The Hampden-Sydney Boys: Revolution!

Alumni Heroics in the American Revolution

By Angus McClellan '05


On March 23, 1775, just eight months before he would become a founding trustee of Hampden-Sydney College, Patrick Henry stood in St. John's Church in Richmond to speak to the second Virginia Convention. The provisional government was discussing whether Virginia should raise a militia to defend herself from the British fleets and armies poised to subjugate her people:

"... Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

The familiar oration is one of the most influential in Virginia's history. After Henry concluded, the assembly sat in stunned silence for several minutes. As George Mason said, "Every word he says not only engages but commands the attention, and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them."

His words swayed enough of the assembly to adopt his call to arms. He was commissioned a colonel in the 1st Virginia Regiment, and by July the next year Henry was the first post-colonial governor of Virginia. One of his first orders of business was to call on the local Committees of Safety to muster troops. As ardent supporters of the nascent revolution, the men of Prince Edward and Hampden-Sydney stepped forward to answer their country's call.

By The Numbers

"On November 20, [1775], the freeholders of Prince Edward met and selected by ballot 21 ‘of the most discreet, fit, and able persons to serve as Committeemen.' " 1 A total of 12 of those committeemen were either trustees of the College or were closely affiliated with the school. One of them was Samuel Stanhope Smith, the College's founding president, and another was Nathaniel Venable, owner of Slate Hill Plantation, where a conclave had recently decided to found the College. But it wasn't just these Virginia elders, prominent statesmen, and dashing orators who drove the Revolution.

Although hailing from the most populous British American colony, Virginians constituted an inordinate percentage of the men actually fighting and dying in the field. Of the roughly 217,000 American troops who fought in the Revolution,2 about 54,000 were Virginians-about one-fourth.3 An estimated 44,000 of them were in the Continental Army, and "moderate count" of 10,000 fought in the militia.4 Although no exact figures are available, it is estimated that a minimum of 150 Hampden-Sydney students and alumni took part in the war from 1776 to 1781.5

Former Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunmore's depredations on the east coast from mid-1775 to early 1776, later described as "plundering plantation houses, maltreating women and children, stealing slaves, and burning seaports," 6 had already drawn Prince Edward troops to Suffolk and Portsmouth. At least one Hampden-Sydney student, 15-year-old Clement Carrington, quit school to join a Prince Edward company on an expedition to Norfolk.7 He was likely the first student to see enemy action.

After being repulsed, Dunmore returned to England, and many of the Prince Edward soldiers went north to bolster the Continental Army and join other militia forces fighting the British in the Middle Colonies.8

The Hampden-Sydney Boys

Hampden-Sydney students and faculty were fervent supporters of the cause for liberty. Of the 110 students attending the school in the summer of 1776, nearly all were drilling as a militia company and were training monthly.9 Future president and professor John Blair Smith was the company captain; tutor David Witherspoon was lieutenant; and Samuel Woodson Venable was ensign. Their uniforms were grey trousers, coonskin caps, and hunting shirts dyed purple with pokeweed berries (as the legend goes). The plants still grow throughout Southside Virginia.

After a year of training, the company was mobilized. British General William Howe's fleet of 15,000 men was spotted entering the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1777, and Governor Henry suspected the British might attack Williamsburg. So he again called on local governments to mobilize militia units to protect the capital.Tarleton

The Hampden-Sydney company was the first to step forward in Prince Edward, filling the county quota.10 Accordingly they were deemed "Company No. 1." Every able-bodied student 16 years of age and older fell into the ranks: about 65. Surely the age requirement was a source of consternation to some, as it excluded many of the students who had been drilling with the company for some time. Nevertheless, the Hampden-Sydney boys had been "the first student company to be organized in the American colonies and was the first to march to the defense of our country."11

Surely with pounding hearts and visions of glittering British formations marching through their minds, Company No. 1 threw on their coonskin caps, grabbed their muskets, and loaded their bags onto one of Samuel Venable's wagons, which had been appropriated for militia use. They started marching toward Williamsburg early on the morning of September 1, 1777. Unfortunately no records or diary entries of their travels remain, but a convincing speculation reads they headed east through Prince Edward Court House (Worsham), and then on to Amelia, arriving in Richmond by Genito Road. From there they went southeast to Williamsburg.12

Upon arrival they took up posts to defend the city. In what must have been a disappointing, anti-climactic turn of events, however, the British ships had already passed. Howe's plan was to land at the north end of the bay to attack Philadelphia, and then perhaps divert his army to Virginia at a later time should he prove victorious in Pennsylvania. For the time being, the Old Dominion was spared.

After a few weeks of service, the Hampden-Sydney boys were dismissed, and Governor Henry publicly thanked them for their conspicuous dedication to the war effort. The academic year was about to end, so many simply went home. Others returned to campus and continued drilling, being called to defend Petersburg the following year on a similarly uneventful excursion. A number of students, however, locked step with fellow patriots and joined the Continental Army and other militias still fighting in Virginia and beyond.

For them, the Revolution had just begun.

Southside Threatened

In 1779 Virginia militiamen from east of the Blue Ridge mountains travelled west to defend the frontier settlements from the Cherokee and other Indian tribes; in 1780 "considerable numbers were sent south ... to reinforce [General Horatio] Gates, and later in 1780 and 1781, to aid [General Nathanael] Greene." 13 Many Virginia regiments were captured at the Siege of Charleston in South Carolina in May 1780. Under Gates, half of his southern army was lost at the Battle of Camden. British cavalry officer Lt. Col. Banastre "Bloody" Tarleton gave no quarter to the 3rd Virginia Continentals at Waxhaws. Many Virginians had been lost, and the road to their homes was open to the advancing British army.

American Revolution Hampden SydneyGen. Charles Cornwallis's movements toward Southside from North Carolina, coupled with Gen. Alexander Leslie's invasion on Virginia's east coast in October 1780, spurred Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson to call up more militia from throughout the Commonwealth-especially from areas where Hampden-Sydney students typically hailed. In early 1781, Jefferson summoned militia from Southside counties including Bedford, Pittsylvania, Henry, Cumberland, Powhatan, Amelia, Halifax, and others. Prince Edward and Charlotte County authorities already had activated their militias. "The junction of the two British forces in Virginia renewed the crisis ... and Jefferson was obliged to continue his almost incessant demands for men." 14

Greene sent for reinforcements. Hampden-Sydney student Thomas Watkins, who had marched with Company No. 1, promptly raised a company of dragoons in Prince Edward County, was elected captain, and rode south as part of Col. William Washington's cavalry. At least two of Watkins' officers were former Hampden-Sydney boys: Philemon Holcombe and Samuel Venable-former ensign of Company No. 1. Many other students from the College joined him. In fact, "When this company was formed, the students, already greatly lessened in number by the calamities of war, were pressed forward to the ranks."15

Greene and his army, which consisted of 3,000 Virginia militia, a Virginia state regiment, and about 1000 men from Maryland and North Carolina, met the advancing British at Guilford Court House, just 120 miles southwest of Farmville. Cornwallis headed toward them with 2,100 British infantry, cavalry, and artillery. On March 15, 1781, battle lines were drawn.

This time, the boys would not be spared. These were not the passing ships of 1777. As the wall of men and horses rattled toward their positions, the Hampden-Sydney boys stood ready.

Cornwallis punched holes in the front line with an opening cannon barrage. Mounted officers ordered men forward, and a sea of Redcoats flowed over the North Carolinians' position. Watkins and other dragoons spurred their horses and thundered into the British formations. With bayonets and butt stocks, Virginia boys on the second and third lines traded blows and mixed blood with charging infantry.

"Watkins and his troop were in the thick of the fight at Guilford. ... This company signaled itself in that famous charge made on the Queen's Guard. ... Leaping a ravine, the swords of the horsemen were upon the heads of the enemy. Multitudes lay dead." 16

Galloping side-by-side with the Hampden-Sydney boys was Peter Francisco, the colossal "Virginia Giant," whose six-foot-long broadsword plowed through eleven of the British guardsmen.

Seeing his formations faltering under the weight of Virginia cavalry, Cornwallis desperately ordered one of his lieutenants to fire grapeshot into the backs of his own men, knowing that some of the balls would also hit the dragoons. Redcoats and Americans alike were riddled with British shot. The barbaric onslaught broke the colonial resistance, and after 90 minutes Greene had to withdraw.

Cornwallis took the field. But it was a Pyrrhic victory: He had lost a quarter of his men and was subsequently forced to retreat to Wilmington in southeast North Carolina to resupply and acquire more soldiers. It was a major turning point in the Southern Theater and saved Southside Virginia from a British invasion.

Greene continued south to recapture South Carolina. Cornwallis, resupplied, turned northeast in the summer of 1781 and crossed into Virginia to destroy caches of food, clothing, and ammunition, consolidating his forces near Petersburg. He sent "Bloody Banastre" through Southside with about 250 cavalry and mounted infantry to burn and plunder, which he could do freely since Watkins and others were marching south. Tarleton camped at Prince Edward Court House (now Worsham), considered a primary target during the raid for its food and clothing stores and its ammunition factory.17

George Washington had sent the Marquis de Lafayette from the north to help defend Virginia, and he soon arrived himself to find Cornwallis fortifying his position at Yorktown. The French fleet defeated the British at the Battle of the Chesapeake, cutting off British naval aid, and the Americans and French bombarded the isolated fort from land. On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered.

Alumni in the Ranks

Although most records are lost, many students served quietly among the ranks of the militias and the Continental Army. Others raised their own cavalry companies. Some names in particular are revered in the pantheon of great American heroes.

The legendary Francisco described Watkins as "the best soldier in the Southern army." 18

It was written that after witnessing Watkins and his men in battle, Col. Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, commander of the most distinguished cavalry legion of the war and father of Robert E. Lee, invited Watkins and his men to join his raiders. Indeed, "Lee's Legion was infiltrated with Hampden-Sydney boys-the three Scotts; Clement Carrington; Peter Johnston," who served as aide-de-camp, and many others. "No Colonial College had as many in the Legion as Hampden-Sydney."19

Carrington, no longer the 15-year-old runaway of 1776, was stabbed at the Battle of Eutaw Springs. He had been with Watkins and Lee. He later rose to the rank of colonel, served in the House of Delegates, and today he rests next to his wife near Charlotte Court House.

The 17-year-old Johnston likely disobeyed his father by quitting school and joining Lee's cavalry as well. Despite his youth, "So daring were his exploits that he rose to the rank of first lieutenant and became a favorite with the entire Legion." He led the cavalry charge at the Battle of Wright's Bluff. "At the siege of Augusta, a ditch of besiegers was occupied by Lt. Johnston and 24 men. Early in the night a party of 40 British soldiers and Indians were approaching." He calmly directed his men to lie in wait, surprising and routing the enemy with a hail of musket fire.20

One member of Lee's Legion, Joshua Davidson, who was almost certainly a Hampden-Sydney alumnus, returned to Prince Edward after his sword-arm was sabered and rendered useless at Guilford. Hearing of "Bloody" Tarleton's raid, he picked up his squirrel rifle, and by himself walked from his house and through the woods to meet the mounted raiders. Stepping onto a road near Worsham, he came upon a lone British dragoon, who "rapidly advancing, drew his sword and reportedly exclaimed, ‘Surrender immediately, you rebel rascal, or you die!'" Davidson declined and stood his ground. As the cavalryman charged, Davidson raised his rifle with one arm, blew the dragoon off his saddle, seized his horse, rammed another ball down the barrel, and promptly rode off to search the county for more targets.21

Clement's brother George Carrington, also a Hampden-Sydney boy, was noted for his courage during the cavalry charge at the Battle of Quinby in 1781: "The display of gallantry exhibited could not have been surpassed. Armstrong, seconded by George Carrington ... and less than a dozen of his own troopers, actually cut his way through the entire regiment." 22 He was later awarded 2,666 acres of land for his wartime services.
These are just a few examples. Most of the records of revolutionary heroics are buried in College, state, and family records. Names such as Branch, Sheppard, Read, Rice, Evans, Roberts, Willard, Langhorne, Price, and so many other alumni who fought in the war attest to the seemingly universal effort of Hampden-Sydney men to protect their homes and their people.

This was a fitting birth for the College. For 240 years, generations of Hampden-Sydney boys have followed in their footsteps, grabbing their caps and rifles whenever their country called. Although so many were shot down and have long since been buried, they will live on, here, in the records of Hampden-Sydney College.

1. Eggleston, J.D. The Hampden-Sydney Boys of 1776-1783. p. 11-12.
2. America's Wars Factsheet, Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, D.C., 2015.
3. Eckenrode, H.J. Virginia State Library. List of the Revolutionary Soldiers of Virginia. Department of Archives and History, Richmond, 1912. p. 4
4. McAllister, J.T. Virginia Militia in the Revolutionary War, McAllister Publishing, Hot Springs, Va., 1913. p. 5.
5. Eggleston, p. 4.
6. McAllister, p. 7.
7. Bradshaw, H.C. History of Hampden-Sydney College. Fisher-Harrison Corp., 1976. p. 48
8. Bradshaw, H.C. History of Prince Edward County, Virginia. Dietz Press, Richmond. 1955. p. 111.
9. Eggleston, p. 23.
10. Bradshaw. Hampden-Sydney, p. 49.
11. Eggleston, p. 6.
12. Bradshaw. Hampden-Sydney, p. 383.
13. Eckenrode, p. 5.
14. Ibid, p. 6-8.
15. Eggleston, p. 41.
16. Ibid, p. 38-41.
17. Eanes, Greg. Tarleton's Southside Raid. E&H Publishing, Burkeville, Va. p. 16; 23.
18. Eggleston, p. 37.
19. Ibid, p. 71; 145.
20. Ibid, p. 108-109.
21. Ibid, p. 148.
22. Ibid, p. 72.