The men who served in the Revolutionary War share much in common with their modern-day brothers. The sacrifices of friendship, safety, and security unite soldiers across time. Remember their devotion and support them when they come home, urges Lieutenant Colonel James Innes, portrayed by Nat Lasley.
Harmony Hunter: Hey! Welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. Today is special for us, as we’re thinking about Memorial Day today and the lives and sacrifices of soldiers from the Revolutionary War up to the present day.
It’s also a special day because the questions come from you, our listeners. We’re always glad when we can involve the audience, and we thank you for sending your suggestions and your questions.
Our guest today is Nat Lasley, who portrays Lieutenant Colonel James Innes here in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. Nat will be talking to us in person as Colonel Innes in 1798, the last year of his life. Colonel Innes, Lieutenant Colonel Innes, thank you for being our guest today.
Nat Lasley (Lt. Colonel Innes): It’s my great pleasure to be here, ma’am.
Harmony: Tell us a little bit about your life and your career. What was your role in the Revolutionary War and the political climate surrounding it?
Nat: Well, I daresay the political climate is, as you describe it, was one of great danger in the year 1775. Prior to the outbreak of the troubles I had led a life without any great consequence. My father, he was a fine priest of the Church of England. He raised me up in King and Queens County, passed away when I was 11 years old.
Then, I came to Williamsburg. Thanks to the beneficence of Mr. Edward Pendleton, I was able to attend The College William & Mary. There I did matriculate for approximately six years. Afterwards, I stayed on as the chief usher of the college, where I did see to the good conduct of the boys. And I say good conduct very lightly because, well let’s face it, the words good conduct and boys do not often coincide.
However, when the troubles started, I began to do my duty as I saw fit, I felt my duty oblige me to take up arms with the new volunteer companies that were springing up all over the colony like daisies in those days. So I began humbly as a First Sergeant of the Artillery. Then after Mr. Henry’s great call to arm for our own defense in March of 1775, I was elected Captain of my own company, The Williamsburg Volunteers.
Harmony: You mentioned that your father was a man of the cloth, were you the first man in your family to take up a military career?
Nat: Well ma’am, so far as I know, I was. Now my father, he was not native to this country. He had been born in Aberdeen in the ancient kingdom of Scotland. He come over here, of course, as a man who knew what came of despotism.
My father had been in Scotland during the time of the Jacobite rising in 1747. He saw how the crown dealt with rebels. My father, as a result, all his life was a true whig. He supported a limited monarchy, with most powers, with the greatest powers within the state invested in its legislature, in the body that was chosen by the people. He was always fearful of the abuse of the royal prerogative.
Harmony: So would you say your father gave you the strong sense of the importance of liberty?
Nat: Yes ma’am, I believe he did. One of my very last memories of Father was at the breakfast table. As a man of the cloth, he had to be informed so that he could look after his flock properly. So he always had papers brought in from all over the colony, especially from Williamsburg. And on that particular day, he was sitting down, he was reading, reading of Mr. Henry’s Stamp Act Resolve.
Mr. Henry had stood up and called those Stamp Acts, called the The Stamp Act what it was: an act of sedition against the British Constitution, an act of tyranny. My father, he read the words of Mr. Henry. He read about how the other burgesses had chastised the good gentleman. They had called out, “Treason!” after the great Henry said, “As Cato had his Brutus, aye, as Charles had his Cromwell so.... “ And when he said, “So...” that’s when the treason erupted. That’s when the other burgesses started to get a mite nervous. Mr. Henry, he beat down the noise, he beat down the noise, then he said, “May King George profit from our example.”
My father, he read those words to me, and he put down the paper, and he pointed to it, and he said, “By God, now that is a true Briton.” That is the first time I ever heard the name Patrick Henry and one of the last memories I have of my father when he was still alive on this earth.
Harmony: Holding liberty as a value does not come cheaply. The Revolutionary cause divided Williamsburg and some of its foremost institutions, including The College of William & Mary where you matriculated. Did your belief in liberty cause a conflict for you and the College, and did you have to make a choice between your beliefs and your membership with that College?
Nat: Yes ma’am. Unfortunately, The College of William & Mary in those days was governed by the Reverend Camm. Now the Reverend Camm, he was, of course, a Tory, as many know to this day. Now I do not deny that the man was a sound administrator, he was also a man who had a very fine head for religious matters. But when it came to politics, well he and I could not have been, well, more at odds with one another.
You see, he believed in all this nonsense, aye, all this nonsense the Tory party was spouting in those days, about “virtual” representation. He would go on and on about how the people of Manchester or Liverpool don’t have a man in the Parliament, so why should we complain about it, aye? There are men in Britain, though we never elected them, though we never met them, who would speak for us. He truly believed this sort of nonsense.
And he became more and more displeased with me, because I felt it my duty to recruit for my new company from the student body, aye. I say why not? For if it were to come to war, who would be spilling their blood first? Who would be charged with all the fighting? And if we lost that war, then who would bear the consequences more than that young? So I felt it my duty to recruit these brave young Virginia men who were right there in front of me. They would have time for Pliny and Euclid with the crisis was settled.
But they were the most vigorous, most educated portion of our population and therefore I did call on these young Spartans to take up arms, and they did so. The Reverend Camm took displeasure from my doings and he did contrive charges against me of neglect, of indolence, even cruelty. And he ordered me dismissed.
Harmony: We think about the sacrifices of a soldier being primarily physical in battle, but what are some of the other sacrifices that a soldier makes that might be unseen, such as the ties with your college or your family?
Nat: Yes, one must lose friends if one is going to take a side. I knew many men who never really took a position at all, as much as they could avoid. They would simply, like a flag, they would bend with the popular wind. However, those of us who did take a stand, we severed relationships that had been very dear to us.
There was a man at the college, the Reverend. Now after my pa went to God, he was like a father to me. And he showed me much kindness and he taught me much about the world. Yet he was unwilling or unable to break with the old ideas, these old prejudices, this foolish old attachment to England. He could not sever himself from the empire. So he and I, after a very unfortunate conversation, in May of ’75, we went our separate ways. And though I loved him, I was forced to call him my enemy. And we never spoke again.
My sacrifice is minuscule compared to that of Mr. Edmund Randolph, our first free Attorney General. Mr. Randolph’s own father, John Randolph, remained faithful to the crown while his son was true to us. And they endured a separation so irrevocable that they never saw each other again, that they never spoke again. So I say that the price of liberty is great, for it does separate fathers from sons, it does turn brothers against brothers, it surely did in my day, as it doubtless will again in the future. But you cannot allow yourself to be bound by sentimentality. All other considerations must be forfeit to the interests of one’s country, to the interests of liberty. For without liberty, life is not worth living. And no sacrifice is too great to achieve that end.
Harmony: During your career, you saw battle many times. What was the impression of battle and the life of the soldier in the field on you when you considered what it said about the loyalty and patriotism of the young men who endured these conditions?
Nat: Well it’s important to remember that most of these young men who fought had never been more than 30 miles away from their homes. They never would have, had the war not come. So these men, well all of us really, were completely unprepared for what we had put ourselves into.
However, once the challenge came, though they were scared, now I tell you only a peawit is not scared of fire. When you have shells exploding all around you, when you hear musket balls whizzing past your head like mad honeybees, every man is afraid. Any one who say they ain’t is either a liar, or has never been in the field. But despite that great terror, despite going up against the most powerful nation mankind had ever seen. A nation stronger even than Rome, they did not falter.
They walked into those lines of Hessians, into British bayonets, aye, without so much as a murmur. These are simple farm boys, aye. Just average citizens, no different than any other man. Yet as humble and as simple, and as elementary as they were, they were able to make themselves extraordinary with only the most minimal training, aye, with only the most bare preparation. They charged into the field of battle, and it’s that great sacrifice they made.
I don’t believe any of us who have not been in war, any man who's not been in war can understand what that sacrifice is. They had to leave their families behind in uncertain condition. Many of our men were not paid properly for months, and when they were paid, it was with paper money that was utterly worthless, not much for anything except the necessary house or maybe lighting a fire in the evening. Yet despite that, they gave the ultimate sacrifice, And I do not say that as just a bit of sophistry, or as a fine point in a speech, they truly did what other men speak of. Aye, would great men in universities, what great men in court speak of. They performed. And we owe them. All those poor boys who fell, and those who yet live, we owe them a debt that we can never repay.
Harmony: Horrifying as the experience of battle, and life in camp, and disease, and want, that experience can be, there’s still a cost to be paid when soldiers return home. Talk to us about what you saw when soldiers tried to rejoin the life that they had left behind.
Nat: Well, yes ma’am, I can speak to personal experience in that. I was wounded at the Battle of Germantown, an injury to the back, you see. And I was forced to come home again. I remember the great difficulties of it, aye, the pusillanimous nature of everyday complaints. Our men were up there eating cats and boiling down their shoes for sustenance. Men here in Williamsburg would have a full table and they would complain about nothing to eat. They would complain that the taxes are too high, aye. They would complain that the harvest was not as fine as last year. They had.... It was like being nibbled to death by ducks. They simply had no notion and all these troubles.
They had been great to me of course before the fighting, seemed so small when it was all over. And to speak in conversation with men about trivial things, aye, to walk down the street and not want to jump under a barrel every time you heard a musket go off, aye. It did take me years to adapt to the normal circumstances of existence, and I’m sure that my experience is no different than all the other thousands that came home. Many of them had it much worse than I. I was a gentleman, which naturally carries certain advantages.
But many of these men would come home and they were not able to spend the money that they’d been given because the currency was worthless, nor were they able to settle the land that they were promised because there were delays, aye. Congress promised much land without ever having it surveyed or designated. We’re talking a hundreds acres a man in ’77, aye. But when it come time to give ‘em out, well Congress never bothered to demarcate the land.
So they didn’t know rightly where they were to go. Many of them had to sell of their land bounties for worthless certificates at half the price, aye, to speculators. Many others ended their lives in the bottle, aye. Some even took to suicide, but the great majority were able to adapt. And I’m pleased now that we have a generation who knows what war is, who knows that what they did was necessary. But also knows the cost and will not be too eager to put us in another one.
Harmony: You followed your ideals down a path that was absolute. You were willing to sacrifice your own life, not to mention your status, your career, your relationships for this ideal. What do you hope that your legacy will be? What do you hope this war will accomplish for the country?
Nat: I pray that this Confederation that we bought with so much blood will endure. This experiment of ours, there were many, the Reverend Camm, amongst others, who thought we were mad. The idea of forming a republic on the scale of a continent. It had not been done since the time of ancient Rome. Of course we all remember Caesar. I remember every time I’d speak of a republic, some man would say, “Caesar, aye, a dictator would come along and over throw us, aye.” And not only have we created a nation on the scale of a continent, a republic on the scale of a continent, we have formed a nation of such nations, Virginia, Massachusetts, Delaware, South Carolina.
All these great massive nations united under a single standard. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Now of course, the years after the war were very fractious and this Confederation nearly fell apart several times. But through the genius of the great James Madison, aye, a young man I had the honor to go to school with as a lad, and through the leadership of President Washington, we have been able to form a Constitution that will lead to a lasting and binding union between these states.
Now we must honor the greater good. We must abandon our attachments to our particular nations. I don’t say that we give up loving Virginia or being Virginians, but we must understand that the title of American is first, aye. That without each other, that we are insignificant. We can only succeed together and if we allow ourselves to be divided, if we allow this great experiment to fail, then we shall simply repeat the bloody history of Europe right here in North America. But if we succeed, there is no limit to what we can accomplish.
I look at these new states being formed now, Ohio and Kentucky, I can envision this pattern growing, this great expansion of free nations, of free people one day stretching northward, all the way up to Hudson’s Bay, southward down to Florida, and perhaps westward out to the Californias.
This fire that we have lived, may well blaze across the entirety of the continent if we are wise enough to keep out of the foolish entanglements and quarrels of old Europe, and if we are wise enough to not repeat the folly of so many nations and turn upon ourselves. I believe we can accomplish this great future. I believe we can because we are, because we have accomplished so much that has been said to be impossible. There is no limit to what potential lies before us in our great Confederacy.
Harmony: Lieutenant Colonel James Innes, thank you so much for being our guest today, and thank you for your service.
Nat: I’m your humble servant ma’am. May God bless you.
Harmony: And if our listeners would like to meet Lieutenant Colonel James Innes and many of the other compelling characters that can be found walking the streets of The Revolutionary City, all you have to do is come and visit. So we hope we’ll see you soon. Thanks so much!