ARLINGTON, Va. - Imagine almost 100 West Virginia backcountry militia men dressed in wool-felt hats and buckskin shirts -- emblazoned with the words, "Liberty or Death" -- marching over 600 miles from their homes to the outskirts of Boston in about three weeks. What would one make out of such a display? This was the scene in July and August, 1775.
Known as the "Beeline March to Cambridge," the Berkeley County Rifle Company, constituted of 98 militiamen, marched from their home base of Mecklenburg, Virginia (now Shepherdstown, West Virginia) to Boston in the space of 25 days. These predecessors to the modern West Virginia National Guard enlisted for a year's service as reinforcements for the newly formed Continental Army.
The battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 began the American Revolution and placed the American colonies at war with Great Britain. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June marked another milestone in the conflict and ended the possibility of reconciliation with the Continental Army bivouacked at Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside the besieged city of Boston.
Prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Second Continental Congress authorized the establishment of 10 rifle companies to be recruited from local militia ranks. This act established the Continental Army, the predecessor of the United States Army and called for the raising of for six companies from Pennsylvania, two from Maryland and two from Virginia. Response in Pennsylvania was so strong that Congress authorized nine companies, which constituted the U.S. Army's first battalion.
Virginia answered the call for two companies to aid the Continental Army in June 1775: the. Berkeley County Riflemen, which mustered under Captain Hugh Stephenson in Mecklenburg on June 21 and a second, which mustered under the command of Daniel Morgan from Frederick County, at Winchester on June 22.
The Virginia units exemplified the volunteer spirit that the newborn Revolution fueled across the colonies. This grueling march from Virginia to Boston captured the passion of the colony to serve the larger cause as the men of the unit set aside plowshares, iron forges, and writers' quills to serve a cause or in this case, provide the defense necessary to create a new country.
On July 17, 1775, Stephenson and the Berkeley County Rifle Company left Morgan's Grove, Virginia and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland. Although they originally agreed to travel alongside the Morgan Company, the Stephenson group discovered that Morgan's men had already started for Boston a day earlier. Both groups averaged over 30 miles per day as they sought to reach Cambridge with all due haste.
Stephenson's men dressed for the march in practical fashion and traveled in boldly. According to a local history published in 1910, Historic Shepherdstown, the militia men carried:
" banner… emblazoned with the device of the Culpeper minute-men, a coiled rattlesnake with the significant motto, 'Don't tread on me!' For their uniform, they adopted homespun hunting shirts made of tow linen, fringed around the neck and down the front, leather leggings, and moccasins. Each wore a bucktail in his hat, and had a tomahawk and scalping knife in his belt."
No doubt, the Berkeley County contingent took their task seriously.
High spirits pervaded the townsfolk who witnessed the Berkeley Rifles procession through their communities. Correspondence from the summer of 1775 describes citizens cheering and exhorting the Virginians on their way east, far from home. Grateful strangers also provided the Soldiers with food and drink along the route.
The diary of Henry Bedinger, a sergeant within the Company, detailed that the route went across through Frederick, across the Monocacy River and then into Pennsylvania near the present borough of Littlestown. Then the company passed through York, Bethlehem, and Easton and went into the New Jersey countryside, only mentioning a stop at Sussex Courthouse, now present-day Newton. Lastly, they ventured into New York, proceeded to Hartford, Connecticut, and then crossed the Connecticut River, heading into Massachusetts to their assigned destination on August 11 -- a march of 26 days.
Once in Cambridge, General Washington inspected the Stephenson Company ranks. Afterward, the Virginians filled necessary assignments for the Continental Army as it awaited reinforcements to break the siege of Boston enforced by Generals Thomas Gage and William Howe.
Many men from the Berkeley County unit then marched southward to New York in March 1776 after the British left Boston, scavenging armaments and ammunition that the British left behind. Many re-enlisted that June, but the campaign took a harsh turn that fall after subsequent losses in New York. At the disastrous Battle of Fort Washington that November, many Berkeley County riflemen were imprisoned by the British, some of whom perished on the loathsome prison ships berthed in the New York harbors.
The "backcountry" riflemen of Pennsylvania and Virginia were an invaluable tactical asset to the Continental Army. The accuracy of their rifled barrels and their personal marksman developed during many hours of hunting on the frontier far outstripped the capabilities of the British Regulars with their smoothbore muskets. The call for riflemen served to bond the different colonies into a single integrated fighting force alongside the militia units from Massachusetts.
After returning to the Shepherdstown area to refill ranks of his local regiment, Colonel Stephenson died suddenly in the summer of 1776. His leadership and the spirit of teamwork, admired by George Washington himself, fulfilled a critical need at the outset of the Revolutionary War. The spot at Morgan's Grove which Stephenson led his men to start the Beeline March, however, was named the birthplace of the United States Army in 1989.
Stephenson's friend and rival, Daniel Morgan, would go on to experience one of the most adventurous paths among Colonial officers. He was taken as a prisoner of war in the aftermath of the Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775, and paroled by the British in 1776. Morgan returned to the Army and led colonial militia units to a decisive victory at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781. This victory proved pivotal to swaying the Southern Campaign toward Colonial victory at Yorktown later that year.
As one of the 13 companies of volunteers tasked with fighting back against the British in these early stages of the conflict, Stephenson's Company epitomized selfless service, sacrifice, and drive among the United States military's oldest units. Today, the military tradition of the Berkeley Rifles is carried on through their lineal descendants, the 201st Field Artillery Regiment of the West Virginia Army National Guard.
Danske Dandridge. Historic Shepherdstown. Charlottesville: Michie Company Printers, 1910.
Kenneth R. Bailey. Mountaineers Are Free: A History of the West Virginia National Guard. St. Albans WV: Harless Printing, 1978.