Not ready for prime time Rev War history… here in the Valley?

Posted on October 27, 2012 by

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When folks think about Rev War stuff in the Winchester area they might think of Washington’s Office (though it’s French & Indian War), Daniel Morgan, Lord Fairfax (as one might expect… a Loyalist during the Rev War) and so on. Just to the east, in Clarke County… between Boyce and Berryville… folks get another dose of the Rev War. Well, sorta. The marker for Morgan’ home, “Saratoga”, for example, brings the frontier-esque general to mind (again), as well as Hessian POWs used to build Morgan’s house (… and there are more houses built by Hessian manpower, in this area and as far south in the Valley as Augusta County). It’s a tease for anyone in search of Rev War history, but… it is here. There’s also more here… but you have to know where to look.

Cemeteries might be a good starting point… with the graves of men like Richard Kidder Meade and Edmund Jennings Randolph. Not only were they Rev War vets, but they served alongside (literally) Washington himself!

But… there’s more. In that same cemetery as Gov. Randolph, there is another grave… that of Thomas Taylor Byrd (and… yes, of THAT Byrd family).

Close-up of CAPTAIN Byrd’s stone.

A son of William Byrd, III, of Westover… and grandson of William Byrd the diarist (I spent several weeks in a course at William & Mary reading that diary… great insight into the early history of gentry in Virginia), Thomas T. Byrd’s sympathies in the Rev War were more aligned with those of his Loyalist father.

Thomas Byrd in his youth, ca. 1761

In a letter to his father, Thomas wrote, in February, 1776…

My Lord Dunmore expressed a desire to have me with him… His Lordship has done me the honour to appoint me Major to a Corps that he is raising here, which I shall acquit myself to the best of my Abilities for the Confidence of his Lordship has been pleased to repose in me.

Thomas’ brother (Francis Otway Byrd), on the other hand, didn’t follow the same path. Though an officer in the British Navy, he resigned at the beginning of the Revolution in preference to independence. Appointed early-on as an aide to General Charles Lee (and some references state that he served as aide to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, as well), by 1777 he was made lieutenant colonel of the 3rd Virginia Continental Dragoons. It appears, perhaps for having gone against his father’s wishes, he never received money from his father’s estate.

Such stories help remind us that divided loyalties among Virginia families was not confined to the Southern Unionism that we see during the American Civil War, but is deep in the history of some of the most famous families of Virginia… and most certainly among the “FFV”.*

Ah, but back to Thomas… because there’s still more of interest in his story. As he pointed out in his letter to his father, Thomas was of value to Lord Dunmore.

In fact, Dunmore convinced British Gen. Henry Clinton that Virginia might still be “saved” by efforts to raise loyalist regiments (specifically, two regiments… one “white” and the other “black”). Byrd was named as commander of Dunmore’s black regiment… the “Ethiopian Regiment“, comprised of freed slaves. Granted, it wasn’t just the name of the regiment that was quirky (considering these slaves were likely either descended from West Africans or were West Africans themselves), but also the concept of “freedom” to slaves. Dunmore intended that freedom be granted to the slaves of the “rebels”, but not the loyalists… a distinction that slaves of Loyal masters did not make. On the ironic side, it was very much so when we consider the mid-18th century slave-holdings of the Byrd family… but more on that in a bit.

In short, Dunmore obviously knew where to hit the Patriots where it hurt… compromise slavery… cripple the economy that compromise the rebellion. Sounds familiar in a similar instance, less than 87 years down the road… I know…

The Ethiopian Regiment first saw service at the Battle of Kemp’s Landing, in November 1775, and then later at Great Bridge, Virginia, on December 9, 1775.

The months ahead for Byrd’s regiment proved harsh. Following defeat at Great Bridge, Dunmore’s troops were forced to ships off the shore of Norfolk and, aboard ship, combined with a lack of provisions and overcrowding, small pox ran rampant. Though Dunmore regained a foothold in Portsmouth in February, Gen. Charles Lee (yes, Thomas Byrd’s brother, Otway, was present in opposing forces) forced Dunmore back to his ships within the month. Dunmore’s forces were inevitably forced to give-up the idea of landing again, and made their way via ships to New York City, in August, 1776.

Byrd’s Ethiopian Regiment was subsequently disbanded (most likely because it had been decimated by disease), though some of the men from the regiment continued to fight on the side of the British. Even so, the very idea of the British promising freedom to escaped slaves appears to have pushed Thomas Byrd’s father over the edge. As he was already in the midst of an incredible debt crisis, the threat of losing his slaves (most of which had been mortgaged at this point, because of his financial state), even prompted the elder Byrd to offer military service to the Patriot cause. After it was rejected, seeing no way out (the situation is explained quite well in Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War), William Byrd took his own life in January, 1777.

Thomas Byrd’s story, on the other hand, didn’t end with the disbanding of his regiment. Though he appears to have lost his rank (perhaps because it had not been formally recognized in the first place, within the British command structure), he was appointed an aide/captain to Col. Edmund Fanning, of the King’s American Regiment. Furthermore, by July 1780, he was listed as commanding the 3rd Battalion, of the 60th Regiment of Foot (Royal American). Apparently present at the surrender at Yorktown, in October 1781, Byrd opted not to return to Virginia, but resided in England for a few years after. In time, he sought to return to Virginia, and realizing a return to the Tidewater was not in his best interest (former Loyalists didn’t go over so well), he took up residence on the land that he had inherited (land which had been given by “King” Carter to his grandaughter… Thomas’ mother… Elizabeth Hill Carter Byrd), in Frederick (now Clarke) County. Less than a year later, he married Mary A. Armistead, of Gloucester County and began settling into a home known as “The Cottage”. In the years that followed, Byrd expanded his land holdings as well as his family. Thomas died in August, 1821.

Sadly, his story remains tucked away in references in books, though it clearly holds potential for greater venues, and could add another interesting facet to the story of the Shenandoah Valley. Perhaps in time it will find its way, at the very least, to a roadside marker near the Old Chapel.

*FFV = “First Families of Virginia”. Another example of divided families can be found in the story of Edmund Jennings Randolph, who of course, was also mentioned above. His father, John, remained Loyal, and even returned to England. Yet, Edmund’s uncle, Peyton Randolph, favored independence and was the first president of the Continental Congress.

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