The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia

The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia

The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia

The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia


War often unites a society behind a common cause, but the notion of diverse populations all rallying together to fight on the same side disguises the complex social forces that come into play in the midst of perceived unity. Michael A. McDonnell uses the Revolution in Virginia to examine the political and social struggles of a revolutionary society at war with itself as much as with Great Britain.

McDonnell documents the numerous contests within Virginia over mobilizing for war--struggles between ordinary Virginians and patriot leaders, between the lower and middle classes, and between blacks and whites. From these conflicts emerged a republican polity rife with racial and class tensions.

Looking at the Revolution in Virginia from the bottom up, The Politics of War demonstrates how contests over waging war in turn shaped society and the emerging new political settlement. With its insights into the mobilization of popular support, the exposure of social rifts, and the inversion of power relations, McDonnell's analysis is relevant to any society at war.


In Northumberland County in the lower Northern Neck of Virginia a dramatic and tragic incident unfolded in the midst of the Revolutionary war. On the day appointed for a draft of eligible males for service in the Continental army in September 1780 “a considerable body of men” gathered together at the county courthouse to “prevent the said draft being made.” One witness reported that upward of 150 men, or almost 25 percent of the militia, had “formed themselves in a regular body, and were armed.” Local officials sent out two captains with a detachment of men under a flag of truce to treat with the rebellious militia and try to persuade them to lay down their arms. But the delegation was also under strict orders to quell the mutiny any way they could—to “reduce” the mutineers “to order or submission.” Ultimately, the officers persuaded the rioters to surrender and come in “on terms,” and without their arms. But, as the militia marched back to the muster ground, one of them, Joseph Pitman, “passed with his firelock on his shoulder.” Captain Edwin Hull took offense at Pitman’s act of silent defiance and ordered him to “ground his fire arms.” Pitman replied, “You ground your fire arms.”

Neither could turn back from the brink. As a witness reported, “Both of them levelled their pieces … at each other, at the same instant and fired.” Captain Hull died immediately; Pitman was wounded but survived. the encounter sparked a protracted and divisive conflict in Northumberland: Thomas Gaskins, Sr., the county lieutenant, reported to the governor that “almost the whole county was inflaim’d.” Later, to Gaskins’s surprise and horror, the situation worsened, and many men in the militia on whom he had counted to help suppress the insurgents “appeard in arms against us.” Peace was not fully restored until the following spring.

1. My account of the riot in Northumberland was drawn from the following sources: Pension Record of Edwin Hull, W14316 (which includes valuable depositions concerning his participation in the draft proceedings that led to his death); Lewis Lunsford to Robert Carter, Sept. 18, 1780, in William Jennings Terman, Jr., “The American Revolution and the Baptist and Presbyterian Clergy of Virginia: a Study of Dissenter Opinion and Action” (Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University, 1974), 201; Thomas Gaskins to Thomas Jefferson, Feb. 23, 1781, Papers of Jefferson, iv, 693. in Executive Papers, LiVi: “Advertizement,” Sept. 18, 1780;

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