On January 21, 1776, Lutheran Pastor John Peter Muhlenberg of Woodstock, Virginia preached from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season … a time of war, and a time of peace.” Opening his clerical robe to reveal the uniform of a Continental Army Colonel, Pastor Muhlenberg then added, “and this is the time of war.” From his congregation, 162 men kissed their wives and walked down the aisle, enlisting on the spot. The next day Muhlenberg led 300 men from his county, forming the beginning of the 8th Virginia Regiment. His great-nephew recorded these moments in Muhlenberg’s biography written in the middle of the 19th century.
Muhlenberg was born on Oct. 1, 1746 in the borough of Trappe in Pennsylvania. The Muhlenberg family descended from Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, a German immigrant who founded the first Lutheran church body in America. His three sons, John Peter, Frederick, and Gotthilf, all made great contributions to America—the family’s adopted homeland—and entered the ministry. Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg became the first Speaker of the United States House of Representatives after his election to office in 1780. The youngest brother, Gotthilf, became one of America’s first botanists and president of Franklin College, publishing a number of books detailing American plant species.
The American War of Independence was a time of decision for each of the brothers. While Gotthilf and Frederick left the large cities to pastor in Pennsylvania’s, John Peter chose for himself a different path. Already he was igniting the case for liberty in his sermons, and he had been a soldier once before. He served briefly with the British 60th Foot, but had seen no combat. Inheriting a love of liberty from his father, Muhlenberg corresponded extensively with men like George Washington and Patrick Henry, even as he was becoming a leader in the Virginia Lutheran Church.
A Revolutionary Kinship
Muhlenberg was a very good hunter, and this fact was not lost on George Washington, who went on several hunting trips with the young man. The two men became great friends. They would also become companions in the revolutionary cause.
The Boston Port Bill of 1774 stirred patriotic sentiments all through the 13 colonies. As local governments drafted resolutions in response to England’s aggression, Muhlenberg chaired the meeting in Dunmore County (now Shenandoah County). He was appointed to lead the Committee of Safety and selected to represent the county in the House of Burgesses and the First State Convention on Aug. 1, 1774. When the State Convention met again in Richmond on March 20, 1775, Henry put forth resolutions that the State of Virginia should assume a defensive position. Muhlenberg gave his full support.
The Royal Governor of Virginia, John Murray (fourth Earl of Dunmore), declared everyone who attended the convention guilty of treason. The sword was unsheathed. There would be no peaceful resolution of the situation. Muhlenberg returned to his congregation, knowing a time of war was at hand. After the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Dunmore concentrated his forces at Norfolk, Virginia. Virginia recruited two state regiments, commanded respectively by Henry and William Woodford. On Dec. 9, 1775, the Virginia militia won the Battle of Great Bridge, driving Dunmore to take to his fleet.
Realizing they would need more men, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution to raise six more regiments. Washington looked for commanders who had served in the French and Indian War or had experience leading militias before. But for his 8th Virginia Regiment he chose Muhlenberg, his friend and hunting companion. He was just 29 years old.
‘Brave to the Last Degree’
Muhlenberg’s task was a daunting one: He would need to recruit men from Virginia’s wild western frontier in addition to the German settlers of the piedmont. Augusta County and the West Augusta District stretched all the way to the Ohio River and her tributaries. Fincastle County extended all the way to Kentucky. Out of these frontier lands, Muhlenberg mustered 792 men. On March 1, 1776, he received his official commission as colonel of the regiment. In May and June, they marched 500 miles to bolster the defenses of Charleston, South Carolina.
Gen. Charles Lee, American commander of Charleston said they were “brave to the last degree.” They next marched to Savannah, Georgia, preparing to fight British forces in Florida. While they waited for orders, the regiment experienced a great deal of sickness: Muhlenberg himself was stricken. The weary troops were marched slowly back to Virginia. While they recuperated, Washington won miraculous victories at Trenton and Princeton. The 8th Virginia Regiment recruited new men to replace those lost to sickness, resupplied, and marched to Washington’s camp in Morristown, New Jersey.
Muhlenberg arrived at Morristown on Feb. 21, 1777 and found himself promoted to brigadier general. He then commanded four Virginia regiments. On Oct. 4, 1777, he would first command these troops in combat at the Battle of Germantown. The battle ended in defeat, but the Virginians proved themselves a force to be reckoned with. Muhlenberg continued to serve right up to the victory at Yorktown and was promoted to major-general.
Serving a New Purpose
In 1783, Muhlenberg returned to Woodstock, Virginia. He was offered the opportunity to return to his congregation there, but declined. After eight years of war, he returned to the family home in Trappe, Pennsylvania with his wife Anna and their six children.
Tragedy struck in 1784 when his beloved 2-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, died of fever. His father also passed away later that same year. Muhlenberg, however, would again find purpose in public service. After serving in the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, he was elected in 1789 to the U.S. House of Representatives. This was the first Congress, where his brother was Speaker of the House.
In 1801, he was elected by the Pennsylvania legislature to serve in the U.S. Senate. Upon leaving the Senate, Muhlenberg served as the customs collector for the port of Philadelphia. He held that position until his death.
Henry Muhlenberg described his great-uncle as, “tall in person, very active in body, and of undaunted bravery. His coolness and determination, combined with his correct judgment, made him one of the men on which Gen. Washington relied for success, and upon whom, from previous personal knowledge, he could depend.” John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg’s life stands as an example of what one man can do in service to his community and his country.