In my previous post on The Posterity Project, I examined how, at the turn of the twentieth century, the archivist and historian Virgil Lewis chronicled the Battle of Point Pleasant, a pivotal engagement that occurred on October 10, 1774. The battle pitted a confederation of Indian tribes against the Virginia militia during Lord Dunmore's War. In a struggle for control over an area of land now comprised of portions of West Virginia and Kentucky, this bloody confrontation gave John Sevier his first taste of battle with the Indians and helped shape his philosophy of offensive guerrilla warfare for years to come.
|An artist's illustration of the Battle of Point Pleasant.|
Image credit: West Virginia Division of Culture & History
Lewis and other historians of the battle credited Lieutenant Isaac Shelby with leading the charge toward victory with a flanking maneuver that ultimately turned the tide of the battle in the Virginian's favor. Shelby chronicled his experience as a witness and participant in the Battle of Point Pleasant in a letter to his uncle, John Shelby, written just six days after the battle on October 16, 1774. In his book, History of the Battle of Point Pleasant, Lewis remarked that Isaac Shelby's account was regarded by historians as "the best of all that was written on the field."
The following text is Isaac Shelby’s letter to his uncle describing the Battle of Point Pleasant in all its vivid detail, with only a few minor copy edits made to correct for errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar…
I gladly embrace this opportunity to acquaint you that we are all three [Capt. Evan Shelby, and his two sons, Isaac and James] yet alive through God's mercies, and I sincerely wish that this may find you and your family in the station of health that we left you. I never had anything worth notice to acquaint you with since I left you til now. The Express seems to be hurrying that I can't write you with the same coolness and deliberation as I would.
We arrived at the mouth [of] Kanawha Thursday 6th October and encamped on a fine piece of ground with an intent to wait for the Governor and his party, but hearing that he was going another way we contented ourselves to stay there a few days to rest the troops, &c when we looked upon ourselves to be in safety til Monday morning the 10th instant when two of our companies went out before day to hunt, To wit Valentine Sevier and James Robertson, and discovered a party of Indians. As I expect you will hear something of our battle before you get this I have here stated this affair nearly to you.
For the satisfaction of the people in your parts in this they have a true state of the memorable battle fought at the mouth of the great Kanawha on the 10th instant. Monday morning, about half an hour before sunrise, two of Captain Russell's Company discovered a large party of Indians about a mile from camp, one of which men was shot down by the Indians, the other made his escape and brought intelligence.
In two or three minutes after, two of Captain [Evan] Shelby's came in and confirmed the account. General Andrew Lewis being informed thereof, immediately ordered out Colonel Charles Lewis to take the command of one hundred and fifty of the Augusta Troops, and with him went Captain Dickinson, Captain Harrison, Captain Wilson, Captain John Lewis, of Augusta, and Captain Lockridge, which made the first Division. Colonel Fleming was also ordered to take the command of one hundred and fifty more of the Botetourt, Bedford, and Fincastle Troops, viz: Captain Thomas Buford, from Bedford, Captain Love, of Botetourt, Captain Shelby and Captain Russell, of Fincastle, which made the second Division. Colonel Charles Lewis's Division marched to the right some distance from the Ohio; and Colonel Fleming, with his Division, on the bank of the Ohio, to the left. Colonel Charles Lewis's Division had not marched quite half a mile from camp, when about sunrise, an attack was made on the front of his Division, in a most vigorous manner by the United tribes of Indians—Shawnees; Delawares, Mingoes, Taways, and several other Nations in number not less than eight hundred and by many thought to be a thousand.
In this heavy attack Colonel Charles Lewis received a wound which soon after caused his death and several of his men fell on the spot in fact the Augusta Division was forced to give way to the heavy fire of the enemy. In about a second of a minute after the attack on Colonel Lewis’s Division the enemy engaged the front of Colonel Fleming’s Division on the Ohio, and in a short time Colonel Fleming received two balls through his left arm and one through his breast, and after animating the captains and soldiers in a calm manner to the pursuit of victory, returned to camp.
The loss of the brave Colonels was sensibly felt by the officers in particular, but the Augusta troops being shortly reinforced from camp by Colonel Field with his Company together with Captain McDowell, Captain Mathews and Captain Stuart from Augusta, Captain John Lewis, Captain Paulin, Captain Arbuckle and Captain McClanahan from Botetourt, the enemy no longer able to maintain their ground was forced to give way til they were in a line with the troops left in action on banks of Ohio, by Colonel Fleming. In this precipitate retreat Colonel Field was killed, after which Captain [Evan] Shelby was ordered to take the Command.
During this time which was til after twelve o'clock, the action continued extremely hot, the close underwood many steep banks and logs greatly favored their retreat, and the bravest of their men made the use of themselves, whilst others were throwing their dead into the Ohio and carrying off their wounded. After twelve the action in a small degree abated but continued sharp enough til after one o’clock. Their long retreat gave them a most advantageous spot of ground, from whence it appeared to the officers so difficult to dislodge them that it was thought most advisable to stand as the line then was formed which was about a mile and a quarter in length, and had til then sustained a constant and equal weight of fire from wing to wing.
It was til half an hour of sunset they continued firing on us which we returned to their disadvantage at length night coming on they found a safe retreat. They had not the satisfaction of scalping any of our men save one or two stragglers whom they killed before the engagement many of their dead they scalped rather than we should have them, but our troops scalped upwards of twenty of those who were first killed. It is beyond doubt their loss in number far exceeds ours, which is considerable… about 46 killed and about 80 wounded. From this, Sir, you may judge that we had a very hard day.
It is really impossible for me to express or you to conceive the conditions that we were under, sometimes, the hideous cries of the enemy and the groans of our wounded men lying around was enough to shudder the stoutest heart. It is the general opinion of the officers that we shall soon have another engagement as we have now got over into the enemy’s country. We expect to meet the Governor about forty or fifty miles from here. Nothing will save us from another battle unless they attack the Governor’s Party. Five men that came in daddy's company were killed. I don't know that you were acquainted with any of them except Marck Williams who lived with Roger Top. Acquaint Mr. Carmack that his son was slightly wounded through the shoulder and arm and that he is in a likely way of recovery. We leave him at the mouth of Kanawha and one very careful hand to take care of him. There is a garrison and three hundred men left at that place with a surgeon to heal the wounded. We expect to return to the garrison in about sixteen days from the Shawnee towns.
I have nothing more particular to acquaint you with concerning the battle. As to the country, I can't now say much in praise of any that I have yet seen. Daddy intended writing to you but did not know of the Express til the time was too short. I have wrote to Mammy though not so fully as to you as I then expected the Express was just going. We seem to be all in a moving posture, just going from this place so that I must conclude wishing you health and prosperity til I see you and your family. In the meantime, I am your truly affectionate friend and humble servant.
-- Isaac Shelby
|Portrait of Isaac Shelby (1750–1826), the first and fifth Governor of Kentucky, ca. 1820.|
Image credit: Kentucky Historical Society
- Virgil A. Lewis. History of the Battle of Point Pleasant Fought Between White Men and Indians at the Mouth of the Great Kanawha River. Charleston, WV: The Tribune Printing Company, 1909, pp. 43-45.
- Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds. Documentary History of Dunmore's War, 1774. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1905, pp. 269-277.
- Philip Sturm, "Battle of Point Pleasant." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. March 2, 2015.
-  These were Joseph Hughey, of Shelby’s company, and James Mooney, of Russell’s. The former was killed by a white renegade, Tavenor Ross, while the latter brought the news to camp. Mooney was a former neighbor of Daniel Boone, upon the Yadkin in North Carolina, and had accompanied him upon the disastrous Kentucky hunting expedition of 1769. He was killed at Point Pleasant.
-  According to Samuel G. Drake’s History and Biography of the Indians of North America, Book V., p. 43, “Fleming was a heroic officer; after two balls had passed through his arm, he continued on the field, and exercised his command with the greatest coolness and presence of mind. His voice was continually heard, ‘Don’t lose an inch of ground; advance; outflank the enemy; keep between them and the river.’ This was his last command; there came a shot which passed through his lungs and he fell, but insisted still to be permitted to remain upon the field. As he was borne from the field a portion of the lung protruded from the wound, and he pressed it back with his own hand.” Although he survived the battle, Fleming never fully recovered from his wounds. His disabilities prevented his military service in the Revolutionary War, yet he went on to serve his country in another role, as a member of the First Senate of the Commonwealth of Virginia and later as the acting Governor of the Commonwealth. Colonel Fleming died on August 5, 1795 at the age of sixty-six, “and carried to his grave, in his body, a bullet received at the Battle of Point Pleasant.” See: Lewis, History of the Battle of Point Pleasant, 44n5 and 25n4. See also: William D. Hoyt, Jr., “Colonel William Fleming in Dunmore’s War, 1774,” West Virginia History, 3:2 (Jan. 1942), 99-119.
-  According to Lewis, "The number of Indians killed and wounded could never be known for they were continually carrying off their dead and throwing them into the river... His loss has been stated at two hundred and thirty-three." In a footnote, Lewis also observed, "Pu-kee-she-no a Shawnee, whose name signified 'I light from flying' was killed in the battle. He was the noblest warrior that perished there. His wife was a Cherokee woman whose name was Mee-thee-ta-she, which signified 'a turtle laying her eggs in the sand.' These were the parents of Tecumseh and his brothers Ells-wat-a-wa one who foretells; otherwise the Prophet, and Kum-sha-ka, signifying 'A tiger that flies in the air.' The mother is said to have transplanted the beautiful Cherokee rose from the banks of the Tennessee to those of the Scioto, whence it has spread far and wide. Their home was on the banks of that river, on the site of the present city of Chilicothe, and there the little son, Tecumseh, but six years of age, played while his father was killed at Point Pleasant.” See: Lewis, History of the Battle of Point Pleasant, 51n11, and Drake, Biography and History of the Indians of North America, Book V., p.123.
Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.