By Brandon Martin
With a quick stroll through Martinsville’s Uptown district on May 8, spectators would have been forgiven for thinking they had time traveled back to the 18th Century.
Fully equipped with historic flags, a small cannon and men dressed in Revolutionary War regalia, the Old Henry County Courthouse was thronged with members of various chapters of the Virginia Sons of the American Revolution assembled to commemorate Gen. Joseph Martin and the raid at Martin’s Station.
To some, it may have seemed like a unique chance to play dress-up, but to the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), it was a chance to “live history” in the same clothes as their ancestors.
“I had first joined the Sons of the American Revolution and there was no intention of me doing this kind of thing,” said Andy Doss, president of the Colonel George Waller Chapter of SAR. “As I got more involved and learned about our patriot ancestors, we started to see what some of the other chapters were doing. We didn’t call in reenacting, we called it ‘living history.’ We thought it would be great if we started our own ‘living history’ unit.”
Doss said that the unit provides the opportunity for history to sink in a little deeper for those watching.
“When we dress like this and when we talk about things dressed like this, especially with kids, it gives us a more commanding influence when we speak instead of me just showing up” wearing a blazer and slacks, he said. “If I’m dressed up, a lot of people look. They want to ask you about the uniform, they always ask is it hot. They ask about the hat and they really love the guns.”
Unlike the rigorous curriculum taught in grade schools, Doss believes the reenactments provide a broader context.
“I enjoy knowing that we are teaching somebody about the American Revolution when they probably don’t have a lot of exposure to it. It was probably covered pretty briefly in school but the level that we cover it, we go into detail about the weapons and how local militia units around here operated,” Doss said. “I love to see that look on their faces when they learn that piece of information that wasn’t shared at school, then they realize ‘you know what, I might have had a seventh great grandpa that did this.’ I think that is the real value in it.”
True to its nature as a small town, Doss said most people in Martinsville-Henry County can trace their lineage back to a couple of men.
“We have a joke in our chapter that everyone descends from two different people. That’s either a guy named James Johnston or a guy named William Turner,” Doss said. “You’ll see a lot of people with the last name Turner in Martinsville-Henry County. Usually, a lot of these people end up being descendants of William Turner, who was a militia patriot in Henry County. That’s one of my primary ancestors in this area.”
The event also was attended by members of the Dan River Chapter of SAR.
Gary Hall, president of the chapter, said he traced his heritage back to William Dove of Pittsylvania County. Michael Geisinger, past chairman of the chapter, said his ancestor was a Mennonite from Pennsylvania.
“He served in the militia up there outside of Philadelphia,” Geisinger said. “I have a couple other lines that I’m trying to trace back as well, but I can’t claim them as my relatives just yet.”
Both men have traveled up and down the East Coast attending events to honor those who served in the Revolutionary War.
“I’ve liked history my whole life, so it was natural for me to join the Sons of the American Revolution,” Hall said. “It allowed me to go to the places where the battles actually occurred, and the reenactments add a little something to it. We do it for the public, not just ourselves. It’s educational.”
Part of the experience includes finding those that were lost to history.
“A lot of the patriots have been lost over time once they were buried,” Hall said. “The whereabouts of their remains are largely unknown, but we try to find those and mark the graves to recognize them.”
This is something that drew Geisinger to the group.
“Getting to see the places and talking to the people there is probably my biggest joy,” he said. “I guess you might say that we are honoring those that came before us. It’s not all glory. There is no glory in war. People get killed and lives get torn up. It’s just that we are honoring those that did sacrifice to give us what we had today.”
Spotlighting the American Revolution is an important part of “living history,” according to Geisinger, who noted chapter’s annual event to recognize the Crossing of the Dan River during the war.
“Everybody thinks ‘oh, Gen. (George) Washington won at Yorktown.’ Well, if it hadn’t been for the efforts in the South, like the Crossing of the Dan, then it wouldn’t have happened,” Geisinger said.
He explained the crossing was when Gen. Nathanael Greene brought his army back across the Dan River, preventing capture by the British troops led by Gen. Charles Cornwallis.
“Then Cornwallis retreated back down to Greensboro,” Geisinger said. “Greene put his army back together using all of the resources in Southside. It wasn’t just soldiers doing it. It was the common man that was supplying horses, fodder, beef and hogs to support that army going back and fighting at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Of course, Greene didn’t win there but Cornwallis’ army was damaged so badly that it forced him to retreat eventually to Yorktown.”
Like the militia men that banded together to help win the war, Geisinger said putting on the uniform as a member of SAR also brings a sense of kinship among the members.
“I think what I have enjoyed the most is the people, the folks that are there,” he said. “There’s a camaraderie that you get from it.”
According to the reenactors, there’s only one problem with “living history.”
“It costs a lot of money. Don’t let the wives know,” Hall said. “There are suppliers that provide the uniforms. With militia, you pretty much have free reign with the hats, jackets, and pants. I bought pretty much all of my uniform, but I found my turkey feathers.”
Hall and Geisinger were both dressed in militia clothing, but even the attire of the everyday man can be costly.
“The rifle can cost almost $2,000,” Geisinger said. “Depending on the uniform, those can get pretty expensive too. Some run about $400 for the coats and my smock is about $160. Pants can be around $110-120. It adds up after a while.”
Doss said he saved up money to buy two separate uniforms.
“This is a continental one,” he said of the one he wore, “but I also have a militia-based one as well. It depends on the mood of wherever we are going. Normally, I would wear the continental one for occasions like today, because it’s more colorful. Likely, most of the people around here were dressed in militia uniforms.”
One exception among the locals was Martin, who obtained the rank of brigadier general during his career.
While popularized for his role in military affairs, it was Martin’s efforts in exploration and diplomacy which caused President Theodore Roosevelt to say, “If not for Joseph Martin ━ we may have lost the Revolution.”
Seeking a life on the next frontier, Martin ventured into unsettled land between western Virginia and Kentucky in 1769. Just east of the Cumberland Gap, Martin built a fort called Martin’s Station which was the westernmost English settlement at the time. The area was still subject to attacks by various American Indian tribes, however.
While he spent the majority of his time at Martin’s Station over the next two decades, Martin split his time at his Belle Monte plantation in Henry County, near the city which would later be named after him.
“A lot of people probably can’t tell you who Martinsville is named after,” Doss said. “I believe that understanding some of the roots of history, especially like how the town you live in was founded, can lead to some interesting discoveries.”
Martin later became the Agent and Superintendent of Indian Affairs under Gov. Patrick Henry. Once the British launched their Southern Campaign during the Revolutionary War, Martin convinced the tribes to remain neutral, preventing the Continental Army from fighting the war against multiple enemies on multiple fronts. This allowed the Southern colonists to concentrate troops in the South and drive Cornwallis to eventually surrender in Yorktown.
Because of the accomplishments of important men like Martin, it is little wonder their Sons today are still “living history” in the garbs of their forefathers.