The Militia

Colonial Virginia did not maintain a standing army. Nearly everyone was engaged in agriculture, and needed to plant in the spring and harvest in the fall. The Virginians were not wealthy enough to afford full-time soldiers. Whenever there were colonial "alarms" about pirates or Indians, riders on horses would spread the word to various farms and the men would assemble as needed.

The militia was organized by county. In theory, there were regular training sessions of the militia at the county courthouse. In times of peace, however, these became largely social events. The County Lieutenant was often a candidate for the House of Burgesses, and strict discipline of essentially volunteer soldiers was rare. More often, the drinking during the militia assemblies was more intense than the target practice.

In times of war, those with crops to plant and harvest were reluctant to serve for more than a few weeks. When a militia unit received orders to march to another colony, their reluctance was based in part on a desire to return home soon rather than a misguidance allegiance to Virginia. Bounties were often offered to attract the "idle poor" who had less to lose, and were more willing to volunteer.

These were rarely the most-disciplined or hardest-working members in the county, however. In addition, they often arrived in camp without the required clothing, guns, powder, and ammunition. Whatever was issued to such soldiers had a tendency to be lost or damaged... though some items were obviously sold or kept for personal profit. The militia motivations were basic, with patriotism towards the colony far down the list.

During the French and Indian War, George Washington struggled to obtain and trained enough soldiers for a sustained campaign. Some were recruited through financial incentives, while others were forcibly drafted. One author has described the conditions of serving at the front - Winchester, in Frederick County - in 1757:1

Nearly all the militia remained law abiding in their idleness except the contingent from Prince William County who became violently abusive in claiming their superiority not only to the privates but also the officers of the Virginia Regiment. As a result, one militiaman was seized and locked in the guardhouse for his insolence. This insult was not to be endured. A militia officer gathered his comrades, stormed the guardhouse, released their compatriot and proceeded to demolish the building. The leader of the mutiny swore that the Virginia Regiment officers were all scoundrels and that "...he could drive the whole Corps before him..."

Although the Regiment was anxious for reinforcements from the militia, insults were not to be countenanced. The mutinous militia leader was personally acquainted, in a manner left unexplained, with military law and enforcement by irate members of the Regiment. The next morning the chastened militia officer tendered his apologies at headquarters. Washington chose not to punish the leader as the fright he had suffered at the hands of the Regiment "...sufly attoned for his imprudence."
militia were local defense forces, often used to respond to Native American attacks - but mobilized in the Revolutionary War to attack British armies
militia were local defense forces, often used to respond to Native American attacks - but mobilized in the Revolutionary War to attack British armies
Source: National Park Service, New Archeological Discoveries at Moores Creek National Battlefield

The Continental Army

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 intially 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 multi-colony army. He had not-so-subtly dressed in his old French and Indian War uniform, while Congress debated who was trustworthy enough to lead the military forces... but not try to become a dictator on the process. He left the Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was meeting, and did not return to Virginia for six years (when he stopped at Mount Vernon on the march to Yorktown). 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, and 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 the army at Charlestown, South Carolina in 1780.

An additional 350 under Colonel Abraham Buford in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry were killed or wounded at Waxhaws, South Carolina. They were reinforcements who arrived too late to help the Charleston garrison, and were caught by Banastre Tarleton's dragoons while returning to Virginia. In the "Waxhaws Massacre," Tarleton's men killed over 100 while they apparently tried to surrender. However, there's another perspective:

"As Tarleton came forward to discuss surrender, his horse was shot from under him and he was pinned under it while his dragoons, thinking he had been killed under a flag of truce, gave the Virginians no quarter. There is a monument a half a mile from the battle site, which is now known as Buford Crossroads and surrounding community known as Buford."2

Craig Scott described the impact of the surrender on Virginia's forces in the Continental Army, in a message posted to the VA-HIST listserver on August 15, 2001:

The loss of the Charleston garrison was a severe blow, probably the heaviest the American side would suffer during the entire war. More than 5,000 Continental soldiers, militia, and private citizens were officially surrendered to the British. In his official returns, General Benjamin Lincoln counted about 2,200 Continentals (about 500 sick and wounded included) and about 500 reliable militia. Also captured were 391 pieces of artillery, 6,000 muskets, 33,000 rounds of ammunition, and 3 frigates. [David B. Mattern, Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.]

Another source has 5,500 defenders of the city, 2,500 of which were militiamen of questionable quality. 5,466 armed men were captured, 391 artillery pieces, 5,916 muskets, 33,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, over 8,000 round shot and 376 barrels of powder. [Dan L. Morrill, Southern Campaingns of the American Revolution. Mount Pleasant, S.C.: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company, 1993.]

The movement of Virginia troops to Charleston can be found in M. Lee Minnis, The First Virginia Regiment of Foot. Westminster, Md.: Willow Bend Books, 1998. On 8 March Woodfords force at Petersburg departed with 737 men fit for duty. The force was divided into three detachments: Col. William Russell leading the 1st Regiment and Cols. Gist and John Neville. (This 1st Regiment was a consolidation of the 1st, 5th, 7th, 10th and 11th). Woodford arrived in Charleston on 7 April. A Hessian in his diary wrote that General Woodford arrived in Charleston with 700 men. Col. Parker of the First was kille in a British barrage on 24 April at Half-Moon Battery. Col. Parker's First Virginia Detachment of Scott's Brigade and Col. William Heth's Second Detachment of Scott's Brigade were responsible for defending this area.

Minnis reports that 5,500 Continentals and milita were captured. Of these 336 were from the First Virginia. Of the 274 Officers at Haddrell's Point awaiting exchange, 115 were Virginians.

Based on E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra. A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774-1787. 1978, reprinted Westminster, Md.: Willow Bend Books, 2001:

1st Virginia Regiment (a consolidation of the 1st, 5th, 7th, 10th, 11th) assigned to Woodford's brigade - surrendered.

2nd Virginia Regiment (a consolidation of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th) assigned to Woodford's brigade - surrendered, except for a handful of men under Captain Alexander Parker who returned to Virginia. Captains Thomas Catlett and John Stokes were with Buford.

3rd - consolidated with the 2nd and surrendered.

4th - consolidated with the 2nd and surrendered.

5th - consolidated with the 1st and surrendered. Captain Adam Wallace was on detached service with Buford.

6th - had earlier been consolidated with the 3rd what was consolidated with the 2nd - surrendered.

7th - consolidated with the 1st - surrendered.

8th - not at Charleston. Sent to the Carolinas as a part of the temporary 3rd Regiment.

9th - not at Charleston. Served west of the Alleghenies.

10th - consolidated with the 1st - surrendered.

11th - consolidated with the 1st - surrendered, except for Buford's Detachment.

12th - renumbered the 8th in 1778, not in existence in 1780

13th - renumbered the 9th in 1778, not at Charleston.

14th - renumbered the 10th in 1778

15th - renumbered the 11th in 1778.

Col. Nathaniel Gist's Additional - surrendered at Charleston

Col. Thomas Gaskins Detachment - made up of some of those who escaped capture at Charleston

1st Regiment of Continental Artillery (Harrison's) - a large number captured at Charleston.

1st Regiment of Continental Dragoons - most escaped capture.

3rd Regiment of Continental Dragoons - Captain William Barrett, a native of N.C. was captured.

1st Virginia State Line - not at Charleston.

Lt. Col. Charles Porterfied's State Detachment - arrived after the fall of Charleston, escaped capture and joined Gates army.

Virginia State Artillery Regiment. - all but one company captured which joined Porterfield.

Major John Nelson's Regiment of Virginia State Cavalry - arrived late, joined Porterfield.

In a lot fewer words, 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.

- Gen Danl Morgan coming out of retirement to lead continental troops at Cowpens.

There were not just Continentals at Cowpens. The militia began the day.

Captain Francis Triplett, raised Fauquier
Captain James Winn, raised Fauquier
Captain James Gilmore, raised Rockbridge
Captain Robert Craven, raised Rockingham
as were two rifle companies under:
Col. Charles Lynch
Col. William Campbell


Craig R. Scott, CGRS
Willow Bend Books
65 East Main Street
Westminster, MD 21157-5026

"Light Horse Harry" Lee


Recommended Reading

- Minnis, M. Lee, The First Virginia Regiment of Foot, Willow Bend Books, Westminster, Maryland, 1998
- Sanchez-Saavedra, E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra. A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774-1787 Willow Bend Books, Westminster, Maryland, [1978] 2001


1. Mayo, Sandra, "Fairfax and Prince William Counties in the French and Indian War," Northern Virginia Heritage, February 1987 (Vol. IX, No. 1) <> October 14, 2001
2. Bailey, Michael N., Battle or Massacre?, Military History, "Letters," October 2000

The Revolutionary War in Virginia
Virginia Places