General Peter Muhlenberg: A Virginia Officer of the Continental Line by Michael Cecere (Yardley, Pa: Westholme, 2020)
“The General, mounted upon a white horse, tall and commanding in his figure, was very conspicuous at the head of his men…many of the [enemy] soldiers (German enlistments being for life,) remembered their former comrade, and the cry ran along their astonished ranks, ‘Heir kommt teufel Piet!’”
This tale about Gen. Peter Muhlenberg at Brandywine appears in the 1849 biography written by his great nephew (and congressman) Henry Augustus Muhlenberg. “Here comes Devil Pete!” was shouted by members of a German dragoon company to which the writer says Muhlenberg had belonged as a young man. The story is nonsense, and just one example of why Michael Cecere’s new biography of the general is desperately needed.
Peter Muhlenberg was a Pennsylvania-born German who was the son of the patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America. He is best-known as the rector of a Shenandoah Valley (Anglican) parish and colonel of the 8th Virginia Regiment, which was raised on the frontier and initially intended to be a “German” regiment. The famous but poorly-documented farewell sermon he delivered in Woodstock, Virginia, in the spring of 1776 has been the subject of epic poetry and modern political debate. After a tour of the southern theater under Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, he was made a brigadier general. His brigade of Virginians was in Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s division at Brandywine and Germantown. He was at Monmouth and remained in the army to the end of the war. He played an important role in the Virginia campaign leading up to Yorktown.
In part because of his own evident humility, an authoritative account of Muhlenberg’s life has been hard for historians to craft. He does not seem to have bragged about his feats or made any effort to record his deeds for posterity. History (like nature) abhors a vacuum, however, and certain episodes of his life have been greatly romanticized. His great nephew’s work was written as an effort “to rescue the memory” of the general “from that oblivion into which it is fast falling.” Earnestly-written with the use of original sources, the work nevertheless fills in blanks with conjecture and records family lore as history. One-hundred seventy years later, it is still by far the most frequently referenced source on Muhlenberg, in part because it is in the public domain. A 1936 biography by Edward W. Hocker and a 1950 book on the Muhlenberg family by Paul. A. W. Wallace are more carefully written, but these volumes are little-known and also imperfect.
Michael Cecere is a high school history teacher who writes prolifically on Virginia in the Revolutionary War. He has authored more than a dozen books and several articles for Journal of the American Revolution, often on subjects that have otherwise been neglected and misunderstood. His 2017 JAR volume The Invasion of Virginia, 1781 covered a period that even Henry A. Muhlenberg complained was “much neglected by historians.” It is a confusing period to study, with seemingly haphazard troop movements and frequent command changes. Unit designations for an almost entirely new (and drafted) Virginia Continental line have tripped up many writers. Cecere’s Invasion of Virginia, his essay “Picking Up the Pieces: Virginia’s ‘Eighteen-Months Men’ of 1780-1781,” and this new volume on Peter Muhlenberg valuably combine to clarify a clouded but important period in Virginia’s Revolutionary timeline.
“Devil Pete” is an improbable nickname for Peter Muhlenberg, and not only because he was an ordained minister. Cecere’s narrative and Muhlenberg’s own words portray a man who was patient, honorable, and reserved. His father described him teetotaler. His letters are sensible, matter-of-fact, and entirely free of the histrionics and sarcasm evident in the correspondence of officers like Charles Lee, Adam Stephen, and William Heth. As the son of a pastor and a pastor himself, he seems to have internalized Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”
We see this even in his youth. Cecere tells us how, at the age of seventeen, Muhlenberg traveled to Germany to enter a six-year apprenticeship with a grocer and druggist in Lubeck. It was clear to him almost immediately that there would be no pharmacy training and that there was “not much to be learned in a grocery store.” Nevertheless, he remained in the job for three years before he decided he was wasting his youth. He renegotiated the terms of his apprenticeship and then discovered a way to go home immediately. The British 60th “Royal American” Regiment was recruiting in Germany and agreed to take him on as a cadet. He left the grocery, leaving a note to his employer, explaining, “I have enlisted as [a] cadet among the Englishmen, who are going into garrison in America. I now humbly entreat you not to injure your health by useless anger, because it cannot be changed now.” Before his final departure, he met with his employer, who pleaded with him to stay. Muhlenberg insisted that he would not stay even for “two hundred ducats,” but still resolved things so amicably that his employer even loaned him money so he could buy a uniform.
This is a story that previous biographers have gotten wildly wrong. Cecere’s telling, which sticks to original sources, seems to get it exactly right. (The Royal Americans were not at Brandywine, so we know the “Devil Pete” story is not true.) The important detail in the story is that the seventeen-year old Muhlenberg would probably have been within his rights to quit the grocery job much earlier. He was not learning a skilled trade as had been promised. The fact that he stuck to it for about three years suggests a strong reticence to act dishonorably by breaking his commitment. When he did, he went to great lengths to show the grocer that he meant him no disrespect. It was not the last injustice the future general would handle wisely.
Years later, in 1776, he discovered that his regiment was not going to be accepted by Congress into the Continental Line. Virginia had exceeded its allotment of Continental regiments and the 8th and 9th regiments were left holding the proverbial “bag.” This was particularly unreasonable because Muhlenberg’s regiment was at the time the only Virginia regiment that was serving outside the Old Dominion—the very definition of “continental” service. He appealed to Lee for help, and Lee agreed to write to Congress about it. Once again, Muhlenberg had to be patient. As he continued south with Lee on an intended invasion of the West Florida colony, there was no guarantee that the regiment’s status would be corrected or even that a correction would not leave Muhlenberg distantly trailing his peers in seniority. He noted to Lee, “I should prefer being oldest Provincial before the youngest Continental.” Congress relented and took the regiment into the Continental line.
Cecere reminds us that rank and promotion controversies were frequent among Continental officers. Colonel William Woodford resigned from the army when other colonels were made generals before him. He later accepted a general’s commission but then began lobbying that he be given retroactive seniority that would advance him above generals Muhlenberg and George Weedon. Advised by Washington that the matter had to be settled one way or another, Congress elevated Woodford. Weedon, furious, resigned and refused to return to the army. At different times, then, Woodford and Weedon both resigned from the army over rank disputes.
Three weeks later, Muhlenberg was still mulling over his own response. Washington fully expected that he might resign as Weedon did and even sent him a message asking if he had decided yet. The episode reveals that Muhlenberg’s personality was in many ways similar to Washington’s. Both were slow to anger, patient, and amenable to creative solutions. Muhlenberg wrote to the commander in chief:
As fond as I should be of continuing in the Service of my Country I do not think I could do it with propriety, unless some Reasons were given for the Change. This would Justify me to my Friends, & to the Army in Generall. . . . Your Excellency will I hope pardon me for writing my Sentiments freely, but should Your Excellency be of Opinion that I have not been injured, & can serve, with propriety, I shall always think myself happy in Obeying Your Excellencys Commands.”
There is an element of theater in this letter. Washington’s response demonstrates that the two men had already talked the matter over in person. Muhlenberg may simply have wanted Washington to respond in a certain way for the record. The future president replied, “You know my opinion, which has been given in a conversation between us. I cannot judge the feelings of others, but my own should generally be regulated by the opinions of a set of Gentlemen, who I conceive have been actuated by the purest principles of impartiality and justice, and do not think that any Officer will look upon a submission to their decision as dishonorable.” In other words: “Congress had a hard decision to make. They made it. It wasn’t personal.”
Muhlenberg may have wanted a stronger statement, but the ultimate resolution was either smartly conceived or the product of his resigning himself to reality rather than from his commission. Muhlenberg informed the commander in chief that he planned to quit, but “promised not to leave his Brigade, till Congress shall appoint another General in his room, provided it be done in any reasonable time.” Congress never appointed a successor and Muhlenberg never resigned.
Muhlenberg spent much of 1781 under major generals Lafayette and Steuben, playing cat and mouse with the British in Virginia. After the Battle of Petersburg, General Steuben commented in a letter to Nathanael Greene, “General Muhlenberg merits my particular acknowledgements for the good disposition he made & the great Gallantry with which he executed it.” At Yorktown, Muhlenberg played an active role in the siege. Henry A. Muhlenberg asserted in 1849 that Alexander Hamilton had essentially stolen credit from Muhlenberg for commanding the attack on Redoubt Ten, a charge that may still be worth litigating.
Cecere ends his account of General Muhlenberg’s career just after Yorktown. This adheres to the shorter format of the JAR book series, a format the author uses to good effect. A longer book might find space to drill down into the minutia of the general’s life and continue on through his significant political career back in Pennsylvania. As with some of his other works, however, Cecere’s chief goal seems to be to clarify the muddled history of his subject. He has provided us (at last) with a factual framework of Muhlenberg’s military career, correcting the narratives on his apprenticeship and his farewell sermon and familiarizing readers with the only Virginia general (other than Washington) who remained in the field to the end of the war.
Cecere’s straightforward, factual approach is especially valuable where the subject matter is naturally confusing, as is the case with the 1781 Virginia campaign. He doesn’t try to read his subjects’ minds and he doesn’t fill in blank spaces with conjecture. When he has found no information, he simply says so. For instance, he is content to leave Muhlenberg’s precise role in covering the retreat at Brandywine and in the court martial of Light Horse Harry Lee as unsolved mysteries.
One of his sources, by misidentifying an officer, seems to have prevented Cecere from making a connection important to the latter controversy. After the 1779 raid on Paulus Hook, New Jersey, several officers decided that Light Horse Harry needed to be brought down a peg. Nathanael Gist, a colonel, brought a series of charges against Major Lee, the most serious of which was that he had misrepresented his rank to Lord Stirling and thereby usurped command of the raid from “Major John Clarke.” Cecere relates how Washington put his finger on the scale to make sure Lee was exonerated and correctly points out that the Lee and Washington families were close.
“The extent of Muhlenberg’s role in Lee’s court martial is unclear,” Cecere writes. “He very well could have been just a messenger for the disgruntled officers in his brigade . . . Or perhaps Muhlenberg, who himself had been slighted by a dispute over rank, was sensitive to the issue.” Cecere properly cites original sources here, which simply refer to “Major Clarke.” A secondary source does the same but identifies the major as “John Clarke” in the index. The officer was, in fact, Major Jonathan Clark, who was probably one of Muhlenberg’s best friends in the army. Clark’s diary shows that he was a frequent Muhlenberg house guest before the war. They served as co-delegates to the Virginia Convention when the 8th Virginia was authorized. Clark was a captain in the regiment when Muhlenberg commanded it. There is every reason to believe that Muhlenberg, though relatively philosophical about slights to his own honor, would act assertively in protecting the honor of his friend.
Clark, however, was also evidently philosophical about the matter. The raid had been Lee’s idea, after all. Samuel Shaw, a witness to the court martial, recorded, “Major Clarke, who is exceedingly the gentlemen, advised and endeavoured to dissuade those officers from prosecution, but in vain. On the trial, he supported this character; though the only person who could reasonably be thought to be injured by Major Lee’s having command, his whole evidence, as well as that of every other person examined, might be considered as an encomium on his conduct.” Clark himself only noted in his always-terse diary, “A witness in Majr. Lee’s trial.”
Cecere’s portrait of Muhlenberg is one of a longsuffering, patient, and competent officer who put up with various controversies, injustices, and canceled furloughs because he—like Washington—was able to keep his eye on the big picture. A final note of humility is revealed in the book’s last pages when Muhlenberg turned down an offer to return as rector of Shenandoah County’s Beckford Parish. Using an apparent equestrian image, he said “that it would never do to mount the parson after the soldier.” Muhlenberg’s faith is not obvious in his military correspondence, but his Christianity and the fact that he was an ordained and practicing minister of the Gospel when he accepted his commission are key to understanding his character. It explains how he managed to consistently play the straight man in an officer corps full of egos and alcohol.
General Muhlenberg will never compete with Henry Knox or Daniel Morgan for popularity among the Revolution’s brigadiers. By other measures, however, he ranks among the very best in the army. The fact that he was a German cleric from Pennsylvania commanding a Virginia brigade seems merely interesting to us today. At the time, however, it broke boundaries that would have been shocking just a few years before the war. As a minister in the Church of England, he was arguably guilty of punishable treason the moment he accepted his first commission. Such an officer should be remembered, and remembered accurately. On both counts, Michael Cecere has made an important contribution to the literature of the Revolutionary War.
Edward W. Hocker, The Fighting Parson of the American Revolution: A Biography of General Peter Muhlenberg, Lutheran Clergyman, Military Chieftain and Political Leader (Philadelphia: privately published, 1936); Paul A. W. Wallace, The Muhlenbergs of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950).
Ibid., 89-93; E. W. Spangler, “Memoir of Major John Clark of York County, Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 20 (1896): 77-86. Maj. John Clarke of Pennsylvania, who had cooperated with Henry Lee previously, became an army auditor in February of 1779 after a wound made him unfit to serve in the field.
Cecere, Muhlenberg, 93; William B. Reed, ed., Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847), 2: 125-126; Jonathan Clark Diary, 1772-1776, passim, Filson Historical Society mss, Louisville, KY; John W. Hartmann, The American Partisan: Henry Lee and the Struggle for Independence, 1776-1780,e-book edition (Self-published, 2000, 2014).
Josiah Quincy, ed., Journals of Major Samuel Shaw (Boston: Wm. Crosby and H.P. Nicholas, 1847), 68; Clark, Diary, September 2, 1779. Nine days later Clark spent the day “at Genl. Muhlenberg’s Quarters.” There is no evidence in the diary that Clark met with Muhlenberg or Lee between the day of the raid on Paulus Hook and the day of his testimony.