Virginians in The Continental Army

in creating a Continental Army from troops loyal to individual states, George Washington personally broke up at least one brawl
in creating a Continental Army from troops loyal to individual states, George Washington personally broke up at least one brawl
(as displayed at Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia)

The Revolutionary War may have been another one of those "rich man's war, poor man's fight" - but many Virginians did fight. They were recruited to serve initially in the First Virginia Regiment. Additional regiments were raised, and then many were transferred to the emerging "national" Continental army - where they served outside of the new state, in the northern colonies and then in South Carolina.

George Washington was given command of the first army composed of troops from multiple colonies rebelling against British control. At the Continental Congress, he had not-so-subtly dressed in his old French and Indian War uniform while members debated who was trustworthy enough to lead the military forces, but not likely to become a dictator in the process.

Washington was elected unanimously by the Continental Congress, but he acknowledged that there was a political motive in his selection as well as recognition of his personal capabilities. In August, 1774, prior to the start of the First Continental Congress, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania delegates agreed to let the Virginia delegates take the lead in decisions leading to independence. The Virginians were recognized as less willing to break free from British rule, so their support would have greater influence with other colonies. In addition, the Virginia delegates were seen as so proud of their heritage that having other colonies take the leadership role in advocating for independence would make the Virginians even more reluctant.

As a result, John Adams declined to support the desire of fellow Massachusetts residents John Hancock and Artemas Ward to be appointed Commander in Chief. Adams recognized appointing Washington would help unite southern and northern colonies in a common cause. In addition to selecting George Washington as the Commander in Chief, the other delegates granted Virginia delegates an excessive number of key roles in the Continental Congress. Peyton Randolph was elected as president of the First Continental Congress, Richard Henry Lee made the motion to declare independence, and Thomas Jefferson was chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence.1

a Virginian was selected to command the Continental Army in an effort to unite the colonies
a Virginian was selected to command the Continental Army in an effort to unite the colonies
Source: Library of Congress, Continental Congress to George Washington, June 19, 1775, Commission as Commander in Chief

George Washington left Philadelphia where the Continental Congress was meeting for Boston. He did not get back to Virginia for six years , when he stopped at Mount Vernon on the march to Yorktown. His wife Martha managed to join him for winter camps, providing some moral support to the troops as well as to her husband.

the Continental Army was created in the Revolutionary War when the county-based militia were not sufficient
the Continental Army was created in the Revolutionary War when the county-based militia were not sufficient
Source: National Park Service, Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, Virginia Militia in the Second Line

The Continental Army was organized by state; the Virginia troops were in the Virginia Line. Almost all Virginians serving in the Continental Army were captured in the disastrous surrender by General Benjamin Lincoln of over 5,000 men in the Continental Army and militia at Charleston, South Carolina in 1780.

Two major units had not reached Charleston in time to join in the defense, and ultimately the surrender. Colonel Abraham Buford commanded the Third Virginia Detachment, and Lt. Col. Charles Porterfield commanded the State Detachment. Though they were not at Charleston, few managed to return to Virginia. Both units were involved in other American defeats in 1780. One commentator has noted:2

...if you were a Virginian Continental in the service in 1780 you were more than likely captured at Charleston, and if you missed that you probably died at Waxhaws with Buford or at Camden with Porterfield

Colonel Abraham Buford led the Third Virginia Detachment, with two companies of the 2nd Virginia Regiment and 40 Virginia Light Dragoons. Those 380 Virginians were coming as reinforcements, but began to return to Virginia after learning of the surrender. They marched north too slowly.

Mounted infantry ("dragoons") in Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's British Legion dragoons caught up with the Virginians at Waxhaws, near the border of North Carolina and South Carolina. Col. Buford had a week's head start, but Tarleton was more aggressive.

Buford rejected Tarleton's demand to surrender without fighting. The Americans fired one volley and then tried to surrender, but Tarleton rejected the request. The British dragoons, using sabers and bayonets, won an overwhelming victory, killing/wounding 300 Americans at the cost of just 20 British killed/wounded.

Buford immediately claimed in his official report that many of his men who had surrendered were killed without mercy. His account is suspect, however, because Buford fled from Waxhaws after Tarleton refused his surrender request and the American forces were being slaughtered.

Tarleton reported after the battle that his horse was shot and he was pinned on the ground, and at that time some of his troops acted with "vindictive asperity." Tarleton sought medical care for all the wounded after the battle at Waxhaws, suggesting that Tarleton never issued orders to kill those who had surrendered. It is possible that some British soldiers had killed a few prisoners, when they thought their Lieutenant Colonel had been attacked after the Americans had surrendered.3

Whatever the facts, American propaganda about a Waxhaws Massacre succeeded in rousing volunteers. The Overmountain Men crossed the Blue Ridge to defeat loyalists fighting under Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October, 1780. Other volunteers joined General Nathaniel Greene. His army blocked Lord Cornwallis's advance at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781. Cornwallis then withdrew to Wilmington, before marching to Petersburg and ultimately Yorktown.

As anticipated by the First Continental Congress delegates, George Washington did not use his military success as a platform to become a dictator. He returned to private life at Mount Vernon after leading the Continental Army from 1775-1783 during the American Revolution. He declined all opportunities to become leader of the new nation until called out of retirement in 1788 to become the first President.

Colonial Militia in Virginia

"Light Horse Harry" Lee

The Revolutionary War in Virginia

Daniel Morgan (in white uniform near front of cannon) led Virginia riflemen that targeted British officers successfully and led to the surrender of British General John Burgoyne's army at Saratoga, New York on October 17, 1777
Daniel Morgan (in white uniform near front of cannon) led Virginia riflemen that targeted British officers successfully and led to the surrender of British General John Burgoyne's army at Saratoga, New York on October 17, 1777
Source: Architect of the Capitol, Surrender of General Burgoyne (painted by John Trumbull)

Links

George Washington returned to private life at Mount Vernon after leading the Continental Army from 1775-1783 during the American Revolution
George Washington returned to private life at Mount Vernon after leading the Continental Army from 1775-1783 during the American Revolution
Source: Architect of the Capitol, General George Washington Resigning His Commission

References

1. Richard Gardiner, "The Frankford Advice: 'Place Virginia at the Head of Everything'," Journal of the American Revolution, December 30, 2021, https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/12/the-frankford-advice-place-virginia-at-the-head-of-everything/ (last checked January 8, 2022)
2. Craig Scott, Va-HIST Listserver, August 15, 2001, http://listlva.lib.va.us/scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind0108&L=VA-HIST&F=&S=&P=33130 (last checked June 4, 2019)
3. Wayne Lynch and Jim Piecuch, "Debating Waxhaws: Was There A Massacre?" Journal of the American Revolution, August 7, 2013, https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/08/debating-waxhaws-was-there-a-massacre/; "Waxhaws: Buford's massacre," American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/revolutionary-war/battles/waxhaws; "Wax On, Waxhaw - Battle of the Waxhaws and Ramsuer's Mill," American Military History podcast no. 609, https://americanmilitaryhistorypodcast.com/wax-on-waxhaw-battle-of-the-the-waxhaws-and-ramsuers-mill/ (last checked June 4, 2019)
The Military in Virginia
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