Book Review: History of the Battle of Point Pleasant by Virgil A. Lewis. Charleston, WV: The Tribune Printing Company, 1909.
In the "Prefatory Note" to his 1909 work, History of the Battle of Point Pleasant, Virgil Anson Lewis described growing up "within a few miles of the battlefield of Point Pleasant, the chief event of Lord Dunmore's War, and reared largely among the descendants of the men who participated in that struggle." Lewis' great-grandfather, Benjamin Lewis, fought in the Battle of Point Pleasant and received wounds during his active participation in that pivotal engagement. One might imagine the vivid conversations Lewis had with those proud men -- only a generation or two removed from our nation's "Founding Fathers" -- who passed down the stories of their accomplishments on the field of battle to their own sons and daughters.
It stands to reason, therefore, that Virgil Lewis took enormous pride in his ancestor's role in the Battle of Point Pleasant. As a historian, however, he carefully avoided platitudes. In his book, Lewis took great pains to note that the battle, while important, did not signal the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and he scoffed at earlier writers' efforts to canonize the victors as the first Patriots of the American Revolution.
"Much error has been incorporated into the later writings regarding Dunmore’s War," Lewis wrote. "This is the result of a carelessness on the part of those, who without making research and investigation necessary to arrive at truth, seized rumors, traditions, and vague recollections, as sufficient authority upon which to base an assertion, and who substituted their own inferences for authenticated facts. These errors of statement have sometimes been repeated by considerate writers whose distrust was not excited; and this has increased the difficulties of pains-taking historians." Calling such errors "the gossip of history," Lewis hoped that his book would dispel the "myths, legends and traditions" associated with the Battle of Point Pleasant. Folklore and fairytale, however, persisted.
LORD DUNMORE'S WAR
Waged beneath the shadows of the British flag, and under the command of Virginia's Royal Governor, John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, the Battle of Point Pleasant -- known as the Battle of Kanawha in some older accounts -- was the only major action of Lord Dunmore's War. In 1774, Lord Dunmore called upon Virginia's House of Burgesses to finance and support an army raised to quell violence on the frontier. Colonial settlers in territory south of the Ohio River sought to defend themselves against attack from Native Americans, who themselves sought to protect their hunting grounds from the white settlers "pressing down from the Alleghenies." Both sides claimed that the other had violated negotiated treaties protecting their right to occupy and hunt on the land. Bloodshed ensued.
|JOHN MURRAY, FOURTH EARL OF DUNMORE (ca. 1730–1809)|
Image credit: Library of Virginia
Following a series of gruesome attacks upon the settlers by Indians, the Virginia legislature issued a plea to Lord Dunmore to respond:
"It gives me great pain, my Lord, to find that the Indians have made fresh encroachments and disturbances on our Frontiers; we have only to request that your Excellency will be pleased to exert those powers with which you are fully vested by the Act of Assembly, for making provision against Invasions and Insurrections, which we have no doubt, will be found sufficient to repel the hostile and perfidious attempts of those savage and barbarous Enemies."
With the support of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Lord Dunmore created two armies, personally leading seventeen hundred men from the north, while Colonel Andrew Lewis directed another eight hundred troops through the Kanawha Valley. A confederation of Indian tribes, led by the Shawnee Chief Cornstalk, gathered to meet Colonel Lewis and his men at the point of attack. On October 10, 1774, the Battle of Point Pleasant commenced.
After a long and brutal fight lasting for several hours and ultimately won in bloody hand-to-hand combat, Cornstalk's warriors were forced into retreat. The Virginians had held their ground, and in the process captured 40 guns, many tomahawks and supplies, and killed an indeterminate number of Indians. Lord Dunmore later forced Cornstalk to sign a peace treaty ceding to Virginia the Shawnee claims to all lands south of the Ohio River, thus opening the land to further settlement.
JOHN SEVIER'S PARTICIPATION IN THE BATTLE
Although no "official" roster of soldiers participating in the battle has ever been compiled, Lewis endeavored to list all those who fought at Point Pleasant in his book, relying upon information reported in Revolutionary War pension applications, as well as the personal stories and anecdotes told by descendants of the soldiers who fought in the battle.
Many of the battle's participants were blood relatives. According to Lewis, John Sevier fought at the Battle of Point Pleasant alongside his younger brother, Valentine, who was among the first to actively engage the enemy on the morning of the battle. Evan Shelby and his sons, Isaac and James, also drew arms together in this conflict, and Lieutenant Isaac Shelby's flanking maneuver ultimately turned the tide of the battle. This stealthy military tactic did not go unnoticed by the young John Sevier, who frequently used a similar movement against the Cherokees in subsequent engagements.
THE LEGACY OF THE BATTLE
In the years following the battle, veterans of the Battle of Point Pleasant and their descendants sought to commemorate their service, and drew tenuous connections to the American Revolution in their efforts. In 1899, Point Pleasant newspaper editor and publisher Livia Nye Simpson Poffenbarger organized an ambitious crusade in the State Gazette newspaper to have Point Pleasant officially designated the "first battle of the American Revolution," despite most historical interpretations which pointed to the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. She boldly asserted that Lord Dunmore colluded with the Shawnee tribe, and never intended to join his northern forces with those of Colonel Lewis to the south. He had, according to Poffenbarger, anticipated the coming Revolutionary War and at Point Pleasant actually sought to weaken the citizen militia in advance of that conflict.
Lewis saw it as his mission to correct this historical narrative. In the preface of his book, Lewis challenged these efforts of commemoration, describing their reliance on the "vague recollections" of the descendants of the battle as "careless" and without authority. He supported his own scholarship by gathering his research from "original sources, documents and writings which were contemporaneous with the occurrence of the events described." Indeed, Lewis's work is filled with extracts from journals, memoirs, affidavits, letters, speeches, and documentary histories, giving his book a gravitas other more embellished histories sorely lacked.
|Portrait of Virgil A. Lewis, author of History of the Battle of Point Pleasant and West Virginia's first State Archivist|
Image credit: The West Virginia Encyclopedia
Lewis later wrote a speech scolding this form of "manufactured history." He asserted:
"Every student of American history who has made research for truth in the sources of information, at this time readily available, is aware of the falsity of this statement, that Point Pleasant is the scene of the first battle of the Revolution. He regrets the perversion of historic truth in connection with it. When that battle was fought there was no revolution in progress; there were no United Colonies, or United States. Dunmore's War was waged between Virginians and Indians, no other Colony participating. The Indians were not allies of England then, nor did they become such until the Spring of 1778-four years after the battle-and no student of either Virginian or American Annals now questions the integrity of Lord Dunmore, or his faithfulness to the interest of the Colony of which he was the Executive head. There was not an English soldier with the Indians at Point Pleasant; nor did England, or a representative of the British Government, furnish a gun, an ounce of powder, nor a pound of lead, to them. The Virginians in that battle, were at that time, loyal to their Colonial Government, and had every confidence in their Governor. Colonel Charles Lewis was killed while wearing the uniform of an English Colonel; and other officers who fell on that field were wearing that of their rank."
There are certainly more recent works of scholarship about Lord Dunmore's War that one would do well to consult. Early indications are that Glenn Williams' recent release, Dunmore's War: The Last Conflict of America's Colonial Era, promises to be a compelling read. Still, Virgil Lewis's 1909 book, History of the Battle of Point Pleasant, has stood the test of time. Although written from the perspective of an early twentieth century historian and writer, Lewis' work provides valuable historical context, copious documentary notations, and details about specific soldiers who fought in the battle that genealogists will find useful in their own research.
As for John Sevier's role in the Battle of Point Pleasant, one might conclude that a portion of Sevier's gallant reputation as a Patriot hero rests upon the myth that he fought in both the "first" and "last" battles of the Revolutionary War -- Point Pleasant and Lookout Mountain -- despite clear historical evidence contradicting claims that these battles were ever a part of that conflict. While he may have fought in these engagements, his participation certainly did not bookend the American Revolution.
After reading Virgil Lewis' book, I must say that I feel a certain empathy for his fight for historical accuracy. Correcting long-standing historical narratives and pointing out myths and false legends can be an exhausting, solitary exercise, particularly when entire family legacies rest upon folktales that contradict fact and reason. Future generations and present-day historians owe a debt of gratitude to Virgil Lewis for taking a stand against "manufactured history."
History of the Battle of Point Pleasant by Virgil A. Lewis, The Tribune Company, West Virginia, 1909, is available in most public or university libraries, and may be purchased through any number of used book stores or antiquarian book dealers.
- 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.
- Charles H. Faulkner, Massacre at Cavett's Station. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press (2013), pp. 15-16.
- "Manufactured History: Re-Fighting the Battle of Point Pleasant." West Virginia History. Volume 56 (1997), pp. 76-87.
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.