Virginia, Mobilization in

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Virginia, Mobilization in

VIRGINIA, MOBILIZATION IN. In 1775 Virginians began an eight-year-long war with Britain that they had neither predicted nor desired. What became the War for Independence was one of the longest, most divisive, and deadliest conflicts since the colony's founding and would at times bring the Old Dominion to its knees. Mobilization for the Revolutionary War strained the resources even of Virginia, the most valuable British mainland colony, and as in many other colonies, it exacerbated preexisting social tensions and created new divisions—mainly over the important questions of who should serve and who should pay for the costs of war. But mobilization in Virginia was also hampered in significant and sometimes surprising ways by the presence of hundreds of thousands of enslaved workers in the colony. In the end, the demands of war in a slave society would prove crippling as Virginia struggled throughout the conflict to mobilize effectively.

Though Virginians had participated in the colonial protests over British imperial measures since the mid-1760s–and, indeed, had been at the forefront of many of them—Patriot leaders stepped up their resistance once the British response to the Boston Tea Party became clear. The more militant Patriot leaders throughout the eastern seaboard circulated plans for a continental congress and a plan of association that included a boycott of trade between Britain and the mainland colonies. As the summer progressed, however, there were growing fears that more than just economic resistance might be necessary to counter the British; indeed, the Boston Port Act in particular was seen by some as an invasion, and from the middle of 1774, many travelers in Virginia began to note the increased militancy of many Virginians.


At first, Patriot leaders began organizing themselves into Independent Companies of Gentlemen Volunteers. That is because the established militia was still technically under the control of the royal governor, Lord Dunmore. Moreover, the militia had played a diminishing role in the lives of most Virginians over previous decades, and Patriot leaders were still unclear how their fellow white Virginians would react to a general call for mobilization. The Independent Companies would allow Patriot leaders to present a show of militancy to both British officials and to the increasingly restive slaves of Virginians; ready Patriots for possible conflict; and provide a training ground for gentlemen, who could then become officers if resistance escalated. Though few ordinary Virginians seemed interested in the Independent Companies, Governor Dunmore became increasingly irritated by their presence.

Only two days after General Gage marched out and provoked the famous confrontations at Lexington and Concord—an event still unknown to Virginians—Governor Dunmore made a move against militants in his colony, seizing gunpowder from the Williamsburg public magazine in the early hours of 21 April 1775. Unlike Gage's ill-fated expedition, however, there was no bloodshed in Virginia. Dunmore claimed that he had removed the powder because of rumors that Virginia's enslaved population intended to rise up against its white masters. At the same time, Dunmore warned that he would arm enslaved Virginians if Patriot leaders did not curb the militants in the Independent Companies. Given that many slaves had already begun making their way to the governor with offers of help, moderates feared that Dunmore's threats were not idle ones.

Dunmore's actions and threats stirred up a hornet's nest, and thousands of white Virginians flew to arms. While moderate Patriot leaders appealed for calm and tried to avert civil war, ordinary Virginians swelled the ranks of the Independent Companies, elected their own officers, and debated whether to march against the governor. After several weeks of aggressive posturing and skirmishing, and after hearing of news of the Battle of Breed's Hill outside Boston, militants forced Dunmore to flee for safety on board one of the royal ships in the Chesapeake Bay. Though the perceived erosion of political rights helped convince some Virginians to mobilize for possible conflict, particular local issues—especially threats of armed insurrections by enslaved Virginians—helped spur mobilization on a broader scale, which in turn contributed to the rapid deterioration of imperial relations in the colony. Dunmore's flight from Williamsburg on 8 June 1775, at least in retrospect, signaled the end of royal government in Virginia.

Faced with almost inevitable war against Britain and anxious to reassert control over the increasingly anarchic situation in Virginia, Patriot leaders quickly moved to curb the militancy of the autonomous Independent Companies by replacing them with a more structured, hierarchical, and responsive military organization, one that fused elements of old and new military thinking. In the third Virginia Convention in July 1775, Patriot leaders devised a three-tiered military organization. Drawing on past military experience—most recently in the Seven Years' War—they ordered the creation of two regiments of regular troops that would serve as Virginia's contingent of Continental soldiers but act as a permanent home guard. Patriot leaders also resurrected the militia, in which all white males between the ages of eighteen and fifty would be enrolled. Finally, Patriot leaders also called for the recruitment of sixteen battalions of elite militia, called the minutemen, who would serve as a first line of defence for the colony against the British. Patriot leaders hoped that such a system would not only protect them from the British, but that it would also deter black Virginians from taking advantage of the civil war and making their own bids for freedom. To ensure this dual role, Patriot leaders gave commanding officers in the militia new powers to appoint and lead slave patrols and exempted from service altogether all overseers of at least four enslaved Virginians.

If these initial proposals reflected a concern about race and slavery within Virginia, they also reflected Patriot leaders' class-based perspectives on mobilization. For it was clear from the outset that most of these leaders believed that the two regiments of Continental soldiers should and would be composed of men similar in social standing as those drafted to serve in regular units in the Seven Years' War—the poor and marginal. Many gentlemen warned their sons to stay clear of the regular service and not to serve as mere "common Soldiers." Instead, many secured appointments as officers in the service. But if service in the regular army proved unattractive for gentlemen and their sons, service in the minutemen proved unattractive for many ordinary white Virginians. Having elected their own officers in the Independent Companies, few former volunteers were happy about having appointed officers imposed on them from above and paid much more than enlisted men. And while they acted spontaneously in the Independent Companies, most would-be minutemen were reluctant to spend any unnecessary time away from their farms training in the new service as required by law. Finally, many poorer or smallholding militiamen particularly resented the exemptions allowed in the militia. They believed the exemption of overseers shielded wealthier slave owners from military service at the expense of non-slaveholders. Patriot leaders wanted a disciplined armed force that they could control; ordinary white Virginians wanted a greater say in return for the sacrifices they were being asked to make.


By choosing order over democracy, Patriot leaders quashed enthusiasm for the cause. In the end, too few Virginians stepped forward to make the minutemen service a viable defense force. Incredibly, the minutemen service stalled even after Governor Dunmore had upped the ante in Virginia in November 1775 by declaring the slaves and servants of rebel masters free if they could reach his lines and join him to fight against the Patriot forces. Even the renewed threat of racial war failed to mobilize middling white Virginians in sufficient numbers, and not for the last time in the conflict. Consequently, by December 1775 Patriot leaders had all but scrapped the minutemen service and, in desperation, instead called for a vastly enlarged regular service that they hoped would serve as a permanent wartime professional army for the protection of the state. At the same time, they also pleaded with Congress to include this contingent as part of Virginia's contribution to the Continental army. In doing so, the leading Patriots signaled that they would not rely on middling citizens in the militia for the colony's defense; instead, they would award generous enlistment bounties and regular pay to anyone who would give up their independence and submit to the more onerous regulations governing the Continental army. To put it another way, as early as the end of 1775, Virginia's leaders had concluded that it was better to pay the poor to fight on behalf of taxpaying citizens and the ruling class than to send the sons of the elite and middling classes to war and risk social upheaval.

Initially, this policy enjoyed some success. Enlistments for the newly enlarged regular army were brisk throughout the early months of 1776. But as bad news from the northern theater began to reach Virginia in the early summer, enlistments began to fall off. And as Washington called for increasing numbers of soldiers to stave off British advances around New York, fewer Virginians stepped forward as it looked more and more likely that they would be sent northward, far from their homes and families. In turn, Patriot leaders began thinking about new ways of "encouraging" enlistments into the army, revealing more explicitly their thinking about who ought to serve. At the end of 1776, for example, the assembly gave justices of the peace and the governor wide powers to imprison and ultimately impress "rogues and vagabonds" into the armed services. By the spring of 1777, the assembly also sanctioned the recruitment of free blacks into the army.

With still only as little as one-quarter of its new quota raised by May 1777, Virginia also succumbed to pressure from Washington and Congress and instituted a draft for soldiers. But contrary to congressional recommendations that men be drafted universally, Virginia legislators decided that draftees would be those who could "be best spared, and will be most serviceable," to be decided by the field officers and the top four magistrates of the county. Virginia's Revolutionary leaders, then, fell back on a colonial strategy of targeting the more vulnerable in society. As one recruiting officer put it later in the year, the draft was designed to force the "expendables" into service, or more explicitly, according to one Virginian, the "Lazy fellows who lurk about and are pests to Society."

If Revolutionary leaders and middling Virginians were content to shift the burden of fighting, the lower sort upon whom that burden fell were quick to fight back. Would-be recruits forced Patriots to raise bounty money, bargained with their neighbors for their services, and resisted and evaded the draft when coerced into service. In some places, they violently resisted any and all attempts to conscript soldiers. In other places, once drafted they simply deserted and found refuge, usually with friends and family. Lower-class resistance was so vehement that, by early 1778, Virginia legislators were forced to abandon the idea of raising men by a draft altogether and turned instead to high bounties and short terms of service. When the assembly made economic enticements the sole inducement to join the army in 1778 and 1779, the inflation of bounty rewards accelerated. By the fall of 1779, the sums given to recruits for the army had reached critical and crippling proportions. Because of rising inflation, Edmund Pendleton thought that almost every man enlisted had cost, on average, about five thousand pounds each.

Some Virginians, of course, were happy to serve on any terms. Many men, for example, were willing to exchange one kind of bondage for another. In 1775 the third Virginia Convention had forbidden recruiters to enlist any servants at all unless they were apprentices who had the written consent of their masters. Yet desperation drove recruiters to enlist anyone who seemed willing to serve. Indentured and convict servants took full advantage. But enslaved Virginians also took advantage of the desperate need for soldiers by offering themselves to recruiters under the guise of being freemen. The prohibition of 1775 against enlisting servants presumably applied to enslaved Virginians, for on that front the Convention was completely silent. However, at some point between 1775 and early 1777, desperate recruiters began allowing free blacks into the Virginia line. But enslaved Virginians knew that in the face of a shortage of white enlistments, recruiters were more likely to enlist blacks whether enslaved or free. By the middle years of the war, blacks constituted a significant minority in Virginia's line in the Continental army. Because middling and upper-class whites refused to fight for themselves, and because even lower-class whites only reluctantly joined the army, necessity forced white Virginians to rely on blacks for their defense.

The end result of lower-class resistance through the middle years of the war was that the war effort simply ground to a halt. Despite the pleas of Continental officials, Virginia legislators failed to put teeth into their recruiting laws through the latter part of 1778, throughout 1779, and into 1780. The returns of the First Virginia Regiment, probably the strongest regiment from the state at any given moment during the war, showed the shortcomings of Virginia military policy in the war's midyears. In September 1776 there were 590 men enrolled in the regiment (though only 406 were present and fit for duty). By the end of 1779, even after being reinforced with remnants of the Ninth and Tenth Virginia Regiments, the First consisted of only 295 men, most of whose terms of service were expiring. Finally, just before its capture at Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1780, the strength of the Regiment was listed at just 195 effective men. "Virginia," wrote one army chaplain definitively, "makes the poorest figure of any State in the Recruiting way."


While Virginians divided among themselves and hoped for peace, the British began moving to bring the war to the South and open up a new front in the stagnating conflict. With the British believing themselves to be at a stalemate in the North, the southern colonies began to look more inviting to them by 1778–1779. It was not until British strategy shifted southward that state leaders again took the war seriously—only, in fact, when Virginia lost the remnants of its contingent of Continental soldiers at the fall of Charleston in 1780. The members of the assembly, under mounting pressure from Congress and from officers such as Washington, finally expanded their mobilization efforts. They did so by putting increased pressure on the middling classes, both by requiring from them more extensive militia service and by reinstituting and expanding the draft, this time to include all men.

Calls on the militia for more frequent service in Virginia and in neighboring states escalated after 1778 in the face of British raids. But the more the assembly and governor called on the militia, the more middling white Virginians protested. Ordinary farmers and planters demanded that calls be limited, for short terms of service, and for service only close to home. Most were adamant that they would not serve outside the state, and particularly in the hotter climates of the states to the south of them. But middling men in the militia were equally insistent that their taxpaying status should exempt them from fighting altogether and that the state ought to spend their tax money on raising a proper army and filling it with their lower-class neighbors. Petitioners in the militia claimed that full citizens of the new Republic had the right not to serve but to pay others to do it for them. Only by pushing lower-class men into a permanent army, they warned, could the government quell the "great uneasiness and disquiet in the Country" caused by militia call outs and high taxes.


But middling Virginians were equally concerned about serving in the military because of the shadow of slavery. The presence of a large number of enslaved Virginians in the state affected mobilization in several significant ways. In the first place, many slaveholders were worried about losing their valuable property amidst the British raids and invasion. But many white Virginians also harbored a deep-seated fear that Virginia's enslaved population might do more than just take the opportunity to escape to the British. With first-hand accounts raising alarms, they feared that Virginia's slaves would revolt and kill their masters. Such worries, perhaps predictably, kept many militia at home when the British invaded the state.

Slavery also had a less obvious impact on mobilization in Virginia. Though many historians have assumed that slavery helped unify white communities in times of trouble, the ownership of enslaved Virginians actually aggravated deep divisions among whites. Nonslaveholders, for example, were quick to claim that military service for slaveholders was much less of a burden than for those without slaves. Slaveowners still had someone to labor for them in their absence. Moreover, many nonslave-holders believed that slaveholders had enjoyed too many exemptions from fighting altogether. Under the strain of war, resentments became glaring divides. In the midst of one British raid up the Potomac, for example, many of the militia of the Northern Neck refused to serve, declaring "the Rich wanted the Poor to fight for them, to defend there property, whilst they refused to fight for themselves." Slaveholding, then, particularly towards the end of the war, increasingly became the touchstone for class divisions among white Virginians.

Given these seemingly intractable considerations, Patriot leaders were forced into thinking about some revolutionary proposals. In the fall of 1780, Virginia legislators announced a radical new plan to raise a more permanent army. They proposed offering volunteers, in addition to the Continental bounty (which still included a parcel of land), an enslaved Virginian between the ages of ten and forty years old. After years of resistance and holding out for the best leverage for their services, lower-class Virginians were finally able to extract a huge windfall in return for serving in the military. Not only would they get enough land to vote, but they would also receive money enough to establish themselves and even an enslaved Virginian to make that land more productive. And legislators may have hoped that in addition to raising a more permanent army, they were also making a judicious move to shore up what was clearly a tenuous alliance between poor whites and wealthy slave owners to resist the British invasion.

Significantly, Revolutionary leaders stopped short of making the most obvious move of enlisting slaves rather than using them as part of the bounty to enlist poor whites. James Madison, for example, thought it would be much better if Patriot leaders in Virginia took the more obvious step and allow enslaved Virginians themselves to serve. He thought that such a move would "certainly be more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be lost sight of in a contest for liberty." Most of Madison's elite colleagues in the assembly, however, were not prepared to move so far. The war had already chipped away at the institution of slavery on a number of different fronts. Many gentlemen believed that officially arming enslaved Virginians and offering them their freedom would amount to a virtual emancipation call across the state. Patriot leaders were not going to go that far, regardless of the costs.


As it turned out, the new recruiting law was undermined by a fresh British offensive in the state that began in January 1781. Increased militia call outs and general protests against the new law ensured that it was ineffective. Few recruits actually stepped forward, and many counties refused to implement the recruiting law in sympathy with their militia or in fear of what might happen if they did. Worse, though, when local officials tried forcibly to draft men, it caused widespread unease, discontent, and in some cases collective and violent resistance. As for the permanent army Washington wanted, in 1781 Virginia managed to scrape up just 773 men, or a mere 24 percent of the 3,250 men for whom Washington had called. Pressure from below thoroughly disabled mobilization for the regular army in 1781. Though repeated British invasions helped undermine the draft in Virginia, the militia's sometimes intense, sometimes passive, but persistent local resistance to state laws had brought recruiting to a halt.

Nor did white Virginians do much better in rallying themselves to the battlefield as militia. As the British made further inroads into the state, Virginians seemed powerless to stop them, and many militiamen throughout Virginia actually rioted in protest against both the draft for Continental soldiers and the militia call outs. In the end, while Washington and Lafayette hurried to Virginia with the remains of the Continental army in the hopes of trapping Cornwallis at Yorktown, white Virginians divided among themselves. The end of the war came at Yorktown, but with only an indifferent contribution from Virginians. Even the best estimates of the number of militia at Yorktown show that perhaps no more than 3,000 Virginia militia out of a potential 50,000 participated in some way; 7,800 French troops and over 5,000 Continental troops—mainly from states north of Virginia—played the greatest role. In the critical year of 1781, Revolutionary leaders in Virginia reaped the fruits of the divisive policies they had sown over the preceding years of war.


Close attention to mobilization, then, reveals that like many other states, Virginia was wracked by internal divisions and conflicts, often over the all-important question of who should serve or at least bear the burden of the costs of the war. Such conflicts continued in the postwar era but significantly, most protagonists then rested the legitimacy of their arguments on their wartime sacrifices, however great or small. Middling Virginians, for example, complained about and evaded high postwar taxes by claiming that they had already made tremendous sacrifices during the war. They also fundamentally changed the tax structure of the new state by continuing to argue that all men ought to bear a share of the costs of the war in proportion to their wealth. Though poorer Virginians and even blacks joined the army and helped win the war, middling militia who stayed at home claimed the fruits of the Revolution. Indeed, slaveholding Virginians even used enslaved Virginians' resistance to justify continued bondage and used their own wartime sacrifices and military service, however limited they may have been, to justify their efforts to keep a tenacious hold on their human property. In doing so, slaveholders used Revolutionary principles and their Revolutionary participation to legitimate the continued enslavement of black Virginians.

Moreover, wartime divisions took on particular importance in America because the war was so central to the political settlement that occurred in many states during the war and, shortly thereafter, at a national level. For example, precisely because so many people defended their own interests and refused to fight the war on terms proposed by elites, elites themselves in turn began thinking about new ways of organizing society and politics to protect the fragile republican experiment of which they were only nominally in charge by the end of the war. Indeed, the divisive and crippling experience of the war helped produce a small group of committed nationalists—including George Washington and many other Continental army officers who had been frustrated by the conflicts at the state level that had undermined the war effort. At the same time, many state leaders believed that Virginia had been abandoned by its northern neighbors in the latter stages of the war and blamed their internal problems on the lack of cooperation between the states. Thus, the political issues that divided Americans in the run-up to the passage of the Constitution and that continued to plague national politics in the 1790s and beyond may, in part at least, be traced to the problems faced by the different states in mobilizing for the War for Independence.

SEE ALSO Virginia, Military Operations in.


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