The First Virginia Regiment was authorized by the Virginia Convention of July 17, 1775 as a provincial defense unit composed of six musket and two rifle companies under the command of Patrick Henry. Each company was to consist of 68 enlisted men, with officers to include a captain, lieutenant, and ensign (second lieutenant). Six of the companies were armed with muskets and two with rifles.
In September the companies began arriving in Williamsburg from the surrounding counties where each was recruited. The regiment encamped behind the College of William and Mary where the men were trained in military drill and maneuvers. On December 28, 1775 the Continental Congress in Philadelphia recommended that each regiment should have 10 companies, and the First Virginia soon raised two more musket companies.
The First, along with the Second Regiment saw service in the Tidewater area fighting the troops of Virginia’s Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore. Dunmore raised two Loyalist regiments and a small unit made up of runaway slaves to reclaim the wayward government of the colony. Two British Grenadier companies soon augmented his force. Members of the First Virginia engaged Dunmore’s troops at Hampton, Jamestown and Norfolk. On December 9th, 1775 three companies from the First joined the Second Virginia Regiment in defeating Dunmore’s troops at the Battle of Great Bridge near Norfolk. Dunmore made several more attempts to gain a stronghold on the colony but in August 1776 he abandoned Virginia.
On February 15, 1776, the Regiment was accepted into the new Continental Line authorized by Congress in Philadelphia. At this time, Patrick Henry, commander of all the Virginia forces, was given a Continental commission as a Colonel commanding only the First Virginia. Recognizing this as a demotion, Henry refused the commission and resigned effective February 28, 1776. To protest Henry’s demotion the officers in the First asked to be discharged but Henry persuaded them to stay with the army.
Between February and August 1776, the First Virginia trained in Williamsburg with other regiments under the command of General Andrew Lewis. On August 16, the Regiment began the long march north to join General Washington’s Grand Army in New York City. Before leaving, the men of the First and Second Regiments were asked to re-enlist for three years, or for the duration of the war. Although most of the men of the Second refused to sign up for such a long term, nearly all of the First Virginia re-enlisted.
On September 15, 1776, the First Virginia, along with the Third Virginia joined Washington’s army near Harlem Heights, New York. Having recently suffered the humiliation of being chased out of New York City and subsequently out-maneuvered by the British, Washington’s Continentals looked to the Virginians for new strength and hope. The following day three companies of the Virginians joined Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton’s Connecticut Rangers in reconnoitering the enemy lines. Running into a detachment of British, the Continentals soon found themselves in heated battle and managed to force the British to withdraw. Maryland troops joined the battle, but Washington soon called his troops back, not willing to risk a full-scale engagement. During the engagement, Major Andrew Leitch of the First Virginia was mortally wounded, as was Lt. Col. Knowlton. The success and heroism shown by the Continental troops in this relatively small engagement was a much needed morale boost for the Americans.
In order to avoid a full-scale engagement Washington continued to retreat from Howe’s slow-moving British redcoats. On the night of October 21, 600 Continentals with 160 men from the First and Third Virginia Regiments attacked a Tory force of about 500 men including Robert Roger’s “Queen’s American Rangers.” The Tories suffered twenty killed and 36 captured, while the Continentals claimed only 12 wounded.
Trenton and Princeton
By the end of December 1776, Washington’s immediate army had shrunk from casualties, disease, desertion, and the termination of enlistments to about 2,500 men fit for duty. In the hope of seizing another morale victory, if not a strategic one, Washington decided on a daring attack on Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey. In the early morning hours of December 26, Washington’s small band, including the First Virginia, crossed the Delaware River reaching the outskirts of Trenton about 8:00 am. The surprised Hessians tried in vain to hold off the Americans, but by 9:45 am the Germans were forced to surrender.
Within a few days of the American victory at Trenton, British troops marched to the town to engage Washington’s small army. The two armies began firing on each other across a creek but darkness soon put an end to the fighting. When dawn arrived the next morning, the British were surprised to find that Washington’s army had quietly pulled out in the dark. The Continentals had marched all night to the village of Princeton where they stumbled into a British force just setting out for Trenton. The Americans were divided into two groups, with the Virginians part of Green’s division under Gen. Hugh Mercer, guarding the road to Trenton. The remaining Americans proceeded to attack Princeton from the west.
Col.Mawhood’s two British regiments had already departed Princeton when Mercer’s troops were spotted behind them. The British turned back toward Princeton and engaged Mercer’s troops. With about 300 men on each side facing one another, the British soon charged with bayonets. Mercer was one of the first to fall victim to the bayonet charge. Twenty one year old Captain John Fleming of the First Virginia rallied the Regiment but was soon killed and 18 year old second lieutenant Bartholomew Yates was mortally wounded.
Confusion ensued for the Americans with the Virginia regiments in the heaviest fighting and suffering the most casualties. With the appearance of Washington on the battlefield the Americans rallied, forcing the British to flee throwing down their weapons as they ran.
During the heavy fighting Lieutenant Yates was shot in the side, and as he lay on the ground the British shot him again in the chest, bayoneted him 13 times, and clubbed him in the head. He survived for a week before dying. A tribute to Captain Fleming read: “(He) behaved and died as bravely as a Caesar would have done, ordering his men to dress [form a line] before firing, though the enemy was within 40 yards of him, advancing fast with abusive threats what they would do. However, they were mistaken, and most of them cut to pieces.”
The First Virginia spent the winter with Washington’s army at Morristown, New Jersey. The fifteen Virginia Regiments had a total of 2,925 men fit for duty, averaging less than 200 men each. Troop strength was low because of expired enlistments, disease, and battle casualties. The First Virginia could only muster 64 privates present and fit for duty, and all troops were in need of clothing and other necessities.
Washington’s troops spent the winter and spring recruiting and rebuilding the army. The main British Army under General Howe in New York made several forays into New Jersey. Washington waited for Howe to move out of New York, expecting him to move his army north to join General Burgoyne near Albany. Instead, Howe eventually sailed his troops to Head of Elk, Maryland where they began to march on Philadelphia.
Brandywine and Germantown
On August 24, 1777 Washington’s Army of 16,000 regulars and militia marched through Philadelphia to Wilmington, Delaware and by September 11 the two armies were poised for battle near Brandywine Creek, Pennsylvania.
Howe divided his force for a frontal attack on the Americans and a flanking attack on the American right. Washington tried to counter the British flanking movement, ordering Green’s division, including the First Virginia, to support the outflanked Americans under General Sullivan. Green’s men covered almost four miles in 45 minutes, arriving to find Sullivan’s men retreating in a rout. Green’s Virginians opened their line to allow the panicked Americans through and then held off the advancing British to allow Washington’s Army to fall back and retire in order. Green’s troops held out against an enemy force three times larger until nightfall, preventing the British from destroying the entire American Army.
Although Washington’s Army had been out maneuvered at Brandywine, they had fought a larger British force and managed to hold them off until dark. The American’s spirits were high and Washington was anxious for another chance to engage the enemy. The British continued their march to Philadelphia, with Washington looking for an opportunity to make a stand against them. On September 15 he marched his army into battle formation before the British by a sever storm rendered the American’s ammunition useless and drove them from the field. The British entered Philadelphia unopposed on September 26.
Continuing to look for a favorable opportunity to engage the British, Washington decided to attack a large enemy force garrisoned at Germantown, Pennsylvania. Washington devised a plan that included dividing his force into several divisions that would march separately through the night and attack from different directions simultaneously at dawn on October 4th.
As part of Muhlenberg’s Brigade, the First Virginia arrived an hour after Sullivan’s troops began the attack on the main British camp. A heavy fog made the complex plan even more confusing and some of the American troops even began to fire on one another.
When the fighting started, a small enemy force retreated into the Chew House, a heavy stone manor that proved almost impervious to canon attack. A large part of the American force was delayed trying to force the British inside the house to surrender. In the mean time, Sullivan and Green’s troops managed to attack the main British force, with Green’s Virginians driving through the British line in a bayonet charge that carried to the enemy’s camp. Prisoners were taken by the First Virginia, but with the rest of the American attack still in confusion or stalled at the Chew House, the Virginians found themselves surrounded by the enemy and forced to fight their way out. The Virginians lost 100 prisoners they had taken, and in the process nearly all of the Ninth Virginia Regiment was captured. The battle ended with the Americans withdrawing and Green’s division holding off a determined British attack as the Americans fell back.
Over the next two months both Washington and Howe looked for favorable opportunities to renew the fighting but neither found one to his liking.
The winter of 1777-1778 saw the First Virginia Regiment with Washington’s Army at Valley Forge. The troops build log huts and many of the officers of the Virginia Regiments were sent home during the winter to recruit for their vastly under-strength units. The American Army at Valley Forge, including the men of the First Virginia, were taught the new American Drill under the command of Baron von Steuben. During the winter, General Howe returned to England and General Clinton took command of the British in Philadelphia. By June, Clinton decided to move his army back to New York City and Washington saw an opportunity to take on the British with his newly trained Army.
On June 28, Washington ordered General Charles Lee with 2,000 men to attack the rear of the marching British column. Lees force joined by 1,500 Americans under General Charles Scott soon found themselves facing the entire British Army. General Lee retreated while the Americans under General Scott held until surrounded and then they too retreated in good order. Falling back about two miles, the retreating Americans ran into General Washington riding ahead of the main American Army.
Washington managed to halt the retreat and form the Americans into a line of battle while more troops arrived to extend the line on high ground. When the British arrived they made several attacks but without coordination each was repulsed. In Sterling’s Brigade the First Virginia, alongside the First and Third New Hampshire Regiments, attacked the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment. Both sides exchanged volleys at short range with the Highlanders forced to retreat from the field. Several men of the First Virginia were killed, including Major Edmund Dickinson, while the Highlanders sustained heavy casualties.
By the end of the afternoon heat had also taken the lives of men on both sides of the field. Both armies rested overnight and Clinton moved the British on toward New York early the next morning. With the Americans standing up to and repulsing the British, the battle was considered a great victory for Washington and his Army.
By September 1778 the entire Virginia Continental Line was reduced in strength due to the hardships of campaign and disease and the three-year enlistments of many of the soldiers were about to expire. A board of officers met at White Plains, New York to consolidate the fifteen Virginia regiments to eleven. The remains of the 9th Virginia, which had suffered the capture of many of its men at Germantown, was absorbed into the First but this only filled six of the prescribed eight companies.
In May of 1779 and again in September 1779 the Virginia Regiments were consolidated to create regiments of acceptable strength. The First Virginia was consolidated with the 10th and later the 5th, 7th, and 11th Regiments. On May 7, Washington ordered Colonel Richard Parker, commander of the First Virginia, to return to the state to recruit new troops to reinforce General Benjamin Lincoln in Charleston, South Carolina. At the same time, the men of the First Virginia were placed under the temporary command of Colonel William Davies in Parker’s absence.
By the summer of 1779 the war in the north had become a stalemate, with Clinton and the main British Army quartered in New York and Washington’s main army at various points outside the city. Washington decided to have his newly formed light infantry attack a British fort at Stony Point, New York. Under the command of General Anthony Wayne 1,500 Americans, including men from the First Virginia and other Virginia regiments, attacked the fort in the early morning hours of July 16. Using only their bayonets, the Americans captured the fort and 400 British troops in just fifteen minutes. Fifteen Americans were killed in the attack, including a private from the First Virginia.
In August, members of the First Virginia took part in another raid on a small British fort at Paulus Hook, New Jersey. Major Henry Lee and his cavalry, supported by handpicked infantry, including 21 men from the First and 10th Virginia, captured 158 British at the fort during the daring raid. The rest of the First Virginia was called on to support Lee as his force made their return through enemy territory.
In December, under the command of General William Woodford, the First Virginia, along with most of the Virginia troops in the north, began the long march south to join General Lincoln’s army in the Carolinas.
General Woodford arrived in Charleston on April 7, 1780 with the remains of his Virginia troops. With Woodford were on 700 of the 2,000 men that had started the march in December. Many of the troops had their terms of enlistment expire during the four-month march; others had fallen ill or deserted. Woodford’s men were organized into a brigade made up of the First, Second, and Third Continental Regiments. Colonel William Russell was commander of the First Virginia at this time.
Colonel Richard Parker had arrived with his newly raised regiment on March 31, now referred to as the First Virginia Detachment and separate from the First Virginia Continental Regiment. Parker was joined by the Second Virginia Detachment under the command of Colonel William Heath.
On February 12, 1781 a board of officers met at Chesterfield Court House, Virginia and created the First Virginia Regiment as a “paper” organization. With over 1,300 Virginia Continentals still held prisoner at Charleston, South Carolina the reorganization was largely designed to establish relative seniority of the officers. The personnel who had managed to escape capture were formed into a temporary battalion under Lt. Col. Thomas Posey.
In May 1782, with most of the fighting over, another board of officers met and created new First and Second Regiments from new recruits and veterans. On January 1, 1783 the various Virginia troops still in service were consolidated into one large battalion, designated the First Virginia Regiment, and a small battalion of two companies, designated the Second. Most of Virginia’s Continentals were mustered out of service in June 1783 with the final three companies of the First being discharged in July or August.
Minnis, M. L. (1990). The First Virginia Regiment of Foot. Willow Bend Books.
Sanchez-Saavedra, E. M. (1978). A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774-1787. Virginia State Library.