The Service of Colonel William Campbell of Virginia


June 18, 2014
by John Beakes Also by this Author


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Colonel William Campbell was the quintessential commander for the tough, independent-minded riflemen who formed the militia units from Campbell’s home in the mountains of the southwest Virginia. Tall, muscular and dignified (although he had a fiery temperament when aroused), Campbell resembled a Scottish clan leader straight from a Sir Walter Scott novel, even carrying his Scottish grandfather’s broadsword, for which he had “… an arm and a spirit that could wield it with effect.”[1]

Educated at Augusta Academy (a forerunner of Washington and Lee University)[2] and holder of valuable lands in Southwest Virginia,[3] Campbell often performed both civic and military duties, including service as a justice for the local courts and captain of militia in Lord Dunmore’s War against the Shawnee and Mingo nations in 1774, all in service to the British Governor of Virginia. Campbell broke openly with British governance and established his Revolutionary credentials in January 1775 when he was one of thirteen members of the local Committee of Safety to sign the Fincastle Resolutions, which included an early expression of support for armed resistance to the British Crown.

Campbell joined the war effort against the British in September 1775 when he led a company of volunteers to Williamsburg, then the capital of Virginia. He received a captain’s commission in Virginia’s Provisional Forces and was assigned to the Frist Virginia Provisional Regiment, commanded by Patrick Henry, with whom he became friends   Campbell was transferred from the Virginia command to the Continental Army five months later, and was commissioned a captain in the First Virginia Continental Regiment on February 3, 1776. He remained with his command in the Williamsburg area until the autumn of 1776, and found enough time away from soldiering to court Patrick Henry’s sister Elizabeth; they were married on April 2, 1776.[4]

With the dangers of Tory and Indian incursions on the frontier, Campbell requested that he be released from Continental service to return to southwest Virginia to help protect that region.   His request was granted on October 6, 1776, after which he and his bride traveled home to their Aspen-Ville estate.[5] In the ensuing years, William Campbell moved back and forth frequently between civic and military duties. For example, he was elected to the House of Delegates in 1780, but when the Governor of Virginia directed the commanding officers of Washington, Montgomery, Botetourt, Rockbridge and Greenbrier Counties to plan an expedition against “the Enemy Indians on the North West side of the Ohio,” the group recommended that Campbell be given command of the expedition.[6] The House of Delegates granted him leave to be absent for the remainder of the session on Wednesday, June 21,[7] and Governor Thomas Jefferson gave Campbell orders for this expedition in a letter dated the next day (“…you are hereby authorized to take command…”).[8] However the Governor soon countermanded those orders and directed Campbell to support Colonel William Preston in defending the lead mines [9] in the region and quashing a Tory insurrection.[10]

The Battle of King’s Mountain

By September 1780 Campbell was leading the men who marched to western North Carolina to confront Major Patrick Ferguson, a British Army officer who commanded a rampaging force of Loyalist militia. There were several units of riflemen that had assembled to confront Ferguson and they decided to name Campbell the overall commander, supported all the Colonels of the various units who would meet in council every day. Therefore, although he was the least experienced of the senior officers present, William Campbell was considered the commander of the army of riflemen that overwhelmed Ferguson on October 7, 1780 at the Battle of King’s Mountain.[11] His military reputation soared with this important victory.

There was a fierce side to William Campbell’s personality. In the fighting around his home in Virginia, he had hanged, without trials, British agents who incited tribes to harass the frontier settlements. After the Battle of King’s Mountain, he authorized the trials that resulted in the hanging of nine men who had served with Ferguson,[12] and British commander Lord Charles Cornwallis was thought to have threatened to put Campbell to death if he was captured, for his “rigour against the Tories.” Not the least intimidated, Campbell resolved that “… if the fortune of war would place Cornwallis in his power, he should meet the fate of Ferguson”[13] who had been killed on the battlefield.

Campbell returned home to southwest Virginia after the King’s Mountain battle, and faced once again the threat of attacks by bands of Cherokees and ardent Loyalists. Whenever frontiersmen like William Campbell left home to fight the British, they worried about the danger to the families they left behind.

The Guilford Courthouse Campaign

In January 1781, after the American victory at Cowpens, Nathanael Greene was leading his small army north from the Carolinas toward the safety of Virginia, pursued every step of the way by the aggressive Lord Charles Cornwallis and his professional British army. Greene wanted desperately to turn and face Cornwallis in open combat, but he was far too weak to do so. He reached out in all directions for reinforcements, which included a series of urgent requests to William Campbell to bring 1,000 mountain riflemen to his aid.

While Greene was intensely focused on his hope for a large reinforcement of frontier rifle militia, William Campbell was beset by problems back home that undermined his recruiting efforts. Greene was understandably focused solely on the British troops that were pursuing him, but the frontiersmen had to defend the lead mines, keep one eye on the Cherokees, another on the local Loyalists, and be ready to defend against their attacks while considering what resources they could spare to support Greene and his Continental Army. Because of these conflicting priorities, Campbell was able to lead only sixty men to reinforce Greene, instead of Greene’s hoped-for 1,000 riflemen. Campbell and his small detachment arrived in Greene’s camp on March 4, 1781, and were involved in the skirmish at Weitzel’s Mill two days later where they fought with their accustomed skill.

After the affair at Weitzel’s Mill, Campbell was assigned to a “Corps of Observation” with Light Horse Harry Lee, and they participated in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, which Campbell described in a letter written two weeks after the Battle:

we had Intelligence of the Enemy being in Motion and marching towards us, upon which Colo. Lee with his Legion, and about 30 of my Riflemen under the Command of Captain Fata[14] of the Augusta Militia, went out to meet them, while the rest of the Riflemen, and Colo Washington’s Horse, formed at our Encampment to Support them in their Retreat back They met with the Van of the Enemy about two Miles from where we were formed, and immediately began to Skirmish with them, and continued retreating and fighting with them near half an hour, which disconcerted and retarded the Enemy very Considerably   In the mean time the main Body of our Army was formed about three quarters of a Mile in rear of us, and upon the Legions reinforcing us, we were ordered back to take our Position in the Line of Battle[15]

After these initial skirmishes, Lee and Campbell fell back to the left flank of the army where they became separated for a time from the American lines, and eventually rendezvoused with Greene after his army had retreated from the battlefield. Because he held the field, Cornwallis claimed that the Battle of Guilford Courthouse was a victory, but it was a Pyrrhic victory indeed. The British had received a brutal mauling that had cost Cornwallis one-fourth of his men. This battle was an important factor in Cornwallis’ decision to move north to Virginia, and eventually to his surrender at Yorktown.

Greene’s general orders the day after the battle gave generous praise to William Campbell and others:

The Gallant Behaviour of the Corps of Observation consisting of the Detachments of Cavalry and Infantry commanded by L(t). C(ol). (William) Washington & the Legion commanded by L(t). C(ol), (Henry Lee in Conjunction with the Rifle men & Light Infantry commanded by Collo (William) Campbell & (Charles) Lynch.[16]

In addition to this public praise, Greene wrote personally to Campbell shortly after the battle to extol his contribution and to give him permission to return home to southwest Virginia:

Sir: Your faithful Services and the Exertions which you made to second the efforts of the Southern Arms, on the 15th inst. claims my warmest thanks. It would be ungenerous not to acknowledge my entire approbation of your conduct, and the spirited and manly behavior of the Officers and soldiers under you. Sensible of your merit, I feel a pleasure in doing justice to it.

In this concluding sentence, Greene told the Colonel:

Most of the riflemen having gone home, and not having it in my power to make up another Command, you have my permission to return home to your friends; and should the Emergency of the Southern Operations require your further Exertions, I will advertise you.[17]

Service in the House of Delegates; Promotion to Brigadier General

As William Campbell returned home Virginia was, as always during this War, beset by the needs to defend against British incursions, stave off Indian and Tory raids on the frontier, protect the lead mines, and support Nathanael Greene’s re-entry to North and South Carolina. The British threat was growing since Benedict Arnold had raided Richmond in January. General Phillips now led a force of about 2,000 men in Portsmouth, and Lord Cornwallis was moving north into the colony from Wilmington, North Carolina, where he had gone to regroup after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Questions of military recruiting, organization, and assignment dominated government deliberations.

Campbell regained his seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. He returned to the legislature in tumultuous times, when the members were under constant threat of capture from invading British forces. Accordingly, Campbell and his fellow delegates had to change the location of their meetings several times to avoid this danger. On May 10, 1781, the House of Delegates decided to leave Richmond because “of the approach of a hostile army” (Cornwallis) and to meet on May 24 in Charlottesville. The House then met in Charlottesville until June 4, when they decided to move their deliberations to Staunton, “…there being reason to apprehend an immediate incursion of the enemy’s cavalry to this place…”[18] (Banastre Tarleton was conducting a raid that was designed to capture the Legislature and Governor Jefferson.)

On June 12 the House received a letter from the Marquis de Lafayette requesting support for his efforts to protect Virginia from the British incursions. Two days later Campbell’s fellow delegates elected him to be a Brigadier General.[19] The short time between Lafayette’s request and Campbell’s promotion may suggest that the subject had been discussed previously, and that the House was only looking for a proper opportunity to enact the promotion. With British forces roaming freely, the colony needed its best soldiers in the fight, and Campbell’s reputation, demeanor and commanding physical presence must surely have made an impression on his fellow Delegates in this time of danger. The influence of Delegate Patrick Henry, Campbell’s brother-in-law and friend, was presumably also very helpful.

On Saturday, June 16, the House granted the newly minted Brigadier General Campbell permission to be absent for the remainder of the session.[20] Campbell moved quickly, and Lord Cornwallis reported only two weeks later that Lafayette had “..received considerable reinforcements of militia and about 800 mountain riflemen under Campbell.”[21]

Campbell’s Service in the Yorktown Campaign; His Illness and Death

Sadly, William Campbell was not able to serve for an extended period as a Brigadier General. He commanded the rifle corps in Lafayette’s army[22] during the early stages of the Yorktown campaign that would result in the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s army, but to the great regret of his comrades Campbell did not live to witness the surrender. He became ill with chest pains and fever, and died near Richmond at the home of his wife’s half-brother, Colonel William Syme, on August 22, 1781. By the order of Lafayette, he was buried at that location with full military honors (his body was later moved to Aspen-ville in southwest Virginia by his son-in-law, where he was re-interred in a family cemetery under an impressive headstone). Lafayette wrote that Campbell was “an officer whose service must have endeared him to every citizen, and particularly to every American soldier.”[23]

William Campbell’s death from illness at age thirty-six was a loss to the army, to Virginia and to the nation. Had he lived, he surely would have risen to roles of prominence and civic leadership, as did his peers who survived the war years.[24] Lafayette said that Campbell’s name should have “everlasting honor and insure him a high rank among the defenders of liberty in the American Cause.”[25]

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Portrait of William Campbell. Source: Virginia Society, Sons of the American Revolution]


[1] Arthur Campbell, “Biographical Memoir of Genl. William Campbell Written by Col. Arthur Campbell” (hereafter Arthur Campbell, Campbell), Washington County Historical Society document 50784-04.

[2] Catalogue of the officers and alumni of Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia, 1749-1888 (Baltimore: John Murphy & C0. 1888.), 47-48. William Campbell is listed as a graduate “previous to charter, 1782.”

[3] Colonel Campbell’s 1,345 acre property was located on the Holston River at Seven Mile Ford, about twenty-three miles northeast of Abingdon Virginia. His cousin and brother-in-law Arthur Campbell had a 1,215 acre property named Royal Oak about eight miles to the northeast near present day Marion, Virginia. Lewis Preston Summers, History of Southwest Virginia, 1746-1786 (Richmond: J. L. Hill Printing Company.1903), 815.

[4] Agnes Graham Sanders Riley, Brigadier General William Campbell, 1745-1781. The Historical Society of Washington County, Virginia, Publication Series II, No. 22 (May, 1985), (hereafter Riley, Campbell.), 9-10.

[5] “Aspen-Ville” is the name of his home that Colonel Campbell used in the heading of his correspondence. Surveyors used the name “Aspenvale.” William Campbell is buried in “Aspenvale” Cemetery, which is on the original William Campbell tract of land. Kimberly Barr and Debra J. Williams, Images of America. Smyth County (Charleston:Acadia Publishing, 2005), 67, 123.

[6] “Proceedings of the Officers of Botetourt & c., Botetourt Court House, May 8, 1780.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, for the Year Ending December 31, 1919. Volume XXVII. (Richmond: House of the Society, 1919), 42-43.

[7] Journal of the House of Delegates Commonwealth Of Virginia; Begun And Held In The Town Of Richmond In the County of Henrico On Monday the First Day of May in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty (Richmond: Printed by Thomas W. White, Opposite The Bell-Tavern, 1827), 57.

[8] “Thomas Jefferson to William Campbell, 22 June 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives (, ver. 2014-02-12). The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 15, 27 March 1789 – 30 November 1789, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), 588–589.

[9] The lead mines, located near today’s Austinville, Virginia, were a major source of munitions during the Revolutionary War and were frequently threatened by both Indians and Tories. William Cecil Pendleton. History of Tazewell County and Southwest Virginia: 1748-1920 (Richmond: W. C. Hill Printing Company, 1920), 377-378.

[10] “Thomas Jefferson to William Campbell, 3 July 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives (, ver. 2014-02-12). The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 3, 18 June 1779 – 30 September 1780, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), 479.

[11]John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), 218.

[12] Lyman Draper, King’s Mountain and Its Heroes (Cincinnati: Peter G. Thompson, 1881), 331-340.

[13] Arthur Campbell, Campbell.

[14] “Fata” is a transcription error. This was Captain James Tate, who was killed in these early skirmishes. Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard, Long. Obstinate and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 51,54.

[15] William Campbell to Charles Cummings, March 28, 1781. Bulletin of the New York Public Library. Astor Lenox and Tilden Foundation. Volume IX. January to December 1905. (New York. 1905.), 464-465.

[16] Nathanael Greene. General Orders. Written at Head Quarters Speedwells Furnace, North Carolina, March 16, 1781. In Showman and Conrad, ed., Papers of General Nathanael Greene (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 7:431-432.

[17] Nathanael Greene to William Campbell, March 19, 1781. The Draper Manuscripts, 8DD26, 43, Wisconsin Historical Society, in Draper, King’s Mountain and Its Heroes, 534.

[18] Journal of the House of Delegates, 1781, 3, 4, 10.

[19] Journal of the House of Delegates, 1781, 14, 17.

[20]Journal of the House of Delegates, 1781, 20.

[21] Charles Ross, ed. Correspondence of Charles, First Lord Cornwallis (London: John Murray, 1859), 105.

[22] Riley, Campbell, 28.

[23] Riley, Campbell, 30.

[24] Campbell’s prominence in Southwest Virginia plus his friendship and family connections with Patrick Henry were undoubtedly significant benefits in a public career.

[25]Riley, Campbell, 30.


  • One of the more interesting things about William Campbell is the controversy over his service at King’s Mountain sparked by Isaac Shelby whom many regard as the actual leader of the expedition against Ferguson. Even though Shelby did not mention anything at the time of the battle, he later suggested that Campbell had shown cowardice at King’s Mountain. Since Campbell was long dead, one of Campbell’s relatives took up his cause in defense. A number of letters survive detailing Campbell’s actions at the battle. The problem is that they tell differing stories that are at opposite and cannot be reconciled with each other. Furthering the problem is that some of Campbell’s own men sided with Shelby. A very lively and interesting debate that is likely incapable of final conclusion. Many letters appear in Lyman Draper’s, King’s Mountain and its Heroes. There is an extensive index where the letters are found. Another good reference for information on the debate is from Robert Dunkerly who wrote The Battle of Kings Mountain, Eyewitness Accounts. He devotes an entire section to the controversy.

    Later promoted to General, one Thomas Kennedy “I do not recollect to have seen Col. Campbell during the action; he might have been engaged too far off from me. . . I remember to have heard several persons enquire for Col. Campbell before he came up, which was, I think, about fifteen minutes after the surrender.”

    Colonel Moses Shelby – When wounded and assisted down the mountain, Moses reported seeing Campbell sitting on his horse at the foot of the mountain during the battle. “I do know that Colonel Campbell did not leave that place until the battle was over, or until the firing had ceased.”

    John Long – “I did not see Colonel Campbell either in the latter part of the action nor at the surrender, and that it was common talk in the army, and among the men coming home, and frequently since, that he was in neither.” He also indicated that Sevier told Campbell “that if we had all been as brave in the action as about the hanging of the tories, that we should not have had so many of them to hang.”

    Robert Elder was one of Campbell’s own men – “I never saw Col. Campbell on the field of battle after the first onset of the action, until the surrender of the enemy.” He indicated that Shelby animated Campbell’s men “particularly at the time of the battle when the enemy charged our lines”.

    But, of course, Campbell had defenders equally sure of themselves. James Crow gave a very detailed account of Campbell in the battle. “I saw Colonel Campbell not far from me. As the enemy turned we turned. Our fire now became very warm, and in a few minutes they broke and retreated towards their tents.”

    Major James Snodgrass wrote: “I am convinced he could not have left the lines for any length of time. I saw Colonel Campbell immediately after the surrender, and before the enemy had entirely ceased firing.”

    Interesting situation to say the least. 🙂

  • Wayne – Thanks for bringing out this “other side of Wm. Campbell” at Kings Mtn. FWIW one of those guys hanged after Kings Mtn was an ancestor of my wife. She’s not a big fan of Campbell.

  • Wayne Lynch offers a good counterpoint regarding Campbell. I am familiar with Campbell’s life and am persuaded that Kings Mt claims about his conduct should be seriously considered. Hanging tories without a trial is not an insignificant charge.

  • Thank you, Mr. Lynch, Mr. Harrington, and Mr. Darley for your thoughtful comments. The criticism of William Campbell by Isaac Shelby is an interesting topic, and there are certainly conflicting views.

    In addition to the items you have mentioned, there is also useful information in “The Shelby-Campbell King’s Mountain Controversy and Gubernatorial Campaign of 1812,” by Agnes Graham Sanders Riley, published in the Washington County (Virginia) Historical Society Bulletin, Series II, #34, 1997. Washington County was the home of William Campbell, but Riley seems to have covered the subject objectively and substantively.

    Riley suggested that Shelby’s public criticism of Campbell ‘s performance at King’s Mountain began thirty years after the battle, in 1810, when he wrote to John Sevier about the presentation of a “superb sword” to Campbell’s grandson in honor of his long-deceased grandfather’s performance at King’s Mountain. Riley’s research also suggests that Shelby sought to strengthen his own military credentials for the 1812 Kentucky Governor’s race, in which he was a candidate.

    Riley noted that Shelby’s 1810/1812 criticisms of Campbell’s performance conflicted with his contemporary account, since he praised William Campbell in a letter that he wrote to Arthur Campbell five days after the battle (October 12, 1780,) which stated that the Washington militia “.. were soon rallied by their gallant commander” (Draper, King’s Mountain and Its Heroes, p. 525.) Draper also included a statement made by an unknown member of Campbell’s command: “Too much cannot be said of our brave commander, who exerted himself, animating the men to victory.” (Draper, King’s Mountain and Its Heroes, p. 526.)

    Riley also suggests that Shelby and his brother Moses appear to have been mistaken in their identification of Campbell at certain junctures in the battle because he had exchanged horses with his manservant.

    Campbell’s descendants worked for years to rebut the Shelby criticisms, and to defend the honor of their ancestor. They eventually reached out to Thomas Jefferson, who had known William Campbell, and had been Governor of Virginia at the time of the Battle of King’s Mountain.

    Jefferson wrote to John Campbell on November 10, 1822 that “I remember well the deep and grateful impression made on the mind of every one by that memorable victory—it was the joyful annunciation of that turn of the tide of success which terminated the revolutionary war, with the seal of our independance….. the descendants of Colo Campbell may rest their heads quietly on the pillow of his renown. history has consecrated, and will for-ever preserve it in the faithful annals of a grateful country.” (“From Thomas Jefferson to John Campbell, 10 November 1822,” The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827. American Memory. Library of Congress.

  • William Campbell is not an alumnus of Washington and Lee as stated above because “Augusta Academy” did not exist until after Mr. Campbell was a mature man and army officer. He very well may have attended a preparatory school where “Augusta Academy” was later organized in 1775, but that preparatory peripatetic school is not a forerunner of W&L as is often represented. The school Mr. Campbell may have attended had been moved from “Mount Pleasant to New Providence prior to 1770 by Rev. John Brown.
    The name “Augusta Academy” had never been used prior to Oct. of 1774. Those who represent otherwise, were not 18th century sources, but rather mid to late 19th century misguided authors w/ no credible evidence to support their claim.
    My 40 year hist. performance audit report will be released later this year( 2016).
    Note: This is not intended to disparage in any way the man, William Campbell who never made this claim in writing.

  • Great history of a southwest Virginian! My direct ancestor is Captain William Herbert who led the Fincastle Militia at Point Pleasant. He died in 1776 from lead poisining as he was the man Col. John Chiswell had brought over to successfully mine the lead at Fort Chiswell. Letters from Campbell to Preston that are in the Draper Manuscripts suggest the Campbell did not like Herbert but I have not found the reasoning yet. I am trying to put a history together on Herbert, is knowledge of mining lead proved valuable when the war for independence broke out.

  • I’m working on an SAR application for patriot, Samuel Meek, reportedly a Lt at Kings Mountain serving w/ Campbell. SAR will not accept history book sources, articles such as yours, etc. – they want documents from “the day”. Fold 3 doesn’t have a record that I can find. Another internet source said that Campbell left records that might document Meek’s service. Do these records exist? If so where would I find them. Thanks

  • Oh my, My 6th great grandmother is Margaret (Peggy ) Campbell, is Gen. William Campbell’s first cousin, (their fathers are brothers) I was researching her husband Thomas Gillham, my 6th great grandfathers and their sons revolutionary war history and thought I would take a quick look at Peggy’s family, lol, who knew? …not me…Fascinating.

    1. Hello, Kat!
      Is the Margaret you speak of the daughter of David & Grace (Hay) Campbell, born 1749 & died in 1799? Married to another David Campbell? If so, she would have been the sister of Col. Arthur C & cousin of Gen. William , who are both my 4th Great uncles. At any rate, we are cousins, Glad to meet you!

      1. OOPS! David was the SON of Grace (Hay) & John Campbell. He was married to Mary Hamilton, who were Margaret’s parents. Sorry, I get crossed up every now and then! LOL! I do have a wonderful book called “The Campbell Family of Virginia”, compiled by our cousin, Donald H. Campbell. I think he has a few copies left if you’d be interested. It’s got lots of genealogy all the way back to Scotland & Ireland, and lots of information on our Revolutionary & Confederate ancestor history

    1. He was born to Charles & Margaret ( which may be Kat’s “Margaret, above comment) in 1744. Baptized Sept. 01, 1745 in Tinkling Presbyterian Church by Rev. John Craig. (I give you this additional information in hopes it might help you in your research). He died in 1781 at the age of 36. He will is recorded in Washington County, VA. (71). He is my 4th G uncle. Hope this helps!

    2. His siblings are: (John, who died young), Elizabeth, Jane, Margaret, and Anne. Elizabeth married John Taylor, Jane married John Tate, Margaret married Col. Arthur Campbell (2nd cousins), and Anne married Richard Poston.

  • Another interesting fact that hasn’t been mentioned is that William Campbell was married to Elizabeth Henry, sister of the famous statesman, Patrick Henry. 🙂

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