William Campbell (bap. 1 September 1745–22 August 1781), Revolutionary War militia officer, was born in Augusta County, the son of Charles Campbell, a farmer, and Margaret Buchanan Campbell. He was baptized at Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church on 1 September 1745. Campbell received the best education available in the vicinity, being privately tutored and attending Augusta Academy, a forerunner of Washington and Lee University. A tall, strong, imposing man with sandy red hair and blue eyes, he had a fiery temper but was noted for his courtesy. Confident in himself, Campbell inspired confidence in others and was ideally suited to lead Virginia frontiersmen.
When his father died in 1767, Campbell inherited a large estate that included many acres in southwestern Virginia. Moving there in 1768 and relocating his mother and sisters there four years later, he established a plantation, Aspenvale, about twenty miles from present-day Abingdon in what became Smyth County in 1832. Campbell was already a prominent local gentleman when the government of the newly created Fincastle County was organized in 1773, and he became one of its justices of the peace in April of that year. He was a captain in the county militia in 1774 during Dunmore's War, but he did not take part in any fighting. On 20 January 1775 Campbell was elected to the Fincastle County Committee, which adopted an address to the Virginia members of the First Continental Congress pledging support for congressional efforts to redress colonial grievances. By September of that year he had recruited a company of Fincastle County riflemen that was taken into the 1st Virginia Regiment under the command of Patrick Henry. Campbell received a captain's commission dating from 15 December 1775. While serving in Williamsburg he became a close friend of Henry and on 2 April 1776 married Henry's sister, Elizabeth Henry, in Hanover County. They had one son and one daughter.
On 9 October 1776 Campbell resigned his commission and returned to Aspenvale. When Washington County was created he was one of its first justices of the peace. Campbell was also a trustee for the county seat, and he helped survey and sell lots in a new town, later named Abingdon. In 1777 he was one of the Virginia commissioners to draw a boundary line between Virginia and the Cherokee nation. Campbell was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 10th Regiment of Virginia militia that same year and was promoted to colonel three years later. As a local militia commander he fought to maintain peace on the Virginia frontier, ruthlessly suppressing British Loyalists and paying little attention to their civil liberties. Without mercy Campbell destroyed or confiscated Loyalist property and may have executed as many as twelve men without trial. On one occasion he summarily hanged a counterfeiter who was discovered with incriminating documents. In 1779 Campbell participated in a series of militia actions against a band of Loyalists who threatened the strategically important lead mines in Montgomery County. The General Assembly passed an act late that year to immunize Campbell and his second in command from any prosecution or lawsuits resulting from their suppression of the insurrections, inasmuch as "the necessary measures taken for that purpose may not be strictly warranted by law, although justifiable from the immediate urgency and imminence of the danger."
The voters of Washington County elected Campbell to the House of Delegates in the spring of 1780. He was appointed to the Committee of Propositions and Grievances but served only a short time. On 15 June 1780 the governor named Campbell commander of an expedition against the Cherokees and ordered him into what is now eastern Tennessee. He did not go, however, because he was diverted again to defend the lead mines from renewed Loyalist attack, a danger that men under his command ended in August 1780.
Campbell learned in the autumn of 1780 that a Loyalist militia force of more than 1,000 men was threatening the backcountry of western North Carolina. Late in September he led Washington County militia to a rendezvous of frontiersmen at Sycamore Shoals on the upper Watauga River. On 2 October the other militia officers appointed him commander of the little army of about 900 men in its attack on the Loyalist position on Kings Mountain. Campbell's forces surrounded the mountain position on 7 October and surprised the Loyalists, who were under the command of British major Patrick Ferguson, by charging directly up the steep slope. Using trees as cover, Campbell's men fired on their exposed enemies and gained the top of the ridge. After Ferguson was killed, the Loyalists surrendered, and Campbell's triumph was complete. The Battle of Kings Mountain was one of the most dramatic and important American victories in the southern theater during the war. It devastated earl Cornwallis's left and delayed the British advance into North Carolina long enough to allow General Nathanael Greene to reorganize the American forces. Congress officially congratulated Campbell for the victory on 13 November 1780, and four days later the Senate of Virginia approved a House of Delegates resolution to reward him with a sword and a horse.
Early in 1781 Campbell and his militiamen joined Greene's army to oppose Cornwallis's renewed advance into North Carolina. At Wetzell's Mill on 6 March Campbell was involved in a skirmish with British cavalry. Nine days later at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse he fought under the immediate command of Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee (1756–1818) on the left of Greene's line. His forces mauled by the enemy, Campbell bitterly charged that Lee had left him unsupported during the battle, but Greene praised Campbell for his bravery. Elected again to the assembly in the spring of 1781 and named to the Committee of Privileges and Elections, Campbell did not serve because on 14 June 1781 the legislature appointed him a brigadier general of militia. He duly marched to join the marquis de Lafayette's army in eastern Virginia. After campaigning in July and early in August Campbell was struck down by fever and chest pains. Retiring to Rocky Mills, the Hanover County residence of his wife's half brother, William Campbell died there on 22 August 1781, apparently of a heart attack, and was buried in Hanover County. In August 1832 his body was moved to the family graveyard at Aspenvale in Smyth County. The assembly named a new county for him in November 1781. Campbell's widow married William Russell, a member of the Convention of 1776, and became a linchpin in a personal and political power struggle between Russell and William Campbell's cousin and brother-in-law Arthur Campbell, also a member of the Convention of 1776.
David G. Malgee, "A Frontier Biography: William Campbell of King's Mountain" (master's thesis, University of Richmond, 1983); Agnes Graham Sanders Riley, Brigadier General William Campbell, 1745–1781 (1985); baptism recorded in Howard McKnight Wilson, The Tinkling Spring, Headwater of Freedom: A Study of the Church and Her People, 1732–1952 (1954), 471; marriage and death dates in Thomas L. Preston, A Sketch of Mrs. Elizabeth Russell, Wife of General William Campbell, and Sister of Patrick Henry (1888), 7; Lyman C. Draper, King's Mountain and Its Heroes: History of the Battle of King's Mountain, October 7th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It (1881), esp. 378–402; E. T. Crowson, "Colonel William Campbell and the Battle of Kings Mountain," Virginia Cavalcade 30 (1980): 22–29; Emory G. Evans, "Trouble in the Backcountry: Disaffection in Southwest Virginia during the American Revolution," in An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution, ed. Ronald Hoffman et al. (1985), 179–212; William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 … (1809–1823), 10:195 (quotation); Campbell letters in Campbell-Preston-Floyd Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and Preston Family Papers, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond; numerous papers and references in Lyman C. Draper Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wis., in William J. Van Schreeven, Robert L. Scribner, and Brent Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia, the Road to Independence: A Documentary Record (1973–1983), vols. 2, 4–7, in Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution (1977–1983), esp. 4:359, in Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1950– ), vols. 3–5, and in Richard K. Showman et al., eds., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene (1976– ), vols. 6–7; Worthington C. Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (1904–1937), 18:1048–1049; Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Oct. 1780 sess., 18, 26; Richmond Virginia Gazette, 18 Nov. 1780; Washington Co. Will Book, 1:20–22; reinterment in Elizabeth Lemmon Sayers, Smyth County, Virginia (1983), 1:178, 180.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Paul David Nelson.
How to cite this page:
>Paul David Nelson,"William Campbell (1745–1781)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Campbell_William_1745-1781, accessed [today's date]).
Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.