their marching, detached 2 Brigades of Virginia troops and the like number of New Eng[lan]d to Pluckhimin, a small town about 10 miles from Somerset, lying on the road to Morristown. Here both parties lay for several days, during which time several slight skirmishes happened with their out scouts, without any considerable loss on either side. On the 29th the enemy retreated to Brunswick with their booty and we to our former ground in the Blue Mountain.
Next day His Excellency General Howe marched from Brunswick towards Bonumtown with his whole army, which was harassed on the march by Col. Morgan's Riflemen. As soon as General Howe had evacuated Brunswick, Mr Washington threw a body of the Jersey militia into it, and spread a report that he had forced them to leave it. July 2d there was a detachment of 150 Riflemen chosen from among the Virginia regiments, dispatched under the command of Capt. James [William] Dark a Dutchman, belonging to the eighth Virginia Regt to watch the enemy's motions. The same day this party, of which I was one, marched to Quibbleton [Quibbletown], and from thence proceeded towards [Perth] Amboy.
July 4th we had intelligence of the enemy's being encamped within a few miles of Westfield; that night we posted ourselves within a little of their camp and sent an officer with 50 men further on the road as a picquet guard, to prevent our being surprised in the night. Next morning a little before sun rise the British army before we suspected them, were upon pretty close on our picquet before they were discovered, and fired at a negroe lad that was fetching some water for the officer of sd guard, and broke his arm. Upon which he ran to the picquet and alarmed them, affirming at the same time that there was not upwards of sixty men in the party that fired at him. This intelligence was directly sent to us, who prepared as quick as possible to receive them and assist our picquet who was then engaged, in order for which, as we were drawing up our men, an advanced guard of the enemy saluted us with several field pieces, which did no damage. We immediately retreated into the woods from whence we returned them a very brisk fire with our rifles, so continued firing and retreating without any reinforcement till about 10 oClock, they plying us very warmly both with their artillery and small arms all the time; about which time we were reinforced with about 400 Hessians (who had been taken at sea going over to America & immediately entered into the Continental service) and three brass field pieces under the command of Lord Stirling. They drew up immediately in order to defend their field pieces and cover our retreat, and in less than an hour and a half were entirely cut off; scarce sixty of them returned safe out of the field; those who did escape were so scattered over the country that a great number of them could not rejoin the Army for five or six days, whilst the Kings troops marched off in triumph with three brass field pieces and a considerable number of prisoners, having sustained but very little loss on their side.
This was the last engagement that happened in the Jerseys before General Howe embarked at [New] York. During this time the rebel army advanced as far as Quibbletown where they lay three days, then countermarched back to the Blue Mountains and there continued untill they recd an account of embarkment of the enemy at York. Capt. Dark collected the remains of his shattered party in the best manner he possibly could and continued to execute his orders in reconnoitring and sending intelligence to the Camp, untill Generall Howe crossed over in Strattan [Staten] Island, at which time we returned to the Camp with scarce two thirds of the men we took away, where we remained 4 or 5 days, then decamped and marched to Morristown and lay there untill we received certain intelligence that the army had gone on board and stood out to sea bearing to the Northward.
Upon this news we instantly decamped and marched toward the North River, and encamped at the Clove, about 12 miles South from King's Ferry, where Generall Sullivan left us with about 5000 men and crossed the Ferry. Soon after we again decamped and proceeded further up the River towards Albany. The weather being excessive rainy we were obliged to halt severall days during which time we rec[eive]d an account of Genl Howe's appearing in the Bay of Delaware, which caused us a very hard and fatiguing march, often marching at the rate of thirty miles per day, which killed a number of the men. It was no uncommon thing for the rear guard to see 10 or 11 men dead on the road in one day occasioned by the insufferable heat and thirst; likewise in almost every town we marched through, their Churches were converted into hospitals. Another great hurt to the army was the scarcity of salt and bread, the former of which was not to be had at any rate, for at that time in the Jerseys it sold for 20 dollars pr bushell: as to the latter they were almost in the same condition, altho’ they had plenty of flour they had not time to bake it.
Thus we marched till we came to Germantown a village about 6 miles from Philadelphia, where we encamped for severall days, and we[re] reviewed by the Congress. In the interim the British fleet stood out to sea again and steering to the Northward as at first, we again removed and marched to the Cross roads in Bucks County, about 20 miles to the Northward of Philadelphia, and there we pitched our tents, expecting every day to hear of their landing at York, or in some part of the Jerseys. During our stay here we were joined by the 13th Virga Regt a small body of new raised troops to the amount of about 200. About this the Rebel army was very sickly, occasioned greatly by the scarcity of salt, and the great fatigue they had sustained, during the late hard and fatiguing march; which was soon followed by another as hard tho’ not so long.
August 22d we recd an account that Generall Howe had landed in Virginia. Next day we decamped and marched 15 miles towards Philadelphia and prepared to march through the City next day, which we did in the best order our circumstances could permit, and proceeded towards Virginia with all expedition; but received soon after a true account of his being at the head of Elk in Maryland.
General Washington, being determined to stop his progress towards Philadelphia, posted a body of millitia at Ironhill an eminence about three miles from General Howe's out posts. He also posted three brigades of Virginians with 6 field pieces at Christian [Christiana] Creek about 8 miles from Wilmington, from each of which they detached a party of 100 light armed men, as scouts, under the command of Col. [William] Crawford. Among this number I had the good fortune of being one, as I was determined to embrace the first opportunity of escaping, which I fortunately effected. General Washington with the remainder of his army (which in whole by his own account only consisted of 13000 men) and the artillary park, which consisted of 15 brass field pieces and severall howitts, encamped at Brandywine Creek about 12 miles from Elktown where General Howe held his head quarters. On Saturday August 30th we received intelligence by some prisoners that General Howe intended to make an attack on Ironhill next day. Accordingly next morning between two and three o'Clock, we marched over the hill, and formed our selves into an ambuscade, in which position we continued till five, when being persuaded that no attack would be made, a party of 150 men was immediately chosen and sent under the command of the aforesd Capt. Dark, to reconnoitre. In this party I went as a volunteer, fully resolved never to return unless as a prisoner.
However, marching from thence, took several by roads, untill we had got past several of the Hessians posts undiscovered, and proceeding toward an iron work where they had another post, we discovered a few of the Welch fusileers cooking at a barn in the middle of a large field of Indian Corn. Capt Dark resolved to take them if possible, on which account he divided his men into 6 parties of 25 each, under the command of a Lieu[tenant] and 2 Serjeants. The party on the left to which I belonged, he ordered to surround the field, which we did, but were discovered by those whom we thought to surprise, who were only a few of a party consisting of fifty that were out foraging. They drew up immediately and marched out of the field; upon which our Lieu[tenant] and 4 of his men fired upon them, which they returned with a whole volley, and plyed us very warmly from among the trees for some considerable time, untill the other parties came up and attacked them in the rear; whom they also gallantly repulsed and put to flight.
The party I belonged to upon the approach of the rest, retreated; at which time I left them, and made the best of my way to the English Camp. In my way I saw severall of the rebells lying dead, and was afterwards informed that a number more of them fell in that action; which in every probability will be the fate of the whole, if they come to a generall engagement, which of necessity they must in a short time, as it is impossible they can sustain the war much longer; the Country being entirely laid waste, the inhabitants disaffected and entirely wearied of the war, and independency; numbers of them are detained from coming to the Royal Standard only through fear of being detected by General Washington's army, the army small, undisciplined, disaffected to the cause, badly paid, in very dull spirits, being certain they are far inferior to the British troops in every point, and entirely destitute of every necessary for carrying on the war, having neither arms nor ammunition, but what they receive from the French or Dutch. From these and many other cogent reasons it is highly probable this unhappy war will soon be terminated to the honour of His Majesty and a terror to all other who may attempt to rebell in like manner for the future.
Thus Sir I have given you a short narrative of the facts that came to my knowledge during my stay in the rebell army, and hope it will give your Honour the satisfaction required. I think myself happy in having the honour of serving you in this manner and of subscribing myself
Your most obedient & humble Serv' Ship Queen, Indiaman William Grant.
at Gravesend Novr 24th 1777
A dozen different generals commanded the 8th Virginia in various capacities during its roughly 30-month existence. The Continental Army grades of general officers were: general (Washington), major general (division commanders, typically), and brigadier generals (brigade commanders). The army was organized into departments: Canadian, northern, Highlands, eastern, main, and southern. Washington was the de facto commander of the middle (or "main") department for most of the war. Major General Charles Lee (junior only to Washington in the entire army) was commander of the Southern Department during the 8th Virginia's service in that theater.
A large number of 8th Virginia men were detached to the 1st Virginia for the entire 1776 campaign, under the command of Pittsburgh’s Captain William Croghan. While the rest of the regiment went south from Virginia to serve in South Carolina and Georgia under Lee, Croghan’s detachment went north to serve in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania with Washington. In 1777 a select group of riflemen from the 8th were detached to Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Battalion under the command of Captain James Knox and participated in the Saratoga campaign. The main body of the regiment fought with Washington at Brandywine and Germantown. With its ranks severely depleted by disease, casualties, and expired enlistments, the 8th was folded into the 4th Virginia after the Battle of Monmouth.
1776 Campaign (Sullivan’s Island, Savannah, Sunbury):
General George Washington, Commander in Chief
Major General Charles Lee, Commander of the Southern District
Brigadier General Andrew Lewis (Tidewater service)
Brigadier General Robert Howe (Charleston, Savannah, Sunbury)
Croghan Detachment attached to 1st Virginia (White Plains, Trenton, Assunpink Creek, Princeton):
Major General Joseph Spencer (White Plains)
Major General Nathanael Greene (Trenton and Princeton)
Colonel George Weedon (temporary brigade at Fort Washington)
Brigadier General William Alexander, Earl of Stirling (White Plains through Trenton)
Brigadier General Hugh Mercer (Princeton)
1777 Campaign (Brandywine, Germantown, Valley Forge)
General George Washington, Commander in Chief
Major General Benjamin Lincoln (spring)
Major General Adam Stephen (Brandywine, Germantown)
Major General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (Valley Forge)
Brigadier General Charles Scott
Knox Detachment under Colonel Daniel Morgan (Saratoga):
Major General Horatio Gates
Major General Benjamin Lincoln
Darke Detachment in Maxwell's Light Infantry (Cooch's Bridge, Brandywine)
Brigadier General William Maxwell
1778 Campaign (Valley Forge, Monmouth):
General George Washington, Commander in Chief
Major General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette
Brigadier General Charles Scott
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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