Revolutionary War Story: Robert Rankin of the Northern Neck (part 4 of 5)

A hoary old joke goes like this: what is the shortest book ever written? Possible answers: Nixon on Ethics or Bill Clinton on Fidelity. A book titled Robert Rankin on His Revolutionary War Service would challenge them for brevity. Everything Robert had to say about himself is contained in nine pages of his 117-page pension file. Many of his words are boilerplate. Worse, some of what he remembered is demonstrably wrong.

You can’t blame Robert for an occasional memory failure, minor error, or uncertainty about his unit assignment. He wasn’t a rear echelon organizational bigshot (there is a precise military term for that, but this is a family blog). He was a sharpshooter, a scout, a guerrilla who harassed British foraging parties, a soldier who guarded his army’s camps and flanks, a brigade forage master, and a line combat officer.

Unfortunately, misinformation provided by Robert and others is compounded by seemingly endless and endlessly confusing military reorganizations. In an effort to promote clarity, I divided Robert’s story into two sections and an “appendix.” The first section is his basic war story. The second section contains Robert’s own words about himself. The appendix explains military reorganizations affecting him.

Section 1: Robert’s war story, CliffsNotes version[1]

Robert enlisted on July 26, 1776[2] as a private in Capt. William Brady’s Company,[3] Col. Hugh Stephenson’s Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment (the “Rifle Regiment”).[4] That means Robert was a skilled marksman, because the Rifle Regiment recruited sharpshooters.[5] Robert’s pension declaration said he enlisted for the term of “during the War,” although company records prove he enlisted for three years.[6] Robert was promoted to Sergeant by at least January 1, 1777 and possibly earlier.[7]

The Rifle Regiment was decimated at Ft. Washington on Dec. 16, 1776.[8] His brother William Rankin, also in Capt. Brady’s Company, was taken prisoner there.[9] Robert wasn’t in that battle, although we don’t know why. Captain Brady wasn’t at Ft. Washington, either.[10]

Robert was in winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey in the winter of 1776-77 during the so-called “Forage War.”[11] He was probably in the battles of Princeton and Trenton in December 1776 and January 1777, respectively.[12] Both were spectacular victories for Washington’s army. Trenton was the famous surprise attack at dawn after crossing the icy Delaware River. Robert also fought at Brandywine on September 11, 1777 (a terrible rout by the British) and Germantown on October 4, 1777 (a somewhat less humiliating loss).[13] Amazingly, the only battle Robert named in his pension application was the Siege of Charleston.

Robert spent the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge.[14] By the following winter, he was listed on muster rolls as acting Brigade Forage Master in winter camp, located again at Morristown.[15] He was commissioned an Ensign on July 4, 1779, shortly before his original three-year enlistment expired.[16] After that point, he had no “term” of service because commissioned officers serve until they resign or are discharged. Gary, the family military historian, says it is unusual even in wartime for a private to become a commissioned officer.

Less than two weeks later, Robert probably participated in what we would call today an elite temporary unit for a risky mission at Stony Point on July 16, 1779.[17] General “Mad Anthony” Wayne assembled for the assignment a provisional troop of light infantrymen. Wayne and some of the patriots overwhelmed a well-fortified British position with bayonets.

Here’s how they did it.[18] Stony Point was surrounded on three sides by the Hudson River and on the fourth by a marsh. One part of the patriot force feinted a frontal assault across the marsh’s causeway, laying down “a galling fire.” This took place around midnight, at low tide.[19] Two larger parts of the force waded silently through the river to the north and south sides of the hill, carrying unloaded muskets with bayonets affixed. The muskets were not loaded to prevent accidental discharge, which would have ruined the crucial element of surprise. The two patriot forces ascended the hill and overwhelmed the British from both sides. Wow.

In early 1780, Robert’s company was assigned to the enlarged 1st Virginia Regiment. It then began a roughly four-month march to the Siege of Charleston, which was Robert’s last significant military engagement. The siege ended on May 12, 1780 when the entire patriot army defending Charleston surrendered. It was the worst American defeat of the Revolution, with about 6,000 patriots captured.[20]

After the siege, Congress conferred a “brevet” on all participating officers.[21] The brevet designation recognized outstanding service by temporarily promoting an officer to a higher rank. Robert was subsequently promoted to Lieutenant effective January 1, 1780.[22] That is his so-called “date of rank.” Robert thus became a “Brevet Lieutenant” on the date Congress awarded the promotions, but his actual promotion to “Lieutenant” was retroactive to January 1, 1780.

In July 1781, nearly all patriot prisoners in the south were released as part of a prisoner exchange between the United States and Britain.[23] Not long after the exchange, Robert went home on furlough to Frederick County, Virginia. He married his fiancé Margaret “Peggy” Berry there on November 1, 1781.[24]

 After Charleston, the Virginia Line essentially ceased to exist.[25] Robert was “reduced” on January 1, 1783.[26] That means he was listed as a surplus officer having no assignment. In the final “arrangement” of the Virginia Line, Robert was the 37th Lieutenant out of sixty based on the Lieutenants’ dates of rank. Put another way, there were 36 Lieutenants who would have been offered an assignment ahead of Robert. The odds are that Robert never had another duty assignment after the exchange of prisoners from Charleston. He was officially discharged on January 1, 1783.[27]

Along the way, Robert served in Stephenson’s (Rawlings’) Rifle Regiment and the 11th, 7th, and 1st Virginia Regiments. All regimental changes were due to reorganizations. He had five different company commanders we can identify. He only actually changed companies once, and that was when he was commissioned an Ensign.

Here is what Robert himself said …

Section 2: Robert’s pension file declarations

Robert made two sworn declarations, one for a pension and one for a land warrant. He also wrote an unsworn letter supporting the former.

Below is a verbatim transcription of part of Robert’s declaration of July 26, 1828, including a strikethrough in the original. I have omitted boilerplate and material irrelevant to his war story. I inserted footnotes to correct the errors or ambiguous statements noted in boldface.

“ … I, Robert Rankins, of the County of Washington, in the state of Alabama, do hereby declare, that I was an Officer in the Continental Line of the Army of the Revolution, and served as such to the end of the War,[28] and also to the time when the arrangement of the army provided by the Resolves of Congress of the 3rd and 21st of October, 1780, were carried into effect, and was reduced under that arrangement, at which periods I was a Lieutenant in the Third Regiment[29] of the  Virginia line.

“… And I do further declare, that I was one of the officers who served under, and was captured with, Major General Lincoln at the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina, and that every officer in the Army of the said General Lincoln in reward for the signal services rendered by them at that memorable siege Defence was promoted a Grade higher by a Resolve of Congress, but I cannot remember, at this distance of time, whether the Said officers were regularly commissioned, or not. But if my Commission as a Lieutenant, (the grade to which I had been promoted) was ever received, it has, in the long lapse of fifty years, been either lost or mislaid, or destroyed by time or accident, so that it cannot now be produced.

                                        Robert Rankins

Sworn to & subscribed before me this 26th July 1828.” Wm Grimes, clerk of court.

Robert also wrote an unsworn letter dated July 1828 in support of his application with a “few explanatory remarks.” Here are relevant parts.

“… I embarked in the services of the United States, in the capacity of an Ensign in a Regiment of the Virginia Line upon the Continental Establishment (the number of which I do not now distinctly recollect) … A short time after the formation[30] of the said Regiment it was ordered to the South[31] under the command of Majr Gen Lincoln where it was captured, with his whole army, at the surrender of Charleston … [Thereafter, Congress] passed a Resolve raising each officer a grade higher or rather conferring upon them Brevets, and holding them in reserve to fill any vacancies that might thereafter occur in the Army.”

“I have never wanted and never sought relief from my Country, and nothing but the helplessness of age with unlooked for poverty[32] forces me now to ask a portion of the munificence extended by the government.”

Robert made a second sworn declaration in September 1828 in support of a request for a “Bounty Land Warrant.” The underlining and strikethrough are exactly as they appear in the original.

“The State of Alabama

County of Washington

“I, Robert Rankins, aged Seventy five years, do, upon oath, testify and declare, that in the year, one thousand seven hundred and seventy six – I entered the service of the United States for the term of “during the War” in the Third Regiment (to the best of my recollection) under the command of Colonel Hugh Stevenson – of the Virginia Line, and that I continued in the service aforesaid until the close of the War.[33] I do further declare that I entered a private and was afterwards promoted to the rank of Ensign and, before the close of the War, was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, in which capacity I was disbanded or deranged after the conclusion of Peace.”[34]

“Signed, Robert Rankins”

The clerk’s attestation is dated September 18, 1828.

Finally, for the hard-core military historians, here is how Robert’s units were shuffled.

Appendix: military reorganizations affecting Robert

There were three military reorganizations which made it difficult to track Robert’s service: (1) the reorganization of the Rifle Regiment after the battle of Ft. Washington; (2) the 1778 reduction in the number of Virginia Line regiments from fifteen to eleven; and (3) the 1779 reduction of the Virginia Line from eleven regiments to four.

… the Rifle Regiment and its assignment to the 11th Virginia in February, 1777

Robert and his brother William enlisted in 1776 in one of the four newly recruited Virginia companies in the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, AKA Stephenson’s Regiment (later Rawlings’ Regiment). As noted, it was not part of a Virginia Line regiment. Stephenson’s regiment also included a veteran Virginia rifle company under Capt. Abraham Shepherd. The four newly created companies of Virginians were commanded by (1) Capt. William Blackwell (Lt. John Marshall, future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, was second in command, and Robert was not in this company), (2) Capt. Gabriel Long, (3) Capt. Adam West, and (4) Capt. William Brady.

With two exceptions, the Virginia companies in the Rifle Regiment fought and were decimated at Ft. Washington on November 16, 1776. First, Capt. Blackwell’s company (including Lt. Marshall) didn’t reach New Jersey until April 1777, when the main army was in winter quarters at Morristown.[35] Upon arrival, Blackwell’s company was attached to the 11th Virginia Regiment and was never in an engagement as part of the Rifle Regiment. Second, most of Capt. Long’s company did not arrive until after the battle at Ft. Washington.[36]

That left Brady’s, Shepherd’s, West’s, and part of Long’s companies to participate in the awful defeat at Ft. Washington.[37] After that battle, Gen. Washington reorganized the few Rifle Regiment soldiers still fit for service (i.e., alive and not a prisoner). He created two “composite” rifle companies, one composed of Marylanders and the second of Virginians. Capt. Gabriel Long commanded the latter, and Robert Rankin was in his company along with the remainder of his own, Shepherd’s, West’s, and Brady’s companies.[38]

In February 1777, the 11th Virginia regiment was organized. Long’s composite rifle company with Robert Rankin was one of the nine companies assigned to the regiment. Capt. Long’s pay and muster rolls continued to include men identified as being from Shepherd’s, West’s, and Brady’s companies. After Long resigned, Robert remained in the same company under different commanders until he was promoted to Ensign on July 4, 1779. He was then assigned to Capt. William Johnston’s company. He was almost certainly still with Capt. Johnston at Charleston, but there are two more reorganizations to go through before we get there.

… the September 1778 rearrangement of the Virginia Line, effective May 12, 1779.

In response to the expiration of enlistment terms and other manpower losses, the 1778 rearrangement reduced the number of regiments in the Virginia Line from fifteen to eleven. You might want to take a Dramamine here. The 5th, 6th, 8th, and 9th Regiments were combined with the depleted 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Regiments (not in respective order) to restore the latter to full manpower. The former 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th regiments then ceased to exist. The 1st through 4th retained their numbers. The other seven remaining regiments – the 7th, 10th, and 11th through 15th – were renumbered. The 11th Virginia then became the 7th. As a result, Robert Rankin was now serving in the 7th Virginia, where he remained until the next rearrangement. When he was commissioned an Ensign on July 4th, 1779, he was assigned to Capt. William Johnston’s company, still in the 7th Virginia.

… the 1779 rearrangement.

The Virginia Line was reorganized yet again shortly before the march to Charleston. In late 1779, ten regiments of the Virginia Line[39] were consolidated into the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Regiments.  Companies from the regiments formerly designated 5th, 7th, 10th, and 11th were folded into the 1st Virginia Regiment. Ensign Robert Rankin, soon to be Brevet Lieutenant Robert Rankin, was still in Capt. Johnston’s company in the 7th Virginia Regiment as of November 1779.[40] Robert was almost certainly still in Capt. Johnston’s company in the enlarged 1st Virginia Regiment at Charleston. Gary says the odds are slim to none that Ensign Rankin was assigned to any other company or regiment. Capt. William Johnson’s Company in the 1st Regiment of the Virginia Line was among the patriot reinforcements arriving in Charleston on April 8, 1780 and surrendered on May 12.[41]

And that is it for reorganizations. I wish Robert had written his memoirs and provided detail on the battles he was in. While he was at it, he might have identified his parents and siblings. No such luck. We are on our own on that question. Next up: a quest for his family of origin and a look at his family’s oral history.

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] CAVEAT: Gary and I are not historians, although he published an award-winning history of the unit in which he served in Vietnam (Red Markers, Close Air Support for the Vietnamese Airborne, 1962–1975). We are family history hobbyists fond of obscure records. As for this article, some information is from Robert and Peggy’s pension application file, designated “Rankins, Robert No. W26365 or Rankin, Peggy B.L.Wt. 1380-200” (cited herein as “Robert Rankin’s pension application file”). Evidence also includes muster and pay rolls, other original military records, and published histories.

[2] United States Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783, Familysearch.org, Film/Fiche No. 7197156, image 395. Muster roll dated Sept. 1778 for Capt. Charles Porterfield’s Co., 11th Virginia Regiment, says that Sgt. Robert Rankins enlisted for three years on July 26, 1776. Hereafter, I will cite this simply as War Rolls, identifying the film/fiche and image numbers.

[3] War Rolls, Film/Fiche Number No. 7197155, images 590-591. Payroll dated 1 May 1777 for “pay and subsistence to 1 May 1777.” Sgt. Robert Rankins of Capt. Brady’s company listed on roll for Capt. Gabriel Long’s composite rifle company.

[4] Robert Rankin’s pension application file, declaration dated 18 Sep 1828, says he enlisted in Stephenson’s Regiment as a private. Images of Robert’s entire pension file are available for a fee from Fold.3 at ancestry.com.

[5] Part 2 of this series has information about Stephenson’s Rifle Regiment.

[6] See Note 2.

[7] See Note 3. Robert’s pay was £3 per month, the same as other Sergeants. Since that May 1, 1777 payroll was £12 for four months, he was a Sergeant by at least January 1, 1777. Robert may have become a Sergeant before Brady’s company ever left Virginia, since enlisted men sometimes elected their own non-commissioned officers. E.g., Danske Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown (Charlottesville, VA: The Michie Company, 1910), p. 80, online here.

[8]  Part 2  of this series has information about Ft. Washington. So does Part 3,  which is about William Rankin’s Revolutionary War service.

[9] Id. See also William Rankin’s pension application. His declaration in support filed Nov. 22, 1833 said he enlisted in Capt. Brady’s Company, Stephenson’s Regiment, and that he was taken prisoner when Ft. Washington surrendered.

[10] War Rolls, Film/Fiche No. 7197160, image 275, “Arrangement of the officers of the 11th Virginia Regiment” (undated, probably about June 1777). It states that “William Brady was a Captain in the 11th Regiment and has never done any duty. Absented himself without leave.”

[11] 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), p. 21, available online at this link. Units which performed skirmishing duties in the first half of 1777 included Gabriel Long’s composite rifle company. Sgt. Robert Rankin was in the composite company during this time. See War Rolls, Film/Fiche Number No. 7197155, images 590-591, payroll dated 1 May 1777 for “pay and subsistence to 1 May 1777.” Sgt. Robert Rankins of Brady’s company is listed on Capt. Gabriel Long’s composite rifle company payroll.

[12][12] Robert’s widow Peggy didn’t include either Trenton or Princeton in a list of Robert’s battles. Nevertheless, it is likely that the remaining soldiers of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment were engaged in those battles. One “return of the forces” record dated Dec. 22, 1776 appears to include the remnants of the Rifle Regiment “on the banks of the Delaware in the State of Pennsylvania.” Hentz, Unit History of the Mawinterryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment at page 14, note 59. The Battle of Trenton, on the other side of the river, was four days later on Dec. 26, 1776; Princeton was on Jan. 3, 1777. It is almost inconceivable that the soldiers camped on the Delaware River didn’t participate in those two battles. However, the “return” does not identify company captains or enlisted men. It does say there were 108 men fit for combat and two Captains. This profile “fits” with how the two composite rifle companies would have looked after the Battle of Ft. Washington, taking losses into account. The two composite companies were Capt. Alexander Lawson Smith’s (the remaining Marylanders from the Rifle Regiment) and Capt. Gabriel Long’s (the remaining Virginians). Robert Rankin was in Capt. Long’s composite company.

[13] Robert Rankin’s pension application file, declaration of Peggy Rankin of Liberty Co., TX dated March 22, 1844. She said Robert fought at Brandywine, Princeton, Stony Point, and Charleston.

[14] War Rolls, Film/Fiche Number No. 7197155, image 578. A muster Roll for February 1778 for Capt. Philip Slaughter’s company (formerly Capt. Gabriel Long’s company) in the 11th Virginia Regiment stated it was taken at Valley Forge. The list of soldiers includes Sgt. Robert Rankin.

[15] Id., Film/Fiche No. 7197156, image 395. Muster roll for September 1778, Capt. Porterfield’s company, Col. Daniel Morgan’s regiment. Sgt. Robert Rankins was acting as Brigade Forage Master, abbreviated “Act as B.F.M.” For more information, see a resolution of Congress regarding  forage master duties.

[16] War Rolls, Film/Fiche No. 7197160, image 373. Arrangement of the Field Officers and Captains in the 7th Regiment of the Virginia Line states Ensign Robert Rankin’s date of rank was July 4, 1779.

[17] We found no muster roll or other record identifying the soldiers at Stony Point. The only evidence that Robert participated so far as we know is Peggy Rankin’s pension declaration. She had considerable credibility with the judge who took her declaration, who noted her remarkable memory and knowledge of the war.

[18] Samuel W. Pennypacker, “The Capture of Stony Point,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 26, No. 3 (1902), pp. 360-369, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.  A PDF   can be downloaded from JSTOR.

[19] Yes, the Hudson River is tidal  from its mouth upstream for 153 miles. Stony Point is 38 miles upstream of the river’s mouth.

[20] Estimates vary of the number of American troops surrendered at Charleston. One source One source says that an army of “roughly 5,000 men ceased to exist” when Gen. Lincoln surrendered. Carl Borick, who seems to be the leading authority on the Siege of Charleston, says some 6,000 Continentals, militia, and seamen were captured when Charleston surrendered. Carl P. Borick, Relieve Us of this Burthen (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2012). “Burthen” is not a typo.

[21] Robert Rankin’s pension application, declaration dated 26 July 1828.

[22] War Rolls, Film/Fiche No. 7197160, image 395-398, numerical list dated Jan. 1, 1783 of the redundant junior officers in each grade in the Virginia Line. Date of commission for Robert Rankins was Jan. 1, 1780. He was number 37 out of 60 Lieutenants based on date of rank.

[23] Mark Berry article  in “The College Today,” the news site of the College of Charleston, June 25, 2015.

[24] Robert’s pension application file, declaration of Peggy Rankin of Liberty Co., TX dated March 22, 1844. She testified that she and Robert, having been previously engaged, married in Frederick Co., VA on 1 Nov 1781. She believed he was then on a furlough of 60 days.

[25] By the end of 1782, only 730 officers and enlisted men remained active in the Virginia Line. That number is roughly normal manning for only one regiment, compared to fifteen regiments comprising the Line at one time. War Rolls, 1775-1783, Film/Fiche No. 7197160, image 391, “Arrangement Review Board Proceedings” dated January 1, 1783.

[26] Robert Rankin’s pension application, declaration dated July 26, 1828.

[27] Id., Film/Fiche No. 7197160, image 449, list of the officers “deranged” (discharged) on Jan. 1, 1783, included Lt. Robert Rankins, due $80 for 1782 and nothing for 1783.

[28] What on earth did Robert mean by “the end of the war”? He was discharged on Jan.1, 1783. See Note 27.  The “Preliminary Anglo-American Peace Treaty” was signed in Paris on November 30, 1782. Gen. Washington issued the “Declaration of the Cessation of Hostilities” (“an extra ration of liquor for every man”!!) on April 18, 1783. The Treaty of Paris was signed September 3, 1783 and ratified by the Senate January 14, 1784. Peggy testified that her marriage to Robert took place on November 1, 1781, “nearly a year before his service expired.” That suggests she thought his service was over by November 1782. My bet is he had come home to stay about then. He had no assignment at that time and probably no expectation that he would receive one.

[29] For a discussion of Robert’s regimental assignment as a Lieutenant, see the text accompanying Notes 39 and 40, infra. The records establish he was in the 1st Regiment rather than the 3rd.

[30] Gary would scold Robert for using the term “formation” in the context of the Virginia Line Regiments that were “ordered to the South” under General Lincoln. Every time I tried to write “newly formed” or “newly created,” Gary got out his red pen. “A regiment by that number already existed,” he would say. “The existing regiment was just enlarged.” The only time “newly created” was appropriate in this article was to describe the four Virginia companies recruited for the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment in 1776.

[31] See text accompanying Notes 39 and 40, infra. In his July 26 declaration, Robert said he was with the 3rd when his service ended. In this letter, also written in 1828, he cannot recall the number of the regiment that was ordered to the south. Ensign Rankin almost certainly marched to Charleston and fought there with the 1st Virginia Regiment, not the 3rd. Likewise, Lieutenant Rankin ended his service in the 1st.

[32] The letter reveals he was suffering “unlooked for poverty” by 1828, a fact confirmed by other documents in Robert’s pension file. One historian says Robert had a financial reversal around 1819-1820, probably in conjunction with land speculation and the panic of 1819. Ann Patton Malone, Handbook of Texas Online, “RANKIN, ROBERT.” Given his brother William’s statement that he (William) engaged in a good deal of land trading, land speculation and plummeting land values seem a likely cause of Robert’s poverty. See William Rankin’s pension application, declaration filed Nov. 22, 1833.

[33] Robert’s use of the phrases “close of the war” and “conclusion of the peace” in this letter raises the same questions as the phrase “end of the War.” See Note 28.

[34] Stephenson’s/Rawlings’ Regiment, AKA the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, was not part of the Virginia Line. It reported to Congress and was independent of any state regulation. Note that Robert correctly struck through “3rd” in this declaration.

[35] Hentz, Unit History of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, pp. 15-16. Blackwell’s company was still in Philadelphia receiving smallpox inoculations in March 1777 after moving up from Virginia. It joined the main army at Morristown in April.

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

[37] A 1778 report by Col. Moses Rawlings (Stephenson’s successor) names Rifle Regiment officers who died or were taken prisoner at Ft. Washington. Hentz, Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, p. 13. Based on other information in that report, Gary estimates that 264 out of 297 riflemen engaged at Ft. Washington were killed or captured.

[38] The muster and pay rolls for Long’s composite company had a strange format. Rolls were titled “Capt. Gabriel Long’s Company,” but each also contained a listing of the names of soldiers in Captains Shepherd’s, West’s, and Brady’s companies — generally not more than a dozen men from each company. From the army’s standpoint, a soldier enlisted in Brady’s company remained in Brady’s company and was thereafter considered (in Robert Rankin’s case, for example) attached to Long’s company.

[39] The remaining regiment in the then 11-regiment Virginia Line was stationed at Ft. Pitt.

[40] War Rolls, Film/Fiche No. 7197152, image 330. Nov. 1779 muster roll of Capt. William Johnston’s Company in the 7th Virginia Regiment, junior officers included Ensign Robert Rankins.

[41] Capt. William Johnston’s Company, 1st Virginia Regiment, 1st Virginia Brigade is listed among patriot reinforcements here.

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

By Robin Rankin Willis and Gary Noble Willis

Sometimes military experience is essential. I enlisted former USAF Captain Gary Willis to help 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, although 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] Here they are.[2] This post will be one of three posts (with parts 3 and 4) on the Rankin brothers’ military history. Part 5 will conclude with the vexing last question: the identity of their family of origin.

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

The history begins in June 1775, when the Continental Congress directed the raising of ten independent companies of riflemen from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. “Independent” means that the companies reported to national rather than state authority and were not attached to another state regiment. Two Virginia companies were raised in Berkeley and Frederick Counties, a stone’s throw from where the Rankins lived. They were commanded by Hugh Stephenson and Daniel Morgan, whose names appear in the pension applications of the two Rankins.[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 one 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 and was therefore not effective in close combat.

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. As you might expect, rifle company recruits were skilled sharpshooters.

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

“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. A total of nine companies, including three remaining from 1775 and those raised in 1776, comprised the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment. 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 USCT) served. Two of them were 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 state 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 with his brother.[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.  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] Most of Captain Gabriel Long’s company were still 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 bad choice for a 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 remnants of Rawlings’ Regiment, 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 back in Virginia.

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 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 the decisive factor that led the Rankins’ war stories to take divergent paths.

With that background, it is time to turn our attention to the two Rankins individually. Parts 3 of 5 (William) and 4 of 5 (Robert) will cover their histories.

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] This article is based on information obtained primarily from these 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) at this link; (3) Danske Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown (Charlottesville, VA: The Michie Company, 1910) online here; (4) Robert K. Wright Jr., The Continental Army (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2006); and (5) the original Revolutionary War pension files of Robert/Peggy Rankin and William Rankin.

[2] Neither Gary nor I are historians. As the list of sources in Note 1 suggests, we assemble what we think is credible information from actual histories. The only primary sources we had were payroll, muster, and other records from NARA.

[3] Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown, p. 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 general area as they did.

[4] Information on rifles and muskets is from websites here and here.

[5] Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown, p. 79.

[6] Lt. Marshall was consistently listed on Capt. Blackwell’s pay and muster rolls until Blackwell resigned in January 1778. 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] 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 states he enlisted in Capt. Brady’s company in Stephenson’s Regiment. William Rankin’s Pension Application, Fold3.com at pp. 1, 3. So far as I know, Fold3.com is the only online source for original pension file images. Accessing them requires a premium subscription to Ancestry.com.

[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 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 troops. There is an old painting of Ft. Washington overlooking the river at this link. Gary and our sons Burke and Ryan would put this painting in a general category they call “Ships on Fire.” See, e.g., Édouard Manet’s painting painting  of the 1864 battle between the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama off the Cherbourg Peninsula, which is the origin of that “category.” It is part of the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[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, p. 166-67.

[12] For a discussion of prisoner of wars facts, see  this link.

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

[14] Id. at p. 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 and was 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, p. 13 (hereafter, “Rawlings’ Report”). The report establishes that West’s, Shepherd’s, and Brady’s Companies were in the battle, as was part of 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 who were neither killed nor captured were initially attached to a composite rifle company commanded by Capt. Long.

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

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

[21] Id. William stated he was age 74 when he applied 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 companies who fought at Ft. Washington (West’s, Shepherd’s, and Brady’s) were at Ft. Lee on Nov. 13, 1776. A return of Rawlings’ Regiment on that date indicates that 48 out of 293 enlisted men were sick. Hentz, Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, p. 12, Note 50. In any event, it is virtually certain that Robert was not in the battle despite having been in Capt. Brady’s company because (1) 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 prove he was in Brady’s company.