Mercer’s Grenadier Militia

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Emerging Revolutionary War and Revolutionary War Wednesday is pleased to welcome back guest historian Drew Gruber.

Part 1

When we think about American militia during the Revolutionary War, the image of an untrained rifle-toting citizen turned soldier comes to mind. This stereotype of the American soldier, popularized by movies like The Patriot is not completely false but such generalizations should give us pause and inspire us to investigate the roll of American militia, independent companies, and ‘irregular’ troops a bit closer. For example, how was it that on October 3, 1781 a group of Virginia militiamen defeated an elite British force? The story of Lieutenant Colonel John Mercer’s Grenadier Militia during the battle at Seawell’s Ordinary has been told and retold since 1781, however the formation of this illustrious group is often ignored and deserves a closer look.

Since the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina resulted in the capture of the majority of the Virginia Line, the former colony had been trying in vain to mobilize what man power it could to secure its bid for independence. On July 18, 1780 George Washington wrote to General Horatio Gates informing him that the Virginia legislature was considering a bill to raise 5,000 men to serve for eighteen months.[1] In addition to the municipal militias these new levies or draftees were sent south into North Carolina as well as to places like Virginia’s Chesterfield Courthouse and Point of Fork Arsenal to be further trained and equipped into effective martial organizations. [2] Ten months later, despite General Nathanael Greene’s patriot successes at Kings Mountain and Daniel Morgan’s victory at Cowpens, recruitment numbers in Virginia still lagged. On May 28, 1781 the Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben reported that the results of recruiting did “not exceed 450 men…” which was a far cry from the almost 6,000 men required by Congress to be furnished by the state.[3]

By midsummer the pleas of Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson, followed by his successor Thomas Nelson and the Marquis De Lafayette finally resulted in the mobilization of sizable forces.[4] These draftees and militiamen added significant strength to Washington’s combined French and American army which had arrived in Virginia, intent on capturing or destroying General Lord Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown. Charles Bettisworth, a resident of Virginia’s northern peninsula had already served several terms of service when in August of 1781, “he was drafted into the Virginia Militia to go against Cornwallis’s army.”[5] While it is hard to determine how many men answered this call, Charles was not the only veteran who would square off against the seasoned British, German, and Loyalist soldiers in the coming months.

To support his main thrust on the British defenses at Yorktown, General George Washington ordered General George Weedon to besiege the crown forces entrenched at Gloucester Point.  The distance across the York River between Yorktown to Gloucester Point is less than one mile which provided Cornwallis with a viable escape route. In the late summer and early fall of 1781 Weedon’s small army began mustering at Ware Church near Gloucester County Courthouse, several miles north of the British defenses. To make better use of the militia and various draftees or “levies” assigned to him, Weedon asked Lieutenant Colonel John Mercer to better organize them. Mercer began culling through the various companies, battalion, and detachments gathered around the church and courthouse.

“Agreeably to Gen’l Weedon’s order, I had selected from the militia such old soldiers as I cou’d     find, who having retir’d from the army after the expiration of their term of service, were now       performing their tours of duty with the militia as other citizens; to these I added the most likely           young men that volunteer’d their services & such young gentlemen as officer as appear’d most    promising…Of such materials I collected a corp consisting of 200 rank & rifle…as a distinction     that appear’d best calculated to create an esprit du corps, they were terms the Grenadier reg’t.”[6]

Ware Church. C. 1715. (courtesy Google Image Bank)

Ware Church. C. 1715.
(courtesy Google Image Bank)

These “old soldiers” were men who had already served in the Continental Line or their respective militias, because Virginia still required men to fill their county quotas when called upon despite their prior service record. Irvine Hyde, a resident of Virginia’s Piedmont had stood service on several occasions since 1776 with each tour lasting several weeks or months.  By 1781, Hyde was called up again and upon  “…the arrival of this Army there was selected out of it for special service one hundred fifty Grenadiers of which affiant (Hyde) was chosen one and fifty well built men for light infantry…”[7]

Pensioner Robert Anderson mentioned being “drafted” five times between 1777 and 1781. It was on his fifth deployment that he saw action at the brutal battle of Green Spring before being sent over the York River and attached to Mercer’s Grenadiers at Gloucester. [8]

Throughout September 1781, Virginia militia near Gloucester Point had already skirmished with several British expeditions which were aimed at gathering both intelligence and forage. Since Gloucester offered an escape route for the main British army dug in at Yorktown and Weedon was taking no chances in creating a viable force to keep crown forces bottled up. As one pensioner reported after the war, “Colonel John F Mercer called for volunteers out of Wedon’s brigade, to form what was called a Regiment of Grenadiers, he (the applicant) joined Colonel Mercer … sometime before this, the time for which he had enlisted had expired, but as the siege of York was about commencing, they refused to discharge us, or we agreed to serve longer, he does not remember which…”[9]

John Hungerford had also served several tours of duty since 1777, eventually rising to the rank of Lieutenant. In his pension he further elaborated on the culling of the militia and drafted “levies” for the company he would command during the battle on October 3, 1781.[10]

“Colonel John F Mercer, who came on with General Weedon, and who had been in the Continental service, it was thought proper to give a command and to effect this object, a company from each Regiment was selected, which gave him the Command of between 3 and 400 men which were distinguished by the Grenadier Regiment, or Battalion. In selecting the Company from the regiments I was then in, General Weeden asked me the rank I bore, I told him a Lieutenant – he then observed to me, that if I could raise a Company of Volunteers, I should commanded, which I soon accomplish, and the Regiment being formed, we marched the same evening on the lines.”[11]

On September 24, reinforcements finally arrived when Armand Louis de Gontaunt, Duc de Lauzun arrived with his legion. Weedon wrote Governor Nelson on September 27, commenting that this force, which totaled 1134, now included both French cavalry and infantry which added “countenance to our little Army on this side.”[12]

During the waning days of September Mercer moved his Grenadiers south from Ware Church south to connect with and French cavalry under Duc de Lauzun who were posted at Seawell’s Ordinary only a few miles north of the British fortifications at Gloucester Point. [13]

On October 1 Claude Gabriel, Marquis de Choisy, landed additional French infantrymen near Gloucester and assumed overall command of the coalition troops there.

John Francis Mercer C. 1803 by Robert Field.  (courtesy of Maryland State Archives Collection)

John Francis Mercer C. 1803 by Robert Field.
(courtesy of Maryland State Archives Collection)

 

 

 

Sources

[1] George Washington, letter to Horatio Gates, 18 July 1780. The Papers of George Washington, Founders Early Access, Rotunda, University of Virginia.

[2] Despite the efforts equipping these additional troops was almost, if not more difficult than raising them leaving many units without necessary gear or provisions. See papers of Jefferson, Steuben, David Ross and William and Davies for more details.

[3] “Representation of the State of the Virginia Line.” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 6, Page 30. Founders Early Access, Rotunda, University of Virginia

[4] “List of Revolutionary Soldiers of Virginia, Part 2.” Special Report of the Department of Archives and History for 1912. Page 7. Virginia State Library.

[5] Pension application, Charles Bettisworth. S32117. Southern Campaign American Revolution Pension Statements & Rosters. < http://revwarapps.org/s32117.pdf&gt;

[6] John F. Mercer, letter to Col. Simms. Fragments of Revolutionary History; Being Hitherto Unpublished. Edited by Gaillard Hunt, 1892. Pages, 55-56.

[7] Pension application, Irvine Hyde. R5464. Southern Campaign American Revolution Pension Statements & Rosters. <http://revwarapps.org/r5464.pdf&gt;

[8] Pension application, Robert Anderson. W28. Southern Campaign American Revolution Pension Statements & Rosters. <http://revwarapps.org/w28.pdf&gt;

[9] Pension application, George Morris. W27804. Southern Campaign American Revolution Pension Statements & Rosters. <http://revwarapps.org/w27804.pdf&gt;

[10] Other veterans list a Captain (possibly Stephen) Mabry as company the company of ‘Grenadiers.’

[11] Pension application, John P. Hungerford. S5586. Southern Campaign American Revolution Pension Statements & Rosters. < http://revwarapps.org/s5586.pdf&gt;

[12] George Weedon, letter to Governor Nelson, 27 September, 1781. Calendar of Virginia State Papers, April 1, 1781 to December 31, 1781. Richmond, Virginia, 1881. Page, 497

[13] The numbers of this select “Grenadier” group vary. Pension Charles White says there were 80, while others describe 150, 200, 300 to 400, or describe it as a regiment, battalion or company.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to Mercer’s Grenadier Militia

  1. Pingback: Mercer’s Grenadier Militia | Emerging Civil War

  2. Joe Bordonaro says:

    This is a very interesting and informative article. The manner in which many Virginians were called to duty time and again reminded me of how many volunteers in our nation’s service are deployed into combat time and again. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This usage of veteran soldiers would certainly explain why the American forces were able to hold their own against veteran British regiments.

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