Muhlenberg, John Peter Gabriel

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Muhlenberg, John Peter Gabriel

MUHLENBERG, JOHN PETER GABRIEL. (1746–1807). Lutheran clergyman, Continental general, politician. Pennsylvania and Virginia. Born 1 October 1746 in Trappe, Pennsylvania, Muhlenberg was sent by his father, a Lutheran missionary, to Halle, Germany, at the age of sixteen to be educated. It was hoped that he would become a minister. Instead, he was apprenticed to a grocer in Lübeck. After three years of misery, Muhlenberg ran away and in 1766 joined the 60th Foot ("Royal Americans"). As secretary to one of the regiment's officers, he traveled to Philadelphia and was discharged in 1767. He studied theology and became an assistant to his father.

In 1772 he moved to Woodstock, Virginia, to be pastor of the large colony of German immigrants in the Shenandoah Valley. That same year he went to England, and on 23 April 1772 was ordained by the bishop of London. Back in the Shenandoah Valley, he soon emerged as a leader of his community, being elected to the House of Burgesses in 1774. He became associated with the Patriot cause and was elected chair of the Dunmore County Committee of Correspondence and Safety. In March 1775 he became a member of the Virginia Convention, and on 12 January 1776 he accepted their appointment as a militia colonel charged with raising a regiment. He preached a famous final sermon back in Woodstock. "There is a time for all things," he said, taking his text from Ecclesiastes 3:1, "a time to preach and a time to pray; but there is also a time to fight, and that time has now come." At this point he supposedly threw aside his robes to reveal his militia uniform, ordered the drums to beat for recruits, and enlisted most of the adult males in his congregation into the Eighth Virginia, which was better known as the "German Regiment." Marching south, the regiment helped repel General Henry Clinton's Charleston expedition in 1776. Afterwards, they continued into Georgia, where disease eventually forced the unit to return to Virginia.

Muhlenberg was appointed brigadier general on 21 February 1777, and his brigade saw action as part of General Nathanael Greene's division at the battle of the Brandywine River, on 11 September 1777. At Germantown, on 4 October 1777, "the Parson-General," as he was known, led his brigade in a deep penetration of the enemy's line, and then fought his way back as superior enemy forces tried to cut him off.

After the winter at Valley Forge, Muhlenberg, William Woodford, and George Weedon, became engaged in the patriot pastime of fighting over primacy of rank. At Monmouth, on 28 June 1778, Muhlenberg commanded the second line of Greene's right wing, which was not engaged until the final phase of the battle. Later in 1778 Muhlenberg was assigned to Israel Putnam's division on the Hudson River, and he commanded the division during the winter while Putnam was absent. After winter quarters at Middlebrook, Muhlenberg commanded a 300-man reserve during Anthony Wayne's assault of Stony Point on 16 July 1779. In December he was sent by General George Washington to take command in Virginia, but it was March 1780 before he reached Richmond. During this delay, caused by snows of the exceptional winter, Friedrich Steuben was given chief command in Virginia, and Muhlenberg became his second. He was involved in the unsuccessful attempt to keep William Phillips and Benedict Arnold from destroying supplies in Petersburg on 25 April 1781. He and Weedon then worked to assemble Virginia militia units and continued to command troops on the south bank of the James River. In the final operations against General Charles Cornwallis, Muhlenberg commanded a brigade in the light infantry division led by the Marquis de Lafayette and again in the assault on Redoubt Number Ten during the Yorktown campaign.

Brevetted a major general on 30 September 1783, Muhlenberg retired on 3 November, settled his affairs at Woodstock, and moved to Philadelphia. Among the Pennsylvania Germans, he now was a hero second only to Washington, and a political career lay before him. In 1784 he was elected to the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, and during the period 1785–1788 he was vice president of the state under Benjamin Franklin. He was influential in the early adoption of the Constitution in the state, and both he and his brother, Frederick, were elected representatives to the first Congress. Defeated for re-election, he returned to Congress in 1793–1795 and 1799–1801. On 18 February 1801 he was elected senator, but resigned a month later to become supervisor of revenue in Philadelphia. From 1802 until his death five years later he was collector of customs in the city. He died at his home at Gray's Ferry, Pennsylvania, on 1 October 1807.

SEE ALSO German Regiment; Yorktown Campaign.


Wallace, Paul A. W. The Muhlenbergs of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.

                          revised by Michael Bellesiles

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