Revolutionary War Units
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The 1st Virginia Regiment was authorized by the Virginia Convention of July 17, 1775, as a provincial defense unit composed of six musket and two rifle companies under the command of Patrick Henry. Each company was to consist of 68 enlisted men, with officers to include a captain, lieutenant and ensign (second lieutenant). Six of the companies were armed with muskets, and two with rifles.
In September, the companies began arriving in Williamsburg from the surrounding counties where each was recruited. The regiment encamped behind the College of William and Mary where the men were trained in military drill and maneuvers. On December 28, 1775, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia recommended that each regiment should have 10 companies, and the 1st Virginia soon raised two more musket companies.
The First, along with the Second Regiment saw service in the Tidewater area fighting the troops of Virginia's Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore. Dunmore raised two Loyalists regiments and a small unit made up of runaway slaves to reclaim the wayward government of the colony. Two British Grenadier companies soon augmented his force. Members of the 1st Virginia engaged Dunmore's troops at Hampton, Jamestown and Norfolk.
On December 9, 1775, three companies from the First joined the 2nd Virginia Regiment in defeating Dunmore's troops at the Battle of Great Bridge near Norfolk. Dunmore made several more attempts to gain a stronghold on the colony but in August 1776 he abandoned Virginia.
On February 15, 1776, the Regiment was accepted into the new Continental Line authorized by Congress in Philadelphia. At this time, Patrick Henry, commander of all the Virginia forces, was given a Continental commission as a Colonel, commanding only the 1st Virginia. Recognizing this as a demotion, Henry refused the commission and resigned effective February 28, 1776. To protest Henry's demotion the officers in the 1st Virginia asked to be discharged but Henry persuaded them to stay with the army.
The battle of Harlem Heights
Between February and August 1776, the First Virginia trained in Williamsburg with other regiments under the command of General Andrew Lewis. On August 16, the Regiment began the long march north to join General Washington's Grand Army, in New York City. Before leaving, the men of the 1st and 2nd Regiments were asked to re-enlist for 3 years, or for the duration of the war. Although most of the men of the 2nd refused to sign up for such a long term, nearly all of the 1st Virginia re-enlisted.
On September 15, 1776, the First Virginia, along with the 3rd Virginia joined Washington's army near Harlem Heights, New York. Having recently suffered the humiliation of being chased out of New York City and subsequently out-maneuvered by the British, Washington's Continentals looked to the Virginians for new strength and hope. The following day three companies of the Virginians joined Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton's Connecticut Rangers in reconnoitering the enemy lines. Running into a detachment of British, the Continentals soon found themselves in heated battle and managed to force the British to withdraw. Maryland troops joined the battle, but Washington soon called his troops back, not willing to risk a full-scale engagement. During the engagement, Maj. Andrew Leitch of the 1st Virginia was mortally wounded, as was Lt. Col. Knowlton. The success and heroism shown by the Continental troops in this relatively small engagement was a much needed morale boost for the Americans.
In order to avoid a full-scale engagement Washington continued to retreat from Howe's slow-moving British redcoats. On the night of October 21, 600 Continentals, with 160 men from the 1st and 3rd Virginia Regiments attacked a Tory force of about 500 men including Robert Roger's "Queen's American Rangers." The Tories suffered 20 killed and 36 captured, while the Continentals claimed only 12 wounded.
Trenton and Princeton
By the end of December 1776, Washington's immediate army had shrunk from casualties, disease, desertion, and the termination of enlistments to about 2,500 men fit for duty. In the hope of seizing another morale victory, if not a strategic one, Washington decided on a daring attack on Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey. In the early morning hours of December 26, Washington's small band, including the First Virginia, crossed the Delaware River, reaching the outskirts of Trenton about 8:00 am. The surprised Hessians tried in vain to hold off the Americans, but by 9:45 am the Germans were forced to surrender.
Within a few days of the American victory at Trenton, British troops marched to the town to engage Washington's small army. The two armies began firing on each other across a creek but darkness soon put an end to the fighting. When dawn arrived the next morning, the British were surprised to find that Washington's army had quietly pulled out in the dark. The Continentals had marched all night to the village of Princeton where they stumbled into a British force just setting out for Trenton. The Americans were divided into two groups, with the Virginians part of Green's division under Brig. Gen. Hugh Mercer, guarding the road to Trenton. The remaining Americans proceeded to attack Princeton from the west.
Col. Mawhood's two British regiments had already departed Princeton when Mercer's troops were spotted behind them. The British turned back toward Princeton and engaged Mercer's troops. With about 300 men on each side facing one another, the British soon charged with bayonets. Mercer was one of the first to fall victim to the bayonet charge. Twenty one year old Captain John Fleming of the First Virginia rallied the Regiment but was soon killed, and 18 year old second lieutenant Bartholomew Yates was mortally wounded.
Confusion ensued for the Americans, with the Virginia regiments in the heaviest fighting and suffering the most casualties. With the appearance of Washington on the battlefield the Americans rallied, forcing the British to flee, throwing down their weapons as they ran.
During the heavy fighting Lieutenant Yates was shot in the side, and as he lay on the ground, the British shot him again in the chest, bayoneted him 13 times and clubbed him in the head. He survived for a week before dying. A tribute to Capt. Fleming read: "(he) behaved and died as bravely as a Caesar would have done, ordering his men to dress [form a line] before firing, though the enemy was within 40 yards of him, advancing fast with abusive threats what they would do. However, they were mistaken, and most of them cut to pieces."
The 1st Virginia spent the winter with Washington's army at Morristown, New Jersey. The fifteen Virginia Regiments had a total of 2,925 men fit for duty, averaging less than 200 men each. Troop strength was low because of expired enlistments, disease, and battle casualties. The 1st Virginia could only muster 64 privates present and fit for duty, and all troops were in need of clothing and other necessities.
Washington's troops spent the winter and spring recruiting and rebuilding the army. The main British Army under General Howe in New York made several forays into New Jersey. Washington waited for Howe to move out of New York, expecting him to move his army north to join Brig. Gen. John Burgoyne near Albany. Instead, Howe eventually sailed his troops to Head of Elk, Maryland where they began to march on Philadelphia.
On August 24, 1777, Washington's Army of 16,000 regulars and militia marched through Philadelphia to Wilmington, Delaware, and by September 11, the two armies were poised for battle near Brandywine Creek, Pennsylvania.
Howe divided his force for a frontal attack on the Americans and a flanking attack on the American right. Washington tried to counter the British flanking movement, ordering Green's division, including the 1st Virginia, to support the outflanked Americans under Brig. Gen. Sullivan. Greene's men covered almost four miles in 45 minutes, arriving to find Sullivan's men retreating in a rout. Greene's Virginians opened their line to allow the panicked Americans through and then held off the advancing British to allow Washington's Army to fall back and retire in order. Greene's troops held out against a British force three times larger until nightfall, preventing the British from destroying the entire American army.
Although Washington's Army had been outmaneuvered at Brandywine, they had fought a larger British force and managed to hold them off until dark. The American's spirits were high and Washington was anxious for another chance to engage the enemy. The British continued their march to Philadelphia, with Washington looking for an opportunity to make a stand against them.
On September 15, he marched his army into battle formation before the British but a severe storm rendered the American's ammunition useless and drove them from the field. The British entered Philadelphia unopposed on September 26.
Continuing to look for a favorable opportunity to engage the British, Washington decided to attack a large British force garrisoned at Germantown, Pennsylvania. Washington devised a plan that included dividing his force into several divisions that would march separately through the night and attack from different directions simultaneously at dawn on October 4.
As part of Muhlenberg's Brigade, the First Virginia arrived an hour after Sullivan's troops began the attack on the main British camp. A heavy fog made the complex plan even more confusing and some of the American troops even began to fire on one another.
When the fighting started, a small British force retreated into the Chew House, a heavy stone manor that proved almost impervious to canon attack. A large part of the American force was delayed trying to force the British inside the house to surrender. In the mean time Sullivan and Greene's troops managed to attack the main British force, with Greene's Virginians driving through the British line in a bayonet charge that carried to the enemy's camp. Prisoners were taken by the First Virginia, but with the rest of the American attack still in confusion or stalled at the Chew House, the Virginians found themselves surrounded by the enemy and forced to fight their way out. The Virginians lost 100 prisoners they had taken, and in the process, nearly all of the Ninth Virginia Regiment was captured. The battle ended with the Americans withdrawing and Greene's division holding off a determined British attack as the Americans fell back.
Over the next two months, both Washington and Howe looked for favorable opportunities to renew the fighting but neither found one to his liking.
The winter of 1777-78 saw the 1st Virginia Regiment with Washington's Army at Valley Forge. The troops built log huts and many of the officers of the Virginia Regiments were sent home during the winter to recruit for their vastly under-strength units. The Continental Army at Valley Forge, including the men of the First Virginia, were taught the new American Drill under the command of Maj. Gen. Baron von Steuben. During the winter, Howe returned to England, and Gen. Henry Clinton took command of the British in Philadelphia.
By June, Clinton decided to move his army back to New York City, and Washington saw an opportunity to take on the British with his newly trained Army.
On June 28, Washington ordered Maj. Gen. Charles Lee with 2,000 men to attack the rear of the marching British column. Lee's force joined by 1,500 Americans under Brig. Gen. Charles Scott, soon found themselves facing the entire British Army. General Lee retreated while the Americans under Scott held until surrounded and then they too retreated in good order. Falling back about two miles, the retreating Americans ran into General Washington riding ahead of the main American Army.
Washington managed to halt the retreat and form the Americans into a line of battle while more troops arrived to extend the line on high ground. When the British arrived they made several attacks but without coordination each was repulsed. In Sterling's Brigade, the 1st Virginia, alongside the 1st and 3rd New Hampshire Regiments, attacked the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment. Both sides exchanged volleys at short range with the Highlanders forced to retreat from the field. Several men of the First Virginia were killed, including Maj. Edmund Dickinson, while the Highlanders sustained heavy casualties.
By the end of the afternoon, heat had also taken the lives of men on both sides of the field. Both armies rested overnight and Clinton moved the British on toward New York early the next morning. With the Americans standing up to and repulsing the British the battle was considered a great victory for Washington and his Army.
By September 1778, the entire Virginia Continental Line was reduced in strength due to the hardships of campaign and disease and the 3-year enlistments of many of the soldiers was about to expire. A board of officers met at White Plains, New York to consolidate the 15 Virginia regiments to 11 regiments. The remains of the 9th Virginia, which had suffered the capture of many of it's men at Germantown, was absorbed into the First, but this only filled six of the prescribed eight companies.
In May of 1779, and again in September 1779, the Virginia Regiments were consolidated to create regiments of acceptable strength. The 1st Virginia was consolidated with the 10th and later the 5th, 7th, 11th Regiments. On May 7, Washington ordered Col. Richard Parker, commander of the 1st Virginia to return to the state to recruit new troops to reinforce Brig. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln in Charleston, South Carolina. At the same time, the men of the 1st Virginia were placed under the temporary command of Col. William Davies in Parker's absence.
By the summer of 1779, the war in the north had become a stalemate, with Clinton and the main British Army quartered in New York and Washington's main army at various points outside the city. Washington decided to have his newly formed light infantry attack a British fort at Stony Point, New York. Under the command of Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne, 1,500 Americans, including men from the 1st Virginia and other Virginia Regiments, attacked the fort in the early morning hours of July 16. Using only their bayonets, the Americans captured the fort and 400 British troops in just fifteen minutes. Fifteen Americans were killed in the attack, including a private from the First Virginia.
In August, members of the 1st Virginia took part in another raid on a small British fort at Paulus Hook, New Jersey. Major Henry Lee and his cavalry, supported by handpicked infantry, including 21 men from the 1st and 10th Virginia, captured 158 British at the fort during the daring raid. The rest of the 1st Virginia was called on to support Lee as his force made their return through enemy territory.
In December, under the command of Brig. Gen. William Woodford, the First Virginia, along with most of the Virginia troops in the north, began the long march south to join Lincoln's army in the Carolinas.
Woodford arrived in Charleston on April 7, 1780 with the remains of his Virginia troops. With Woodford were only 700 of the 2,000 men that had started the march in December. Many of the troops had their terms of enlistment expire during the four-month march; others had fallen ill or deserted. Woodford's men were organized into a brigade made up of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Continental Regiments. Col. William Russell was commander of the 1st Virginia at this time.
Colonel Richard Parker had arrived with his newly raised regiment on March 31, now referred to as the 1st Virginia Detachment and separate from the 1st Virginia Continental Regiment. Parker was joined by the 2nd Virginia Detachment under the command of Col. William Heath.
The British under General Clinton arrived by sea and began the siege of Charleston on April 14. By April 21, the Americans in the city were cut off on the landside as well. On April 24, Parker was killed during a British assault. Henry Lee described his death: "Always beloved and respected, late in the siege he received a ball in the forehead, and fell dead in the trenches, embalmed in the tears of his faithful soldiers, and honored by the regret of the whole army."
By May 7, provisions were low with casualties mounting daily. After conferring with his officers, Lincoln agreed to surrender terms on May 12, 1780. Over 5,000 American troops were captured, including almost all of the Virginia Continental Line. The terms of surrender stipulated that the militia would be allowed to go home, while the regulars would be imprisoned within the town. The officers were soon moved to quarters outside the city, awaiting exchange. Some months later, many of the captured were moved to harsher conditions aboard British prison ships where many perished or remained until the end of the war.
Some men of the 1st Virginia managed to escape capture, perhaps by posing as militia when they were allowed to leave. In addition, several lieutenants were not in Charleston with their companies and were not captured. Some of these men found service with other units in the months after the fall of Charleston. The "new" 9th Virginia Regiment, in garrison at Fort Pitt was the only Virginia Continental Regiment to remain in the field.
Many individuals who served with the 1st Virginia and were not in captivity participated in the battles that followed, including the victories at the Battles of Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse and Yorktown. These included men whose enlistments in the First Virginia expired and who later reenlisted with other units, as well as officers who were promoted to higher ranks in other units.
On February 12, 1781, a board of officers met at Chesterfield Court House, Virginia and created the 1st Virginia Regiment as a "paper" organization. With over 1,300 Virginia Continentals still held prisoner at Charleston, South Carolina, the reorganization was largely designed to establish relative seniority of the officers. The personnel who had managed to escape capture were formed into a temporary battalion under Lt. Col. Thomas Posey.
In May 1782, with most of the fighting over, another board of officers met and created new First and Second Regiments from new recruits and veterans. On January 1, 1783, the various Virginia troops still in service were consolidated into one large battalion, designated the 1st Virginia Regiment, and a small battalion of two companies, designated the 2nd Virginia Regiment. Most of Virginia's Continental's were mustered out of service in June 1783, with the final three companies of the first being discharged in July or August.