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Virginia at the Close of the Revolution

This article, “Virginia at the Close of the Revolution” was prepared by Arthur H. Jennings for presentation to the Blue Ridge Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1916. It has been transcribed as it was written, comments are in brackets [ ].

VIRGINIA emerged from the Revolution if not full of years at least full of honors. To here belonged the credit for the inception, the leadership, and the successful conclusion of the war for independence. Her sons, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, respectively, lit the flame of revolution, put into enduring form the proclamation of the colonists to be free and independent and wrought out independence by the sword. Besides these three preeminent ones, she contributed a host of others, both in field and council chambers, who in any other community would have shone forth, and been acclaimed, as starts in the firmament of American leadership–but whose bright fame seems lessened in the general glow that hangs round Virginia’s supremacy.

As the Revolution started on her soil through the flaming words of Henry, so Yorktown saw the complete breakdown of the British offensive and the successful end of the struggle. To the Revolution, Virginia contributed besides her brilliant galaxy of leaders, some 56,000 men all told. There are no records to show the mortality among her troops, but judging by the losses of their wars, it was not extravagant to say that 10,000 Virginians laid down their lives for the independence of the Colonies. Later on we shall show what she paid in a financial way. Furthermore, she furnished fifty armed vessels, which operated chiefly in clearing Virginia and nearby waters of British privateers, though some ventured as far as the West Indies and took valuable prizes there. When the war came to a close there remained only one vessel of this fleet above water. Thermopylae had its lone survivor; and likewise, so had Virginia’s fleet of war vessels, striking evidence of gallant and faithful service. This lone survivor was named the Liberty–she was in the service of Virginia from 1775 to 1787.

Since we mention Yorktown just above, bringing to mind the French fleet under deGrasse and the troops that were of such vital assistance it may not be out of place here to mention the peculiar intimacy which existed between Virginia and France, and intimacy and friendship which has continued firm to this day and which was illustrated a short time ago when Virginia presented to the Republic of France a replica of Houdon’s famous statute of Washington, which was accepted by France with elaborate ceremony. Among the commission sent by the Virginia Legislature to make this formal presentation, was our fellow citizen and friend Don P. Halsey, Esq.

At the period embraced in the scope of this paper, when Lafayette visited America, spending most of his time at Mt. Vernon with Washington, he was formally made, by an act of the legislature, a citizen of Virginia with all its rights and privileges. Upon Washington some little time previous to this, France had bestowed a unique and signal honor. In order to satisfy French military etiquette in regard to the service under Washington of distinguished French officers, who ordinarily could take no orders except from a Marshall of France or Ruler of France, Washington was made a Marshall of France and perhaps the only man outside of her borders ever so distinguished.

Another incident, interesting though not so well authenticated, sets forth that at Yorktown when the American General Nelson saw the gunners were sparing his splendid mansion in the town, he offered a reward for the first who would hit it. The reward was won by a young French ensign named Bernadotte—- and this Bernadotte later became Napoleon’s famous Marshall and still later, the King of Sweden. Another tie is the fact that the two young daughters of the Count deGrasse died in this country and now lie buried in the churchyard of old St. Mary’s at Charleston, South Carolina.

At the close of the struggles Virginia’s boundaries and area were princely. There was sufficient territory within her borders to found several ordinary sized European kingdoms. Her boundaries extended from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River and from latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes (about her present southern boundary) to the Great Lakes. The area now known as Kentucky was hers, as was all of the great Northwest comprising territory now occupied by the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. Up to 1776 the public and unoccupied land of Virginia, later known as Kentucky, was embraced and included in the county of Fincastle, but in 1776 the legislature divided Fincastle into three counties, one of which was called Kentucky and this county was later transformed into the present state of Kentucky. It was not until 1789 that Virginia passed an act in her legislature authorizing the separation of Kentucky and not until 1792 that Kentucky started upon her career of separate statehood.

The Great Northwest territory was Virginia’s by charter right; although that right was disputed, but none can dispute her right to this section by conquest. Her son, George Rogers Clark, living at this time in the Kentucky district, visited Governor Patrick Henry and obtain his consent to lead a body of Virginias against the hostile northwest. Complete domination was achieved over this territory when these Virginians captured Vincennes and received from the inhabitants of the country sworn allegiance to the Commonwealth of Virginia.

This brilliant exploit of Clark, leading his forces over the flooded swamps and plains of Illinois in the dead of winter, is well described by Maurice Thompson in his novel Alice of Old Vincennes.

This expedition and its fruits undoubtedly saved this entire section of country from being annexed to Canada at the close of the Revolution–and made the Great Lakes and not the Ohio River the northern boundary of the United States. It was one of the most important events of the time and in its far reaching results was perhaps as important for the future welfare of the entire country as any public single act of Virginia. This great territory, Virginia turned over to the general government in 1781 and in 1783 the gift was accepted by Congress. The jealousy of some of the smaller states and the claims of some of the others, claims vague and shadowy, regarding her right to this territory seemed apt to cause failure to the efforts lead by Virginia soon after the close of the Revolution to bring about a closer union between the states, and a union likewise more clearly defined bother as to its powers and limitations. Virginia abandoned her rights to this great principality rather than see the Articles of Confederation not adopted. “Her action,” says John Esten Cooke, “was the result of an enlarged patriotism and devotion to the cause of union.”

This is not inconsistent with Virginia’s well know convictions regarding the rights of the individual states. We know how she struggled in the early sixties to save the Union she had been most instrumental in forming and only aligned herself with her southern sisters when their constitutional rights were denied them by the general government and their territory threatened with invasion by a coercing force.

At the close of the Revolution the population of Virginia was about 747,000 of whom slightly over one third, or 293,000, were slaves. The first census of this country was taken in 1790 and the interesting fact was developed that the South at that time contained more people than the North, and that Virginia alone contained a fifth of the entire population of the country. Richmond had a population of 3761 souls and contained about 300 houses within its limits. The well known Mayo Bridge was even then in existence. The population of Virginia was very largely of the English Cavalier type and predominately so throughout Eastern Virginia. The principle merchants of Richmond and of the larger towns were the so-called Scotch Irish and these strict Presbyterians also largely predominated in the northern part of the Valley of Virginia. In times of war no better fighting men can be found than men of this sect, for in Virginia’s history, “the list that begins with Andrew Lewis ends with Stonewall Jackson.” (Virginia, John Esten Cooke). Their Stone Meeting House near Staunton, also called Augusta Church survives to this day. While the Scotch-Irish dominated the northern section of the Valley, there was a large German population throughout the southern section.

The first Academy established in the Valley was near what was then called the village of Fairfield. The academy was located in a school house and was called Liberty Hall. It was founded by the Hanover Presbytery which then embraced the whole of the Presbyterian Church in Virginia. In 1792 this academy received a charter which entitled to perform all the acts properly belonging to a college. In 1796 George Washington presented it with its first endowment and the trustees changed the name to Washington Academy–later it was called Washington College and still later Washington & Lee and thus originated and progressed the flourishing university we all know now at Lexington.

The organization by Jefferson in 1783 of the Albemarle Academy was the beginning of the University of Virginia. This project remained on paper, very largely, however, until well into the new century when the Albemarle Academy was merged into Central College and several years later this was merged into the University of Virginia.

The industries of the state at this period were not much diversified. Agriculture was the principal occupation of the people and tobacco was the principal staple cultivated. Nowhere in all the colonies could such tobacco be grown as was raised in the banks of the James, the Rappahannock and the Potomac. In the early days, the colonists had exported some soap ashes and tar, but tobacco on account of its rich financial returns soon displaced all shipments from Virginia except small lots of grain going to the West Indies. However when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, bread stuffs became exceedingly high and in the Valley the farmers ceased cultivating tobacco and began to raise large quantities of wheat. For several years after the commencement of the French upheaval, wheat sold as high as $250 per bushel and flour as high as $14 per bbl at the seaport towns.

Often these days we remark how closely knit the industries of the world have grown and “how small the world is now.” There is nothing new under the sun! Here we have the spectacle, a century and a half ago, of an uprising of the French people putting up the price of wheat and flour to unknown heights and turning a large portion of her agricultural population from the cultivation of one product to raising another!

Virginians enjoyed most excellent transportation facilities; many of the farms and plantations were able to ship directly abroad from their own wharves, situated upon some of the navigable rivers of the state. In a measure this was not altogether an unmixed blessing, for it had the effect of retarding the growth of Virginia’s exporting seacoast towns, for a time at least. Other planters situated further back from the rivers, transported their tobacco to the nearest point for shipment. In some cases tobacco was not carried to a shipping point in wagons, but the hogsheads had a wooden pin driven in each end to which shafts were attached and it was thus rolled along. A distinct class of men followed this trade of “tobacco rolling” and there were called “tobacco rollers” and were a handy and reckless set, bringing to mind the lumberjacks of later days. Tobacco brought about $10 per hundred average at this period, which is striking like the average of prices of this day [1916].

Closely allied to agriculture was the raising of cattle and sheep. The first importation of improved breeds of cattle into Virginia was in 1783. These were shorthorn cattle. Washington’s well known interest in farming and animal husbandry, one historian says (The South in Building of the Nation, Vol. 5fostered the sheep industry in Virginia during his lifetime.

Fishing in Virginia at this period was more of a sport than an industry, as far as any records show; but there were no dams in the James shad ascended the river far beyond Lynchburg.

In mining there were some indication of the great industry which now brings so much wealth to Virginia. Lead mines were early discovered in Wythe County and were worked during the Revolution. They were first owned by Col. Chiswell; then by Col. Lynch; and later by Moses and Stephen Austin, who continued the industry until 1796. It is interesting to note that this Stephen Austin had a son who was later prominent in Texas. That stirring moving-picture drama of Griffith’s entitled “Heroes of the Alamo” gives a vivid film characterization of this younger Stephen Austin. Governor Spottswood, as all know, set up the first iron furnace and foundry in this country and, illustrating how full Virginia is of interesting and historic spots, overlapping each other in fact, on the battlefield of Chancellorsville, where Stonewall Jackson was shot down by his own men, the remains of this first old furnace have been uncovered. Likewise in the War Between the States, soldiers of the Confederacy occupied breastworks and fought from behind the same shelters that had been been occupied by Washington’s troops in the Revolution.

The first coal mines opened on this continent, as far as records show, were near Richmond-these mines were worked twenty-five years previous to the Revolution but at this period and up to the new century the annual output was only a few thousand tons. However, coal from this Richmond basin was shipped as far as Boston.

Gold was discovered in Virginia just at this period. Jefferson makes note of the discovery of large nuggets of gold on the Rappahannock in 1782. We are accustomed to thinking of gold as a product of the Klondike or the far West, that, although it is entirely apart from the subject of this paper, it is well to remember that for the first quarter of the last century [19th century], North Carolina furnished all the gold in the United States and the first native gold coined at U.S. mints was furnished by this state, while the first real rush to gold fields, long antedated the famous ’49 movement, was the result of rich discoveries of gold in Georgia.

Banking began in Virginia in 1792 when two charters for banks were granted and in Richmond two years later the first fire insurance company was started–this was the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia, which still survives.

The postal service of these days was crude, naturally, Stages and postriders carried the mails–there were no regular schedules. The postages on a single letter from Georgia to New York was 37 cents. About the year 1790 there were throughout the entire country only 75 post offices and Virginia had fifteen of these and Richmond with its annual postal receipts of $3,000 was the leading Southern office.

The scandal connected with this Nation’s pension matters had an early beginning and the great facility of Northern communities for absorbing pension was soon demonstrated. Pension jobbery at Washington now reeks to the high heaven and is known of all, but very few realize that beginning at the time of this period we are discussion, that is beginning about 1791, and continuing to 1833, the Federal Government expended in pensions $29,600,000. Of this sum, which appears very insignificant now when the G.A.R. absorbs approximately $175,000,000, of the public funds each year, New York received over six millions; Massachusetts over three and one quarter millions; Pennsylvania almost three millions; Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, together received seven and one half millions–while Virginia received only one million six hundred thousand dollars and no other Southern state, excepting Kentucky, received as much as one million. In other words, New England, and New York and Pennsylvania received twenty of the twenty-nine millions of pensions from 1791 to 1833–the balance of the country including Virginia received the nine million remainder.

Virginia at the close of the Revolution was financially exhausted. She came out of the war with a public debt of over $14,000,000, besides her obligations in regard to the redemption of some millions of Continental money. Half of her public debt, or about $7,000,000 was Virginia’s share of the debt contracted by the Continental Congress in the prosecution of the Revolution. This was a staggering burden for a community which as late as 1798 had the value of its houses and lands assessed for taxation at only $71,000,000, and whose revenues from taxation of all kinds for the year 1784, for illustration, was only $1,388,000. It is agreeable to know that her credit remained good and was maintained through all the decades up to the War of ’61 when overwhelming disaster and ruin fell upon all. Indeed, her credit during part of this time was even better than that of the National Government and Virginia advanced so rapidly in wealth that when the war of 1812 came and the National Government was in financial straits she came to its aid with large loans of money.

Before 1790 when Richmond was a town of less than 4,000 inhabitants and when Jefferson was Minister to France, the legislature determined to erect a State House at Richmond and to place within it a statue of her noble son, Washington. Mr. Jefferson, on account of his well known knowledge and taste along these lines, and since he was in Paris, was commissioned to select a model for the capitol and to secure a sculptor for the statue. Both his choices reflected his good taste and good judgment. Houdon, the noted sculptor, came over and spent a considerable time with Washington, closely studying his subject, and the noble work he produced, which adorns the rotunda of the Capitol, is considered the best likeness of Washington in existence. Nearby, as is most appropriate, is the bust of Lafayette.

Thus we find Virginia as she emerged from the smoke and struggle for her successful fight for liberty. Her material resources, her industries, we have endeavored to set forth, from rather meager sources of information, but great as she was in her material ways–lavish in her bestowal of wide areas from which powerful states have been made, proud as is the story of her financial strength and credit–the glory of Virginia lies in her spiritual and not her material things. The civilization, so peculiarly hers, that produced Washington also produced Lee, and these two were not the exceptions, but the type of products of Virginia’s civilization, for, as has been well said, in that incomparable Army of Northern Virginia which followed Lee through four bloody years, “there marched ten thousand gentlemen fully his peers” in exalted character and noble nature! Well may Virginia point to her children, from the earliest days of the Colony, through that noble era when she gained the title of “Old Dominion,” and on down through these later years and, like that proud mother of the Gracchi, exultantly exclaim–“these are my jewels!”.

Authorities Consulted

Virginia Her History and Antiquities – Howe.
The South in Building of the Nation. – Vols. I and V.
Virginnia – John Esten Cooke
The Old Dominion and Lee, The Southerner Page
History of Virginia Vol. II – Howison