Washington was born on February 11, 1731…under the Julian Calendar. This was the old calendar established under Julius Caesar. Pope Gregory moved the Catholic world to a more accurate calendar in 1582, but Protestant England, under Queen Elizabeth, wasn’t bound by the change. Leap year differences put Britain and the America colonies eleven days behind the rest of the western world. Moreover, New Year’s Day was March 25 under the old calendar, not January 1. Consequently, when the British Empire finally changed to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, Washington’s birthday changed from February 11, 1731 to February 22, 1732. Both dates are correct, but the proper way to note the Julian date is “February 11, 1731 (O.S.).” The abbreviation stand for “old style.”
Washington’s Birthday was declared a holiday by Congress in 1879. Many people don’t realize that Congress has no authority to declare holidays (days off) for anyone other than federal employees and residents of the District of Columbia. States, however, followed the federal government’s lead and Washington’s Birthday was celebrated for decades on February 22. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was never a federal holiday, but was celebrated by many states on February 12—just ten days before Washington’s birthday. In the 1950s, there was an effort to establish a third holiday, President’s Day, to honor “the office of the presidency” on March 4 – the original day of quadrennial inaugurations. Though some states adopted the new holiday, Congress declined to in the belief that three holidays in rapid succession were too many.
Under our present Constitution, the United States has had forty-five presidents. Some have been great and some have not. Reputations have waxed and waned as attitudes change and new biographies are written. Celebrating “President’s Day” seems to make no more sense that celebrating “Congress Day” or “Supreme Court Day.” In the fact, the notion of a “President’s Day” has vaguely monarchist overtones. Surely, we can all think of several presidents who don’t deserve the honor. Washington, however, stands high above the rest. He is rightly known as the father of the country. He effectuated a great break with the past, establishing durable and free government in part by repeatedly declining to cling to power. Only one other president rivals his claim to greatness.
Holidays have always been the subject of civic activism. Veterans Day was moved back to November 11 in 1975 to align with the World War I armistice. Columbus Day has been replaced by “Indigenous People’s Day” in Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, South Dakota, New Mexico, and Maine. If you live in a place (such as, believe it or not, Washington State) that celebrates “President’s Day,” you might want to call your state legislator and point out that Chester Arthur doesn’t belong on the same holiday stage as George Washington.
More from The 8th Virginia Regiment
“In a place like Salisbury,” writes Andrew Waters of the North Carolina town that witnessed the 1781 Race to the Dan, “you can live among its ghosts and still not know it’s there.” Enthusiasts know that this is true of many Revolutionary War sites, including some of real importance. Mr. Waters complains in his book To the End of the World: Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan of the simplified understanding most Americans have of the Revolutionary War. “For most of us, the story of the American Revolution is of George Washington and the minutemen, Valley Forge and Yorktown.” In our Cliffs Notes version of history, many places, heroes, and even whole campaigns are left out.
Like most of the war in the south, the Race to the Dan is overshadowed by Yorktown. The mere fact that George Washington was not a participant relegates the story to a second-tier status. The Race, however, holds unique challenges for the historian and the storyteller. It occurred over more than two hundred miles, depending on how you count it, rather than at one identifiable spot. Nathanael Greene’s genius is to be found in his mastery of logistics and strategy, which are subjects that make many people’s eyes glaze over. Though heroic and difficult, it was still a retreat and retreats don’t lend themselves to celebration. Its significance is not so much in what it achieved but rather in what it made possible, which requires detailed explanation.
Consequently, the Race to the Dan has been given short shrift for more than two centuries. It is mentioned in the war’s histories, but almost never in detail. In writing this book, Mr. Waters was determined to correct that and he has succeeded. One can’t resist noting the appropriateness his name: the waterways of the Carolinas play a central role in the story. He makes plain from the beginning that the story is personal to him. He is a conservationist and doctoral candidate in South Carolina who has made a career of conserving the Palmetto State’s watersheds. “Rivers are my business,” he says at the very beginning of the book. He also plainly declares, “We all need heroes, and . . . Greene has become one of mine.”
...Continue to The Journal of the American Revolution.
More from The 8th Virginia Regiment
He is best-known as the rector of a Shenandoah Valley (Anglican) parish and colonel of the 8th Virginia Regiment, which was raised on the frontier and initially intended to be a “German” regiment. The famous but poorly-documented farewell sermon he delivered in Woodstock, Virginia, in the spring of 1776 has been the subject of epic poetry and modern political debate. After a tour of the southern theater under Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, he was made a brigadier general. His brigade of Virginians was in Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s division at Brandywine and Germantown. He was at Monmouth and remained in the army to the end of the war. He played an important role in the Virginia campaign leading up to Yorktown.
...continue to The Journal of the American Revolution.
More from The 8th Virginia Regiment
Maj. Gen. Adam Stephen was the 8th Virginia's division commander in 1777, leading them at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown. He worked closely with George Washington for more than two decades, sometimes challenging and undercutting him. He ran against Washington for the House of Burgesses and almost ruined the surprise Christmas, 1776 attack on Trenton by sending soldiers across the river to settle a personal vendetta against the Hessians. He was reportedly drank too much, and was finally court-martialed and cashiered from the Army after the disaster at Germantown.
That did not end his life of civic engagement, though. He founded Martinsburg (now in West Virginia) and served in the Virginia convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution. Sometime during the war, he built a fine house for himself where Martinsburg grew up. Intriguingly, he built his house over the mouth of a cave. According to tradition, this was done to prove an escape in case of an attack by Indians or other enemies. Since that era, the cave has been filled in with dirt, leaving a persistent mystery: where does the natural underground tunnel lead? For nearly twenty years, TriState Grotto--a local caving club--has been working to excavate the passage, one five-gallon bucket at a time. Videos of their progress (and archeological finds) have been posted occasionally on YouTube. Here they are, in chronological order.
Stephen died in 1791 and is buried under a rustic monument not far from his home. Despite the controversies associated with his life, he served his country at important moments and in important ways. He was with Washington at Jumonville Glen, Fort Necessity, and Braddock's Defeat years before his Revolutionary War service. His French and Indian War waistcoat and gorget are in the Smithsonian. Aside from his legacy of service and these artifacts, he left an enduring mystery beneath his house. One day soon, perhaps, we'll know where the tunnel leads.
More from The 8th Virginia Regiment
All ten companies of the 8th Virginia hadn’t even arrived yet when Maj. Gen. Charles Lee took the regiment south to face the enemy. Suffolk, Virginia was the designated place of rendezvous. The ten companies came from all but one of the counties along Virginia’s 350-mile frontier, stretching from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh. They traveled to the rendezvous on foot, stopping in Williamsburg to collect company officers’ commissions. Col. Peter Muhlenberg and the early-arrived companies were posted at Kemp’s Landing, near Norfolk.
British Gen. Henry Clinton was sailing south with a significant force to meet with Gen. Charles Cornwallis, who was sailing from Britain with a fleet of warships and still more men. North Carolina was their target and a Tory uprising was their goal. On May 11, Lee impatiently wrote to the post commander at Kemp’s landing, inquiring, “[H]ave you order’d Muhlenberg’s Regiment to march to Halifax? I hope to God you have, for no time is to be lost, as we have certain news of the Enemy’s arrival in the River Cape Fear.”
Lee wrote to John Hancock, “As the Enemy’s advanced Guard…is actually arrived—I must, I cannot avoid detaching the strongest Battalion we have to [North Carolina’s] assistance; but I own, I tremble at the same time, at the thoughts of stripping this Province of any part of its inadequate force.” Battalions and regiments were essentially synonymous at this time. Lee was, in fact, calling the 8th Virginia the “strongest” of the province’s nine regiments. He would later confirm this assessment when he wrote to Muhlenberg, “You were ordered not because I was better acquainted with your Regiment than the rest--but because you were the most compleat, the best arm’d, and in all respects the best furnish’d for service.” To Congress he reported, “Muhlenberg’ s regiment wanted only forty at most. It was the strength and good condition of the regiment that induced me to order it out of its own Province in preference to any other.”
This was evidently true despite the absence of two complete companies. Lee may have extrapolated to account for the absent companies. Alternately, at least one of the present companies (Captain Jonathan Clark’s) appears to have enlisted numbers beyond its quota. When Muhlenberg set off on May 13, Capt. James Knox’s southwest (Fincastle County) company had not yet arrived. It was close, though—probably at Williamsburg. Or perhaps it had just arrived and needed to rest. Lee wrote, “Capt[ai]n Knox will follow the Regiment, so the Colonel must not wait for him.” Capt. William Croghan’s Pittsburgh (West August District) company, however, was even farther behind. Lee took the regiment anyway. There was no time to spare. Consequently, it would be an entire year until Croghan’s men joined the regiment.
The other nine companies marched for Cape Fear via Halifax, North Carolina, joined by a North Carolina Regiment that had come north to Virginia’s aid. Unlike every other Virginia regiment, the 8th Virginia men all carried rifles. No muskets also meant no bayonets, which were—at the end of the day—often the real implements of war. Lee compensated for this by issuing pikes (he called them “spears”) to some of the men. “I have formed two companies of grenadiers to each regiment; and with spears of thirteen feet long, their rifles (for they are all riflemen) slung over their shoulders, their appearance is formidable, and the men are conciliated to the weapon.”
Meanwhile, the British commanders were learning that the Patriot victory at Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge had quelled their hoped-for Tory uprising. They opted, therefore, for an alternate target. Just as the 8th Virginia arrived at Cape Fear, the enemy was sailing off for Charleston, South Carolina. Muhlenberg’s men continued the chase, now at a forced-march pace. A very difficult and deadly summer lay ahead of them.
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.”
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 8th Virginia Regiment of provincial regulars and he was commissioned to be its captain.
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 8th Virginia 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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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 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 1st U.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 a 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.
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!”
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/).
Read More: Darkesville: A Name Born of Tragedy
More from The 8th Virginia Regiment
George Washington, like many 8th Virginia men, was a Indian fighter. His first war was the French and Indian War--a war, it is frequently said, he personally started. Washington's last war was the Northwest Indian War, which he oversaw as President and commander in chief. The latter war was bloodier than any other Indian conflict before or after. The Battle of Wabash in 1791 featured higher American casualties than any other battle until Shiloh in 1862. (The 8th Virginia's William Darke played a central role at Wabash and, though injured, made it home.)
The Revolution itself was an Indian war, especially in 1779. The following Speech to the Delaware Chiefs reveals the importance of Indian relations in the war. It shows a side of Washington we rarely see--the frontiersman, surveyor and Indian fighter who knows how to communicate with Indians and which buttons to push for maximum effect. When he delivered it in New Jersey, many 8th Virginia men had already finished their Continental Army service and moved to Kentucky where Indian warfare was an ever-present threat.
Head Quarters, Middle Brook, May 12, 1779.
Brothers: I am happy to see you here. I am glad the long Journey you have made, has done you no harm; and that you are in good health: I am glad also you left All our friends of the Delaware Nation well.
Brothers: I have read your paper. The things you have said are weighty things, and I have considered them well. The Delaware Nation have shown their good will to the United States. They have done wisely and I hope they will never repent. I rejoice in the new assurances you give of their friendship. The things you now offer to do to brighten the chain, prove your sincerity. I am sure Congress will run to meet you, and will do every thing in their power to make the friendship between the people of these States, and their Brethren of the Delaware nation, last forever.
Brothers: I am a Warrior. My words are few and plain; but I will make good what I say. 'Tis my business to destroy all the Enemies of these States and to protect their friends. You have seen how we have withstood the English for four years; and how their great Armies have dwindled away and come to very little; and how what remains of them in this part of our great Country, are glad to stay upon Two or three little Islands, where the Waters and their Ships hinder us from going to destroy them. The English, Brothers, are a boasting people. They talk of doing a great deal; but they do very little. They fly away on their Ships from one part of our Country to an other; but as soon as our Warriors get together they leave it and go to some other part. They took Boston and Philadelphia, two of our greatest Towns; but when they saw our Warriors in a great body ready to fall upon them, they were forced to leave them.
Brothers: We have till lately fought the English all alone. Now the Great King of France is become our Good Brother and Ally. He has taken up the Hatchet with us, and we have sworn never to bury it, till we have punished the English and made them sorry for All the wicked things they had in their Hearts to do against these States. And there are other Great Kings and Nations on the other side of the big Waters, who love us and wish us well, and will not suffer the English to hurt us.
Brothers: Listen well to what I tell you and let it sink deep into your Hearts. We love our friends, and will be faithful to them, as long as they will be faithful to us. We are sure our Good brothers the Delawares will always be so. But we have sworn to take vengeance on our Enemies, and on false friends. The other day, a handful of our young men destroyed the settlement of the Onondagas. They burnt down all their Houses, destroyed their grain and Horses and Cattle, took their Arms away, killed several of their Warriors and brought off many prisoners and obliged the rest to fly into the woods. This is but the beginning of the troubles which those Nations, who have taken up the Hatchet against us, will feel.
Brothers: I am sorry to hear that you have suffered for want of necessaries, or that any of our people have not dealt justly by you. But as you are going to Congress, which is the great Council of the Nation and hold all things in their hands, I shall say nothing about the supplies you ask. I hope you will receive satisfaction from them. I assure you, I will do every thing in my power to prevent your receiving any further injuries, and will give the strictest orders for this purpose. I will severely punish any that shall break them.
Brothers: I am glad you have brought three of the Children of your principal Chiefs to be educated with us. I am sure Congress will open the Arms of love to them, and will look upon them as their own Children, and will have them educated accordingly. This is a great mark of your confidence and of your desire to preserve the friendship between the Two Nations to the end of time, and to become One people with your Brethen of the United States. My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.
Brothers: There are some matters about which I do not open my Lips, because they belong to Congress, and not to us warriors; you are going to them, they will tell you all you wish to know.
Brothers: When you have seen all you want to see, I will then wish you a good Journey to Philadelphia. I hope you may find there every thing your hearts can wish, that when you return home you may be able to tell your Nation good things of us. And I pray God he may make your Nation wise and Strong, that they may always see their own true interest and have courage to walk in the right path; and that they never may be deceived by lies to do any thing against the people of these States, who are their Brothers and ought always to be one people with them.
George Washington knew how to bite his tongue. His response to insubordination and criticism was usually a dignified silence. Like most people, he was most open when communicating with family. And so, we see his unvarnished opinion about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in a letter to John Augustine Washington, written October 18, 1777. “[W]ith truth,” he wrote, “…it may be said, that this State acts most infamously, the People of it I mean, as we derive little or no assistance from them. In short they are, in a manner, totally, disaffected, or in a kind of Lethargy.”
He wrote this two weeks after the Battle of Germantown. It is a revealing quote in many respects. It shows a normally very careful Washington speaking his mind to a trusted confidant. At the same time, it is an informed assessment. At Germantown and Brandywine before it, he had suffered from poor local intelligence, bad guides, and incompetent local militia support. In addition to the usual proportion of Tories and loyalists (generally a third, according to John Adams), a large number of Pennsylvanians were pacifists—Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites—and unwilling to resist established authority. Many more simply had little faith in the cause. Washington had, after all, just lost three battles in a row.
Even though Philadelphia was the seat of the Congress for most of the war, eastern Pennsylvania was never a hotbed of revolutionary fervor. Some of the city’s most prominent citizens remained openly loyal to the crown. The war’s most fervent revolutionary patriots came from New England and the mostly Scotch-Irish settlements of the western frontier. Many observers, then and now, have ascribed this to the one thing New England and the Appalachian settlements had in common: Reformed (Congregational and Presbyterian) Christianity. Washington himself belonged to the Church of England, proving that things were not that simple.
On September 22, 1776, William Croghan’s detachment of men from the 8th Virginia arrived at Fort Constitution, high on a cliff looking over the Hudson River and the island of Manhattan. Very soon, they would be part of the most famous campaign of the war.
Months earlier, when the 8th Virginia first formed, its ten companies were ordered to rendezvous at Suffolk, Virginia—south and across the James River from the provincial capital at Williamsburg. Those from the far frontier were the last to arrive. Captain James Knox’s company from Fincastle County (now the state of Kentucky and parts of far southwest Virginia) arrived just in time to join the Regiment as it headed south to with General Charles Lee to defend Charleston.
Captain William Croghan’s company from 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
More from The 8th Virginia Regiment
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.
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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