The Revolutionary War in Virginia

French cannon at Yorktown
French cannon at Yorktown
Source" National Park Service, Sidney King Painting

Most people define a "rebel" as one who tries to overturn existing authority. A "revolutionary" is one who succeeds in that quest, establishing a new form of authority to replace the old.

The Virginians who fought in 1776-83 are honored nationally as Revolutionary War soldiers. However, Yankees don't use that term when they refer to the Virginians who fought a second war of independence (well, that's how the Confederates described it...) 80 years later. Instead, those Virginians like Robert E. Lee were "traitors" and "damned rebels." When the accumulated history of the conflict were published as the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, the title was one more indication that the rebellion in 1861-65 had failed to become a revolution.

It could have turned out the same way in the 1780's too. With all our our nationalistic patriotism and flag-waving on July 4 each year, blended with a heavy dose of news reports that demonstrate nearly every speechmaker studied history when the "manifest destiny" perspective was taught, it's hard to remember that the colonies were nearly defeated 225 years ago. Had Cornwallis continued to march throughout the southern states, rather than get bottled up and surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, modern students might be referring to George, Tom, Patrick, and other famous Virginians of that day as rebels (or even as terrorists) rather than as "founding fathers."

A substantial percentage of Virginians remained loyal to the British Crown and Parliament during the American Revolution. At the start of hostilities in 1775, hotheaded revolutionary activists marched on the colonial capital at Williamsburg, but they were deflected by members of the House of Burgesses. The Virginia politicians sought peaceful resolution of their grievances, not physical conflict, up until declaring the state's independence in May, 1776.

The national declaration was written after the Virginia Convention had already acted on May 15, 1776 to instruct its representatives in Philadelphia to propose independence. Henry Lee submitted the Virginia proposal for independence to the Continental Congress, as instructed, on June 7, 1776. The Virginia General Assembly approved George Mason's Declaration of Rights on June 12 and the state's first constitution on June 29 - before the Congress adopted a Declaration of Independence on July 4.

Technically, Virginia became an independent state even after it ratified the Articles of Confederation in 1778, until Maryland ratified and the new national government became operational in 1781. The failure of that national union led to a revision of the contract between the states. In 1788, enough states ratified the replacement (the Constitution) and the current Federal government wsas established.

In the end, some Virginians even joined with Lord Dunmore and remained loyal to their country - England. While Peyton Randolph chaired the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, his brother John "the Tory" Randolph returned to England.

In addition to the conservative gentry such as John Grymes (who provided Lord Dunmore his last refuge in the colony at Gwynn's Island in Mathews County), the last colonial governor received support from Scottish businessmen in Norfolk. Had Dunmore managed to stay longer, or if British forces had raised the standard of the king in western Virginia and invited the frontiersmen to rally to the loyalist cause, there's a good chance that the July 4th parades would have to acknowledge that only 1/3rd of the colonial Virginians supported the Revolution. Another 1/3rd were loyalists, and the remaining 1/3rd were neutral and uninterested in risking their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in the fight.

route of Comte de Rochambeau's army through Northern Virginia, 1781 and 1782
route of Comte de Rochambeau's army through Northern Virginia, 1781 and 1782
Source: Library of Congress, Côte de York-town à Boston: Marches de l'armée

Why Were the Loyal Virginians Concentrated Where They Were?

The Scottish traders in Norfolk were economically linked to the mercantile system of England. So long as the colonies were economically dependent upon the mother country, and the Royal Navy enforced the Navigation Acts and prevented direct shipment of Virginia-grown tobacco to French and Dutch ports, the Scots in Norfolk would make money as middlemen. They did not have a monopoly on shipping Virginia tobacco to Glasgow and other British ports, but only the large planters could maintain a direct relationship in England with a banker/buyer for their goods.

The Scots recognized that an independent Virginia (perhaps allied with other colonies, perhaps not...) would allow greater competition and cut deeply into their profits. You don't have to sunbscribe to Marxist theory to recognize that the economic interests shaped political loyalties.

On the frontier, particularly west of the Blue Ridge in Montgomery County, there were pockets of loyalists that worried Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson when they served as Virginia's first governors.

The westerners were largely self-sufficient, and their economic ties to England were minimal. Transportation costs across the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge made it uneconomic to grow tobacco or other cash crops. All the profits would be eaten up by the shipping costs, for those farmers located more than a few miles from the navigable rivers leading to a Chesapeake Bay port.

Obviously, the support for England by western settlers was not based on economic dependency upon England. More likely, the loyalists in the west were rebelling against the Tidewater gentry who dominated the colony.

If Revolution was a good thing for maintaining the slave-based Virginia plantations shipping tobacco overseas, then revolution probably was not a good thing for the free laborers and small farmers on the edge of European civilization. The western settlers were taxed by the House of Burgesses, but poorly represented in it. Few counties were created west of the Blue Ridge until 1774, so few representatives were sent from the frontier to Williamsburg. Taxes on slaves were kept very low, ensuring that westerners with few slaves subsidized easterners rather than retained local wealth to finance local improvements (especially roads).

the British captured the Gosport Shipyard at Portsmouth and burned it in 1779
the British captured the Gosport Shipyard at Portsmouth and burned it in 1779
Source: Library of Congress, Part of the Province of Virginia (1791)

Why the Conservative, Rich Gentry Rebelled Against the "System"

The great mystery of the Revolution is why rich Virginians supported revolution. After all, in 1775 the gentry were on top of the social and economic pyramid in Virginia. Revolutions displace the folks on top... so why would the gentry lead a revolution against themselves?

The Virginia gentry's politics were shaped by the same forces that affected the Scottish businessment and the frontier settlers. Those rich Virginians were very sensiitive to the winds of change. The tobacco planters strove to maintain the appearance of independence, even as they fell deeper and deeper into debt to British merchants.
George Washington often remonstrated that he received shoddy goods and was charged excessively high prices, while his high-quality tobacco was not sold at the premium it deserved. Others were even more concerned, since they were risking bankruptcy if their English creditors refused to advance then any more funds in anticipation of a bigger/better crop.

The gentry felt it was essential to demonstrate they could vote as they pleased in the House of Burgesses. Similarly, the restrictions on voting rights in the colony were designed to ensure that the decisionmakers were voting for their own interests. Virginia's gentry wanted voters to make their own decisions, rather than take direction on how to vote because they were in debt to someone else. Parliament had "corrupt boroughs" where someone could buy their way into Parliament, and that allowed the King to purchase extra votes to support his policies. The Virginians did not want the colonial governor - or other rivals in the legislature - to gain such extra influence.

Even more important, they did not want to acknowledge that Parliament had the right to impose direct taxes on the colonists. All taxes on the colony had to be approved by the House of Burgesses...

In 1765, the natural ties of loyalty binding Virginia's gentry to England were strectched tight. George Mercer discovered that the theoretical dispute regarding taxation could become violent. He was a respected member of the Virginia gentry. He had served with George Washington at Fort Necessity and in the First Virginia Regiment, and had become the Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War. He was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1761, and was chosen by the Loyal Land Company to serve as their lobbyist in London in 1765. He returned to Virginia in October, 1765, as the designated agent for collecting the stamp tax, which Parliament had imposed to help pay for the defense of the colonies. A mob of angry residents in Williamsburg threatened Mercer's life when he arrived. After he resigned (and quickly returned to England until his death in 1784...), no one in Virginia was willing to serve as the stamp tax collector and Parliament was forced to repeal the tax.

The French and Indian War, and then the Stamp Act crisis, first revealed the differences between Parliament and the colonies. The Virginians in particular had taxed themselves heavily to pay for defense during the French and Indian War. From London's perspective, however, England had borrowed heavily to pay for that war and the colonies still needed to pay their fair share of the continuing defense costs.

English regiments sent across the Atlantic had been the key to conquering Fort Dusquesne (the French fort at the site of present-day Pittsburg) and then conquering - and keeping - Canada. By eliminating the French from the continent, the English had substantially reduced the threat of the Native Americans on the frontier. The Iroquois, Shawnee, and Cherokee in particular no longer had the option of allying with the French and receiving gifts to spur attacks on the settlers or English forts on the frontier.

In addition, the English capture of Canada ensured that "foreign relations" with the Native Americans would be easier to control. So longer as colonial expansion was restricted to territory agreed upon in treaties, the costs of protecting the frontier should be miminal - but the London officals thought those costs should be covered by the colonies, since they were the beneficiaries. The simple taxes on stamps, etc. were reasonable if you thought the colonies should pay for their defense - but if you thought England was exerting new controls on independent assemblies that had already paid more than their fair share, then the taxes were intolerable and were just the first wave of new controls that threatened the freedoms of the English settlers in America.

In 1775, the natural ties of loyalty binding Virginia's gentry to England snapped. England was seen as a threat to independence. The Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act showed that England was a threat to western expansion, a major concern to the cash-poor but potentially land-rich gentry.

To the Virginians, English behavior towards Ireland already demonstrated its willingness to over-tax a colony in order to benefit the mother country. This concern had a personal, as well as colonial, facet as well. The debate after the 1783 Treaty of Paris over paying back the planters' pre-war debts to English merchants suggests that some planters may have preferred to declare independence from England rather than declare bankruptcy to satisfy English merchants.

The Virginians Who Fought in the Revolutionary War

Were the Virginia Slaves Loyalists or Revolutionaries in the Revolutionary War

Why Was Virginia a Military Target in 1781?

Blandford Church in Petersburg - burial site of Major General William Phillips, who captured the city in 1781
Blandford Church in Petersburg - burial site of Major General William Phillips, who captured the city in 1781


Cornwallis's surrender in 1781 was negotiated in the Moore House, outside the town of Yorktown
Cornwallis's surrender in 1781 was negotiated in the Moore House, outside the town of Yorktown
Source: Historical collections of Virginia, The Moore House, Yorktown (p.530)

the Moore House in Yorktown was damaged during the Civil War
the Moore House in Yorktown was damaged during the Civil War
Source: The Photographic History of the Civil War, The Scene of Yorktown's Only Surrender (p.268)

Yorktown Victory Monument
Victory Monument
Yorktown Grace Church
Grace Church
Yorktown fascine (1781 sand bag)
Yorktown fascine
(1781 sand bag)
Yorktown Fox cannon
"Fox" cannon
National Park Service visitor center - Yorktown Battlefield
NPS visitor center
(Yorktown Battlefield)
Thomas Nelson house (Yorktown)
Thomas Nelson
house (Yorktown)
Nelson House 1781 cannonball (fake...)
Nelson House
1781 cannonball (fake...)
Yorktown mural (Read Street)
Yorktown mural
(Read Street)

(click on images for larger versions)

Military in Virginia
Virginia Places