Southwest Virginia Campbells

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The Southwest Virginia Campbells in the Revolution

by Phil Norfleet

Most of the male, Southwest Virginia Campbells, of appropriate age, fought in the Revolutionary War. Most were active in the militias of the counties in which they resided. Most of the White David Campbell family members resided in Washington County, Virginia throughout the Revolution where the County Lieutenant (the senior military officer in the county) was Arthur Campbell, a son of White David. The colonel commandant of that county’s militia was Arthur’s cousin, Colonel William Campbell. Conversely, most of the Black David Campbell related families, by 1779, were living just across the border in Northeastern Tennessee, which was then part of Washington County, North Carolina. Accordingly, one son (William) and three nephews (Elder David, Big Jimmie and Alexander) of Black David Campbell fought as part of the Washington County, North Carolina Militia that was commanded by Colonel John Sevier. However, the youngest son of Black David, David Campbell (1753-1832), had married a daughter of White David and remained in Virginia; he was a member of the Washington County, Virginia militia.

Causes of the Revolution in Virginia and North Carolina

Before discussing the wartime activities of the Campbells, it might be useful to discuss the reasons why the Whig/Patriot movement was so strong in Virginia and North Carolina.

The standard textbook reason given for the outbreak of the American Revolution is summed up in the short phrase: "No taxation without representation!" This, of course, refers to the unhappiness caused in the British Colonies by the actions of the British Parliament in London, during the years 1763-1775, following the end of the French and Indian War, to levy taxes on the colonists which had never been authorized by the various colonial legislatures.

I agree that the above described taxation issue was a major cause for political discontent in all thirteen of the British colonies. However, I also believe there were other factors, some not quite so honorable, which led the ruling classes of both Virginia and North Carolina to call for revolution and support political independence from Great Britain.

My lifetime of experience in dealing with men of many different nationalities and socio-economic groups, has led me to conclude that people are motivated almost exclusively by self-interest. Even though these same people may claim to be acting on the basis of high moral and ethical principals, they usually are found to be acting in the anticipation of some sort of tangible, material gain which will accrue to them personally. Accordingly, I believe that at least three factors (including the taxation issue) were major causes of the Revolution, at least in Virginia and North Carolina:

1.  Parliamentary Taxation Policies

By the end of the French and Indian War, the debt of the British Government had almost doubled in size from what it had been at the War’s beginning, from 73 million to 137 million. This may seem like a modest sum by today’s standards, but you must remember that the annual income of the British Treasury at the time was only 8 million. This means that the National Debt was more than 17 times greater than the National Income! Payment of just the interest on the debt required 5 million of the total 8 million of income! [1] Furthermore, the level of taxation in England was several times more than in the American colonies. Since much of the war expenditure had been in support of the 30,000 man army sent to North America, that had finally defeated the French and made the area safe for the British colonies, it is not unreasonable that Parliament wished to increase the tax burden on the colonists. Accordingly, in early 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act which required that all legal documents in the colonies would require a stamp which had to be purchased from British Agents. However due to bitter resistance on the part of the colonists, the Act was repealed about one year later. Subsequently, other revenue generating measures (such as the tax on tea) were passed by Parliament, applicable to the colonies, but they all met with fierce colonial resistance. Relations between the British colonies and the Mother Country rapidly deteriorated.

2.  Colonial Dissatisfaction with the Indian and Land Policies of the British Government

On 07 October 1763, King George III signed the famous Royal Proclamation of 1763 that established a boundary line from Canada to Florida beyond which no white settlement was permitted. The line ran roughly along the Appalachian Divide, all land drained by watercourses which flowed westward into the Mississippi River, not eastward into the Atlantic Ocean, was to be reserved for the Indians. The net effect was that most of the land gained from the French in the recently concluded Seven Years War (called the French and Indian War in the colonies) was excluded from white settlement.

The Proclamation of 1763 was intended to systematize Indian affairs and set a clear and enlightened policy governing the acquisition of Indian lands. [2] Four new provinces/colonies were established from the lands ceded to Great Britain by the French and Spanish at the end of the French and Indian War. These provinces were Quebec, East Florida, [3] West Florida [4] and the island of Grenada. All French and Spanish ceded land, lying outside the three new mainland provinces, was to be reserved for the Indians.

Because I consider the Proclamation of 1763 to be of fundamental importance in understanding the British Government’s land and Indian policies in the years just prior to the Revolution, an extensive excerpt from the proclamation follows:

"Whereas we have taken into our royal consideration the extensive and valuable acquisitions in America secured to our Crown by the late definitive treaty of peace concluded at Paris the 10th day of February last; … we have thought fit, with the advice of our Privy Council, to issue this our Royal proclamation, …

" … And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our interest and the security of our colonies, that the several nations or tribes of Indians with whom we are connected, and who live under our protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the possession of such parts of our dominions and territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their hunting-grounds; we do therefore, with the advice of our Privy Council, declare it to be our royal will and pleasure, that no Governor or commander in chief, in any of our colonies of Quebec, East Florida, or West Florida, do presume, upon any pretence whatever, to grant warrants of survey, or pass any patents for lands beyond the bounds of their respective governments, as described in their commissions; as also that no Governor or commander in chief of our other colonies or plantations in America do presume for the present, and until our further pleasure be known, to grant warrants of survey or pass patents for any lands beyond the heads or sources of any of the rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean from the west or northwest; or upon any lands whatever, which not having been ceded to or purchased by us, as aforesaid, are reserved to the said Indians, or any of them. [emphasis added by author]

"And we do further declare it to be our royal will and pleasure, for the present as aforesaid, to reserve under our sovereignty, protection, and dominion, for the use of the said Indians, all the land and territories not included within the limits of our said three new governments, or within the limits of the territory granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company; as also all the land and territories lying to the westward of the sources of the rivers which fall into the sea from the west and northwest as aforesaid; and we do strictly forbid, on pain of our displeasure, all our loving subjects from making, or taking possession of any of the lands above reserved, without our special leave and license for that purpose first obtained.

"And we do further strictly enjoin and require all persons whatsoever, who have either willfully or inadvertently seated themselves upon any lands within the countries above described, or upon any other lands which not having been ceded to or purchased by us, are still reserved to the said Indians as aforesaid, forthwith to remove themselves from such settlements. [emphasis added by author]

"And whereas great frauds and abuses have been committed in purchasing land of the Indians, to the great prejudice of our interests, and to the great dissatisfaction of the said Indians; in order, therefore, to prevent such irregularities for the future, and to the end that the Indians may be convinced of our justice and determined resolution to remove all reasonable cause of discontent we do, with the advice of our Privy Council, strictly enjoin and require, that no private persons do presume to make any purchase from the said Indians of any lands reserved to the said Indians within those parts of our colonies where we have thought proper to allow settlement; [emphasis added by author] but that if at any time any of the said Indians should be inclined to dispose of said lands, the same shall be purchased only for us, in our name, at some public meeting or assembly of the said Indians, to be held for that purpose by the Governor or commander in chief of our colony respectively within which they shall lie: and in case they shall lie within the limits of any proprietary government, they shall be purchased only for the use and in the name of such proprietaries, conformable to such directions and instructions as we or they think proper to give for that purpose. …

"Given at our Court at St. James’s, the 7th day of October 1763, in the third year of our reign."

This denial of white settlement upon the lands lying on the western waters caused great dissatisfaction among the wealthy planters of colonial Virginia and North Carolina. These "great men of affairs," included people such as George Washington and Patrick Henry in Virginia and the Blount brothers (William and John Gray) in North Carolina. All of these men were land speculators, who had assumed that the annexation of the French territories would result in a financial bonanza to them derived from sales of the western lands.

The Proclamation also infuriated the many small subsistence farmers and hunters, who lived on the Frontier. These people included many squatters, who have already been described in Section 4 of the Introduction to this book. Of course the squatter element, already being a lawless group, simply ignored the Proclamation and moved onto the lands of the western waters before the ink on the Proclamation was even dry! The more law abiding and responsible people on the frontier obeyed the proclamation, but they didn’t like it!

The historian, Bernard Knollenberg, who made an extensive study of the causes of the American Revolution in the 1950’s and 1960’s, tells us that:

" … When the Crown deferred opening the West to settlement and used British troops to keep white settlers out of the western territory, the proclamation’s restriction of settlement became a source of acute discontent in several of the North American colonies." [5]

After the Indian treaties of Fort Stanwix and Hard Labour were concluded in 1768, the British Government did agree to move the Proclamation Line westward into the region of the upper Ohio River. This was done primarily to appease the great land speculators, who included not only Americans but also Britons (such as Lord Dunmore, the last Royal Governor of Virginia). [6] In 1772, Lord Dunmore approved grants of western land to veterans of the French and Indian War, including a grant of over 20,000 acres to George Washington. [7] In 1774, in an action euphemistically called Lord Dunmore’s War, the Virginia militia defeated the Shawnee Indians and forced them to agree to the white occupation of Kentucky. Basically, Governor Dunmore had provoked the war [8] to assure access to Kentucky for land speculation purposes, from which he expected to make a substantial profit. Unfortunately for Dunmore, the coming of the American Revolution dashed his hopes for a western financial bonanza!

The above concessions notwithstanding, the Virginia and North Carolina colonists were never satisfied with the official British Indian and land policies. It was widely believed that removal of British authority would open the floodgates of westward migration.

3.  Heavy Debt Burden of the Great Tidewater Planters

In spite of their enormous land holdings, most of the great Tidewater planters were chronically in debt to British merchants. The well-known historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, tells us that:

"The wealthy planter employed the London or Glasgow merchant as a sort of commission merchant, to dispose of his tobacco or rice and to lay out the probable proceeds in goods of one kind or another, to be delivered at the planter’s wharf in the following season. This system resulted in careless and wasteful management on the part of the merchant in England, high commissions and freight rates, and chronic overbuying on the part of the colonist.

"For ordinary trading purposes, the British merchant maintained an agent or ‘factor’ in the colonies, who kept up a stock of merchandise the year round, worked up business, and acted as financial agent and confidential advisor of his employer. The factors were almost altogether ‘foreigners,’ as the local vernacular termed them—that is, natives of Scotland. They had the reputation of being shrewd, hard business men, veritable Shylocks; and from the point of view of their patrons they undoubtedly were, for they demanded, from as wasteful a race of gentlemen-farmers as ever lived, punctual payment for goods sold or money loaned.

"Here again, there were large profits for the British dealers and ship owners, and lavish buying on the part of the colonist.

"The British capitalist advanced money and gave generous credit to the planter, but this merely served to complicate matters; the planter continually operated on borrowed capital and found his next crop mortgaged before it was planted. …

"The result of this financial system in its various ramifications, was the economic bondage of the planting class to the British merchants." [9]

I am personally convinced that a major factor causing many of the wealthy planters to embrace the Whig cause was the delightful prospect of renouncing all their debts to the Scottish factors, as the result of a successful War of Independence! In 1804, the American historian and essayist, Oliver Wolcott, wrote that:

"It is a firmly established opinion of men well versed in the history of our revolution, that the whiggism of Virginia was chiefly owing to the debts of the planters." [10]

The Battle of Kings Mountain

To the "Men of the Western Waters" the most celebrated battle during the Revolutionary War was the one that took place at Kings Mountain, South Carolina on 7 October 1780. The great significance of this battle to the American cause was clearly set forth by Thomas Jefferson in a letter, written in the year 1822, to John Campbell [11] of Richmond, Virginia.

Participants in the Battle

Portions of approximately six regiments participated in the battle on the Whig/Patriot side as shown in the following table:

Table – Militia Regiments Participating in the Battle of King’s Mountain

Militia Regiment

Commanding Officer

Number of Men

Washington County VA Colonel William Campbell


Sullivan County NC Colonel Isaac Shelby


Washington County NC Lieutenant Colonel John Sevier


Burke & Rutherford Counties NC Colonel Charles McDowell


Wilkes & Surrey Counties NC Colonel Benjamin Cleveland


South Carolina Colonel James Williams





Out of the above forces of almost 1800 men, a picked force of about 900 horsemen were selected to march ahead of the rest of the army. It was this group of 900 who actually engaged in the battle. No official militia rosters identifying the American troops who took part in the battle have survived, if indeed, any official rosters ever existed. However, several men with the Campbell surname took part in that battle on the Whig/Patriot side, including the overall commander of the American forces, Colonel William Campbell (1745-1781). The Tory/Loyalist forces, commanded by British Major Patrick Ferguson, were largely composed of loyal Scots Highlanders who had settled in the Carolinas after their defeat in the Battle of Culloden (1746). Accordingly, there were probably soldiers with the Campbell surname who fought under Ferguson, but none of their names have come down to us. On the American side, eight Campbells from either the White David or Black David Campbell families are either known to have or are believed to have participated in the battle.

 Table - Campbell Participants in the Battle of King’s Mountain

Name and Campbell Relationship

Rank in the Battle

Washington County VA Militia:


Brigadier General William Campbell (1745-1781) – Grandnephew of White David

Colonel, Battlefield Commander

John Campbell (1741-1825) – Son of White David


Robert Campbell (1755-1832) - Son of White David)


Colonel David Campbell (1753-1832) – Son of Black David



Washington County NC Militia:


Captain William Campbell (1748-1800)-Son of Black David


Captain Alexander Campbell (1760-1816) - Nephew of Black David


James (Big Jimmie) Campbell (1759-1844) - Nephew of Black David


David (Elder David) Campbell (1762-1813) – Nephew of Black David


 Official Account of the Battle

It is beyond the scope of this book to discuss the Battle of Kings Mountain in any great detail. The noted military historian, Henry Lumpkin, gives a very good and objective account of the battle in his book From Savannah to Yorktown, at pages 91-104. The official report of the engagement, signed by Colonels Campbell, Shelby and Cleveland, was published in the Virginia Gazette on 18 November 1780 and was included in Lyman C. Draper’s book Kings Mountain and Its Heroes, at pages 522-524. Prior to issuance of this official report, a shorter account had already been made in a letter written by the American commander, Colonel William Campbell, a few days after the battle. A transcript of Colonel Campbell’s letter is as follows:

"October 25th, 1780

Dear Sir,

Ferguson and his party are no more in circumstances to require the citizens of America. We came up with him in Craven County, South Carolina posted on a height called Kings Mountain, about 12 miles north of the Cherokee ford of broad River, about two o’clock in the evening of the seventh instant, we having marched the whole night before. Col. Shelby’s regiment and mine began the attack, & sustained the whole fire of the enemy for about ten minutes while the other troops were forming around the height, upon which the enemy was posted. The firing then became general, & as heavy as you can conceive for the number of men. The advantageous situation of the enemy, being on the top of a steep ridge, obliged us to expose ourselves exceedingly, and the dislodging of them was equal to driving men from strong breastworks; though in the end we gained the point of the ridge where my regiment fought, and drove them along the summit of it nearly to the other end, where Col. Cleveland and his country men were. Then they were drove into a huddle, and the greatest confusion; the flag for a surrender was immediately hoisted, and as soon as our troops could be notified of it, the firing ceased, and the survivors surrendered. The estimated prisoners at discretion. The victory was complete to a wish. My regiment has suffered more than any other in the action. I must proceed with the prisoners until I can in some way dispose of them, probably I may go on to Richmond in Virginia.

I am etc.

/S/ Wm Campbell, Col. Cdr." [12]

Largely as the result of the Kings Mountain victory, Colonel William Campbell was made a Brigadier General by the Virginia Legislature in December 1780. Campbell was subsequently appointed to the Marquis de LaFayette’s staff and was present at the beginning of the siege of Cornwallis’s forces at Yorktown. Unfortunately, while at Yorktown, Campbell became ill with what was then called "camp fever" and died on 22 August 1781.

The Shelby – Campbell Controversy

Colonel Isaac Shelby had commanded the militia regiment from Sullivan County, North Carolina during the Battle of Kings Mountain, serving under the overall command of William Campbell. In July 1822, two private letters written by Isaac Shelby to Colonel John Sevier in 1810 were published by Sevier’s son, Colonel G. W. Sevier. In these letters, Shelby strongly implied that Colonel Campbell had displayed a less than appropriate degree of courage during the fighting. The publication of these letters generated a firestorm of criticism of Colonel Shelby for this apparent attempt to damage the reputation of a long dead hero who was no longer able to defend himself. The Campbells were, of course, incensed by Shelby’s remarks and immediately rallied to the defense of their kinsman. John Campbell of Richmond, a grandson of White David, sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson, who at the time of the battle had been the Governor of Virginia, requesting his recollection of the battle and Campbell’s role in the American victory. [Link to Jefferson Letter]

In April 1823, Shelby issued a pamphlet that further detailed his criticisms of William Campbell. In reply, the supporters of General Campbell obtained a number of letters from participants in the battle that refuted Shelby’s accusations. One of these letters was from Colonel David Campbell (1753-1832) of Campbells Station. [Link to Colonel Campbell's Letter] The complete account of the Shelby-Campbell affair is contained in Lyman Draper’s book King’s Mountain and Its Heroes, at pages 558-590.


1.  John Mack Faragher, Editor, The Encyclopedia of Colonial and Revolutionary America (1990), page 367.

2.  Page Smith, A New Age Begins (1976), pages 166-167.

3.  This province encompassed all of the modern State of Florida, as far west as the Apalachicola River.

4.  This province included the region between the Apalachicola and Mississippi Rivers, from the Gulf of Mexico to 31 degrees North Latitude.

5.  Bernard Knollenberg, Origin of the American Revolution 1759-1766 (1960), page 105.

6.  R. C. Simmons, The American Colonies from Settlement to Independence (1976), page 323.

7.  Bernard Knollenberg, George Washington The Virginia period, 1732-1775 (1964), page 95.

8.  Sanford Wexler, Westward Expansion: An Eyewitness History (1991), page 5.

9.  Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution 1763-1776 (1957), pages 35-36.

10.  Ibid., page 39.

11.  This John Campbell was a grandson of White David, a brother of Governor David Campbell of Virginia, and subsequently was appointed as Treasurer of the United States by President Andrew Jackson in 1829.

12.  From the Campbell Papers Collection located at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Microfilm copies of the papers are available at several major libraries, including the Tennessee State Library, Nashville.