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 Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh, now in Pennsylvania) 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 the fort overlooking the Hudson. It was commanded by Nathanael Greene and was charged with maintaining patriot control of the strategically critical waterway. It was called Fort Constitution, but was soon renamed Fort Lee after General Lee got (partially deserved) credit for the glorious June 28 victory at Charleston.
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 detached 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). Croghan’s men must also have soon 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 learned here that there is no romance in war.
Four days after their arrival, still at Fort Constitution 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. They crossed the river to Fort Washington and Harlem Heights where they joined the 3rd Virginia to form a small, temporary brigade. 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.” Days later, they were with the main army and thrust into battle—first at White Plains and later at Trenton. After the latter ordeal, just a handful of them were well enough to participate in the critical victory at Princeton.
The site of Fort Lee and its surrounding camps and artillery emplacements has 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 deteriorated, still tell the story well. Reconstructed buildings and artillery batteries show the site’s purpose, though the existence of trees and surrounding skyscrapers make the site 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.
After the grueling marches to and from Trenton, only a handful of Captain William Croghan’s Pittsburgh men were able to continue on to the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. Princeton was a key American victory. It proved that Trenton wasn’t just a fluke, and it breathed new life into a cause that was just about exhausted.
At Williamsburg, the company’s core of about 70 men had been boosted to 140 by the addition of stragglers who had missed the 8th Virginia Regiment’s rendezvous. The company, attached to the 1st Virginia for the year, was at the very center of the action at Trenton, lined up only a few yards from the commander in chief.
The marches to and from Trenton were much harder on the men than the battle itself. By the time Washington crossed the Delaware again for another go at the enemy, only a fraction of the men were able to go with him. A mere 20 men from the 1st Virginia were healthy enough to join. Of them, only five can be shown from pension records to have been from Croghan’s detachment from the 8th Virginia —one twenty-third of the original 140. The rest were dead, had deserted, or were sick in camp on the other side of the river.
Even Croghan seems to have been absent, leaving Lieutenant Abraham Kirkpatrick in command. Kirkpatrick was a tough, mean, and belligerent man, but also an effective soldier. With him were privates Henry Brock, Harmon Commins, Jonathan Grant, David Williams, and perhaps others who left no record of their presence. All three of the 1st Virginia's field officers were wounded or sick, leaving command to Captain John Fleming.
These men, together with the remnants of three other Continental regiments and 200 Pennsylvania state (not Continental) riflemen, were Washington’s advance force, under Brigadier General Hugh Mercer’s command. Fleming’s men went first as they clambering over the icy banks of a ravine and proceeded through an orchard. On the other side of the trees they found fifty dismounted British dragoons lying prone behind a split-rail fence. The dragoons rose and fired a volley. As often happened, this first volley went over their heads—splitting the branches of the fruit trees above them. The dragoons retreated about 40 feet to reload as they were reinforced by a British infantry regiment.
Ordering his men to form up before firing, Captain Fleming shouted, “Gentlemen, dress the line before you make ready!” Within easy earshot, the British taunted back, “We will dress you!”
With the rest of Mercer’s men coming as fast as they could, Fleming’s men advanced to the fence and fired at the British. “[T]he enemy screamed as if many devils had got hold of them,” recalled one soldier. After two or three minutes of firing, the British advanced with their bayonets. Most of Mercer’s men carried rifles, which lacked bayonets and took longer than muskets to reload. This was precisely the kind of engagement they had been trained to avoid.
The British bayonet charge was brutal. Mercer’s desperate voice was soon heard shouting, “Retreat!” just as his his horse was shot out from under him. He was mercilessly beaten and stabbed to death by the enemy, some of whom may have thought he was George Washington.
Captain Fleming was killed. His lieutenant, Bartholomew Yeates, was sadistically shot, stabbed, beaten and left to die. Lieutenant Abraham Kirkpatrick was wounded too, but also fortunate enough to be carried off the field by Private Grant. The British captured a cannon, turned it around, and fired it as the Americans ran. Colonel John Haslet of Delaware, attempting to rally the men behind a farm building, was shot through the head and “dropt dead on the spot.” A unit of Philadelphia Associators (militia) arrived to help, but were also quickly forced to retreat.
With the Revolution itself hanging in the balance, George Washington brought more reinforcements and daringly risked his own life rallying the troops. “At this moment Washington appeared in front of the American army,” recalled a Pennsylvania state rifleman, “riding toward those of us who were retreating, and exclaimed ‘Parade with us, my brave fellows, there is but a handful of the enemy, and [we] will have them directly.’” The American soldiers were moved, physically and emotionally. “I shall never forget what I felt at Princeton on his account,” wrote one of the Philadelphia Associators, “when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself.”
In the battle that followed, Washington and his men were victorious. After the devastating losses of 1776, Washington had learned to win smaller battles fought on his own terms and to avoid major set-piece battles like those he had lost in New York. Most importantly, his countrymen believed again that they could win.
The death of Hugh Mercer, a former commandant of Fort Pitt during the French and Indian War, was widely mourned. Today, eight states have counties named for him and there are countless towns, streets, and schools named in his honor. Unfortunately, the central importance of the battle in which he, Colonel Haslet, Captain Fleming, and Lieutenant Yeates gave their lives is lost on too many people today--including the people who own the ground on which they fought.
"Their pickets stormed; the alarm was spread
The rebels, risen from the dead,
Were marching into town."
On Christmas Day in 1776 the 8th Virginia was dispersed across the east coast. The main group, with Colonel Muhlenberg, had just returned to Virginia after their long ordeal in South Carolina and Georgia. A large group remained behind--dead in the ground or too sick from the effects of malaria to march home. On the west bank of the Delaware River, Pittsburgh's Captain William Croghan was preparing to lead his detachment of sick, hungry, and frostbitten soldiers across the icy river from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.
Croghan commanded the remnants of a 140-man detachment that included his own company from Pittsburgh, and another seventy 8th Virginia soldiers who had missed the spring rendezvous at Suffolk, Virginia. For the year, Croghan's men were attached to the 1st Virginia Regiment. That regiment's field officers (colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major) were all sick or wounded, so a man of Croghan's own rank was in command: Captain John Fleming from Goochland, Virginia. In a week, even Fleming would be dead.
The arduous crossing and the all-night march to Trenton were followed by a victory over the Hessians that revived the American cause. “[B]eat the damn Hessians and took 700 and odd prisoners,” wrote Sergeant McCarty in his diary. The march back was even worse than the approach. The bloody footprints in the snow we learned about in school were very real. Men who sat too long on the way to Trenton froze to death. A week later, at the battle of Princeton, only a handful of Captain Croghan's men were fit for service.
At Trenton, Croghan's men fired on the enemy just yards in front of General Washington and alongside the soldiers of Colonel George Weedon's 3rd Virginia. Their victory, though small in military terms, revived a dying cause. Afterward, the overconfident British became more cautious and Washington found a tactical model for victory against an enemy that was better trained and equipped.
Thereafter, Christmas would always carry a special meaning for those who were there. After the war George Weedon wrote a song that was sung at a large party he held each year at his home in Virginia. The song was remembered by the orphaned son of General Hugh Mercer, who knew Weedon as his “uncle and second father.” He recalled that for “many years after the Revolution my uncle celebrated at ‘The Sentry Box’ (his residence, and now mine) the capture of the Hessians, by a great festival—a jubilee dinner, if I may so express myself—at which the Revolutionary officers then living here and in our vicinity, besides others of our friends, were always present. It was an annual feast, a day or so after Christmas Day, and the same guests always attended. …I was young, and a little fellow, and was always drawn up at the table to sing ‘Christmas Day in ’76'…. It was always a joyous holiday at ‘The Sentry Box.’”
Christmas Day in '76
On Christmas Day in seventy-six
Our ragged troops, with bayonets fixed,
For Trenton marched away.
The Delaware ice, the boats below,
The light obscured by hail and snow,
But no signs of dismay.
Our object was the Hessian band
That dare invade fair Freedom’s land,
At quarter in that place.
Great Washington, he led us on,
With ensigns streaming with renown,
Which ne’er had known disgrace.
In silent march we spent the night,
Each soldier panting for the fight,
Though quite benumbed with frost.
Green on the left at six began,
The right was with brave Sullivan,
Who in battle no time lost.
Their pickets stormed; the alarm was spread
The rebels, risen from the dead,
Were marching into town.
Some scampered here, some scampered there,
And some for action did prepare;
But soon their arms laid down.
Twelve hundred servile miscreants,
With all their colors, guns, and tents,
Were trophies of the day.
The frolic o’er, the bright canteen
In center, front, and rear, was seen,
Driving fatigue away.
And, brothers of the cause, let’s sing
Our safe deliverance from a king
Who strove to extend his sway.
And life, you know, is but a span;
Let’s touch the tankard while we can,
In memory of the day.
On December 14, 1776, the 8th Virginia’s Sergeant Thomas McCarty wrote in his diary, “I lay in camp and the excessive cold weather made me very unwell.” He and the rest of Washington’s army lay shivering on the west bank of the Delaware River, temporarily safe from the enemy who had chased them all the way from New York.
This was the Revolution’s darkest time. Washington was losing. Badly. His troops were barefoot and hungry, and most of their enlistments were about to expire. People were giving up. Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, swore allegiance to the King. Many others believed the cause was lost.
For the enlisted men, the immediate problem was the historically cold December weather. McCarty had frostbite. “I had great pain with my finger,” he wrote on December 9, “as the nail came clean off.” For shelter, he made a hut out of tree branches. It burned down on the thirteenth, along with nearly everything he had.
McCarty and the other men in Captain William Croghan’s company of Pittsburgh men had had it rough. They were separated from the rest of the regiment by hundreds of miles because they had missed the spring rendezvous at Suffolk, Virginia. Now, freezing in the snow after being hounded across New Jersey by the enemy, things looked very bleak. In two weeks, most of the army would go home—but not Croghan's men. Soldiers from Virginia (including Pittsburgh) were on two year enlistments. On December 14, 1776, it looked like they would remain behind only to see the Revolution’s last gasp. But things were about to look very different.
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 (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 (Saratoga):
Major General Horatio Gates
Major General Benjamin Lincoln
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.
© 2015-2018 Gabriel Neville