Lead an army of 1,500 frontiersmen from Camp Union (Lewisburg) to the mouth of the Great Kanawha River, join forces with Lord Dunmore’s 1,300-strong Northern Army, completely destroy the Shawnee towns on the Pickaway Plains, and claim once and for all British sovereignty over the Ohio Valley. That was the plan when Andrew Lewis set out from Staunton, Virginia in July 1774.
Of course, as I’m sure we all know, plans often change. Before Lewis had even left Camp Union, Dunmore requested that they meet at the mouth of the Hockhocking River instead, and Lewis agreed as the river valley provided an easy route for a large army through the Hocking Hills. The plan changed again after Lewis encountered several Native American hunting parties during his march and wrote asking for permission to continue his march west from the Kanawha while Dunmore took the Hocking, so as to flank the Native Americans and prevent any raiding parties from using the Kanawha Valley to access the Shenandoah.
These mutual decisions are all bore out in letters between Lewis, Dunmore, and their respective second-in-commands, Adam Stephens and William Fleming. So much for any supposed treason on Dunmore’s part.
Unfortunately, Lewis’ decision left him vulnerable to attack, despite the protection that he thought the two rivers offered. Aware of the armies’ movements thanks to the hunting parties, Cornstalk saw a brief opening while Lewis waited for his rearguard and took full advantage.
Had they not been discovered by the four hunters in the early hours of October 10th, it’s likely that Cornstalk’s army would have annihilated the Virginians. They were of roughly equal number, equally armed, and would have had the advantage of total surprise. The Virginians, for their part, had nowhere to go with two rivers at their backs, and a ferocious attack would have cornered them with no chance of escape.
As it is, the Native Americans were discovered, and the Virginians had just enough time to rally. Take a moment to imagine it, centuries ago on this very day. In the early light of dawn, the drumbeat sounding through the forest as 300 of Virginia’s best riflemen are led out of camp by the doomed Colonel Charles Lewis in his flaming British redcoat and Dr. William Fleming in his frontier leathers, the blast of rifle fire like cannons echoing off the hills as the two armies come together, the moment of utter despair as both Lewis and Fleming fall and it seems all is lost, the fear as Chief Cornstalk shouts over the din and urges his warriors onward, and the overwhelming joy as the full might of the Southern Army joins the fray and turns the tide of battle… All of this before noon.
Both armies fell back as the sun set, and faced with the arrival of Colonel William Christian’s 300-strong rearguard soon after dark, the Native American army retreated to the Pickaway Plains. Meanwhile, Dunmore, who had received word that evening of the battle from Lewis’ runners, quickened his march in the hopes of flanking Cornstalk’s weakened forces.
Cornstalk made it to the villages first. There, he called a council of chieftains and explained the situation. 2,500 vengeful Virginian riflemen, the best the frontier could arm, were on their way. Their force was now a little less than 1,000, and the villages were also home to quite a few women and children. They could kill the women and children and fight to the last man, he told them, and receiving no response, he said, “Then I will go and make peace.”
So, when Lewis’ Southern Army arrived on the Pickaway Plains on October 24th, Cornstalk and Dunmore were already in the middle of peace negotiations, which upset many of the frontiersmen. Yet what was Dunmore to say? Sorry Chief, I (a Scottish lord, royal governor, and general) have to wait on the lowly colonel that follows my orders? No, that would have been a sign of weakness, and Dunmore was fully within his rights to begin talks.
Under the resulting Treaty of Camp Charlotte, the Ohio Confederacy agreed to surrender all lands south and east of the Ohio River (nearly 70,000 square miles), allow free travel and trade on the Ohio, and return all prisoners and goods taken since Pontiac’s War in 1764. The harshness of the terms satisfied the Virginians, and they universally praised Lord Dunmore for his conduct in the Fort Gower Resolves, Fincastle Resolutions, and Williamsburg Declaration.
Unfortunately, his popularity didn’t last long as the Revolution came to Virginia, but that’s a story for another time.
Information from the WV State Archives and writings of Andrew Lewis, William Fleming, and other officers of Dunmore’s War.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.