Continuing once again from last week, it’s September of 1774. Following a decades-long dispute over control of the Ohio Valley that has resulted in numerous attacks against both colonists and Native Americans, full-scale war is finally imminent. On one side is the Native American Confederation, led by Chief Cornstalk. On the other is the Virginian militia, led by the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, and divided into the Northern and Southern Armies.
The Northern Army, led by Dunmore himself, organized at Winchester and marched west via Braddock’s Road, the recently renamed Fort Dunmore (Pittsburgh), and the newly-built Fort Fincastle (Wheeling). It counted over 1,300 men in its ranks from the counties of Berkeley, Frederick, Hampshire, Shenandoah, and West Augusta, among them such noted Patriots as George Rogers Clark, Daniel Morgan, and Adam Stephens. We’ll pick up more of their story next week.
The Southern Army, led by Colonel Andrew Lewis, organized at Camp Union (Lewisburg) and marched west via the New River and Kanawha Valleys. It consisted of 1,400 men from Augusta, Botetourt, Culpepper, Fincastle, and Shenandoah Counties, including such famed frontiersmen and Patriots as Matthew Arbuckle, William Russell, Evan and Isaac Shelby, and John Stuart.
On October 6th, after having marched roughly 160 miles, slogged through flooded streams and rivers, and encountering several Native American “hunting parties,” Lewis and 1,100 of his men set up Camp Pleasant at the junction of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers. Lewis also wrote Dunmore, explaining the he could no longer march north and join him at Fort Gower (Hockingport) as was originally planned, as that would leave the Shenandoah Valley open to invasion. Rather, Lewis proposed marching west separately and attacking Cornstalk’s forces on two fronts. This was to be done within a week, after the rest of his army arrived at the camp.
Cornstalk, having learned of Lewis’ march from the “hunting parties,” had no intentions of letting the armies join forces. He realized that their only chance was to defeat them separately and crossed the Ohio River with approximately 1,000 warriors on the night of October 9th.
Had they not been discovered the next morning by four men out hunting, the Native Americans would likely have destroyed Lewis’ army with little resistance. As it stands, three of those hunters made it back to camp to wake the rest of the army, and the drums beat a call to arms. Yet, Lewis fatefully underestimated his opponents, and he ordered only 300 men into battle under Colonels Charles Lewis (his brother) and William Fleming (a close friend). Fleming describes the result in his journal:
“The Indians began the attack on the right and in a second of time the left line was attacked. Soon after, or in the first fire, Colo. C. Lewis received a mortal wound, and was brought to his tent with some assistance. Much about, or soon after this happened on the right, I received three balls in the left line. Two struck my left arm below the elbow, broke both bones, and one lodged in my arm. A third entered below my left breast and is lodged in my chest… When I came to be dressed, I found my lungs forced through the wound in my breast… Being in considerable pain, I got the whole returned by the assistance of one of my own attendants.”
With both officers out of the battle, the Virginian line collapsed and was forced to retreat from the point of contact about 1,000 yards from camp (10th Street) to only 500 yards away (6th Street). Then, just when it seemed like the Native Americans would triumph, Lewis sent out the remainder of his fighting force, 700 militiamen under Major John Fields. Fields successfully led the Virginians in a counterattack that not only reclaimed the land lost in the original attack, but kept going, stopping only when they had pushed the front line more than a mile from camp (near 12th Street). There, the fighting continued until sunset as the lines, according to a letter found in the Philadelphia Gazette, “were never above twenty yards apart, often within six, and sometimes close together, tomahawking one another.”
After sunset, the fighting gradually faded until both sides retreated and collected their dead. For now, the fight for the Ohio Valley was over.
I’ll continue next week with the battle’s aftermath.
Information from October 1774 letters and journals of Andrew Lewis, William Fleming, William Christian, and Isaac Shelby.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org