In 1855 an elderly widow named Jane Roberts applied for bounty land for her husband’s service “in the war with the Cherokees & British in the year 1776.” We don’t often think of the Revolution as a two-front war, but it was. Americans fought an Anglo-German army in the east and an Anglo-Indian opponent in the west. Most of the western fighting was against Indians who were fighting as proxies of the Crown. In Virginia’s northwest territory along the Ohio River and beyond, the Shawnee were the most fearsome.
An 8th Virginia soldier like Captain George Slaughter might have seen the Revolution as just one chapter in a six-decade fight with the Indians for control of Kentucky and Ohio. The territories were the scenes of nearly constant bloodshed from the defeat of General Edward Braddock in 1755 to the defeat of Shawnee chief Tecumseh in 1813. After more than two decades of intermittent barbarity, Slaughter and his comrades suffered from no moral anguish when it came to killing Indians.
George was born in Culpeper County, Virginia in 1739. He was the grandson of an illiterate indentured servant but the son of a locally important and successful man. When he was twenty-five years old, George volunteered to help put down a major Indian uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion—which was a sort of postlude to the French and Indian War. Colonel Henry Bouquet led nearly 1500 militiamen out of Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) in 1764 and subdued the Indians in Ohio. Bouquet required the Indians to return 200 white people who had been kidnapped over the years. This liberation combined joy with sorrow: most of the captives had been taken as small children and were fully assimilated into the tribes. George's horse was requisitioned for the use of captives returning to their homes.
A decade later, he participated in Dunmore’s War. This was another campaign, led by the royal governor of Virginia, to “pacify” the Indians. After a lengthy and bloody battle at Point Pleasant on the Ohio River, the Virginians were victorious. Slaughter’s unit, however, reportedly arrived too late to participate in the fighting. "They had not the satisfaction of carrying off any of our men's scalps, save one or two of the stragglers," he wrote to his brother. "Many of their dead they scalped, rather than we should have them; but our troops scalped upwards of twenty of their men, that were killed first." His father-in-law was killed in the battle.
After the campaign ended, Slaughter explored Kentucky for a while and planted corn—perhaps to lay claim to some land. A year later, in 1775, he may have helped recruit one of the first companies for the famous Culpeper Minutemen. The minute battalions were replaced in 1776 by additional full-time regular regiments, including the 8th Virginia. Slaughter recruited a company in Culpeper County. He remained with the regiment through Charleston and Brandywine and was then promoted to major of the 12th Virginia just before the Battle of Germantown.
At Valley Forge, in December of 1777, he learned that his family had lost their house in a fire. That, and a smallpox epidemic (against which he, but not his family, had been inoculated), prompted him to request a furlough from General Washington. The furlough was turned down. He resigned his commission on December 23 and headed home to Culpeper. On February 1, he contritely wrote to Washington begging to be reinstated. “If my reenstation can take place with propriety,” he wrote, “it will afford me great satisfaction; if not, I hope I can Acquiesce without murmuring.” The request was denied.
Virginia authorized four battalions of six-month volunteers in June 1778. These were state (not Continental) soldiers intended to reinforce Washington's army. Slaughter was chosen to lead one of the battalions. However, in August Congress advised the Commonwealth that the battalions would not be needed and the half-recruited units were disbanded. It is possible, however, that Slaughter's battalion was ultimately repurposed rather than dissolved.
After George Rogers Clark’s important victories in the west, Maj. John Montgomery returned to Virginia with dispatches. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and ordered to recruit additional forces to reinforce Clark. On January 1, 1779, Gov. Patrick Henry drafted orders for Clark based on decisions of the state legislature. “They have directed your battalion to be completed, 100 men to be stationed at the falls of the Ohio under Major Slaughter, and one only of the additional battalions to be completed. Major Slaughter’s men are raised, and will march in a few days, this letter being to go by him. The returns which have been made to me do not enable me to say whether men enough are raised to make up the additional battalion, but I suppose there must be nearly enough. This battalion will march as early in the spring as the weather will admit.”
Montgomery was then redirected to help suppress an Indian uprising among the Cherokee in April of 1779, an operation known as Evan Shelby’s Chickamauga Campaign. William Hayden English wrote that Slaughter was along for this campaign, though documents to support this have not been found.
Slaughter’s participation in Shelby’s campaign is circumstantially supported by the fact that he was once again recruiting in Virginia in the fall of 1779. Slaughter recruited 150 men who were sworn into the service in mid-December when they headed west. They made it as far as Redstone Fort in Pennsylvania before getting bogged down by snow. In the spring, they made it to Fort Pitt and boated downstream to the falls of the Ohio River. This site is now Louisville, Kentucky, a city of which Slaughter is considered a founder—he was one of the original trustees.
Slaughter joined Clark on a 1780 campaign against the Shawnee in Ohio known as the Battle of Peckuwe (or “Piqua”). Clark then left for Virginia and left Slaughter in command. Slaughter oversaw the construction of Fort Nelson. It was from there that he reported to Jefferson on the dangerous situation with the Indians. In 1781 he wrote, “The Savages have been very troublesome this Spring; almost every other day we have accounts of some one being either kill’d or Captured; upwards of 40 Men, Women and Children have fallen a prey to them within the County of Jefferson in the course of 2 Months past and we have not had the satisfaction of getting but one of there Scalps.”
Safety was not his only problem. He also reported, “We are here without money, Clothing, or any thing else scarsely to subsist on. By the fault of the Commissaries, Hunters or I cannot tell who upwards of One hundred and Thirty Th[ousan]d weight of meat was intirely spoiled and lost.”
Things improved for Slaughter and his neighbors from there. This can be seen in a letter his old 8th Virginia commander Colonel Abraham Bowman (who moved to Kentucky in 1779) sent home on October 10, 1784. Bowman wrote to a brother that "General Clark has laid off a town on the other side of the Ohio, opposite the falls, at the mouth of Silver creek, and is building a saw and grist mill there." This was Clarksville, in Clark County, Indiana. The same year, Slaughter was elected to the Virginia legislature. In 1792 Kentucky became its own state.
Slaughter eventually followed Clark and moved across the river. This was land that had been set aside for Virginia soldiers who had participated in “the reduction of the British in the Illinois.” Slaughter was not one of these soldiers, but he moved across the river anyway to Charleston, then the seat of Clark County. He died there in 1818. No grave marker survives, but (according to a genealogy website) he may be in the Shelby Family Cemetery, better known as the Halcyon Hill Cemetery.
Like many 8th Virginia veterans who were prominent and important in their day, Slaughter has been largely forgotten. It is never too late for Louisville (or Culpeper, or Charleston) to memorialize him.
(Revised and updated, December 22, 2019 and June 15, 2022.)
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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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