Battle of Point Pleasant: Virginia Militia Defeat Indians in Dunmore's War

 
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Battle of Point Pleasant: Virginia Militia Defeat Indians in Dunmore's War

(picture courtesy of New York Public Library)

Today in Military History: October 10, 1774

Today's military history lesson involves a conflict of which few Americans have heard. This battle was fought six months before Lexington and Concord, and was surely used by Thomas Jefferson as justification for America "to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another" in the Declaration of Independence two years later.

Background

In the years between 1763 (the end of the French & Indian War) and 1775 (the beginning of the American Revolution), the American colonies were shoehorned into an area east of the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic seaboard. In October of 1763, the British crown issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This document forbade any white settlements in the areas which today comprise the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin (the light pink areas in the map below). However, Americans were hungry for land to call their own, and many brave pioneers ignored the treaty strictures and ventured into the prohibited lands.

As a result, a number of Indian attacks occurred on these outposts of civilization. Among these was Pontiac's Conspiracy, which attempted to capture all the British occupied forts in the Northwest Territory. It ultimately failed. [For more information on Pontiac's Rebellion, please see my Burnpit post for August 5, 2010, "Battle of Bushy Run: British Forces Defeat Indians, Relieve Fort Pitt"] Consequently, in 1768 British official Sir William Johnson negotiated the Treaty of Fort Stanwix with the Iroquois Nation.

Under the terms of the treaty, the Iroquois gave up their claims to lands south of the Ohio River. Additionally, the Proclamation Line of 1763 was adjusted, being pushed westward. It opened up the southwestern corner of what is today Pennsylvania, an area claimed by both states of Pennsylvania and Virginia. Further, the lands of modern-day West Virginia, Kentucky, and most of Tennessee north of the Tennessee River were now British crown lands. The Cherokees of Alabama and Mississippi were assured that their lands would not be targets of settlement.

Map of territorial growth 1775

The Shawnee Indians, one of several tribes in the Ohio River valley, had not been signatories to the Fort Stanwix treaty; therefore, they did not feel they were bound by its strictures. They still regarded Kentucky as their hunting ground, and chased out any white hunters or settlers who dared to enter that area. [One of these "lucky" white hunters was Daniel Boone. After he and a companion spent eight months shooting, trapping and collecting furs, in December of 1769 they were captured by a Shawnee hunting party, their furs were confiscated and they were warned never to return.]

[There was another thread of American history being woven into this tapestry. Earlier in 1774, the British government had passed a set of law in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party. These laws – known to the American colonists as the "Intolerable Acts" – were another of the actions by the British crown which led to the American Revolution. One of the more immediate results of these acts was the formation of the First Continental Congress. Many of Virginia's prominent politicians were running afoul of the colonial policies of Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia. Many of these anti-British colonists were men living on the Virginia frontier.]

Prelude to the Battle

Fourth Earl of Dunmore
John Murray, 4th Lord Dunmore (1732-1809)
Last Royal Governor of Virginia (1771-1775)

Over the next five years, a number of other incidents occurred in the Ohio country which demonstrated that the Shawnees – with a few allies such as the Mingos – were willing to resort to violence to protect their hunting grounds from white settlement. Finally, in May of 1774, Lord Dunmore, asked the Virginia legislature for authorization to raise militia units to attack Shawnee towns and villages in the Ohio country.

The army destined for this expedition was composed of volunteers and militia, chiefly from the counties west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and consisted of two divisions. The northern division consisted of troops collected in the Virginia counties of Frederick and Dunmore (later renamed Shenandoah), was commanded by Lord Dunmore in person and totaled about 1500-1700 men. The southern prong comprised different companies raised in Botetourt, Augusta, and some adjoining counties east of the Blue Ridge, and was to be led on by Colonel Andrew Lewis. Dunmore's command would proceed from Fort Pitt down the Ohio River, while Lewis' force would leave Camp Union (now Lewisburg, WV) and march overland northwestward toward the Ohio country. The two groups were to meet at the junction of the Big Kanawha and Ohio rivers. The combined force would then journey down the Ohio into the Indian country north-west of the river, as far as possible considering the season. They would then destroy all the Indian towns and villages which they could reach.

Location of Point Pleasant, WV
Location of Point Pleasant, WV

About the first of September, the troops placed under the command of Col. Lewis rendezvoused at Camp Union. It consisted of two regiments, commanded by Col. William Fleming of Botetourt, and Col. Charles Lewis of Augusta, containing about four hundred men each. At Camp Union they were joined by an independent volunteer company under Colonel John Field of Culpepper, a company from Bedford under Captain Buford, and two from the Holstein settlement, (now Washington County, VA) under Captains Shelby and Harbert. Col. Lewis' command, consisting of some 1100 men, commenced its march for the mouth of Kanawha on September 11, 1774.

From Camp Union to the proposed meet-up point of the northern and southern divisions of the Virginia militia, it was a distance of one hundred and sixty miles. The country was a thick, only slightly explored forest. Nevertheless, they succeeded in reaching the Ohio River after a march of nineteen days. Col. Lewis and his men set up their encampment at the point of land immediately between the Ohio and Big Kanawha rivers. The provisions and ammunition, transported on pack-horses, and a herd of cattle arrived shortly thereafter.

Great Kanawha River
Great Kanawha River is just below the red "WV" near center of map

When the southern division arrived at appointed place, Gov. Dunmore and the forces under his command, were not there. Unable to account for the lack of his presence, Col. Lewis dispatched runners by land in the direction of Fort Pitt, to obtain news from Lord Dunmore. After these messengers were sent out, dispatches were received from Lord Dunmore, that he had decided to proceed across the Ohio country directly to the Shawnee towns in the Scioto River valley. He ordered Col. Lewis to cross the Ohio River, march forward, and combine with his force nearby. These orders were received on October 9.

Battle of Point Pleasant

Early morning of Monday, October 10 two soldiers left the Lewis' camp, and proceeded up the Ohio River, in quest of deer. When they had gone about two miles, they unexpectedly came upon a large Indian rising encampment. Upon sighting the two hunters, the Shawnees fired upon them and killed one. The other escaped unhurt, and ran quickly back to the camp. He informed his comrades "that he had seen a body of the enemy, covering four acres of ground, as closely as they could stand by the side of each other." Modern historians have estimated the size of this Indian force to be as small as 300 warriors or as large as 1000. They were commanded by the well-known chief Cornstalk.

Cornstalk (c. 1720-1777)
Cornstalk (c. 1720-1777)

Two detachments made up of 150 men each were sent out from Camp Union. They were under the command of Cols. Charles Lewis (brother of the division commander) and William Fleming. They marched in two lines 600 feet apart, with Lewis' men on the east side of Crooked Creek, Fleming's command on the left. When they were a quarter of a mile from their camp, Lewis' party encountered savages hiding behind brush and trees. The Indians opened fire and the Virginians returned fire. However, the first Shawnee volley had killed Col. Charles Lewis and wounded Col. Fleming; the militiamen broke ranks and sought cover. Seeing the enemy falling back, the Indians came running to the kill with blood-curdling yells.

Virginia militiamen advance to meet Indian threat
Virginia militiamen advance to meet Indian threat

With the commanders of both companies removed, both units gave way and were retreating briskly towards their camp, when they were met by reinforcements under Col. Field, and rallied. The battle then became general, and was sustained with the greatest fury on both sides. For the rest of the day – from sunrise to early evening – the Shawnee and Mingo warriors kept heavy pressure on the beleaguered Virginians. The militia formed a line extending across the point, from the Ohio to the Kanawha, and protected themselves by using logs and fallen timber as breastworks. In this situation they bravely and successfully resisted every Indian charge made on them. It was reported during the battle that the voice of Cornstalk could be heard, loudly urging his warriors, "Be strong! Be strong!" In addition, at some point of the battle, a Shawnee warrior decided he was done with the fighting, and running past Cornstalk, promptly received a tomahawk to the head, killing the coward.

Another account of the battle states, "The soldiers in Colonel Fleming's regiment used a stratagem that proved very [effective]. They concealed themselves behind trees, and then held out their hats, which the Indians mistakenly shot at. The hat being at once dropped, the Indian would run out from his [cover] to scalp his victim, and thus met a sure death from the tomahawk of his adversary."

Indian warrior with scalp

Seeing the impracticability of dislodging the Indians by the most vigorous attack, and sensing the great danger which his army would face if the contest were not decided before nightfall [see above], Col. Lewis developed a plan. A short distance above the entrance of the Kanawha River into the Ohio is a stream called Cooked Creek. It emptied into the Great Kanawha from the north-east whose banks are tolerably high, and were then covered with a thick and luxuriant growth of weeds. Lewis detached three companies which were commanded by Captains Isaac Shelby, George Matthews and John Stuart. He ordered them to proceed up the Kanawha River and Crooked Creek, under cover of the banks and weeds, until they were some distance beyond the enemy. Then, they were to emerge from their cover, march downward towards the embattled campsite, and attack the Indians in their rear.

The maneuver was promptly executed, and took the enemy by complete surprise. Finding themselves suddenly and unexpectedly sandwiched between two armies, the Indians soon gave way, and about sundown commenced a precipitate retreat across the Ohio, to their towns on the Scioto. The battle of Point Pleasant was over.

Aftermath

The Virginia militia sustained losses of 75 killed, and 140 wounded – about one-fifth of the entire number of the troops. The loss of the enemy could not be accurately ascertained. On the morning after the battle, Virginia militiamen marched over the battleground and found 21 of the Indians lying dead. Further inspection of the field yielded 12 more, where they had been concealed under some old logs and brush. It is almost certain that the Indian losses were greater, as they usually carried most of their dead from the field of battle. There were also reports that many of the dead were thrown into the Ohio River.

Footnote #1: Many of the participants in the battle felt that Lord Dunmore had betrayed them to the Indians. There is circumstantial evidence that the governor told the Shawnee of the approaching militia, telling them of their location. Whether this was to: a) enhance his own reputation, as he was negotiating a treaty with the Shawnee, or b) to rid the British crown of recalcitrant colonial leaders, we may never know for certain. Some historians refer to this fight as the "first battle of the American Revolution."

Footnote #2: Within six months of this battle, Virginia militiamen forced Lord Dunmore out of Virginia. One of his final acts was to issue a proclamation offering freedom to any slaves who joined the British cause against the rebels.

Footnote #3: A monument currently stands in Tu-Endie-Wei Park, commemorating those who died at the battle of Point Pleasant (see below). Every year in October, Point Pleasant, WV celebrates "Battle Days."

Battle of Point Pleasant monument

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