March 15, 1781: Battle of Guilford Courthouse

The Virginia Brigade would first see combat at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March 1781. While “Colonel Green…with his regiment of Virginia, was drawn off without having tasted of battle, and ordered to a given point in the rear for security…” Hawes’s battalion was heavily engaged on the American right of the third line. Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee noted that they were “…composed of new soldiers, among whom were mingled a few who had served from the beginning of the war; but all the officers were experienced and approved.”

When Cornwallis sent Webster’s Brigade to break Greene’s third line, they “…rushed into close fire; but so firmly was he received by this body of veterans, supported by Hawe’s regiment of Virginia…that with equal rapidity he was compelled to recoil from the shock.” As the battle concluded, “General [Issac] Huger, who had, throughout the action, given his chief attention to the regiment of Hawes’s, the only one of the two, constituting his brigade, ever engaged, and which, with Kirkwood’s company, was still contending with lieutenant colonel Webster, now drew it off by order of the general;”

Lee commended the untested brigade and credited its officers in that “…the two regiments of Virginia were comprised of raw troops; but their officers were veteran, and the soldier is soon made fit for battle by experienced commanders.”

Excerpt from “…the soldier is soon made fit for battle by experienced commanders.”: The Collapse, Reformation, and Battle History of the Virginia Brigade of the Southern Army, 1780-81 by Todd Post
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The Decline of the Virginia Line, 1778-81

Following the hard campaigning and brutal winter of the Philadelphia Campaign in 1777-78 in which the Virginia Continental regiments were heavily engaged, the state struggled to maintain its quota of fifteen regiments and began a series of consolidations starting in September 1778. Officers would be deemed supernumerary and either furloughed, sent back to Virginia to recruit, or given alternative assignments with hopes they would return to duty when their regiments regained full strength.

By early 1780, all of Virginia’s forces would be reduced to three ill-fated “detachments” of roughly 700 men. The 1st and 2d Virginia Detachments would be captured at Charleston and the 3rd Virginia Detachment was smashed at the Waxhaws in May 1780.

In July 1780, Washington wrote Generals Gates and Muhlenberg of a plan to reconstitute the Virginia Line, by “…raising Five Thousand Men to serve Eighteen months, for supplying their Battalions…” as “The Whole of the Virginia line, except the 9th Regiment and the Officers mentioned below, being prisoners at Charles Town…” As an additional stopgap measure, Virginia sent its State Regiment to join the Southern Army, but that too was decimated at the Battle of Camden and instead of several regiments totaling 5,000 men.

Chesterfield Courthouse, 1780

One of the officers who had been deemed supernumerary was Danish-born Colonel Christian Febiger of the 2d Virginia Regiment. By May 1779, the regiment had fallen to only 180 rank-and-file; operational command had fallen to Major Thomas Massie and there was such a need for company officers that an inspection return recommended the promotion of serjeants to ensigns to fill the gap.

In July 1779, while still retaining command of the 2d Virginia Regiment on paper, Febiger was given command of the Corps of Light Infantry’s 1st Battalion and participated in General Wayne’s capture of Stony Point. Having been a merchant in Boston prior to the war, he was then sent to Philadelphia to help procure supplies for the Southern Army before eventually going to Virginia to head up recruitment efforts for his regiment and the Virginia Line at Chesterfield Courthouse.

In his memoirs, Lieutenant Francis Brooke of the 1st Continental Artillery talks of the recruiting depot and Febiger, saying: “Col. Febiger was an excellent camp officer, well acquainted with the tactics of the drill, and though I belonged to the artillery, I was called into rotation with other subalterns to train and drill the infantry, and I acquired perfect knowledge of the Prussian tactics, written by Baron Steuben, who had been an aid to the Great Frederick.”

To aid in his efforts, he also petitioned to form a band of music at his own expense, writing that he had “…twice tried it and have been often disappointed, as no musicians were to be had in this country except prisoners and deserters from the British army, who as soon as I had two or three of them engaged, one would desert me before I could get another in his place, I soon discovered that no faith must be put in these people and the assistant till last Fall, when the time of service of three of our best fifers expired, I proposed for them to reenlist and I would make a Band of them…”

He then hired a “…Mr. Schultz a German musician to teach them…” and made an offer to any of his fifers that if they would reenlist, that as a bounty he would have them taught, “four to learn clarinets and violins, 2 bassoons and bass viol, 2 French horn and that many should be entitled to all other embellishments such as clothing etc. as was allowed other non-commissioned officers in the army.” Febiger attempted to follow through on this effort when he wrote the Board of War “…as the Uniform of my Regt. is blue fac’d with red and it is customary to have the Drums and Fifes in Reverse Uniform to the Regt. to grant me the Order for red Coats fac’d with blue…”

Little did Febiger know that soon the remnants of his regiment and the rest of the Virginia Line would be effectively erased, making Chesterfield Courthouse the focal point for reestablishing it.

The 1st and 2d Virginia Regiments Take Form

The other two battalions of new levies and reenlisted veterans would eventually be formed into the Virginia Brigade under Brigadier General Isaac Huger with Major General Greene. These battalions are often erroneously referred to as the 4th and 5th Virginia Regiments, probably due to a misunderstanding of the 1st, 2d, and 3rd Virginia Detachments of 1780.

Initially, the battalions were referred to by their colonel’s name, Greene wrote to William Davies of the Virginia Board of War: “The disagreeable situation of the detachments serving with this army from the State of Virginia, and the complaints of all ranks of officers from their not being Regimented induces me to wish that the first and second Virginia regiments should be immediately formed, and the Officers sent forward without loss of time. While the troops act by detachment and the officers uncertain whether they will command the same men, they will not pay attention to the discipline of the troops which the service requires.”

The 1st Virginia Regiment would be formed in December 1780 under Colonel John Green. Green had started the war as a captain of the original 1st Virginia Regiment in 1775 and would go on to serve in the 10th and 6th Virginia Regiments, but like Febiger would become a supernumerary officer until this new battalion was formed.  When they marched off for North Carolina, Steuben wrote Greene: “Yesterday I had the Satisfaction of marching Col [John] Green with 400 Rank and file, on his way to the Southward… For those men I have procured a jacket with sleeves, one shirt, a pair of linen overhalls, a knapsack, Blanket, and a pair shoes each. This Detachment is completely furnishd with Camp Equipage. In order to complete them I was obliged to take Eight Horse Men’s tents out of those Stores sent on. The men are all Armed with Gun, Bayonet, and 40 Rounds.”

The second battalion also formed, as recalled by Private Lewis Griffin, “…at Steuben’s, or Chesterfield Courthouse…” during the winter …”where they drew their clothing and arms.” They marched to join Greene under Lt. Colonel Richard Campbell, who had previously served in the 8th Virginia Regiment and then commanded the 13th Virginia Regiment, which became the 9th Virginia Regiment and served at Fort Pitt. When they arrived, Campbell was named second in command of the 1st Virginia Regiment and the Lt. Colonel Samuel Hawes assumed command of the 2d Virginia Regiment. Hawes began the war as a captain in the original 2d Virginia Regiment in 1775 before transferring to the 6th Virginia Regiment.

Excerpt from “…the soldier is soon made fit for battle by experienced commanders.”: The Collapse, Reformation, and Battle History of the Virginia Brigade of the Southern Army, 1780-81 by Todd Post