The Beeline March: The Birth of the American Army

The well-known and important watercolor by the French officer Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger illustrating, from left to right, a soldier of the First Rhode Island Regiment, a New England militiaman, a frontier rifleman, and a French artillery officer. Frontier rifle companies from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia heeded the call to Boston in 1775. (Anne S. K. Brown Collection, Brown University)

On a late spring afternoon in 1825, the two Bedinger brothers—Henry and Michael, old men now, seventy-four and sixty-nine respectively, proud immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine—commanded attention among “a party of ladies and gentlemen” gathered for an “elegant [midday] dinner” to keep a fifty-year-old pledge to their other “brothers” in arms. They were at Daniel Morgan’s Springs, near Shepherdstown, Virginia, now West Virginia—named not for the famous officer, but for the “other” Daniel Morgan. It was Friday, June 10, and they commemorated “times long past,” keeping the vow that the brothers and ninety-six of their neighbors—hardened young men to their times and place—made to each other in a very different world. Looking about them, the Bedingers saw “sons and grandsons” of those “boys of 1775.”

Fifty years before, the “boys” had been restive at the end of a day of drilling “for what.” They heard disjointed tales of great troubles carried from Massachusetts, the far reaches of the Hampshire Grants, Williamsburg, and Richmond. In mid-April, they and other companies in the Shenandoah Valley had been placed on alert to be able “at a moment’s warning, to re-assemble, and by force of arms” defend the liberty of Virginia “or any other colony.” Tumbling one on top of the other, their futures teetered on bedlam and mayhem. To some, they had good reason to fear. In their future was imprisonment in rotting hulks, barely surviving under conditions more common to the cells of the Public Hospital for Persons of Disordered and Insane Minds; tomahawk-charging, cutthroat frontier warfare with Indians and Loyalists; and death before their time.

Morgan’s Grove Community Park near Shepherdstown, West Virginia, was the rendezvous point for one of the ten rifle companies created by the Second Continental Congress in 1775. The grove also was the site of the Berkeley Rifle company’s reunion fifty years after it made the “Beeline March” to Massachusetts. In later years, it continued to be a gathering spot to commemorate the “boys of 1775” and has been recognized by the US Army as a site of historical significance. (Author)

The Bedinger brothers had escaped death, barely.[1] Fifty years later, on this festive day, no one at the springs dwelled on the prison ships or ambushes in Ohio Country woodland. They were there to celebrate resolution and victory, their “Beeline March” to rescue George Washington and his army at Boston. Very likely, none of the sons or grandsons of Hugh Stephenson’s Berkeley Rifles knew of the controversy that split the community half a century before. As petty as the wrangling was, it had thrown into question “the Cause” in this section of Virginia.

Surprisingly when viewed in hindsight, the bitter war of paper and words wasn’t over grievances in the colony, loyalty to the crown, or the Intolerable Acts shackling Boston and binding Massachusetts. Instead, sprawling Berkeley County found neighbor pitted against neighbor over Col. Adam Stephen’s high-handed setting of an election date “without consulting any person in the county.” The vote was to send delegates to a new convention to fix Virginia’s path forward in the contest with the Royal governor, Lord Dunmore in Williamsburg. Topping off Stephen’s arrogance in the eyes of many was his own placement as a candidate for re-election as delegate. The founder of Martinsburg, considered a man of the hour in covering Gen. Edward Braddock’s army’s retreat in the French and Indian War, Stephen had been promoted to brigadier in the colonial militia and now in new turbulent times he asserted old authority.

In the spring of 1775, he deliberately timed the date of the vote to coincide with the militia company’s muster. With their rifles in hand, they would be an intimidating presence at the polls. An ironic twist to these charged circumstances was the stories Stephen and his fellow Berkeley County delegate, “Robin” Rutherford, brought back from Richmond of Patrick Henry’s spirited cry for liberty. They spelled out what the convention’s vote for vigorous defense against Dunmore, a man they no longer trusted, meant to the county.

Quickly, a petition circulated opposing Stephen’s presumptions. Included among the signatories was Horatio Gates, himself a survivor of Braddock’s disastrous expedition into the wilds. The British officer, who had settled in Berkeley, was well respected across the county. He and Charles Lee, who also moved with all his dogs and quirks to Berkeley, were among the rare breed of British officers who came to admire the Americans’ fighting spirit and, more surprisingly, their tactics.

Although Lee’s name was not among the one-hundred on the petition, a “Michail Bedinger’s”— then a corporal in Stephenson’s company—was. Men with surnames the same as other members of Stephenson’s unit also signed. In fact, since there was no “law,” as Parliament would have viewed it, only the county’s Committee of Safety could settle the controversy locally. If it was still roiling after the vote, the July convention meeting in Richmond, away from Dunmore’s gaze, would determine who was qualified as a member.[2]

Far from the internecine squabbling, in the wake of the bloody confrontation in Massachusetts and the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point by American militia, the second Continental Congress, as it convened in Philadelphia, had to decide what would happen next. These men, even the Virginians like George Washington who had family and land-owning ties to Berkeley, cared little about who represented the county. Before them were more vexing problems that ultimately would affect the Bedinger brothers. Could last year’s agreement to form an “Association” in each colony to neither import, consume, or export “all articles of trade” with Great Britain hold in this new light of force on force? Even if it did, blood had already been shed.

Despite the chasm over the election, Berkeley’s committee, “whose business it should be ‘attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this Association,’” remained solidly behind “the Cause.” By implication, the local committees like Berkeley’s were the enforcers of loyalty to the colonial cause, and certainly were buttressed by the actions of March’s convention in Richmond Town. They could employ public shaming in the newspapers and shunning as “enemies of American liberty.” In addition, the humiliation of tarring and feathering spread inland from coastal ports. Far more important were the committees’ control of the “Independent” companies drawn from the established militia rolls.

In Mecklenburg or Shepherd’s Town on the Potomac River, “a number of eager, hot-blooded young men, the very pick of old Berkeley, assembled daily” at Morgan’s Springs. Whether they first assembled under the county’s Committee of Safety aegis is unknown. They certainly had Stephen’s and Rutherford’s blessings from the convention. It is open to question how many of these “hot-blooded young men” actually served as county militia, not simply names being listed on its rolls. They certainly were heard moving “to the music of fife, bag-pipe, and drum” around the small town. In addition, they were definitely seen. “The companies marched, paraded, and exercised from morning until night,” a public message to all residents—including any supporters of Dunmore.[3]

In Philadelphia, the second congress struggled to find “the ways and means of raising money” to pay for whatever eventuality arose in Massachusetts, the Grants, Canada, and possibly in Virginia. Beyond the embargo, could a “Declaration” to “take up arms” cause London to bow to pressure? Would the colonies unite behind such a threat? Regardless of the delegates’ leanings in Philadelphia, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, pressed to its limits militarily in Boston, implored the assembled colonies for relief against “the sanguinary Zeal of the ministerial army.” President Joseph Warren told the delegates that Massachusetts would raise more than 13,000 militiamen to the cause, and he expected New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island to step forward with more volunteers. Bluntly put, Warren wrote, “we are now reduced to the sad alternative of defending ourselves by arms, or submitting to be slaughtered.”The only light shining then was, “we have the greatest Confidence in the wisdom and ability of the Continent to support us, so far as it shall appear necessary for supporting the common cause of the American Colonies.”

As gathering heat and humidity lay heavy on Philadelphia—stifling in the close confines of the hall—Samuel Ward, a wealthy Rhode Island planter and one of those rare birds as a colonial governor to openly oppose the Stamp Act, moved late on Tuesday, June 13, to shift the manner of doing business to a committee of the whole. Like him, other New Englanders, especially John Adams who may have instigated the maneuver, and Virginians, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Washington included, viewed the parliamentary change as the necessary yanking up of weeds that choked off decisive actions.

Starting promptly at nine the next morning, following prayer, Ward read out the first of the resolutions declaring that “six companies of expert riflemen, be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia.” Here was the “Declaration of Arms.” To break the impasse of talk over deed, the resolution went on: “That each company, as soon as compleated, shall march and join the army near Boston, to be there employed as light infantry, under the command of the chief Officer in that army.” Here was the order.

These few words were momentous.

What the delegates agreed to on June 14 was the creation of an American army. They also approved its deployment. They eventually signed off on spending two million dollars on it. Yet, they remained too divided to create a nation for its army. They sent back to the colonial Associations and their local committees the requirement, with no power to enforce it. As noted, in Berkeley, the “boys of 1775” were already marching for drill. Now, the Bedinger brothers had the “for what.”[4]

At Morgan’s Springs, with their long rifles in hand, wearing home-spun hunting shirts of linsey-woolsey fringed from the neck to the waist and leather leggings, shod in moccasins, capped with soft round hats looped on one side and sporting buck tails, “the boys” drilled with fresh intensity. The divide over Stephen’s arrogance festered, but not visibly through the ranks. The “informal” musters became as regular as tides.

To Henry Bedinger, the events of mid-spring 1775, gauzed over by time, were never far from his present. “Volunteers presented themselves from every direction in the vicinity of these Towns; none were received but young men of Character, and of sufficient property to Clothe themselves completely, find their own arms, and accoutrements, that is an approved Rifle, handsome shot pouch, and powder horn, blanket, knapsack with such decent cloth as should be prescribed, but which was at first ordered to be only a Hunting shirt and pantaloons, fringed on every edge, and in various ways.”

For weeks too, they built camaraderie. They took a fellow militiamen’s German doggerel, a language many of them like the Bedingers understood as well as English, and turned it into a marching tune. As a chorus, they shouted “huzza, huzza, huzza, For brave America.” Perhaps it was at the end of one of those drills with the “brave America” in the air that Stephenson’s company, in a pledge of solidarity, set the date for a reunion fifty years in the future. Was it a joke? Was it an oath? Did they laugh about being old men then? How many of their family and friends were there? The owner of the springs, their Daniel Morgan, was likely on a recruiting trip around Berkeley and was nowhere to be seen that day.

But in those hectic weeks, the “Continental Spirit” and “rage militaire” and “venom” gripped men like the Bedingers. Presbyterian missionary Philip Vickers Fithian, then in Winchester, noted in his diary on June 1, the anniversary of the Boston Port bill, “all day long the Bladder has been filled with Venom,” ready to strike. A few days later, he wrote, “Mars, the great God of Battle, is now honored in every part of this spacious Colony, but here, every Presence is warlike, every Sound is martial.”

Who specifically sent the orders to Berkeley County to have Stephenson’s company move out is not known. What is known that in July, back at Morgan’s Springs, a few weeks after Congress created an army and days later named Washington its commander, Stephenson had orders to march to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was ready to go. On the designated day to hit the long road, the Berkeley Rifles waited for another “Independent company” coming from Winchester.[5]

As they tarried, the Bedinger brothers and likely all Virginia were ignorant of the hand-to-hand fighting in the hastily-raised redoubt on Breed’s Hill, the battle of Bunker Hill. Lacking that intelligence, the rifle companies in Berkeley and in Winchester truly would be marching into the unknown. Three weeks earlier, the committee in Winchester on June 22 sent its Daniel Morgan orders “to march from this county” and “to follow from time to time the directions” he might receive from the commander or superior officers of the new continental army. Hugh Stephenson must have received similar instructions.

If they didn’t know about Bunker Hill, the word to be ready to march was public—at least to a trusted elite in the Shenandoah Valley. Gates, in a letter to Washington also dated June 22 from Travellers-Rest in Berkeley County, reported, “the request for the Riffle Men was well received in this province, and in Maryland, Major Stevenson Commands one of the Companys from hence, & I believe Cap Morgan the other. both excellent for the Service.” And he added some hearsay from the father of one of the Maryland company commanders, Col. Thomas Cresap, that his son Michael “had Eighty Riffle Men ready to March.”[6]

In 1825, Henry Bedinger, a prolific letter writer and memoirist, had done his best to round up the other survivors. In addition to his brother, there were at least five more still living who had made the pledge for reunion. But age and illness had taken its toll on the young men who made history in their “Beeline March” to Boston, as it became known to historians, novelists, and poets.

As the informal host of the reunion, boisterous and boastful in public, Michael Bedinger, who had transplanted himself to Kentucky, celebrated the still-living missing. He had tried his best to encourage two of the men to attend. Stories had to be told in their absence, and there was no possibility of first-hand correction of fact. Toasts were offered for Robert White, a federal judge in Winchester, active on the bench and in the community until recently paralyzed by a stroke; Gen. Samuel Finley, too enfeebled to travel but whose achievements in the Revolution Henry patiently enumerated for his old comrade’s son; William (or Peter) Hulse, invited but who never appeared, possibly a lawyer then living in St. Clairsville, Ohio, and former owner of an Ohio River Ferry; Garret Tunnison, their surgeon, still practicing in New Jersey; and Peter Hanes in what was now Jefferson County who never showed.

The surviving accounts remain silent on whether Michael or any of the others, including the militia men of 1825 who were in their uniforms and their small band scheduled to perform later, hurled jibes at or lifted salutations to Winchester’s Daniel Morgan, the brawling teamster considered by many Americans a hero. After all, that Morgan had stolen Stephenson’s men’s thunder, ignoring the “agreement” they had to march side by side to Cambridge. “Their” Morgan’s son, who inherited the springs, had ensured the success of the day with an open house, abundant food, and a celebration as important to their community as Marquis de Lafayette’s ballyhooed dedication of the Bunker Hill Memorial, set for the following Friday. The whole United States, north, south, east, and west, appeared to revel in the success of its revolution with Lafayette on his grand tour. If not mythologized like Bunker Hill, two old brothers had been determined to remember that Berkeley’s young men literally raced to Massachusetts’s defense. They had kept their vow to ninety-six other “brothers.”

Later that afternoon, Michael, again ramrod straight, gave the order to “play on” to the band and motioned the artillery battery into position. He was ready to lead the parade of celebration for the “boys of 1775.”[7]

 

[1]Danske Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown (Charlottesville, VA: Michie, 1910), 87-102, 293-359; Danske Dandridge, George Michael Bedinger, A Kentucky Pioneer (Charlottesville, VA: Michie, 1909), 209-212; Anon., “Interesting Jubilee,” Torch Light and Public Advertiser (Hagerstown, MD), June 28, 1825; Virginia Gazette, May 13, 1775; “New York letter, May 1, 1775,” Virginia Gazette, May 20, 1775, (account of Concord and announcement of Lord Dunmore’s proroguing the General Assembly); “Public Hospital,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, www.history.org/almanack/places/hb/hbhos.cfm, accessed February 20, 2019.

[2]“Report of the State Librarian,” Second Annual Report of the State Library, 1904-1905, (Richmond: Superintendent of Public Printing, 1905), 80 (on Berkeley vote and muster); “Election of Delegates in Berkeley County, 1775,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 13, no. 4, (April 1906) , 411-424; Virginia Gazette (Rind), March 30, 1775,most of page 2 includes resolves to establish “a well-regulated militia, composed of Gentlemen and Yeomen” and created a committee to put the colony in “a posture of defense;” George A. Billias, “Horatio Gates: A Professional Soldier” and John W. Shy, “Charles Lee: A Soldier as Radical,” both in George A. Billias, ed., George Washington’s Generals and Opponents (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964), 80-85, 22-29.

[3]Stephen Jenkins, TheOld Boston Post Road (Loschberg, Germany: Jazzybee-Verlag, no date), 18; H.R. McIlwaine, ed., Proceedings of the Committees of Safety, Cumberland and Isle of Wight Counties Virginia, 1775-1776 (Richmond: Davis Bottom, superintendent of Public Printing, 1910), 3-4; E.I. Miller, “The Virginia Committee of Correspondence of 1772-1773,” William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 2 (October 1913), 99-113; “Williamsburg, Extract from the votes and proceedings of the American Continental Congress. 11th Resolve,” Williamsburg Gazette, November 17, 1774; Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown, 77.

[4]Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1905), on forming rifle companies, 2: 89-90; Washington accepting, 2: 92; commissioning, 2: 96; and instruction to commander, 2: 100; “Letter from Massachusetts Provincial Congress, May 3, 1775, www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/amrev/shots/province.html, accessed May 2, 2019; Pennsylvania Packet, June 7, 1775, on Worcester demanding Tories surrender arms, Newport sending militia to the “American army” at Boston; Henry Melchior Muhlenburg Richards, “The Pennsylvania German in the Revolutionary War, 1775-1783,” in Proceedings and Addresses, Pennsylvania-German Society, Allentown, PA, November 2, 1906, (vol. 17), 18.

[5]Author’s questions to P. Douglas Perks, historian Jefferson County Museum, February 2019 on Stephenson’s companies; Robert G. Albion, Leonidas Dodson, eds., Philip Vickers Fithian, Journal 1775-1776, Written on the Virginia-Pennsylvania Frontier(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934), 8; Michael A. McDonnell, “Mobilization and Popular Culture in Revolutionary Virginia: The Failure of the Minutemen and the Revolution from Below,” Journal of American History, vol. 85, no. 3 (December 1998), 946-81 (on rage militaire); Dandridge, Bedinger,13-15; Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown, 10-11, 78 -81, 87-102, 293-359.

[6]James Graham, The Life of General Daniel Morgan of the Virginia Line of the Army of the United States (New York: Derby Jackson), 53-4; Horatio Gates to George Washington, June 22, 1775, Washington Papers, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0011, accessed March 19, 2019.

[7]Fithian Journal, 20, 24-25;Henry Bedinger to Andrew Jackson, November 19, 1827, Andrew Jackson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/resource/maj.01069_0025_0027/?sp=1, accessed February 16, 2019); “Interesting Jubilee;” “William Hulse,” Hulse Family Network, www.hulsenet.net/individual-list/, accessed February 16, 2019; “Robert White,” Hampshire County WV Genweb, www.wvgenweb.org/hampshire/history/maxwell-swisher/W-Y-Z.html, accessed February 16, 2019; Dandridge, Bedinger,13-15; Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown,10-11, 78, 87-102, 293-359; Washington Irving, Life of George Washington (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1856), 2: 18-19; Garret Tunnison to Washington, February 10, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-03-02-0210, accessed June 25, 2019; and Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown, 88, 353-54; George M. Bedinger, Craig M. Heath, (trans.), George M. Bedinger Papers: Bol. 1A of the Draper Ms. Collection (Bowie, MD, Heritage Books, 2002), 8-9.

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