The Rise of Virginia’s Independent Militia

Like thousands of colonists in British North America, Virginians were alarmed in the summer of 1774 by news of Parliament’s harsh reaction to the Boston Tea Party (which occurred months earlier in December 1773). Disturbed by the military occupation of Boston, the closure of Boston Harbor, and the suspension of Massachusetts’s charter and colonial government, (measures the colonists called, the Intolerable Acts), county representatives in Virginia met in Williamsburg in August to determine how they might assist Massachusetts. After a week of debate, the 1st Virginia Convention adopted several economic measures against Britain (ie. a boycott) to support Massachusetts. Nearly three months later, the 1st Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, adopted nearly identical economic sanctions against Britain. A clear consensus had formed by the fall of 1774 among most opponents of the Intolerable Acts; economic sanctions were the best way to oppose Parliament and support Massachusetts.

On September 21, 1774, Fairfax County, led by Colonel George Mason, challenged this consensus by forming an independent company of volunteer militia in response to the crisis with Parliament. This was a bold, yet legally questionable step. Laws for the better regulation of the militia in Virginia dated back to the 1730’s, but they were always limited in duration and had to be renewed regularly (most recently in 1771). When Virginia’s Royal Governor, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore suddenly dissolved the House of Burgesses in May 1774, he denied the assembly the chance to renew the militia law, which had expired in late 1773. This meant that the authority to assemble, discipline and train Virginia’s county militias no longer existed.

Colonel Mason convinced his fellow gentlemen and freeholders in Fairfax County that they had to act, and on September 21st, they adopted a resolution declaring that,

In this Time of extreme Danger, with the Indian Enemy in our Country, and threat’ned with the Destruction of our Civil-rights, & Liberty, and all that is dear to British Subjects & Freemen; we the Subscribers, taking into our serious consideration the present alarming Situation of all the British Colonies upon this Continent as well as our own, being sensible of the Expediency of putting the Militia of this Colony upon a more respectable Footing, & hoping to excite others by our Example, have voluntarily freely & cordially entered into the following Association…. That we will form ourselves into a Company, not exceeding one hundred Men, by the Name of The Fairfax independent Company of Voluntiers….1

Membership in the volunteer militia company was open to the first one hundred men who met the unit’s requirements, which were set high to attract men of a certain social and financial stature into the company’s ranks.   Those who joined agreed to outfit themselves (at their own expense) in a, “regular Uniform of Blue, turn’d up with Buff…Buff Waist Coat & Breeches, & white Stockings.”2 They also pledged to equip themselves with a good fire-lock (musket) and all of the necessary military accoutrements of a soldier. Company officers would be chosen annually from among the ranks, and the volunteers pledged to meet regularly, “for the Purpose of learning & practicing the military Exercise & Discipline.”3 The expectation was that the Fairfax Independent Militia Company would present a sharp example for their fellow Virginians to emulate.

Interestingly, the volunteers were instructed to obtain at least six pounds of gunpowder, twenty pounds of lead, and fifty gun flints.4 This was far above the normal amount expected of an individual soldier for such items and suggests that each volunteer was also expected to equip additional soldiers if it became necessary to expand the militia forces of the county.

This highlights the fact that the Fairfax Independent Company of Volunteers was not formed as a typical county militia force, but rather, it was meant to serve as a training vehicle in which future officers learned the military arts. Colonel Mason explained this view months later when objections to the election of new company officers were raised. Mason noted that the independent company was originally formed,

To rouse the attention of the public, to introduce the use of arms and discipline, to infuse a martial spirit of emulation, and to provide a fund of officers; that in case of absolute necessity, the people might be the better enabled to act in defence of their invaded liberty.5

One way to, “provide a fund of officers,” was to annually rotate the company’s officers through regular elections. The one exception to this policy was reserved for the gentleman who served as the company’s overall commander, Colonel George Washington. His stature and military experience made him an invaluable member of the company and the thought of reducing him to the ranks via rotation was inconceivable. Colonel Mason defended this view, noting that

The exception made in favor of the gentleman who by the unanimous voice of the company now commands it, is a very proper one, justly due to his public merit and experience.6

Prince William County’s Independent Company of Cadets

Fairfax County was not the only county in Virginia to turn to Colonel George Washington for leadership. Neighboring Prince William County also formed an independent militia company in the fall of 1774 and named it the Independent Company of Cadets. On November 11th, 1774, the leaders of the company appealed to Colonel Washington to, “take command of this company as their Field Officer, and [requested] that he will be pleas’d to direct the fashion of their uniform.”7 The men who delivered this request were also instructed to, “acquaint [Colonel Washington] with the Motto of the Company [Aut Liber, aut nullus: Either Liberty or Death]”8

Support in Virginia for the formation of independent militia companies, while far from universal in the fall of 1774, gained currency among some Virginians as speculation about Parliament’s intentions increased. A letter in John Pinkney’s Virginia Gazette in late October highlighted the fears of a growing number of colonists about Parliament’s intentions.

As it is confidently asserted that the Canadians are to be poured in on the back parts of our provinces, the English troops in our front, and our governors forbid giving assent to militia laws, make it high time that we should look around us, and enter into associations for learning the use of arms, and to chuse officers; so that if ever we should be attacked, we may be able to defend ourselves, and not be drove like sheep to the slaughter.9

Nicholas Cresswell, a British visitor recently arrived in Virginia, observed in late October that the inhabitants of Fairfax County behaved as if they were already on the brink of war.

Everything here is in the utmost confusion. Committees are appointed to inspect into the Characters and Conduct of every tradesman, to prevent them selling Tea or buying British Manufactures. Some of them have been tarred and feathered, others had their property burnt and destroyed by the populace. Independent Companies are raising in every County on the Continent…and train their Men as if they were on the Eve of War…[Contributions are raised] in every Colony on the Continent for the relief of the people of Boston. The King is openly cursed, and his authority set at defiance. In short, everything is ripe for rebellion. The New Englanders by their canting, whining, insinuating tricks have persuaded the rest of the Colonies that the Government is going to make absolute slaves of them.10

Although Cresswell’s claim that independent companies were forming all over the continent was greatly exaggerated, his observations of Alexandria, Virginia in late October 1774 certainly attested to the lengths many Virginians were willing to go to resist Parliament.

Perhaps influenced by the same rhetoric and actions witnessed by Nicholas Cresswell, two additional northern Virginia counties (Loudoun and Spotsylvania) formed their own independent militia companies in the early winter of 1774. Cresswell actually observed Loudoun County’s “ragged” independent company exercise on a visit to Leesburg on December 13th.11 Two days later, the Spotsylvania County Committee recommended to the inhabitants of their county the formation of independent companies of public spirited gentlemen.12

Additionally, the independent militia companies of Williamsburg — which reportedly welcomed Lord Dunmore back with great fanfare from his successful expedition against the Indians in the west in December — and Norfolk, which was formed long before 1774 for reasons unrelated to the dispute with Britain, brought to six the total number of independent companies of militia that existed in Virginia in 1774.13   This small number, out of 60 plus counties and towns, demonstrated the continued preference held by most jurisdictions in Virginia for economic measures against the British in 1774. Events over the winter of 1774-75 soon caused many of these Virginians to reconsider their stance.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Virginia militia private. Courtesy of Don Troiani, historicalimagebank.com]

 


1 Rutland, ed., “Fairfax County Militia Association 21 September, 1774,” The Papers of George Mason, Vol. 1, (University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 210-211.

2 Rutland, 211.

3 Rutland, 211.

4 Rutland, 211.

5 Rutland, 211.

6 Rutland, 231.

7 Stanislaus M. Hamilton, ed. “Extract from the Minutes of the Independent Company of Cadets of the

11th, November, 1774,” Letters to Washington & Accompanying Papers, Vol. 5 (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, Co., 1902, 68-69.

8 Hamilton, 69.

9 John Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, 27 October, 1774, 2.

10 Nicholas Cresswell, “24 October, 1774,” The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell , (The Dial Press: NY, 1974), 43-44

11 Cresswell Journal, 13 December, 1774, 51.

12 Robert L. Scribner, ed., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. 2, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 196-97.

13 John Pendleton Kennedy, ed., Journal of the House of Burgesses: 1773-1776, (Richmond: VA, 1905), 232-33.

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