Two Revolutionary War stories: Robert and William Rankin of Virginia (part 2 of 5)

By Robin Rankin Willis and Gary Noble Willis

Sometimes experience is essential to help interpret military records. I enlisted former Air Force Captain Gary Willis to untangle the Revolutionary War records of two brothers from the Northern Neck of Virginia: Robert and William Rankin. They took wildly different tracks in the war, despite the fact that they enlisted in the same company in 1776.

Our initial objective was to examine the accuracy of family oral history about Robert’s war experience. Somewhere along the research trail, we fell in love with the Rankins’ war stories and the underlying military history.[1] This article is the first of three about the brothers’ Revolutionary War history.[2]

Background: Hugh Stephenson’s/Moses Rawlings’ Independent Rifle Regiment

The military history story begins in June 1775, when the Continental Congress directed the raising of ten independent companies of riflemen from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. “Independent” means the companies reported to national rather than state authority. They were not attached to a state regiment. Two Virginia companies were raised in Berkeley and Frederick Counties, near where the Rankins lived. They were commanded by Hugh Stephenson and Daniel Morgan, whose names appear in the pension applications of the Rankin soldiers.[3]

Rifle companies had different equipment and roles than other units. Regular infantry soldiers carried British-made smooth bore “Brown Bess” muskets having a range of about 100 yards.[4] They were not very accurate even within that range. However, they were deadly when fired en masse at an oncoming enemy formation. They could be reloaded rapidly: a trained soldier could load and fire the weapon three to four times in a minute. For the conventional warfare of the times – successive massed formations advancing toward opposing massed formations – the Brown Bess was made to order.

In contrast, the rifle companies were equipped with American long rifles (AKA Kentucky long rifles). They were accurate up to 200 yards, but could not be reloaded as rapidly as the Brown Bess. The rifle’s advantages in range and accuracy were also offset by the fact that it could not mount a bayonet. It was therefore not effective in close combat.

As you would expect, the rifle companies’ role was different than the musket companies. Riflemen normally provided scouting duties and guarded the main army’s flanks or fixed encampments such as Valley Forge. They were especially effective in patrols that remained out of musket range and harassed enemy foraging parties seeking supplies. Rifle company recruits were skilled sharpshooters.

One rather florid history describes the Virginia riflemen and their uniforms thusly:

“Volunteers [in the original 1775 Virginia rifle companies] presented themselves from every direction in the vicinity of [Shepherdstown and Winchester, VA]; none were received but young men of Character, and of sufficient property to Clothe themselves completely, find their own arms, and accoutrements, that is, an approved Rifle, handsome shot pouch, and powder-horn, blanket, knapsack, with such decent clothing as should be prescribed, but which was at first ordered to be only a Hunting shirt and pantaloons, fringed on every edge, and in Various Ways.”[5]

In July 1776, the Continental Congress authorized raising six new independent rifle companies. As a result, a total of nine companies comprised the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment. The regiment included three companies remaining from 1775 and the six new ones raised in 1776. Five of the nine companies were from the area where the Rankins lived in Virginia.

The regiment was originally commanded by Col. Hugh Stephenson and was commonly called “Stephenson’s Regiment.” When he died in August or September 1776, Lt. Col Moses Rawlings assumed command and the regiment became known as “Rawlings’ Regiment.” Captains Thomas West, William Brady, Gabriel Long, William Blackwell, and Abraham Shepherd commanded the five Virginia companies.

The company commanders are significant because our family history objective required identifying the companies in which William Rankin, Robert Rankin, and John Marshall (the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) served. Family oral history claims that Robert Rankin served in Justice Marshall’s company. Military records negate that claim.

Determining the correct companies for John Marshall and William Rankin was easy. One of Capt. Blackwell’s junior officers when the company was formed in 1776 was Lt. John Marshall.[6] Documents in William Rankin’s pension application file establish that he was in Capt. William Brady’s company.[7] Only Robert Rankin’s company took some digging. Payroll and muster roll records establish he was in Capt. Brady’s company along with his brother, as one would expect because they enlisted at the same time.[8]

The Rifle Regiment’s first significant engagement was the Battle of Ft. Washington on November 16, 1776.[9] The fort was located at a high point near the north end of Manhattan Island. It overlooked the Hudson River to the west, providing an ideal vantage point for artillery harassment of British ships.[10] Rawlings’ Regiment occupied an outpost north of the main fort. The riflemen repelled several bayonet charges by massed German mercenaries throughout the day. Vastly outnumbered, Rawlings ordered their retreat to the fort. About 2,800 surviving defenders, including 235 in Rawlings’ Regiment, were surrendered. It was a devastating loss in George Washington’s defense of New York. Shortly thereafter, he retreated from a position across the Hudson and began moving his army to northern New Jersey.

Prisoners taken at Ft. Washington suffered horribly. British treatment was brutal. Prisoners were initially crowded into jails, churches, sugar houses, and other large buildings in New York, including Columbia College.[11] Some were transferred to British ships, where conditions were also notoriously bad. By the end of 1776, the British held about 5,000 prisoners (including those from Ft. Washington) in New York City.[12] Approximately four out of five did not survive captivity. Most died of starvation or disease.

Two of Rawlings’ five Virginia rifle companies did not participate at Ft. Washington. First, Capt. William Blackwell’s company (with Lt. John Marshall) didn’t complete recruiting in Virginia until early 1777.[13] By the time Blackwell’s company arrived at the army’s winter camp near Morristown, it was assigned to the 11th Virginia Regiment. It never fought as part of Rawlings’ Regiment.[14] Second, most of Captain Gabriel Long’s company remained in Virginia on Nov. 21, 1776, days after the battle.[15]

They were fortunate, because the rifle companies which fought at Ft. Washington were decimated.[16] Roughly 90% of the participating riflemen (including men from both Virginia and Maryland companies) were either killed or captured.[17] Captains West’s, Shepherd’s, and Brady’s companies were in New York by November 13, 1776. All three were in in the battle[18].

Capt. William Brady is of particular interest because both William and Robert Rankin were in his company. He was a terrible commander. Brady was not in the battle himself. He resigned his commission in disgrace in March 1777. A mid-1777 report by Col. Daniel Morgan, who then commanded the regiment that included the remainder of the rifle companies, said that Brady “had never done any duty,” “absented himself without leave,” and “is said to have behaved in an infamous manner.”[19] The only reason we can imagine he wasn’t court martialed is that he was in Virginia and the army was otherwise occupied.

William Rankin was one of Capt. Brady’s men who was taken prisoner at Ft. Washington.[20] He was 17 or 18 at the time.[21] His brother Robert was apparently not in that battle, although payroll and muster records prove he was also in Brady’s company.[22] Ironically, the fact that William was a Ft. Washington prisoner but Robert was not is what caused the Rankin brothers’ war stories to take divergent paths.

With that background, it is time to turn our attention to the two Rankin brothers individually. However, this post has already gone on far too long and we are footnote-weary. Please check the next two articles in this series for the military histories of William and Lt. Robert Rankin, respectively.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

[1] This article is based on information obtained primarily from five sources: (1) muster roll and payroll records from the National Archives and Records Administration (digitized images available at FamilySearch.com); (2) Tucker F. Hentz, Unit History of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment (1776–1781): Insights from the Service Record of Capt. Adamson Tannehill (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 2007), online here; (3) Danske Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown (Charlottesville, VA: The Michie Company, 1910), available at this link; (4) Robert K. Wright Jr., The Continental Army (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2006); and (5) images of the original Revolutionary War pension files of Robert and Peggy Rankin and William Rankin.

[2] Gary and I are not historians. As the list of sources in Note 1 suggests, we assemble what we believe is credible information from actual histories and scholarly sources such as The Handbook of Texas History. The major primary sources we had for this series of articles were pension applications and payroll, muster, and other records from NARA.

[3] Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown 78-79. Hugh Stephenson’s name appears in the pension applications of both Robert and William Rankin. Daniel Morgan’s name appears in William’s. Both Stephenson and Morgan were acquaintances of the Rankins and lived in the same area of Virginia.

[4] Information on rifles and muskets is available here and here.

 [5] Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown 79.

[6] Lt. Marshall was consistently listed on Capt. Blackwell’s pay and muster rolls until Blackwell resigned in January 1778. E.g., United States Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783, Familysearch.org, FHL film/fiche number 7197155, image 274 (cited hereafter as “United States Revolutionary War Rolls, FHL film/fiche number ______, image ____.”). Marshall became the commander of Blackwell’s former company by no later than August 1778. United States Revolutionary War Rolls, FHL film/fiche number 7197156, image 223.

[7] The pension application file of William Rankin, No. 25274, contains notes on the second page in official handwriting that William was a private in Capt. Brady’s company in a regiment commanded by Hugh Stephenson. William’s sworn statement made in Mason Co., KY in 1833 also says he enlisted in Capt. Brady’s company in Stephenson’s Regiment. William Rankin’s Pension Application, Fold3.com at 1, 3. So far as I know, Fold3.com is the only online source for original pension file images.

[8] See, e.g., muster roll dated 16 May 1777 for Capt. Gabriel Long’s company at camp near Bound Brook, NJ, with detachments from Capt. West’s, Shepherd’s and Brady’s companies, in the 11th VA Regiment commanded by Col. Daniel Morgan. Sergeant Robert Rankin is listed as a member of Capt. Brady’s company, attached to Long’s company. United States Revolutionary War Records, FHL film/fiche number 7197155, image 551. We found no muster or pay rolls for 1776 naming individual soldiers. By May 1777, the remains of Rawlings’ Rifle Regiment were assigned to the 11th Virginia Regiment. The remaining riflemen after the disastrous loss at Ft. Washington had been assigned to either a composite rifle company (such as the one in which Sgt. Rankin is listed, above) or a provisional rifle company. Both were commanded by Captain Gabriel Long.

[9] There were about 3,000 defenders at Ft. Washington against 8,000 British and German troops. There is a painting of Ft. Washington overlooking the river online here.

[10] The site of Fort Washington is now Bennett Park on Fort Washington Avenue between West 183rd and 185th Streets, a few blocks north of the George Washington Bridge. The locations of the fort’s walls are marked in the park by stones. Nearby is a tablet indicating that it is the highest natural point on Manhattan Island, a prime reason for the fort’s location.

[11] Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown 166-67.

[12] Here is a  discussion of “Prisoner of War Facts.”

[13] Hentz, Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment 16, Note 67, which says Blackwell’s company “had difficulty recruiting even close to full strength, with the effort extending into early 1777.” The company did not join the Main Army until April 1777, when the army was still in winter quarters near Morristown. Id. at 15.

[14] Id. at 16, Note 67. Blackwell’s company arrived at Morristown as the sixth company of the 11th Virginia Regiment, having never “taken up arms” as part of Rawlings’ Regiment.

[15] An advance element of 13 men from Long’s company reached New York ahead of the rest. They were captured at Ft. Washington. A muster roll of Long’s company in April 1778 states those 13 men were captured. United States Revolutionary War Rolls, Film/fiche number 7197155, image 551.

[16] We found no list of all Ft. Washington prisoners by name. However, a 1778 report by Col. Moses Rawlings about his regiment names company officers who died or were taken prisoner. Hentz, Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment 13 (hereafter, “Rawlings’ Report”). The report establishes that West’s, Shepherd’s, and Brady’s Companies were in the battle, as were 13 men from Long’s Company.

[17] Based on information in Rawlings Report, Gary estimates that 264 out of 297 riflemen engaged at Ft. Washington were killed or captured.

[18] Rawlings Report states that West’s three junior officers were all taken prisoner, as were Capt. Shepherd and two of his three junior officers. One of Brady’s three junior officers was killed and one was captured. After Ft. Washington, the men in those three rifle companies (West’s, Shepherd’s, and Brady’s) who were neither killed nor captured were attached to the composite rifle company commanded by Capt. Gabriel Long.

[19] United States Revolutionary War Rolls, FHL film/fiche number 7197160, image 275.

[20] William Rankin’s Pension Application, Fold3.com at 3.

[21] Id. William stated he was age 74 when he applied for a pension in November 1833.

[22] It isn’t clear why Robert Rankin was not in the battle at Ft. Washington. He may have been across the Hudson River at Ft. Lee. All three of the Virginia rifle regiment companies who fought at Ft. Washington (West’s, Shepherd’s, and Brady’s) were at Ft. Lee on Nov. 13, 1776, three days before the battle. A return of Rawlings’ Regiment on that date indicates that 48 out of 293 enlisted men were sick. Hentz, Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment 12, Note 50. Perhaps Robert was among them, although that is pure speculation. In any event, it is virtually certain that Robert was not in the battle despite having been in Capt. Brady’s company because (1) he was not taken prisoner there and (2) his widow Peggy did not list Ft. Washington as a battle in which Robert participated. Nevertheless, payroll and muster roll records after Ft. Washington consistently place Robert in Brady’s company.

3 thoughts on “Two Revolutionary War stories: Robert and William Rankin of Virginia (part 2 of 5)”

  1. Hi Robin, My ancestor David Boyd was in a PA rifle brigade and served throughout the Revolution as such. However, as it turns out I am descended from Col Thomas Marshall, the father of Lt. John Marshall the oldest son of the Col. I am descended from another son of the Col, Alexander Keith Marshall who was too young to serve. I have a supplemental for the Col. David was captured by the Indians and taken to OH for 4.5 years and then returned. I am applying for another supplemental on David Boyd.

    1. Hi, Ron, good to hear from you! There was a 9-company? (I think) Pennsylvania Rifle Brigade in the 1775 recruiting ordered by the Continental Congress. Is that your David? If so, that’s neat! I think the rifle companies were pretty cool.

      Also, many people think that the Robert and William Rankin who were the subjects of this article were “near kinsman” of your Col. Thomas and Lt. John Marshall (1st CJ, USSCT). If that is correct, then you might have some Rankin autosomal matches. Would you mind searching your autosomal matches for any Rankins? I’d appreciate it. You know how to reach me by email, right?

  2. Robin, Your work is a joy to read and a great reminder of our strong family ties during very ruff times in the past.
    We all need a laugh just now and you sure provided one with,” link the name to the Dead”.I’ll reread all your Rev.Robert Rankin again and escape visiting my Thankful Rankin-Hance McCain family,DNA traveled to Monterey County CA. and Kerr County TX.Like you I have facts not fiction with the real paper trail.
    Easy traveling with no dusty trails,just dusty paper.
    Thanks again,your work is a good example of truth from real evidence.
    pb

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