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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mr. LYNCH'S LAW

I find the number of prominent men by the name of Lynch associated with the piedmont country of Virginia in 1781, confusing. There was a William Lynch from Pittsylvania County who joined the militia and eventually was named a captain. Lynchburg was named after John Lynch who in 1781 was still running a ferry over the James River at that spot. There was a Thomas Lynch who died of wounds he received in March of 1781 at the battle of Guillford Courthouse, North Carolina, just 40 miles south of the Virginia border. And in October of that year, about a hundred miles to the east, there was a tavern operated by James Head Lynch near the French camps during the battle of Yorktown. But the Lynch I am most interested in was a Quaker who lived about 13 miles due south of Lynchburg. At 19 years of age Charles Lynch had married Miss Anna Terrell and moved into a story and a half log cabin which he called Green Level, and which he built into more than six thousand acres between the Roanoke and Otter Rivers. To work his fields Charles kept up to 24 human beings in bondage, which requied some moral gymnastics for a Quaker, and something we know bothered him - just not enough not to profit from it. Charles was now at the center of the local planter-class community. The tobacco Charles grew was exported to England. And in cash poor Virginia that made him an economic power. In 1766 Charles became a Bedford County Justice of Peace, and was required to sit at the courts in New London, the county seat, and the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg. With the coming of the American Revolution, the now forty year old Charles was appointed a Colonel in the Virginia Militia. And as a militia leader his immediate concern was not the British, but the Cherokees.While the Minute Men in New England were killing red coats at Bunker and Breed’s Hills, the Virginia assembly was worried about their own frontier settlements. There were a handful of opportunistic Indian attacks, but both the British and American agents were urging the Cherokee to stay out of the fight. However the Virginians felt they could not afford to be in a trusting mood. In October of 1776 a force of 1,600 Virginia and North Carolina militia, including Colonel Charles Lynch and men from Bradford and Pittsylvania Counties, mounted a preemptive strike. They burned over 50 Cherokee towns, murdered their inhabitants, turned the survivors out into the cold, ravaged their crops and slaughtered their livestock. In desperation the starving survivors retreated over the mountains into Kentucky and Tennessee, surrendering five million acres to the Americans. The expedition secured Virginia’s open flank, and for four years the state was secure. Then in the winter of 1780 that scourge of Independence, the traitor Benedict Arnold, leading a mix of red coats and loyalists (“Tories”), arrived to give Virginia the same treatment Virginia had given the Cherokee. The towns of Williamsburg and Richmond were captured. The state's new Governor, Thomas Jefferson, missed being captured by hair’s breath. Half the state legislature was captured. At the same time General Cornwallis was chasing Nathanial Green’s little Continental army clear out of Georgia and across the Carolinas. Virginia seemed caught between a hammer and an anvil. With Washington’s army encamped outside far off New York City, Virginia was almost defenseless. The local Tories saw this as the opportunity to strike at the Patriots who had been bullying them for 5 years - -or so said the rumors. Rumors flared across the piedmont of Tory plans to sabotage the lead mines owned by Charles, the iron works outside of Lynchburg, free the 4,000 British and Hessian prisoners held at present day Charlottesville, and worse, capture the Patriot arsenal at New London. The region seemed suddenly awash in counterfeit Continental dollars. Every sickened horse was presumed to be poisoned. Every house fire was assumed to be arson.As the newly appointed sheriff of Bedford County, Charles decided he had to act, if for no other reason than to galvanize the nervous Patriots. He deputized a core of supporters and began a series of lightening raids; arresting suspected Tories and bringing them to trial before a rump court in the front yard of Green Level. The punishments were swift and brutal. While none were executed, they were forced to swear allegiance to the patriot cause, or face being tied to a tree and receiving 39 lashes on a bare back, followed by imprisonment. It was effective, as no Tory uprising occurred - if there had ever been a real possibility of such an uprising. As the spring of 1781 approached, Governor Jefferson asked Charles to lead a regiment of riflemen to support Nathaniel Green when he made his stand against Cornwallis in North Carolina. Did Jefferson make that request, at least in part, to bring an end to the Lynch courts and their punishments at Green level? Jefferson never said so. He did send a letter thanking Charles for his "defence of liberty". But the courts also came to an end. And when General Green made his stand at Guilford Courthouse, in March of 1781, Charles was in command of the Patriot right flank. After Cornwallis’ costly victory, Green kept Charles in North Carolina; even after Cornwallis’ wounded army limped north into Yorktown. Thus Charles played no part in Cornwallis’ surrender that November, the Patriot victory which effectively brought combat in the American Revolution to an end. In 1782 the Virginia legislature voted retroactive approval of the rump courts (now called "Lynch’s Law"), and the decisions Charles had rendered in his front yard. But they set up no mechanism to repeat it during any future crises. And perhaps, in time, Charles too, felt some guilt over his actions.In 1792 and 1793 Charles freed five of his slaves, writing by way of explanation that it was, “…our duty to do unto all men as we would they should do unto us.” However he freed only those five and left the rest in bondage to be inherited by his children, like a barn or a favorite chair. Charles died in his home at Green level in 1796. He was sixty years old.
Some years after Charles' death a Captain William Lynch, then living just over the Virginia border in North Carolina, stepped forward to claim he had been the origin of the phrase “Lynch Law”. But there is no evidence William Lynch ever issued any justice which would have inspired such an appellation. The vigilante compact of the Pittsylvania County Alliance, supposedly signed by Captain Lynch in 1781, seems to have been an invention for a 1836 Southern Literary Messenger article by Edgar Allen Poe. And Poe was, after all, a known writer of invention (“Tell Tale Poe; August 2009 “The Public I”).And anyone who would claim credit to the creation of an invention used in the brutal extra-legal murders of more than 5,000 Americans between 1890 and 1960 alone, should not claim credit. He should be lynched.
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