"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.
When he was 18, Marylander Abraham Kirkpatrick killed a man in a fight and fled to Pittsburgh, the Dodge City of the original wild west. He had family money, which he used to buy property and establish himself. When the war broke out he was commissioned the 1st lieutenant of Captain William Croghan’s company of the 8th Virginia. He served the length of the war, and rose to the rank of major. Always happy to fight, in 1779 he permanently maimed a fellow officer in a duel. In the 1790s, he played a central role in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion, famously defending General John Neville’s home from an angry mob.
Despite his rough edges, Kirkpatrick became part of the Pittsburgh elite. He co-founded the Bank of Pittsburgh and ran an early steel mill. His grandson Abraham Kirkpatrick Lewis was a pioneer in the Pittsburgh coal business, shipping coal on flat boats all the way to new Orleans.
George Washington sent Abraham Kirkpatrick several bottles of imported wine to thank him for his service putting down the Whiskey Rebellion. One bottle (its contents evaporated into a dry sediment) survives, having been kept by the family for over two centuries. It was put up for auction earlier this year, but didn’t sell. Details about the object, including a high-definition image, are can be seen at the Skinner auction house website.
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.
In my October 29 post about William Eagle, I wrote that he "enlisted in the 8th Virginia on Christmas Eve, 1776" and that he "was one of the first to sign up when the regiment came limping back to Virginia from its encounters with redcoats and ... malaria in South Carolina and Georgia." I gave him credit for being "one of the few who enlisted during the Revolution’s darkest hour."
Well, it's not true. His pension says it's true and the West Virginia historic marker that stands next to his grave says it's true. But they are both wrong.
First, His name appears nowhere in the muster or pay rolls for 1777, and the "commencement of pay" date for on his first pay roll entry is February 1, 1778.
Second, His pension affidavit claims that he "enlisted for the term of three years, on or about the 24th day of December in the year 1776, in the state of Virginia in the Company commanded by Captain Stead or Sted or Steed, in the Regiment commanded by Colonel Nevil or Neville." Colonel John Neville (no known relation to me) commanded the regiment after it was folded into the 4th Virginia in the fall of 1778. Had Eagle enlisted in the regiment in December of 1776 and joined it in January of 1777 he would certainly have mentioned Colonel Abraham Bowman, who became a "supernumerary" officer when the regiment was folded into others in the summer of 1778 and released from service in the fall. Eagle served under Bowman only for a little while and, consequently, did not mention him. Eagle got the names right (Neville and Steed), but the year wrong.
Third, the term of his enlistment is consistently recorded as for 3 years or the length of the war (which ever was shorter). Soldiers who enlisted in 1777 or later enlisted under these terms. Virginia soldiers who enlisted in 1776 signed up for two years. (Someone might argue that a date so late in the year might have been treated differently, but I'm not aware of any examples of this.)
The date of his enlistment is not recorded anywhere in the surviving official records. From the evidence, however, it seems certain that he in fact enlisted "on or about the 24th day of December" in the year of 1777 (not 1776), and joined the regiment at Valley Forge about a month later.
Eagle is not the only veteran who got the dates of his service wrong when applying decades later for a pension. It is an understandable error. The State of West Virginia might, however, want to invest in an updated marker.
The 8th Virginia was composed of ten companies of 68 enlisted men, each led by four officers (captain, 1st lieutenant, 2nd lieutenant, and ensign). The overall regiment was commanded by three field officers (colonel, lt. colonel, and major), assisted by several staff officers (chaplain, adjutant, surgeon, surgeon's mate, and quartermaster). One inherited company was composed men on 1-year enlistments that began in December of 1775. The other nine companies served 2-year enlistments, beginning in the spring of 1776 and ending at Valley Forge in the spring of 1778. An 11th regiment was raised to replace that of the 1-year men in 1777. Replacements recruited in 1777 served 3-year enlistments. The 8th existed from the spring of 1776 to the fall of 1778, when it was merged with other depleted regiments.
I have posted an outline of the regiment's structure, naming the original officer and a handful of enlistment men I have blogged about. This is not intended to be a "roster" of the regiment, but rather a look at its structure, origins, and organization.
Fifteen year-old William Eagle enlisted in the 8th Virginia on Christmas Eve, 1776. He was one of the first to sign up when the regiment came limping back to Virginia from its encounters with redcoats and (far more dangerous) malaria in South Carolina and Georgia.
Colonel Muhlenberg brought the regiment back home to refill its ranks. Hundreds of men had died, deserted, or been left behind. Recruiting had been easy ten months earlier. Now, with Washington fleeing the British across New Jersey and the effects of camp disease staring them in the face, few men were willing to sign up. The regiment was never again at full strength. After Valley Forge, the original enlistments expired and very few of those men signed up for another three years. After the Battle of Monmouth, the regiment was combined with 4th and the 12th Virginia regiments and then folded into the 4th Virginia. A year later, even that unit had to be paired with the 3rd Virginia.
William Eagle was one of the few who enlisted during the Revolution’s darkest hour (literally two days before Trenton restored people’s faith in the cause). Nearing the end of his three-year term, he was “discharged for inability” on September 1, 1779. Tradition has it that he had a broken arm. Whatever his injury was, it saved him from a repeat of the 8th Virginia’s 1776 march to Charleston. This time, the entire Virginia line would be captured after the Siege of Charleston in 1780.
William Eagle’s grave is by Eagle Rocks, a steep peak near the headwaters of the Potomac in West Virginia’s remote Smoke Hole Canyon. Ross B. Johnston wrote in his book West Virginians in the Revolution that the veteran named his son George Washington Eagle, and nearly lost his life one day climbing his namesake peak in an attempt to capture some baby eagles.
Abraham Bowman Whiskey is named for the only field officer who commanded the 8th Virginia for its entire two-year existence. Originally distilled by his descendants, the whiskey is a good tribute.
Americans drank rum in colonial times. After the Revolution, however, they drank whiskey. Rum was made from Caribbean molasses, but whiskey was purely home-grown. “The Revolution meant the decline of rum and the ascendancy of whiskey in America,” writes Mary Miley Theobald. “When the British blockade of American ports cut off the molasses trade, most New England rum distillers converted to whiskey. Whiskey had a patriotic flavor. It was an all-American drink, made in America by Americans from American grain.”
Nowhere was whiskey more popular than on the Virginia frontier. Whiskey came to America with the “Scotch Irish” (Irish Protestants) who settled the frontier of Virginia, the same area that produced the 8th Virginia Regiment. They fought for the right to settle west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which the King had forbidden. After the war, many of them led their families and neighbors into the woods of Kentucky. Abraham Bowman was among the very first to go. They began making whiskey out of corn, aging it in charred oak barrels, and (eventually) calling it "Bourbon."
Bowman was commissioned in 1776 to be the 8th Virginia’s original lieutenant colonel. A year later he was promoted to colonel to replace Peter Muhlenberg, who became a general. The Bowmans were not Scotch-Irish; they were German—but after a generation or two there wasn’t much difference. After a few more generations, the Bowmans were back in the Old Dominion, and opened a whiskey distillery the day after Prohibition ended. For many years it was the only legal whiskey distillery in Virginia. Today, you can take a tour and go home with a bottle of good Bourbon whiskey named after a true revolutionary hero.
Jonathan Clark was one of the 8th Virginia’s ten company captains. He was the older brother of the explorer William Clark, famous for the Lewis and Clark expedition. He was also the older brother of George Rogers Clark, the victor of the now-obscure Battle of Vincennes, which won the old “northwest territory” from the British in the Revolution. Did you ever wonder how all the territory east of the Mississippi became American territory after the war, not just the 13 colonies? The answer is George Rogers Clark.
Jonathan Clark was an important figure in his own right, and left the only comprehensive diary of the 8th Virginia’s experiences in the war. It is frustratingly concise, but also crucially important in piecing the regiment's history together. Jim Holmberg, a Kentucky historian and archivist, wrote a blog post about the eldest Clark brother four years ago on the bicentennial of his death. You can read it here.
On February 7, 1776, John Stump was one of the earliest recruits to join the 8th Virginia. He was recruited by Captain Abel Westfall or one of his lieutenants to join their new company of Virginia provincial soldiers. The company was one of ten that would make up the 8th Virginia Regiment. John was probably the son of Michael Stump, a German who had changed his name from Hans Stumpff.
John marched with the regiment to South Carolina in the summer of 1776 and was present for the Battle of Sullivan's Island. The joy of that victory was followed by a summer and fall of intense suffering. The soldiers of the 8th fell victims to malaria--a mosquito-born illness these men from the mountains were ill-prepared for. After a planned invasion of British Florida was called off, they sat sick in camp at Sunbury, Georgia--a few of them dying nearly every day.
When winter came and the malarial season ended, they hobbled back to Virginia. In the spring, those who were healthy enough marched off to join Washington's "Grand Camp" in New Jersey. They walked north, crossing the Potomac at Harper's Ferry through Maryland into Pennsylvania before heading east through York, Lancaster, and Philadelphia. John Stump, however, couldn't make it much past Harper's Ferry. Muster rolls for the rest of the year report that he was "left sick in Maryland." After this, there is no further (discovered) record of him being alive.
It could have been malaria, smallpox, or another disease--but John Stump probably died somewhere near Frederick, Maryland. This was the fate of many 8th Virginia soldiers. Disease was the primary killer of the war, and no regiment was hit harder by it than the 8th Virginia.
The frontier cabin built by Michael Stump will be open for tours late this month. Records have not been found to prove it, but this is probably the cabin John Stump grew up in. Presumably, it was there that he shook his father's hand and kissed his mother's cheek before marching of to war, never to return. Current owners John and Beverly Buhl will open their doors during Hardy County Heritage Weekend, September 26 and 27. View their website for more information.
Two posts ago, we featured the house of Captain Robert Higgins. Here is a note authored by Higgins in support of a post-war bounty land warrant issued to the heirs of one of his soldiers, Zachariah DeLong. In the spring of 1777, the enlistments of an entire company of the 8th expired. Short a company, Colonel Muhlenberg proposed his brother-in-law, Francis Swain (the regiment's adjutant), be made a captain. Washington overruled Muhlenberg and promoted Robert Higgins instead. Higgins spent the next six months diligently attempting to recruit a new company from scratch. The euphoria of 1776, however, had been replaced by the cold reality that nearly half of the original regiment was already dead or severely sick from malaria. Higgins was never able to recruit more than about 15 men. Zachariah DeLong was one of the brave souls who signed up.
Higgins brought his tiny company to the main army in August of 1777 and quickly faced combat at Brandywine (September 11) and Germantown (October 4), where Higgins and many others were captured. As an officer, Higgins was treated better by the British than Zachariah and his enlisted companions were. Higgins signed at least three of these notes, attesting that soldiers had indeed served under him before dying of rampant disease in a filthy British jail only four months after their capture. (Peter Muhlenberg, by the way, made Francis Swain his brigade major when he received his promotion to brigadier general. Swain was terrible at the job and washed out of the army.)
Thanks to Tom Higgins of Shelbyville, Kentucky, for this document.
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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