The Revolutionary War in Virginia

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

A "rebel" is 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, the Virginians who fought a second war of independence 80 years later in 1861-65 (as the Confederates described it) are "rebels". Some describe Virginians such as Robert E. Lee as "damned rebels" or even as "traitors."

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 was 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

Lord Cornwallis fortified Yorktown, with the expectation that reinforcements would arrive from New York before his base could be captured through a siege by French and America armies
Lord Cornwallis fortified Yorktown, with the expectation that reinforcements would arrive from New York before his base could be captured through a siege by French and America armies
Source: Library of Congress, Plan of Yorktown and Glucester [sic], Virginia, October 1781

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 subscribe 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)

in 1781, Lafayette (yellow line) could only shadow the British (red line) as they chose to raid Richmond and destroy supplies throughout Virginia
in 1781, Lafayette (yellow line) could only shadow the British (red line) as they chose to raid Richmond and destroy supplies throughout Virginia
Source: Library of Congress, Campagne en Virginie du Major Général M'is de LaFayette : ou se trouvent les camps et marches, ainsy que ceux du Lieutenant Général Lord Cornwallis en 1781

British forces concentrated at Petersburg, then crossed the James River to Westover Plantation before marching to capture Richmond, then embark at Bermuda Hundred to sail to Portsmouth
British forces concentrated at Petersburg, then crossed the James River to Westover Plantation before marching to capture Richmond, then embark at Bermuda Hundred to sail to Portsmouth
Source: Library of Congress, Campagne en Virginie du Major Général M'is de LaFayette : ou se trouvent les camps et marches, ainsy que ceux du Lieutenant Général Lord Cornwallis en 1781

Battle of Great Bridge

Winning the Illinois Country in the American Revolution

The Virginians Who Fought in the Revolutionary War

Why the Conservative, Rich Gentry Rebelled Against the "System" in the American Revolution

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

Links

Cornwallis's surrender in 1781 was negotiated in the Moore House outside the town of Yorktown by subordinates - Cornwallis and Washington did not meet there in person to sign terms of capitulation
Cornwallis's surrender in 1781 was negotiated in the Moore House outside the town of Yorktown by subordinates - Cornwallis and Washington did not meet there in person to sign terms of capitulation
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
Yorktown
Victory Monument
Yorktown Grace Church
Yorktown
Grace Church
Yorktown fascine (1781 sand bag)
Yorktown fascine
(1781 sand bag)
Yorktown Fox cannon
Yorktown
"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)

Corwallis entered Virginia after crossing South Carolina and North Carolina, before choosing Yorktown as the deepwater port where he would be resupplied by ships of the Royal Navy sailing from New York
Cornwallis entered Virginia after crossing South Carolina and North Carolina, before choosing Yorktown as the deepwater port where he would be resupplied by ships of the Royal Navy sailing from New York
Source: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Campaigns of 1781 (Plate 160h, digitized by University of Richmond)


Military in Virginia
Virginia Places