The Second Amendment to the Constitution - The Right to Bear Arms – states:
“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
The story of the Virginia Militia, especially those of the Rockbridge Virginia Militia, symbolize those sentiments both in spirit and principal. During the Revolutionary War they served in all three theaters. Probably their greatest accomplishments occurred in the Southern Campaign from the tidewater, to the mountains, and to the frontier beyond.
With the Declaration of Independence in 1777 the Virginia legislature directed each county to establish a formal militia (also referred to as a “Line” as soldiers were trained to stand shoulder to shoulder in a line and fire their weapons as a unit), divided into ten sections of 500 or more men to be called out in a rotating order one or more at a time and led by an officer of suitable rank. The area of Rockbridge Virginia was settled largely by Scots from Ulster. Accordingly, the Militia was loaded with names like Campbell, Wallace, Johnstone, Gilmore, McDowell and Sevier.
Prior to 1777, Rockbridge had a ‘militia’ that was similar to a volunteer brigade. It served bravely during the long period of Indian Wars (Note: I do not use the word “Indian” pejoratively. This is how it is recorded in historical documents of the Commonwealth of Virginia circa 1742-1763).
In 1754, the Rockbridge Militia led by the Captains James Gilmore (Note: James Gilmore was the husband of Martha Ann McElwee, the five times great aunt of editor, Jo Lawrence.) and John Lyle cut their teeth as a fighting unit as part of a 1,000-man force under the command of Colonel Andrew Lewis. They were to be a part of a two-pronged Virginian attack subduing the Cherokee Indians in the Ohio Valley. The expedition achieved moderate success. In February 1756, as a part of the Big Sandy Expedition, again commanded by Ulster born, Col. Andrew Lewis, the militia departed from Fort Frederick to raid Shawnee towns along the Big Sandy and Ohio rivers in retaliation for Shawnee attacks on frontier forts. The Rockbridge Militia also fought at the battle at Point Pleasant, 10 October 1774 defeating the Shawnee war chief, Cornstalk.
The formal Militia participated in the Battle of Germantown, 4 October 1777, outside of Philadelphia. The History of Rockbridge County states; “400 tall Virginians at Germantown were cut off by fog and forced to surrender.” While the statement is more or less accurate, the real story is more enlightening. The Rockbridge Militia was attached to General Nathanael Greene’s column. Greene’s vanguard engaged the British pickets at Luken’s Mill, driving them back after a savage skirmish. There was a heavy fog at that part of
the battlefield. Between the fog, the confusion of battle and the pall of smoke from the cannon and musket fire, Greene’s column fell into disarray and confusion. The 9th Virginia Regiment, including the Rockbridge Militia, launched an attack on the British lines and, managed to break through and captured a number of prisoners. However, they were soon surrounded by two arriving British brigades under Lord Cornwallis. Cornwallis then launched a counter-charge, cutting off the Virginians completely, forcing them to surrender.
The Rockbridge Militia acquitted themselves handsomely at the Battle of King’s Mountain on 7 October 1780. This battle was notable for several reasons not the least of which was Major Patrick Ferguson’s comment about driving the Patriots from the mountain “with fire and sword”. Which in fact was an old Scottish quotation that originated in the Borders region of Scotland. (In November 1597 James VI wrote to Henry Leigh, the English Warden on the Borders, to mount an expedition against the Broken Men of the West March “We have resolved to passe forward in proper person uppon them with fyre and sword uppon Tuesday next to their extermination and wreike and intreat yow that yow wilbein a redynes with some sufficient force ….for hawlding them in at that syde and concurrencie with us to their borning persiut and repressinge. ” For those readers not fluent in Olde English a rough translation would be ‘Go there and kick some butt.’)
The second somewhat less know quote was made by Captain Abraham de Peyster of the Loyalist militia who at the onset of the battle turned to Major Ferguson and said, “These things are ominous — these are the damned yelling boys!” He was referring to the battle cry of the Patriots. As most were of Scottish ancestry they were accustomed to issuing their clan’s battle cry at the onset of a conflict. It was Colonel William Campbell who ordered his men to “shout like hell and fight like devils!” This cry echoed down through time