Why Germans? The 8th Virginia Regiment of Foot was authorized by the revolutionary Virginia Convention on December 13, 1775. It had no numeric designation yet, but was intended to be unique in two ways. It would be ethnically-based and all of its men would carry rifles. It was conceived as a “battalion” to “be composed of Germans, with German officers.”
The concept may have originated with the Rev. Peter Muhlenberg and Jonathan Clark, both delegates from Dunmore County in the Shenandoah Valley. Dunmore (now called Shenandoah County) was the cultural hub of German life in the Valley. It is inconceivable that the resolution could have been drafted without the involvement of at least Muhlenberg and probably of Clark as well. Muhlenberg was the Rector of Beckford Parish, the geography of which was identical to that of Dunmore County. His church was at Woodstock, the county seat. He was, however, more than just the community’s pastor. He was the son of the patriarch or the Lutheran Church in America, whose church was in the village of Trappe near Philadelphia. Clark was the county’s deputy clerk, an important job, under Thomas Marshall (soon to be colonel of the 3rd Virginia Regiment and father of future Chief Justice John Marshall).
The Shenandoah Valley’s Germans had nearly all come the way Muhlenberg had: down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road to Virginia. The road passed through communities that remain heavily German to this day, such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Scotch-Irish immigrants followed the same route, but tended to settle farther south in the Valley, around Staunton and Augusta County.
Lutheran Germans like Muhlenberg were seen by the Virginia gentry as reasonably reliable and trustworthy. Their theology differed little from the Church of England. Muhlenberg had, in fact, gone to London to be ordained before taking his position in Woodstock. (King George III was himself of German descent and his great grandfather, George I, couldn’t speak English when he took the throne.) The Ulster Irish, however, were less trusted. They were theological dissenters and often politically radical. Their Calvinist faith differed in important ways from Anglicanism. They could, however, be counted on to fight
The ordinance creating the 8th Virginia and the selection of field officers that followed it suggest that what the convention really meant by calling it “German” was that Germans would command it (and that the Irish would not). Muhlenberg was the perfect candidate for such a role. He and Clark both served as officers in the regiment, something that may well have been predetermined. Muhlenberg would be the top officer and Clark would command one of Dunmore County’s two companies (the German one).
“And be it farther ordained,” read the resolution, “That of the six regiments to be levied as aforesaid, one of them shall be called a German regiment, to be made up of German and other officers and soldiers, as the committees of the several counties of Augusta, West Augusta, Berkeley, Culpeper, Dunmore, Fincastle, Frederick, and Hampshire (by which committees the several captains and subaltern officers of the said regiment are to be appointed) shall judge expedient.”
The committees were generally dominated by English elites and could be counted on to appoint the right kind of company officers. Only two of ten companies had Irish captains: Fincastle County and the West Augusta district (both on the frontier) selected James Knox and William Croghan. Both were capable and loyal officers.
The choice of field officers, however, was up to the Virginia Convention and it chose three Germans as it had planned. Each was from a different down in the lower (northern) Shenandoah Valley. Muhlenberg was appointed to be the colonel. Abraham Bowman of Strasburg (also in Dunmore County) was appointed to be the lieutenant colonel. Bowman came from a prominent family. His grandfather, Jost Hite, had led the first group of German settlers into the valley from Pennsylvania in 1731.
Muhlenberg and Bowman were both too young to have participated in the French and Indian War as most of Virginia’s other senior officers had. Muhlenberg had spent some time in a British military unit after dropping out of seminary in Germany years before. Bowman had experienced at least one dangerous encounter with Indians as a teenager. It is fairly clear that in choosing them the Convention prioritized their ability to rally and unite the Shenandoah Valley over their fairly meager military experience. Patrick Henry was the only other appointed colonel who had no real military experience.
When they received their commissions Muhlenberg was twenty-nine years old and Bowman was twenty-six. The regiment’s major was Peter Helphenstine, a German from Winchester in Frederick County. He was about twice Bowman’s age, in his middle fifties. He had commanded a company in the governor’s division during Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774. He was a respected tradesman and an active Lutheran.
Below them, the officers of the ten companies—captains, lieutenants and ensigns—were a diverse group. English, German, and Scotch-Irish were most common. Capt. Abel Westfall of Hampshire County was Dutch, though his family had been in America for generations. Lieut. Jacob Rinker was Swiss. Lieut. Isaac Israel was Jewish. Religiously, though it is hard to trace, they were mostly Anglican, Lutheran, German Reformed, Presbyterian, and probably Baptist. If there were no Methodists, some of them—including Capt. Westfall—would become Methodists soon.
The diversity of the officers reflected the diversity in the rank and file. The 8th Virginia was a microcosm of the Continental Army at large. It was America’s original “melting pot.” Originally divided by race and religion, their shared hardships would soon make them a band of brothers.
More from The 8th Virginia Regiment
Virginia was described as the the "most English" of the colonies. It had been consistently loyal to the Crown, even during the era of Parliamentary rule under Oliver Cromwell. The Church of England was integrated into the local government.
Virginia's frontier territories were different. When the Revolutionary War started, the Virginia Conventioned designated the 8th Virginia to be a "German" regiment. Thousands of Pennsylvania Germans had settled in the Shenandoah Valley. But how German was it really? There were also many Protestant Irish ("Scotch-Irish") and English settlers in the area, and the actual recruitment territory stretched all the way to Pittsburgh.
On September 12, Gabe Neville spoke at Virginia's Germanna Foundation to explore the question: "Just how German was the regiment in reality?"
Learn more at the Germanna Foundation website.
A newly-created map of the 8th Virginia's recruiting counties shows that the regiment was largely composed of frontiersmen and pioneers. It is helpful to visualize how the regiment raised its ten companies in the westernmost settled areas of the province (Virginia wasn't a state, yet). This made the regiment unique in several ways. They were ethnically and religiously different from the rest of Virginia. Soldiers, some of whom were subsistence hunters, were typically better marksmen than the average soldier. Their motives for fighting were less focused on taxes and trade and more focused on their desires to head west--something the King had forbidden.
Political geography has changed. All of these counties have been divided, some within months of the regiment's formation. West Virginia, which is not shown, was created in 1863 and would occupy the left-center of the map. The disputed northeast part of the Augusta District is now southwest Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh. Western Fincastle County became Kentucky County in 1776 and the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1792. Most Americans are unaware that beginning in 1774, Ohio and lands west of it were part of the Province of Quebec. This, technically at least, extended holdover French civil institutions to the border of settled Virginia. Quebec had no elected legislature and had been allowed to keep its Catholic institutions. Both facts were seen by Virginians as sure signs of creeping tyranny.
The Soldiers Page lists the various companies and the counties from which they came. In brief: the West Augusta District and Dunmore County each raised two companies. Augusta, Berkeley, Culpeper, Fincastle, Frederick, and Hampshire counties each contributed one. Initially called the "German Regiment" and long remembered that way, the map also shows how wide-ranging and diverse the zone of recruitment was. The lower (northern) Shenandoah Valley counties of Berkeley, Frederick, and Dunmore had significant populations and all three field officers were from that area. Culpeper, the only Piedmont county, had a smaller German population that descended from the Germanna Colony. The other counties were predominantly Scotch-Irish and English.
It wasn’t really their fault, they said. Slavery, men of the founding generation liked to argue, was brought to the colonies by Britain. It came via Barbados and the other sugar islands of the Caribbean. Thomas Jefferson and Henry Laurens both blamed Britain and wished the colonies could free themselves of the practice. It was ironic, therefore, that American slavery not only outlasted the War for Independence but also outlasted slavery in the British Empire. In truth it was more than ironic: it was a tragedy that led to additional decades of forced labor and the deaths of well over half a million Americans in the Civil War.
Could the abolition of American slavery have come sooner? Maybe. Slavery never existed in the New World without someone also speaking out against it, and antislavery views took a demonstrably large leap forward during the founding era. Christianity, social contract theory, and the very spirit of the Revolution led many Americans to the same conclusion. Even many slaveowners understood it was wrong. “I can only say,” wrote George Washington about slavery in 1786, “that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”
....continue to The Journal of the American Revolution.
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.
The 8th Virginia was truly, and uniquely, the Shenandoah Valley's regiment in the Revolution. Unlike any other regiment, the 8th represented nearly the full extent of the greater Shenandoah Valley cultural region from the North Carolina (and later Tennessee) line all the way to Pittsburgh (then claimed by the Old Dominion). The only county in the valley that did not raise a company for the regiment was Botetourt County.
This vast territory can be characterized in two important ways. First, as the frontier. Second, and just as important at the time, the territory can be described as the part of Virginia populated by newcomers who were for the most part neither English nor Anglican. Unlike Pennsylvania, most of Virginia was very homogeneous. Nonconforming churches were illegal, but tolerated west of the Blue Ridge. Despite belonging to the same denomination as the last two kings of England, Peter Muhlenberg had to go to London to be ordained in the Church of England in order to preach in Woodstock as late as 1772. (Four years later he became the regiment's first colonel.) In describing the 8th Virginia as the "German Regiment," the Virginia Convention really meant the "non-English" regiment. Culturally, the Irish and German men of the regiment had more in common with Pennsylvania than with Piedmont and Tidewater Virginia.
Winchester's Daniel Morgan was a true hero of the Shenandoah Valley, and he is rightly famous. However, the units he led were not true Shenandoah Valley units the way 8th was. In 1775 he was a captain in the Virginia and Maryland Rifle Battalion; in 1776 and 1777 he was colonel of the 11th Virginia, which recruited from Frederick County but also from Prince William, Amelia, and Loudoun counties; his famous Virginia rifle battalion, formed in 1777, was built on merit, not geography.
Only the 8th Virginia truly represented the geography and the culture of the Shenandoah Valley.
Most histories refer to the 8th Virginia as "the German Regiment." It was certainly led by Germans: Peter Muhlenberg, Abraham Bowman, and Peter Helphinstine. But many or even most of the enlisted men were "Scotch Irish." The term Scotch Irish didn't exist then, however. They were simply called "Irish," even though their ancestors often came from Scotland via Northern Ireland. They were universally Protestant, but Presbyterian--a denomination that most British soldiers equated with revolutionary sentiment. The term "Scotch Irish" was conceived seventy years later to distinguish them from the Catholic Irish who began to come to American in large numbers in the 1840s. Here's an interesting article on the difference between "Irish" and "Scotch Irish" in American history and culture.
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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