The first half of 1780 had gone disastrously for Virginia. The surrender of Gen. Benjamin Lincoln’s army at Charleston and the destruction of Col. Abraham Buford’s detachment of Virginia continentals at the Waxhaws virtually eliminated Virginia’s continental line. A force that once boasted sixteen regiments and thousands of men was now reduced to a handful of stragglers who had been left in Virginia (typically for health reasons) and a force of roughly 400 state troops under Col. Charles Porterfield who were pressed into continental service in the Carolinas.1 Colonel Porterfield and his detachment would meet their demise at the Battle of Camden in mid-August, yet another American defeat in South Carolina in 1780.
Six years of hardship and loss had significantly dampened support for the war in Virginia and the handful of continental officers still in Virginia to recruit in 1780 found few Virginians willing to enlist. In desperation, Gov. Thomas Jefferson and the state legislature authorized a draft in July to raise 3,000 new continentals.2 The new law instructed county leaders to select men from their militia ranks at a ratio of one for every fifteen to serve as continental soldiers until the end of 1781.3 These “eighteen-months men” trickled into Chesterfield County Courthouse, about fifteen miles south of Richmond, in the fall of 1780.
Washington, who was with the main American army outside New York City, had provided a plan to rebuild Virginia’s continental line after Charleston’s fall. Unfortunately, it was based on his understanding that Virginia would raise 5,000 men, not the 3,000 that was actually authorized.4 In truth, Virginia was only able to raise about half of those 3,000 men.5
Before the eighteen-months men began to arrive in Chesterfield, Gen. Peter Muhlenberg, the only brigadier general remaining in the Virginia continental line, ordered Colonel Buford, who had survived the Battle of the Waxhaws in May, to march back to the Carolinas with approximately 200 Virginia state troops that were pressed into continental service by Governor Jefferson and the remaining Virginia continentals who were not at Charleston when it fell and/or who had escaped harm at the Waxhaws.6 Buford’s detachment totaled 350 men and departed in late August.7 Approximately 200 additional troops in several smaller detachments followed in September; none were likely the eighteen-months men authorized in July, as they were just arriving in Chesterfield Courthouse when the last of Buford’s troops departed.8
When the newly raised continental troops arrived at Chesterfield Courthouse they were met with severe shortages in clothing, blankets, and tents.9 Governor Jefferson informed Gen. Horatio Gates, the commander of the shattered American southern army, that the new continentals would have to march south, “cloathed as Militia, till we can procure and send on supplies.”10
The arrival in October of a 2,200 man British expeditionary force under Gen. Alexander Leslie temporarily derailed plans to send the first detachment of eighteen-months men to Gates. When the British sailed into Hampton Roads and landed at Portsmouth and Hampton, General Muhlenberg, who commanded the continentals at Chesterfield Courthouse, “marched with all the regulars we had embodied, consisting of eight hundred men, to oppose them.”11 Leslie’s mission was to assist Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis in his conquest of North Carolina by establishing a British post in Portsmouth and disrupting reinforcements and supplies from reaching the small American southern army under Gates.12 Leslie was also to coordinate his actions with Cornwallis, but soon after his arrival in Virginia, Leslie learned of the stunning defeat at King’s Mountain (in early October) and realized Cornwallis’s plans had probably changed. As a result, Leslie and his men were largely inactive in Portsmouth, waiting for orders from Cornwallis. When instructions finally arrived in November, Leslie set sail with his troops to South Carolina.
Muhlenberg’s force of 800 continentals, reinforced by several thousand militia, had encamped on the outskirts of Portsmouth while the British were there but had declined to risk a direct assault on Leslie’s position. Upon Leslie’s departure, Muhlenberg and his troops returned to Chesterfield Courthouse where newly arrived Maj. Gen. Baron von Steuben assumed command over them. General Steuben was not the only new American commander in the South. Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene relieved General Gates of command of the American southern army in early December.
With the British threat to Virginia removed, Steuben focused his efforts on reinforcing Greene with a detachment of the eighteen-months men at Chesterfield Court House. He ordered Muhlenberg to form a detachment of 400 of “the best provided” men and send them immediately to Greene (who was at that time in Charlotte, North Carolina with the southern army.13 To Steuben’s dismay, the officers selected for the march refused to proceed, claiming, “ill usage from the state and a . . . distressed situation of the officers and men.”14 Muhlenberg and the detachment’s commander, Col. John Green, met directly with the defiant officers and apparently eased their concerns. Still, two weeks passed before the 450 troops under Colonel Green set out from Chesterfield Courthouse to reinforce General Greene in the Carolinas.15
Just two days after Colonel Green’s men headed south, General Greene detached Gen. Daniel Morgan with a select corps of continental light infantry (which included over seventy of Colonel Buford’s Virginia continentals) along with some militia and cavalry and ordered them to operate west of the Catawba River while Greene led the rest of the army eastward over 100 miles across the Pee Dee River where he hoped his troops could better recover from their poor condition.16 Buford did not march east with Greene; he had fallen ill and was taken to a hospital in Salisbury to recover. He would not return to his unit but instead marched north with Morgan. Buford’s ill health ultimately caused him to return home to Virginia to recover.17
Buford’s detachment was also in dire shape, not so much because of poor health but ragged clothing. Greene reported to Steuben in mid-January that, “Not a man of Colonel Buford is fit for duty; and if clothing does not come to our relief, I must disband them as they are naked.”18 To the relief of Greene and the Virginians, a supply of clothing arrived (probably with Colonel Green’s detachment) in mid-January.
Buford’s absence from camp left Colonel Green the ranking continental officer among the Virginian troops. With over 700 Virginia continentals now in camp, it is possible that Green maintained the two Virginia detachments as separate unit, giving his subordinate, Lt. Col. Samuel Hawes, command of one while he commanded the other. However, as it was still expected that Buford would return to the army, it is doubtful that Green would have made such a change on his own. Whatever was done, Green and all of the Virginia continentals with General Greene’s army were soon marching back toward Virginia, first to reunite with Morgan following his spectacular victory at Cowpens, and then to cross the Dan River to escape Cornwallis and his superior British army.
In Virginia, Steuben and the 500 Virginia continentals still at Chesterfield Court House struggled with widespread supply problems of their own, particularly clothing. General Steuben described his troops as, “wretches,” and reported that, “they are so totaley naked, that [unless] I can get some cloths for them, they will be all sick before they can be order’d to march.”19 Adding to Steuben’s problems was the sudden arrival of yet another British expeditionary force, this time under the notorious traitor Benedict Arnold. General Arnold and 1,200 British troops sailed up the James River in early January, destroyed an important arms manufactory and a portion of Virginia’s new capital, Richmond, and then established a post in Portsmouth. With only 150 continentals at Chesterfield Court House adequately clothed and supplied to take the field, the defense of Virginia was left to hundreds of militia under Muhlenberg.20 He encamped his force near Suffolk, about twenty miles southwest of Portsmouth.
With Arnold contained in Portsmouth, Steuben returned to the work of equipping the next detachment of continentals to reinforce General Greene (who by mid-February was actually near the North Carolina–Virginia border). In late February, Lt. Col. Richard Campbell led 400 continental Virginians from Chesterfield County to reinforce Greene.21 They joined Greene just in time to participate in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. When Campbell arrived with his detachment just a few days prior to the battle, he found himself outranked by Colonel Green and Lieutenant Colonel Hawes. As a result, Colonel Green retained command of the older detachments of continentals and Lieutenant Colonel Hawes assumed command of Campbell’s detachment.22 Campbell served under Colonel Green during the battle and both Virginia regiments fought in General Greene’s third line. When the American commander determined that it was time to disengage from the fight and withdraw, Colonel Green’s regiment covered the American retreat.23
In early April, Colonel Green requested permission to return to Virginia.24 At about the same time, General Greene ordered that, “the Virginia troops are to be divided with great equality into two regiments.”25 In a letter explaining his decisions, Greene wrote that, “the three[Virginia] detachments are formed into two Regiments. Lt. Col. Hawes commands one, and Lt. Col. Campbell the other.26 Greene’s reference to three detachments is interesting; they are most likely Buford’s original detachment and then Green’s and finally Campbell’s. There is no evidence that three separate Virginia continental units fought at Guilford, but General Greene’s reference to three detachments suggests that all three Virginia detachments had maintained their unit cohesion with two of them (probably Buford’s detachment combined with Colonel Green’s detachment) forming one of the two regiments that fought at Guilford. However they were organized in March, in early April Greene restructured the Virginia continentals under his command into two regiments of equal strength.
Both regimental commanders (Lieutenant Colonel Hawes and Lieutenant Colonel Campbell) and their regiments saw heated action at Hobkirk’s Hill in late April. Hawes left Greene’s army two months later at the end of the siege of Ninety-Six in June.27 He was replaced by Maj. Smith Snead, who had been captured at Charleston and since exchanged.28 After enduring the summer heat of South Carolina in the High Hills of the Santee, the Virginia continentals marched to Eutaw Spring with Greene. Campbell commanded all of the continental Virginians at Eutaw Springs and was mortally wounded in the fight. Major Snead and Capt. Thomas Edmunds, who was wounded, commanded the two Virginia regiments.29 Little of consequence occurred with the eighteen-months men following Eutaw Springs. They served out the remainder of their time with General Greene and returned to Virginia in the winter. They were replaced in 1782 by a new set of Virginian continentals under a new arrangement.
In Virginia, the troops that had remained at Chesterfield Courthouse with Steuben fell under the command of Lt. Col. Thomas Gaskins. When British forces converged on Virginia in the spring of 1781, Gaskins’ regiment, numbering around 300 troops, fell under the command of General LaFayette.30 The young French commander had arrived in Virginia in April with 900 continental light infantry. In June, Gen. Anthony Wayne and 800 Pennsylvanian continentals arrived to reinforce LaFayette. Gaskins’ regiment was attached to Wayne’s command, which did not sit well with either the Virginians or Pennsylvanians.31 After a tense summer of uncertainty about Cornwallis’s intentions, the British established a post at Yorktown.
Washington seized the opportunity to cooperate with the French and entrap Cornwallis in Virginia. Gaskins’s Virginia continentals continued to serve in Wayne’s brigade during the siege of Yorktown and following the allied victory, served out their time in Virginia.32
Much confusion remains over the designation of Virginia’s continental units after the fall of Charleston. The truth is that the original regimental structure had broken down well before Charleston with the consolidation of regiments in 1778 and 1779. General Washington’s plan to rebuild the Virginia line after Charleston did identify the 2nd, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th Virginia Regiments as the basis of restructuring, but the difficulty in raising and equipping enough soldiers made Washington’s plan impractical and forced the formation of detachments that are better identified by their commanders than by any numerical designation. The detachments of Colonels Buford and Green and Lieutenant Colonels Hawes and Campbell in General Greene’s army and that of Lieutenant Colonel Gaskins served Virginia and the country during a pivotal point of the war. Like Virginia’s regulars of 1775 through 1780, Virginia’s eighteen-months men of 1780-81 served courageously and with distinction both at home and in the Carolinas, and for this reason they deserve to be better understood and remembered as the brave continental soldiers that they were.
3William W. Hening, ed., “An Act for Speedily Recruiting the Quota of this State for the Continental Army,” The Statutes at Large, Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia …, Vol. 10 (Richmond, 1822), 257-260.
4John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., “General Washington to General Horatio Gates or General Peter Muhlenberg, July 18, 1780,”Writings of George Washington (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Officer, 1937), 19: 196-202.
12William B. Wilcox, ed., “General Clinton to General Leslie, October 12, 1780,” The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775-1782 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 467.
16“An Exact Return of the Detachment under the Command of Colo. Buford, December, 1780,” The Steuben Papers (Microfilm); Showman, ed., “General Greene to General Morgan, December 16, 1780,” The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, 6: 589-590.
17Showman, ed., “Doctor Richard Pindell to General Greene, December 18, 1780,” The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, 6: 600; “General Morgan to General Greene, February 6, 1781,” Ibid., 7: 254; “Colonel Buford to General Greene, February 24, 1781,” The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Ibid., 7: 343.
30Stanley J. Idzerda, ed., “General LaFayette to General Washington, July 20, 1781,” Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, Vol. 4 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1981), 255-256.