An Abbreviated History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Chapter Six: Pittsylvania's Military History

By Maud Carter Clement, Chatham, Virginia, ca. 1952.

Chapter contents:

French and Indian War

In 1754 trouble arose with France over the boundary lines of the French and English possessions in America, resulting in the conflict known as the French and Indian War. Many northern Indians, taking the part of the French, waged cruel war against the frontier inhabitants of Virginia.

The sufferings of his fellow countrymen so moved the heart of young George Washington that he wrote to the governor of Virginia: "The tears of the women and the petitions of the men melt me into such deadly sorrow that I would offer myself a willing sacrifice to the butchering enemy provided that would contribute to the people's ease."

At this time Pittsylvania was a part of Halifax County, which formed the southern part of Virginia's frontier line. Her back inhabitants suffered from the fury of the savages as did the whole length of the frontier.

The arrival of General Braddock with an English army in 1755 raised the spirits of the people, for they felt that a protector was at hand. After his defeat by the French and Indians, panic seized upon the back settlers, for well they knew the havoc that would be wrought upon them by the victorious savages. To the number of thousands they forsook their homes in the Valley and across the mountains in Piedmont Virginia, and fled to the Carolinas, seeking protection of the friendly Cherokee and Catawba tribes.

Colonel William Byrd, the third, was serving as a justice of the peace and county-lieutenant of Halifax, the commanding officer of the military force of the county. While his home, "Westover" in Charles City County, was more than one hundred and fifty miles distant, he still owned a large part of the 105,000 acres granted to his father. He was a man of great wealth but this did not dull the edge of the patriotism, and he served the colony actively throughout the war. He was naturally absent from the county a great part of the time, and the inhabitants in their anxious fears, appealed to the governor through their justices of the peace, for greater protection. Governor Dinwiddie wrote to Colonel Byrd: "July 22, 1755 — Sir: I have a long representation from the justices of the County of Halifax in regard to the barbarous murders committed in Augusta, and their fear of being attacked by these savages. They complain of want of Officers for the Militia. As you are Lieutenant of the County I enclose you some blank commissions to fill up to such as you think are most worthy. They complain of want of ammunition. I have ordered all the Militia of the County to be Mustered and a report to be made to me of their numbers and how provided with guns, Ammunition Etc. When you make a return to me of your county Militia, I shall endeavor all in my power to supply their Wants."

In response to this letter we may suppose that Colonel Byrd journeyed up from Westover and re-organized the Militia, for at the August court of Halifax, the following officers were elected:

The duty of the Rangers was to "range" along the frontiers in search of enemy Indians.

In the meantime the inhabitants had raised a volunteer company of fifty men whom they agreed to pay for six months service. When this was made known to the governor he sent a commission for the commanding officer, Captain Nathaniel Terry, and four and one half barrels of powder, two barrels of shot, and swords, and wished the men to stay out ranging until November.


For the defense of the frontiers the General Assembly enacted in March, 1756 "that whereas the frontiers of this Colony are in a very defenseless condition and exposed to the incursions of our cruel and savage enemies, who are daily destroying the lives and estate of the inhabitants of that part of the colony it is necessary that forts should be erected in those parts to put a stop to those violent outrages of the enemy.…That a chain of forts be erected to begin at Henry Enochs on the Great Cape-Capon, in County of Hampshire, to extend to the South Fork of Mayo, in the County of Halifax."

These forts were placed not nearer to one another than twelve miles and no farther apart than twenty-five miles; there were three erected in western Halifax. In September 1756, George Washington visited the line of forts and reported to the governor that he proceeded to Fort Trial on Smith River, the most southerly of the forts.

Fort Trial was located six miles west of the present city of Martinsville, upon a hill that commanded a wide view of Smith River, the most southerly of the forts. The fort was enclosed by a stockade of trees split in two and sunk in the ground, standing erect and quite close together. On either side of the gate were log huts; in the center, two frame houses, heaped with clay and stone as a protection from small arms.

The other two forts of western Halifax were Mayo Fort, located on the plantation of John Frederick Miller, and Hickey's Fort, and the lands of John Hickey, the store keeper.

In 1759 John Frederick Miller petitioned the General Assembly for redress because of the damages he suffered on account of the fort. He stated that by order of the commanding officer of Halifax County a fort had been erected on his plantation which enclosed his dwelling home and other houses, and was garrisoned by a company of militia who "to render it more secure from the approach and attacks of the enemy, cut down a large orchard, burnt one house, and 1600 fence rails, and made use of 118 feet of plank about the Fort," besides doing him many other damages. He stated that the fort at this time was in the possession of the militia and rangers.

In 1756, probably as soon as the forts were completed, the governor ordered that one of the forts of Halifax be garrisoned with officers and forty men. "Provisions are to be weighed out to them, one and one half pounds of Beef, and one pound of Bread daily. The 100 beeves you have sent there I suppose will serve the Garrison to the time." (March 1, 1757)

The fears of the inhabitants of Halifax were not without reason as is shown in the following letter of Peter Fontaine, county surveyor, written from Halifax in June 1757: "The County of Halifax is threatened by our enemy Indians, and the people in the upper part are in great consternation and all public business at a stand. The poor farmers and planters have dreadful apprehensions of falling into the hands of the savages, as they have good reason, considering the treatment of those who have had the misfortune to be surprised by them.

"We have amongst us two or three who have made their escape from the Shawnees (a tribe living on the Ohio), the Indians suspected that one of them whose wife and children had been inhumanly murdered, would attempt to escape, to prevent which they cut deep gashes in his heels and as soon as the man was like to get well and be in order to travel again they cut other gashes across the former, and by that means and at other times searing his feet with hot irons, kept him a continual cripple. The man, however, providentially made his escape . . . Such cruelties they practice upon our people that all had rather perish than be taken alive."

In the spring of 1758 the Shawnees made an attack upon western Halifax, seizing and carrying into captivity one of the leading citizens of the county, Robert Pusey, a justice of the peace. He came of a distinguished family of Pennsylvania Quakers, was a large land owner, and made his home on Otter Creek of Smith River. In a petition to the General Assembly in 1775 Pusey stated that he and his wife and child were captured by the Shawnees in March 1758, and carried into captivity, where he was held a long time until he redeemed his liberty. He thereby lost all his property and prayed for some relief.

Virginia's plan of defense for the colony consisted in keeping companies of rangers out along the frontiers, manning the line of forts with the militia, and maintaining two regiments of 1000 men, each, under the commands of General George Washington and Colonel William Byrd, to cooperate with the English forces in a campaign against the French. Each county was called upon to furnish its quota in making up the regiments.

The militia of Halifax furnished the men who garrisoned the forts and made up the companies of rangers for the county. Captain Thomas Calloway was in command of Hickey's Fort and his brother, William Calloway of a fort on Pigg River (Draper).

In 1758 the General Assembly provided that the soldiers who had seen active service in the war should be paid. The following list of officers was given from Halifax:

After William Pitt assumed control of the war, under his wise guidance it was brought to a successful close late in 1760.

It is probable that the men of Halifax serving in the campaign against the Indians, became acquainted with the Tennessee and Kentucky lands, and the great abundance of game there. For as soon as the Indian troubles quieted down, in 1761, a party of eighteen men of western Halifax, led by Elisha Walden, organized themselves into a company for the purpose of taking a "long hunt" in this western county. They continued to hunt there year after year, the forerunners of the first settlers.

Revolutionary War

In the year 1768, a new English governor, Lord Botetourt, arrived in Virginia. He at once issued a call for an election of Burgesses, and the following spring, May 1769, the General Assembly convened at the capitol in Williamsburg.

Pittsylvania elected as her Burgesses Colonel John Donelson, the county surveyor, and Mr. Hugh Innes, a lawyer. They were present and witnessed the elegant scene of Governor Botetourt's arrival at the capitol in a state coach presented to him by King George the Third, driven by eight milk white horses.

Since there was no particular business for them to consider, the Burgesses began to discuss the matter of taxes. You have seen that the Stamp Act had been repealed through William Pitt's efforts; but a new had been laid on paper, glass and tea. The Burgesses drew up some resolves, stating that "the right of imposing taxes in Virginia is now and ever has been vested in the House of Burgesses." It was agreed that the resolution should be presented to the King, himself.

This so alarmed the Governor that he dissolved the Assembly, but the gentlemen simply retired to another house and continued their meeting. They formed an Association agreeing not to buy anything of England until this new tax was removed. This agreement was signed by John Donelson and Hugh Innes, along with Washington, Jefferson, and other great Virginia leaders.

At the Continental Congress of 1774, it was resolved that the Colonies would neither by from nor sell to Great Britain, and this agreement was called the Continental Association. All towns and counties were directed to form committees to see that the Association was carried into effect, and Virginia lost no time in carry out these instructions.

Committee of Safety

There has been preserved in a newspaper of the day, an account of Pittsylvania's selection of her Committee of Safety, which you can read in the Virginia Gazette of February 11, 1775.

"The freeholders of the County of Pittsylvania, being duly summoned, convened at the Courthouse of the said county on Thursday the 26th day of Jan. 1775, and there proceeded to make choice of a committee agreeable to the direction of the General Congress. The following gentlemen were chosen members of the same: Abraham Shelton, Robt. Williams, Thomas Dillard, Wm. Todd, Abraham Penn, Peter Perkins, Benj. Lankford, Thos. Terry, James Walker, Wm. Peters Martin, Dan'l Shelton, Wm. Ward, Edmond Taylor, Isaac Clement, Gabriel Shelton, Peter Wilson, Wm. Short, Henry Conway, John Payne, Sr., Wm. Witcher, Henry Williams, Rev. Lewis Gwillian, John Salmon, Peter Saunders, Richard Walden, John Wilson, Crispen Shelton.

"During the time of choosing the said committee the utmost good order and harmony prevailed and all the inhabitants of the county then present (which was very numerous) seemed determined and resolute in defending their liberties and properties, at the risk of their lives and if required to die by fellow sufferers the Bostonians whose cause they consider their own.…The committee rose and several loyal and patriotic toasts were drunk, and the company dispersed well pleased with those people they had put their confidence in." (At Callands)

The first work of the committee was to organize the county for defense. The military strength of the county as given in the census of 1774 was 1438 men, who were now enrolled in twenty-seven companies of militia. This was considered so important that it was recorded in Deed Book 4, of the Court records. The account reads: "At a meeting of the Committee of Safety on Wed. Sept. 27 1775, the following gentlemen were nominated as officers of the militia: John Donelson, County Lieutenant; Robert Williams, Colonel; William Tunstall, Lieut. Colonel; John Wilson Major." Then followed the names of 27 captains, 27 captains, 27 lieutenants, and 27 ensigns.

The Virginia convention of July 1775, had ordered two regiments of 1000 men to be raised for the Northern Continental Army, and a body of Minute Men for State defense.

Pittsylvania was called upon for one full company for the Minute Men, which was commanded by Capt. Thomas Hutchings and Lt. James Conway, and attached to the 6th Regiment.

In October 1776, Pittsylvania sent to the Northern Continental Army one company of four officers and 94 men. It was probably commanded by Capt. Henry conway, who received his Continental Commission in February 1777. (Heitman's)

In the summer of 1776 the Cherokee Indians attacked the western frontiers, and Virginia sent a force of 1600 men against them. We know of four companies of Pittsylvania Militia which marched with this force, commanded by Captains Jesse Heard, Peter Perkins, William Witcher, and Joseph Martin.

The Cherokees lived on the Tennessee River and many of their towns were burned as a punishment. It was estimated that their stores of food amounted to 50,000 bushels of corn, and 15,000 bushels of sweet potatoes.

Two companies of militia marched in the Indian campaign of 1777 commanded by Captains John Donelson and William Witcher. These troops met at Pittsylvania Old Courthouse (Callands) in March. One can picture the scene, the soldiers clad in stout hunting shirt and leggings, suitable for frontier warfare. There would be a gathering of inhabitants to see the men off, with possible speeches by commanding officers. An old tradition has lingered even today of a great tree at Callands around which the Revolutionary soldiers stacked their arms and this may have been the occasion.

In January 1778, Captain Thomas Dillard's company marched from Pittsylvania to the frontier and continued on to Boonesboro, Kentucky. There several members of the company were transferred to Colonel George Roger Clark's Regiment and marched with him north of the Ohio, capturing the posts of Vincennes and Kaskaskia. The region taken by Clark became a part of Virginia, and was known as the County of Illinois. James Irby, a Pittsylvanian, died on the march.

Captain John Donelson and Captain John Dillard, also led companies of county militia to the frontier in the spring of 1778.

Peytonsburg, Military Post

When the British landed a force in the South, Georgia and South Carolina were quickly over-run. General Gates was put in command of a Southern Continental Army, and was badly defeated at Camden, South Carolina. He was then removed and General Nathaniel Greene of Rhode Island was appointed in his stead. On his way south Greene stopped in Richmond to make arrangements for Virginia to furnish his army with all necessary supplies. Food, clothing, arms and ammunition were needed and Virginia alone could supply them. In order to collect these supplies the state was divided into nine districts with a central depot in each at which the stores were to be collected and forwarded south. The district of Dan and Staunton Rivers comprised the counties of Mecklenburg, Lunenburg, Charlotte, Halifax, Bedford, Pittsylvania and Henry, the central depot of the district being at Peytonsburg in Pittsylvania.

The village at once became a place of great military activity. Smith shops were hastily erected where guns were repaired and horseshoes and canteens were made by hand. A large number of men were employed in these shops.

Warehouses were built to store the supplies gathered from the inhabitants of the district. Wagon brigades plied between the post and the army in the South; at one time McCraw, commander of the post, reported that a brigade of forty wagons had just set out. There was the hurried arrival of express riders, bearing important dispatches, which were forwarded on. Down the dusty roads plodded droves of cattle, sheep and hogs; and above all was the incessant din of hammer and anvil as horse shoes and canteens took shape.

Continental Congress had established two arsenals in the new nation, one at Springfield, Massachusetts, and the other at New London, Bedford County, Virginia. It was said of the arsenal at New London that "it is of first importance, as the operations of Greene's Army depend entirely upon the supplies." And in January 1781 General Greene said, "Unless Virginia immediately collects the magazines of provisions on the Roanoke we shall absolutely starve."

Now you are beginning to see the important part in establishing our independence that was played by this small section of our nation, the district of the Dan and Staunton Rivers, with their two posts of New London and Peytonsburg. In the course of time Peytonsburg has disappeared, and even the site is in dispute; while New London is but a ghost of itself. But you must never forget the valiant part played by your Pittsylvania forefathers in winning for you the great heritage of a free America.

Virginia never failed to support General Washington and the Northern Continental Army. In October 1777, Pittsylvania was called upon for thirty-six men; in May 1778, for a full company of fifty men with officers, and again in October for one twenty fifth of all militia.

When General Nathaniel Greene assumed command in the south, Virginia at once sent reinforcements. From Pittsylvania in the fall and winter of 1780-81 marched companies of militia commanded by Captains John Winn, James Brewer, William Witcher, Isaac Clements and Joshua Stone.

Cornwallis, who commanded the British Army, tried to force battle upon Greene before he was prepared, and then followed Greene's masterly retreat north across the Carolinas into Halifax county, Virginia. When he felt he was sufficiently strong Greene marched back into North Carolina and offered battle to Cornwallis on the fields of Guilford Courthouse (Greensboro), on March 15, 1781. No doubt every man in Pittsylvania who could shoulder a gun took part in the battle, for the enemy was now on their very door steps. But the names of only a few companies have been preserved in the pension files. Companies were commanded by Captains James Brewere, William Dix, Thomas Smith, and Joseph Morton. Colonel Peter Perkins commanded a regiment in the battle.

Revolutionary Hospital

Following the battle, General Greene established his hospital for the sick and wounded in Pittsylvania on Dan River, at the homes of Colonel Peter Perkins and his neighbors, William Harrison, Constant and Nicholas Perkins. The hospital was maintained there for three months and was under the charge of Dr. Daniel Brown of New York State (who afterwards adopted Virginia for his home, and settled on Staunton River.)

In the summer of 1781 Cornwallis invaded Virginia, and together with the forces of Phillips and Arnold, pillaged and laid waste the central and eastern parts of the state. It was now necessary for Virginia to put a third force in the field for self defense, which was known as State Troops. Five thousand men were ordered to take the field, and the great difficulty in clothing, arming, and feeding this third army is shown in the official reports of the time which you can read in the Calendar of Virginia State Papers. Here you will find the reports from the commanding officers of Pittsylvania and adjoining counties, and you can see how great were the demands made upon your forefathers.

Colonel Robert Wooding of Halifax reported the military strength of the county to be 1004 men, but the real strength of the militia to be only 600, of which 300 were with Greene and 100 under marching orders. Colonel John Wilson reported Pittsylvania's military strength to be 600, 200 with Greene and 150 out in the state. These were the times that tried men's souls.

After laying Virginia waste, Cornwallis marched his force to Yorktown. Now came the order for one quarter of Pittsylvania's militia to the "Siege of York." The Court of Claims gives the item: "To Richard Todd for Riding Express to give militia officers notice (and finding himself for four days) in consequence of his Excellency the Governor's Order to order one quarter of the militia to the Siege of York."

From pension declarations we learn the names of a few of these men. There were companies commanded by Captains Charles Hutchings, William Dix, and Charles Williams, who were present and witnessed the scene of the Surrender of the British armies at Yorktown in October, 1781.

This brought to an end open conflict in Virginia, but the war was not yet won. In 1782 Virginia put in the field a force of 3000 men, drafting one in every fifteen men. Peytonsburg being a Continental Post, continued in full operation. The signing of a peace treaty with Great Britain in 1783 at last brought these troublous times to an end.

War of 1812

The War of 1812 was our second war for independence. It was fought with Great Britain because of her presumptuous claim that she had the right to stop American vessels at sea and remove from them and British-born seaman. Prior to 1812 she had carried off thousands of American seaman.

Virginia loyally upheld the Federal government and loaned large sums of money for the prosecution of the war. Pittsylvania sent hundreds of her sons into the armed forces. The military strength of the county consisted of two full regiments, the 42nd which was raised in the southern half and the 101st in northern half of the county.

Pittsylvania Flag

Colonel Daniel Coleman served throughout the war as Colonel of the 42nd regiment, which was stationed both at Norfolk and in Maryland. It was probably at this time that the regiment conceived the idea of regimental colors of their very own, and had designed and pointed a beautiful white silk flag. A few years ago it was found to be in the State Library, and returned to the county the only Virginia County flag known to be in existence.

Other known officers of the 42nd regiment were Peter Wilson, Thomas Ragsdale, James M. Lanier, John Wilson, James Nance, Robert Bullington, Captains.

In the 101st Regiment few names have been preserved. Jesse Leftwich served as Major, and William Swanson and William Clark as Captains. But the regiments were not held intact, and companies were transferred to other regiments.

The scene of conflict extended from the Canadian border south to New Orleans. British vessels harried the Atlantic coast, attacking towns and cities. The new capitol, Washington, was burned by the enemy. General Andrew Jackson commanded the American Army at New Orleans, which defeated the British forces under General Packenham. Peace was made in December 1814 and thereafter the United States of America was recognized as a nation by all other countries.

War Between the States

When Virginia decided in 1861 that secession from the Union was the only honorable course left open to her, a great sadness was felt by her thoughtful people, who realized how large a part of Virginia had played in founding the Union. But her sons from all parts of the state responded promptly to her call to arms — the lawyer left his office, the doctor his profession, the teacher his classes, the farmer his fields, all determined to defend Virginia's rights.

There were many great leaders produced in the struggle but we should not forget that "the real hero is the private soldier. It was he who won the victories that distinguished his commanders. It was he who stood sentinel at the lone midnight hour, faced cold, hunger, nakedness, peril, with no hope of fame; it was he who pointed the rifle, wielded the sword, fired the cannon, defied overwhelming odds, all for the sake of loyalty to his state. No grander, no more tragic figure has ever trod the page of history than the Confederate soldier." (J. Leslie Hall)

The following list of Pittsylvania companies which served in this great conflict is correct as far as it goes. It was compiled from the memories of the veterans (Wyatt Whitehead, James Carter, Rawley Martin and others):

38th Regiment

53rd Regiment

18th Regiment

57th Regiment

21st Regiment

46th Regiment

6th Virginia Cavalry

13th Virginia Artillery

Greene's Battery, Danville

6th Virginia Reserves

Pittsylvania sent hundreds of her sons into the Confederate ranks, her companies following Generals Lee, Jackson, Stuart and Johnston in their campaigns. Company I, 53rd Regiment took part in the battle of Bethel, the first conflict of the war on Virginia soil. Company I, 21st Regiment was with Jackson in his celebrated Valley Campaign. Pittsylvania cavalry stood side by side with Stuart at Yellow Tavern when he received his mortal wound. Pittsylvania men charged with Pickett across that field of death at Gettysburg, bearing aloft the flag of the 53rd Regiment.

When the war came to a disastrous close at Appomattox in April, 1865, the sad condition of Virginia is officially described in the Code of Virginia: "No people ever suffered greater losses by the termination of the war than the people of Virginia. At one blow their entire slave population was emancipated, their value entirely lost, and their accustomed labor instantly stopped, the circulating medium (money) State and Confederate was rendered worthless, no Federal money in circulation; houses, homes, fences, mills, given to flame, lands impoverished, and having no money value, and they themselves entirely powerless to purchase, and for want of buyers equally powerless to sell."

The men of Pittsylvania set about the task of rebuilding their lives and their country, and though the outlook was dark, they faced the undertaking with a strong courage. Out of the destruction and wreckage of the Old South they brought order; and with no outside aid, by their own efforts, they laid the foundations on which we have built our prosperous commonwealth today.

World War I

When President Woodrow Wilson, on April 6, 1917, declared a state of war to exist between the United States and Germany, the nation heartily approved of his action. The president announced that the armies which must be put in the field would be raised through a selective draft.

When the registration was completed, Pittsylvania had 9,965 men of military age, of whom 1,165 were called into the service, 746 being white and 419 colored.

These Pittsylvania boys were first sent to great military camps for training such as Camp Lee near Petersburg, and then shipped overseas to Europe. There under the command of General John Pershing, U. S. Army, they bore their part in the great battles fought on French soil, the battles of the Marne, the Meuse, and the Argonne.

Besides the drafted men there was a notable number of volunteers, for a wave of patriotic and religious fervor swept through the nation. This was to be a war to end all wars to make the world safe for a Christian democracy. The American people dedicated themselves to this high purpose, and to it gave all their time, thought, and energy.

Pittsylvania was organized as a unit for war work through the churches, schools, Red Cross chapters, councils and committees, each and every one being called upon to do his share in winning the war. The county seat was the center from which the drives were made, but in every community were patriotic men and women whose qualifications made them leaders in war work.

Being an agricultural district, one way in which Pittsylvania could aid the war effort was through increased food production, and to this end the people turned with a will. There was a great shortage of labor due to the draft and war production areas such as ship yards, munition plants, airplane factories. But in spite of this difficulty more corn and wheat were planted; more jogs, cattle and chickens were raised. Due credit should be given the county school children for their part in food production; through the corn clubs and chicken and pig clubs the boys gave material help; and through their canning clubs the girls conserved the food that had been produced.

A Red Cross chapter was organized in Chatham in 1917, and in the five magisterial districts of the county placed under the Chatham chapter, forty-one more chapters were organized. These patriotic women labored long hours and did faithful service in their Red Cross sewing rooms.

The expense of the war was largely financed through the sale of bonds and war stamps. In the 5th War Bond Sale, called the Victory, the county was assessed $226,000 worth of bonds, but her citizens gladly bought $412,000 worth.

Fifty-one Pittsylvania boys laid down their lives in this great con3flict. Their names have been preserved on a bronze tablet placed on the wall of the Courthouse by their grateful fellow countrymen.

World War II

Twenty years after the ending of World War I, World War II broke over Europe. Again Germany was the aggressor. The United States entered the conflict only after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (Hawaii) and destroyed our Pacific fleet on December 7, 1941.

Again our armies were raised by draft. Again our men were trained in great camps and the shipped overseas, some to the European battlefields, and some to the vast Pacific battle area.

After nearly four years of conflict the war came to a close in 1945; but no peace has ever been made. In the summer of 1950, conflict again opened in the far east, and American armies are now fighting in Korea.

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Related Book

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Maud Carter Clement: History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia (1929)

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