The rapidity with which the patriots of the two Carolinas rallied from the disaster at Camden was proof enough that they possessed both the physical force and the spirit to defend their country if only they could have competent leadership. Congress had tried its favorites — Howe, Lincoln, Gates, — and had lost two states by the experiment. In a chastened mood, therefore, it now turned to Washington and requested him to select a commander for the Southern Department. Both Congress and the army knew well enough who Washington's choice would be for he had urged the appointment of Nathanael Greene when Congress selected Gates. "In every campaign since the beginning of the war," says John Fiske, "Greene had been Washington's right arm; and for indefatigable industry, for strength and breadth of intelligence, and for unselfish devotion to the public service, he was scarcely inferior to the commander."1 Congress promptly ratified Washington's choice and conferred upon Greene every power, subject to the control of the commander-in‑chief, necessary to carry on the war in the South and recover the conquered states.
Greene arrived at Charlotte and took command December 2d. He found there "only the shadow of an army." On paper it numbered 2,000 men, but fully half of them were untrained militia, 300 were without arms, 1,000 too naked to take the field, and only 800 sufficiently armed and equipped for active service. Upon reviewing the situation, Greene's heart sank, but he did not despair. His message to Washington — "I will recover the country or die in the attempt" — truly expressed his indomitable purpose. His quick intelligence discerned in his men, beneath their tattered clothes, a spirit like his own, and in the unorganized mass before him he saw the raw material of a great army. To organize, train, and equip it, and to inspire it with his own unconquerable spirit, was p476his first task. In this task he had the help of as brilliant a group of subordinates as ever surrounded a general, — , the able Polish engineer; Smallwood of Maryland; Daniel Morgan, "always a host in himself," William Washington and "Light Horse Harry" Lee of Virginia; Sumner, Davidson and Davie of North Carolina; Isaac Huger, Pickens, Sumter and Marion of South Carolina. The services of most of these men had been available to Gates, but he did not know how to use them and looked with contempt upon their irregular methods of warfare. Greene, on the contrary, fully appreciated their value, while they recognized in him their master .
From the beginning general and subordinates felt for each other complete confidence and gave each other unstinted support. Greene's most pressing need was supplies. His quick eye had already discerned the merits of Davie whom he induced reluctantly to become his commissary-general. Colonel Edward Carrington, of South Carolina, was appointed quartermaster-general. To the tireless energy and patriotic sacrifices of these two officers, who cheerfully gave up their commands in the field with their opportunities for military renown to accept the drudgery of less conspicuous but more important positions, Greene owed much of the success of his southern campaign, which he acknowledged with generous appreciation. Gates rejecting the advice of those who knew the country had plunged headlong down the wrong road to destruction at Camden, but Greene followed an entirely different course. Trusting nothing to chance, he studied carefully every detail of the topography of the probable field of his operations. He sent Carrington to map the Dan, Stevens the Yadkin, and the Catawba, and so completely did he master their maps that afterwards in a discussion of the fords of the Catawba during the retreat across North Carolina, Davidson exclaimed in admiration, "Greene never saw the Catawba before, but he knows more about it than those who have been raised on its banks."
Greene determined upon a daring plan of operations. Since his army was too small to take the field against Cornwallis, he resolved to divide it into two strong partisan bands to operate against the smaller posts held by the British in the interior. One consisting of 1,100 troops, under Huger, which he himself accompanied, he ordered to Cheraw on the Pee Dee River to support Marion's movements in Eastern South Carolina and to threaten Rawdon at Camden. The other, p477consisting of about 1,000 men under Morgan he ordered to cross the Catawba, join Sumter and other partisans operating in that region, and threaten the British hold on Ninety-Six and Augusta. Morgan's command was made up of 320 Maryland Continentals, 200 Virginia militia, 60 Virginia dragoons under Washington, 300 North Carolina militia under Joseph McDowell, and enough militia of South Carolina and Georgia to bring his force up to 1,000 men. To cover as much territory as possible, he pitched his camp on the Pacolet River. Thus the two detachments of the American army were •140 miles apart with Cornwallis at Winnsboro between them. Greene was playing a hazardous game for Cornwallis, whose force was superior to both the American detachments combined, might easily have crushed either of them before the other could come to its aid. But such a movement required a quickness of comprehension and aggressiveness of character which Greene believed his lordship did not possess, and events proved that he had correctly forecast what Cornwallis would do. Reinforced by the arrival of General Alexander Leslie with 2,500 men, Cornwallis had in South Carolina a total of more than 11,000 men, but they were so scattered among the garrisons of the several posts throughout the State that he had not more than 4,000 under his own command. Upon learning of Greene's movements, he still further weakened his force, as Greene had foreseen, by dividing it. Ordering Leslie to Camden to protect that post against Huger, he sent Tarleton with 1,100 men to pursue Morgan, while he himself kept his main army idle at Winnsboro.
When Morgan learned of Tarleton's movements, he fell back upon Cowpens on Broad River, and there prepared for battle. He threw out first a skirmish line of 150 picked Georgia and North Carolina militia under Major John Cunningham and Colonel Joseph McDowell. These men were to fire two volleys "at killing distance" and then retire. Behind them was the main body of militia, 270 in number, under Pickens. The third line, 150 yards farther back, was composed of 290 Maryland Continentals and 140 experienced Virginia and Georgia militia. Still farther in the rear, 125 dragoons under Washington formed the reserve. Behind the whole flowed the Broad River. Except for his legion of New York Loyalists, who were veterans of several years' experience, Tarleton's command was composed entirely of regulars from the British line. Tarleton reached Cowpens at p478about 8 o'clock in the morning of January 17th, and rushed precipitately into battle, expecting to drive Morgan's untrained militia into the Broad River, which flowed behind his lines, and to capture or destroy the rest of his force. But the militia met the enemy's assault with several volleys at close range, and after doing terrible execution, retired in good order to make way for the Continentals. Mistaking their movement for the retreat which they had expected, the British charged impetuously only to be met by an unexpected fire from the Continentals at a range of thirty yards. As the enemy recoiled, the Continentals dashed forward in a bayonet charge. Thrown into confusion by this unexpected onset, the British troops became panic stricken when Washington's dragoons, appearing suddenly from behind the Continentals, swept down upon their flank. Most of them threw down their arms and surrendered at discretion, the rest fled, pursued by Washington's dragoons. Tarleton himself after a desperate hand-to‑hand fight with Washington escaped capture only by the fleetness of his horse. But 270 of his men found their way back to Cornwallis's camp; 230 were killed or wounded, 600 captured. The loss of this corps, following hard upon the loss of Ferguson's corps at King's Mountain, was a blow from which Cornwallis never recovered. "Had Lord Cornwallis had with him at the action at Guildfordº Courthouse, those troops that were lost by Colonel Tarleton at the Cowpens, on the fifteenth of March, 1781," says Stedman, "it is not extravagant to suppose that the American colonies might have been reunited to the empire of Great Britain."2
Morgan lost no time in rejoicing over his victory. With Cornwallis only •twenty-five miles away, his situation was too dangerous for delay, and his first thought was to secure his prisoners, save his own army, and unite with Greene and Huger before Cornwallis could overtake him. Before his cavalry returned from the pursuit, therefore, he started for the fords of the Catawba to put that stream between himself and the enemy. Cornwallis, stung to unwonted celerity by the great disaster which had befallen the British arms, set out in hot pursuit. On January 25th, he reached Ramsaur's Mill, but in the meantime Morgan had crossed the Catawba at Sherrill's Ford about twenty-five miles away.
On the same day that Cornwallis reached Ramsaur's p479Mill, Greene at Cheraw learned of Morgan's victory and retreat. His quick mind took in the situation at once and he prepared his plans accordingly. Directing Huger to move rapidly up the Yadkin to the vicinity of Salisbury, he himself struck out across the country to lay his plans before Morgan. Traversing the intervening distance of •125 miles in three days, he joined Morgan at Sherrill's Ford on January 30th, and there these two consummate leaders completed the details of their campaign. They would draw Cornwallis as far as possible from his base of supplies and uniting their two armies turn upon the enemy and destroy him. On January 31st, accordingly, they took up their retreat from Sherrill's Ford with Cornwallis following twenty-five miles in the rear. Greene's management of this retreat entitles him to a place among the first soldiers of his age. No detail of routes, marches, supplies, or camps; no means of facilitating his own movements or of obstructing those of the enemy escaped his active and restless mind. From the maps of his engineers he had acquired accurate knowledge of the country, its roads, streams and fords, and had sent out parties to scour the streams and collect at designated fords all the boats that could be found, while he posted guards at every ford to delay the passage of the enemy. His personal anticipation in the dangers and hardships of the retreat was a constant inspiration to his men whose suffering and heroic endurance equalled if it did not surpass that of Washington's men in the Trenton campaign. was the depth of winter. The weather was wet and cold. The roads were knee-deep in mud and ice. Drenched with constant rain and sleet; often compelled to wade waist-deep through foaming rivers; without tents, without blankets; pinched with hunger; half naked; marking the line of their march with the blood which flowed from their bare feet; constantly fighting rear-guard actions, Greene's men outmarched, outmaneuvered, and outfought their better-equipped adversaries, and when, after a continuous retreat of twenty-two days, they finally united forces with Huger at Guilford Court House, the British at Salem twenty-five miles distance were no nearer to them than they were on the day of Morgan's victory at Cowpens.
Cornwallis of course realized the importance of overtaking Morgan before he could unite with Huger. Accordingly at Ramsaur's Mill he stripped his army of its heavy baggage, wagons, and all other material that might encumber the movement p480of his troops. He fully appreciated the danger of the course he was pursuing, but he also realized that it was too late to turn back. The prize he sought was great enough to justify the hazard he took. From the time he left Ramsaur's Mill, he put aside all hesitation and on January 28th his army, stated by Clinton to be "considerably above three thousand, exclusive of cavalry and militia," moved forward with most soldier-like precision and swiftness. On January 31st, he reached Beattie's Ford of the Catawba and feinting there with his main force, sent General O'Hara to force a crossing at Cowan's Ford •four miles below, which Davidson guarded with a small body of militia. At daybreak on February 1st, O'Hara's men forced the passage, killing the gallant Davidson, and dispersing his men. Taking up the pursuit again, on February 3d, the British reached Trading Ford on the Yadkin, •seven miles from Salisbury, just in time to see the last of Morgan's men safely over. After their passage a sudden rise in the river made it impassable and again Cornwallis was baffled. Realizing that he could not now prevent the union of Morgan and Huger, Cornwallis endeavored by a rapid march to prevent Greene's crossing the Dan by taking possession of the upper fords; but again he was defeated in his object by Greene's forethought in collecting enough boats to enable him to transfer his army at Irwin's Ferry •seventy miles from Guilford Court House which Cornwallis had dismissed from consideration since it could only be crossed by ferry.
Greene had now placed an impassable river between himself and his enemy. He had not only saved his own army, he had led his enemy into a trap from which he could extricate himself only at great sacrifice. For Cornwallis was •230 miles from his base; in the enemy's country in dead of winter; without supplies; among timid friends, and with an ever increasing hostile militia swarming in his rear. Greene's campaign elicited the highest praise from both enemy and friends. "Every movement of the Americans during their march from the Catawba to Virginia," wrote Tarleton, "was judiciously designed and vigorously executed." "The rebels conduct their enterprises in Carolina," declared Lord Germain, "with more spirit and skill than they have shown in any other part of America." But assuredly the praise that Greene and his ragged heroes valued most were the judicious words that came from their great commander-in‑chief. "Your p481retreat before Cornwallis," wrote Washington, "is highly applauded by all ranks."
Balked of his prey, Cornwallis abandoned the pursuit and retired to Hillsboro to rest his army and rally the Tories to his support. His men were exhausted and badly in need of supplies. During the march he had lost 250 men and he now hoped to make the loss good by recruits from the Loyalists. On February 20th, therefore, he issued a proclamation declaring his purpose to rescue the king's loyal subjects in North Carolina "from the cruel tyranny under which they have groaned for several years," and inviting "all such faithful and loyal subjects to repair, without loss of time, with their arms and ten days provisions, to the Royal Standard now erected at Hillsborough." Five days later a band of 300 Tories, under Colonel John Pyle of Chatham County, attempting to reach Hillsboro in response to Cornwallis's proclamation, were surprised by "Light Horse Harry" Lee's battalion of dragoons and utterly cut to pieces. Nearly 100 were killed, most of the others wounded, and but few escaped. Lee did not lose a man. News of this disaster, together with the startling news that on February 23d the defeated Greene had actually re-crossed the Dan and was moving on Guilford Court House, decidedly dampened the enthusiasm of the Tories for rallying to "the Royal Standard." "Our situation," wrote Cornwallis, [was] "amongst timid friends, and adjoining to inveterate Rebels." Accordingly when, on February 26th, he moved out of Hillsboro to meet Greene, his army was numerically weaker than it was when he set out from Ramsaur's Mill in pursuit of Morgan.
Greene had been more fortunate. The skill with which he had conducted his retreat had inspired confidence in his leadership, and the Whigs now rallied to him. From Virginia Steuben sent him 400 Continentals and a force of militia. Pickens was busy rallying the militia which had been dispersed by Cornwallis's passage of the Catawba. The General Assembly recalled Caswell to the command of the North Carolina militia and placed him at the head of the Council Extraordinary which, having superseded the Board of War, was bestirring itself to furnish Greene with men and supplies. Governor Nash was exerting himself to get out the militia. From all these sources reinforcements poured into Greene's camp. When he crossed the Dan on February 13, in his retreat, his army consisted of 1,430 exhausted troops; three weeks later it had been increased to more than 5,000 p483troops of whom 1,715 were Continentals. Even before all these reinforcements had reached them, Greene felt strong enough to recross the Dan, and challenge Cornwallis to battle.
Both generals were eager for the contest. With Cornwallis, 230 miles from his base and in the enemy's country, nothing less than an out-and‑out victory would suffice. Greene on the contrary could afford to fight a drawn battle; even a defeat, which inflicted serious damage on the enemy and left his own army intact, might have beneficial results. During his retreat he had selected the battleground, near Guilford Court House, and now having decided to fight, by a series of skillful maneuvers he succeeded in drawing the enemy thither. His force numbered 4,404 men, most of whom had never seen a battle. Exclusive of officers, Cornwallis had 2,253 men, at least 2,000 of whom were seasoned veterans. When to Greene's numerical superiority is added the advantage of his position, which he had selected with great care, the odds were about even.
Greene posted his North Carolina militia in front, flanking them on the right with Virginia militia and on the left with Virginia and Delaware troops. About 300 yards behind them was a line of Virginia militia whose flanks were protected on the right by Washington's cavalry, on the left by Lee's. The third line, 550 yards in the rear of the second, was composed of the Continentals. Cornwallis opened the battle with a slight cannonade a little after noon on March 15th, after which the whole British line advanced with admirable precision, their bayonets glittering in the bright sun of a cloudless day. The North Carolina militia, who were to receive the first shock, had no bayonets; they were armed only with hunting rifles which took three minutes to load. They had never before been under fire, but as they were expert marksmen they were expected to fire two volleys with telling effect and then to retire. These orders they carried out effectively. Their first fire was delivered at 150 yards; their second at forty, and wrought, according to the British historian, Lamb, who was there, "dreadful havoc" in the British ranks, but failed to check their advance. Thereupon, while attempting to retire according to orders, the untrained militia broke and retreated in confusion. The second line in turn was attacked with great vigor and after a gallant defence forced to retreat. Then the British regulars came in contact with the Continentals, and the fighting was stubborn and bloody. Twice the British were repulsed with p484heavy losses, and Cornwallis was compelled to rally them in person. Having restored his lines and brought up fresh troops, he prepared for a final assault with the seven battalions which he still had. But Greene, determined not to risk the destruction of his own army, and satisfied with the damage inflicted upon the enemy, withdrew from the field leaving Cornwallis in possession. Greene had lost 78 killed, 183 wounded, and 1,046 militia who were missing; but he had inflicted upon Cornwallis a loss of 93 killed, 413 wounded, and 26 missing, which was more than 25 per cent of his total strength.
Retiring to a strong defensive position •about ten miles from Guilford, Greene awaited his opponent's next move with confidence. In spite of their victory, no such feeling of confidence prevailed in the camp of the British, or among their friends. Cornwallis announced his victory in a proclamation, called upon "all loyal subjects to stand forth and take an active part in restoring good order and government," and offered pardon and restoration "as soon as possible to all the privileges of constitutional government" to all rebels who would surrender themselves to the royal authorities. But Cornwallis was whistling to keep up his courage and none knew it better than the Tories, who were not minded to risk their necks on the strength of a victory by proclamation. "Many of the Inhabitants rode into Camp," wrote Cornwallis, "shook me by the hand, said they were glad to see us, and to hear that we had beat Greene, and then rode home again." He was in a dilemma. Though victorious, his losses had been too heavy to justify resuming the offensive, while his position was too precarious to admit of his doing nothing. He must move, but whither? A march to Wilmington seemed to be the most feasible step. Wilmington was already in possession of a British force under Major James H. Craige. It was in close touch with the Highlanders upon whom Cornwallis placed his chief dependence. Moreover at Wilmington he would have the aid of the British fleet. If he could draw Greene after him, with his army refitted he might again turn upon the Americans, defeat them, and re-establish the prestige of British arms. To Wilmington, therefore, Cornwallis determined to go, and on March 18th, abandoning his wounded, the victorious general broke camp and beat a hasty retreat to the Cape Fear.
Greene followed his retreating foe as far as Ramsay's Mill, stoping there to watch his further movements and to p485reorganize his own army. When assured that Cornwallis really intended to go to Wilmington, Greene resolved to dismiss him from further consideration and to turn his own attention to the recovery of South Carolina and Georgia. He discharged his militia, whose time was up, and with his army thus reduced to about 1,500 Continentals of the Maryland and Virginia lines, and the cavalry of Washington and Lee, he broke camp and again turned his face northward. On his march he was joined by about 500 North Carolina Continentals, composed of the militia whom the Council Extraordinary, by a curious order, had "sentenced to twelve months' duty as Continentals," because of their precipitate flight at Guilford Court House. Disciplined, trained, equipped, and skillfully led, these men on many a hard-fought field in South Carolina demonstrated that their conduct at Guilford was chargeable to other causes than cowardice. Thus reinforced, and further strengthened with occasional additions of militia, Greene began that remarkable series of movements in which, losing every battle, but winning every campaign, he succeeded in wrenching Camden, Augusta, Ninety-Six, and all other posts in the interior, and Georgetown on the coast, from the grasp of the enemy.
North Carolina troops took part in all of these campaigns. There were 248 North Carolina militia at Hobkirk's Hill, and more than 200 of the new North Carolina Continentals at the of Augusta. At Eutaw Springs, September 8, about half of Greene's army of 2,300 men were North Carolinians. A few were militia, the rest, brigaded under General Jethro Sumner, were the "Guilford runaways," now serving on the continental establishment. Discipline and training had turned them into excellent soldiers and at Eutaw Springs they completely recovered the prestige which they had lost at Guilford Court House. The North Carolina militia forming the center of Greene's front line, after fighting gallantly fell back before the charge of the British regulars. As they retired Sumner's Continentals rushed forward in a charge which Greene himself declared "would have graced the veterans of the great King of Prussia," and restored the line. "I was at a loss which to admire most," said Greene, "the gallantry of the officers or the good conduct of the men." The battle of Eutaw was practically won when the hungry Americans, having captured the British camp, stopped to regale themselves with delicacies with which they had long been strangers, and thus gave the retreating p486foe a chance to rally and return to the attack. Though finally forced to relinquish the field, thus giving his enemy the right to claim the victory, Greene brought off his army in good army saving his wounded and prisoners. Again he had inflicted a greater loss upon his enemy than he himself sustained, and as a result forced him to abandon his last stronghold in the interior of South Carolina and seek safety within the British fortifications at Charleston.
After Eutaw there was no further serious fighting in either South Carolina or Georgia. The British then held only Charleston and Savannah from which without sea power the Americans could not hope to drive them, but elsewhere throughout those two states the American governments were firmly re-established.
It had not occurred to Cornwallis that Greene would altogether disregard his movements and dismiss him from further consideration. Consequently when he reached Wilmington, April 7th, and found that Greene had gone to South Carolina, his situation was extremely humiliating. "My situation here is very distressing," he wrote; "Greene took the advantage of my being obliged to come to this place, and has Marched to South Carolina." "My present undertaking," he confessed to Clinton, "sits heavy on my mind." What should he do next? He could not remain idle at Wilmington. To transport his army to Charleston, and begin his work all over again, he declared, "would be as ruinous and disgraceful to Britain as most events could be." The only alternative seemed to be to march into Virginia, unite his forces with those of General Phillips, whom Clinton had recently sent thither, and overrun that State. Accordingly again proclaiming the conquest of North Carolina, he left Josiah Martin at Wilmington to administer the royal government, and on April 25th set out on his march to Virginia.
The Whigs had no force with which to oppose Cornwallis' movements had they desired to do so; indeed, those were fortunate who could save themselves by abandoning their property and hiding in the woods and swamps until the British columns had passed. Cornwallis, himself a kindly, humane man, waged war only with the armed forces of his enemy, and kept his soldiers under strict discipline, severely punishing those found guilty of pillage and abuse of the inhabitants; but he could exercise no such control over the Tories and camp followers in the wake of his army. They plundered with impunity every plantation along their route. "The whole p487country was struck with terror," wrote William Dickson of Duplin County, an eye witness to the scenes he describes, "almost every man quit his habitation and fled." "Not a man of any rank or distinction or scarcely any man of property has lain in his house," wrote Benjamin Seawell on May 13th, "since the British passed through Nash County. We are distressed with all the rogues and vagabonds that Cornwallis can raise to pester us with." However there was no disposition on the part of Cornwallis, or of his subordinates, to condone abuses and crimes. Near Halifax, records Stedman, "some enormities were committed that were a disgrace to the name of man;" while "Bloody" Tarleton ordered that a sergeant and a private, "accused of rape and robbery," be arrested and "conducted to Halifax, where they were condemned to death by Martial law," and immediately executed.3
The departure of the main armies left North Carolina in the grip of numerous loosely organized, undisciplined bands of armed men, both Whigs and Tories, who during the next year carried on in every county, in almost every neighborhood, a relentless civil war. During this period North Carolina was the victim of a carnival of pillage, rapine and murder that surpasses that of the Era of Reconstruction. Each side having no authority to restrain its excesses committed abuses and crimes against its enemy which served only to give the other excuse for retaliations. Bands of robbers, masquerading under the guise of patriots or of Loyalists as suited their purpose, took advantage of the situation to inaugurate a reign of terror in many communities. Plantations were plundered, houses were burned, men were murdered, women were outraged. The Tories were primarily responsible for these conditions. They were probably guilty of no greater crimes as individuals than the Whigs, but as a party they kept up the strife long after it could serve any useful purpose, either military or political, and obviously could have no other result than to desolate the country and impoverish or destroy its inhabitants.
Their course was due chiefly to the presence at Wilmington of Major James H. Craige who with 450 British regulars had occupied that town in January, 1781. Craige was a bold and aggressive soldier. His appearance on the Cape Fear animated the spirits of the Tories and greatly discouraged p488the Whigs. For four years the latter had slept in fancied security as if they expected the victories of 1776 to be a perpetual safe-guard against attack. Craige gave them a rude awakening, forcing them to abandon their homes and seek refuge in obscure retreats in the backwoods. But flight could not save them from the restless energy of the British troopers and their Tory sympathizers. The Tories especially scoured the country day and night in search of the men who had so long lorded it over them. Typical of the situation in all the eastern counties was that described by William Dickson in Duplin. Immediately after the departure of Cornwallis "came on our greatest troubles," he wrote; "for the Loyalists, or as we term them Tories, began to assemble and hold councils in every part of the State, and thinking the country already conquered, because the enemy had gone through without being checked, they were audacious enough to apprehend and take several of our principal leading men prisoners and carry them down to Wilmington and deliver them to the guards. There were numbers of our good citizens thus betrayed, perished on board prison-ships and in their power. This so alarmed the inhabitants that none of us dared to sleep in our houses or beds at night for fear of being surprised by those blood-suckers and carried off to certain destruction." Chief among those who were thus betrayed by their old-time friends and neighbors were John Ashe and Cornelius Harnett. Both were captured and imprisoned at Wilmington; both were later paroled only to die within a few days of their release, victims of the severity of their inhuman treatment.
In numerous raids conducted out of Wilmington, Craig laid waste wide stretches of country and spread terror among the inhabitants. His most extensive raid was in August, 1781. Leaving Wilmington August 1st, with 400 regulars and 80 Tories he swept though Duplin, Dobbs, Jones, and Craven counties, captured and plundered New Bern, and returned without serious opposition to his base at Wilmington. On their march, reported General William Caswell to Governor Burke, the British "plundered every Plantation that was in their way of all they could find. It is impossible for me to inform your Excellency of the ruin, relieving and Distress committed on the Inhabitants of this Country." The raid was effective for, except for a few small bands of militia, it thoroughly subdued the people throughout the invaded region. Craige required all men over fifty to take p489the oath of allegiance to the king; and enrolled in his force, or imprisoned all others, who did not make their escape. Almost all the people between Kingston and New Bern, wrote Caswell, "will be exceeding fond of becoming British Subjects, and most of the Inhabitants of Beaufort and Hyde Counties to the North of Newbern will join them. * * * Dobbs has part of it fallen into the Hands of the British, and Three Companies out of Seven have to a Man joined them." Between Wilmington and New Bern more than 400 Tories enrolled themselves under Craige.
These disasters, however, did not dismay the leaders of the patriots. "I am determined to do every Thing that a Distressed Officer can do," wrote William Caswell, brigadier-general of the New Bern District, "and as long as Life lasts defend the District." A similar spirit animated Alexander Lillington, brigadier-general of the Wilmington District, while James Kenan and Thomas Brown, colonels of Duplin and Bladen counties, never relaxed their vigilance. To these four men more than to any others is due the fact that the patriots of Eastern North Carolina did not give up in despair during the gloomy days of the summer of 1781. Their chief difficulty was not to raise men, but to equip them. "Arms cannot be had," reported Caswell, "to Arm as many men as may be raised." Governor Burke, who rendered every assistance in his power, which however was not much, thought it wise to order Lillington and Caswell to avoid a general engagement with Craige's force.
There were, however, many skirmishes, too numerous to mention in detail, some of which rise almost to the dignity of battles. In February, Craige with about 400 regulars attempted unsuccessfully to dislodge 700 militia whom Lillington had posted at Great Bridge on the North East River, •twelve miles above Wilmington, to prevent incursions of the enemy. He was more successful at Rockfish Creek Bridge, which Kenan had seized with 330 militia. Craige had to cross this bridge on his march to New Bern; on August 2d, therefore, with a force numbering nearly 500 regulars and Tories he attacked and dispersed Kenan's force. Although but a trifling skirmish, this success so excited the ardor of the Duplin Tories that they rose in numbers, "gathered together very fast," and "were more cruel to the distressed inhabitants than Cornwallis' army had been before." Their triumph however was brief for as Dickson writes, "Craige having again returned to Wilmington the Whigs again resumed p490their courage and determined to be revenged on the Loyalists, our neighbors, or hazard all; accordingly we collected about eighty light-horsemen and equipped them as well as we could; marched straight into the neighborhood where the Tories were embodied, surprised them; they fled; our me pursued them, cut many of them to pieces, took several and put them to instant death. This action struck such terror on the Tories in our county that they never attempted to embody again." A similar result in Bladen County followed the battle of Elizabethtown in which, on August 29th, 400 Tories under Colonel John Slingsby were surprised in a night attack, totally routed, and their commanding officer killed, by 150 Whigs under Colonel Thomas Brown. "This put an end to the disturbances in Bladen," wrote Dickson; "the Tories never embodied there any more, so by this time our two distressed counties of Duplin and Bladen began to get the upper hand of their enemies."
Long after the other Tory leaders, recognizing the hopelessness of their cause, had either submitted to the State or gone into exile, and even after the last British soldier had left the State, civil strife in North Carolina was kept alive by the notorious David Fanning. As a partisan leader Fanning had no superior on either side in the Carolinas. He had all the dash and daring of Sumter, the fertility and dispatch of Marion, and the resourcefulness of Davie, without possessing, however, those qualities of moral character which made these men so much his superiors. Crafty and treacherous, cruel and vindictive, sparing neither age nor sex, he openly boasts in his published "Narrative" of the brutality with which he destroyed his enemies and desolated their country. It is but fair, however, to say that many of his crimes were committed in retaliation for similar crimes committed by Whigs against his followers; but in every case wherein Fanning undertook to cancel such debts of vengeance, he repaid them with usury. Ashe thinks that had Fanning been on the Whig side "his fame would have been more enduring than that of any other partisan officer whose memory is now so dear to all patriots."4 But something more than a mere shifting of sides would be necessary to justify one in ranking Fanning as the equal of the great Whig partisans. Not only was his character far inferior to theirs, even his p491work was of much less historical significance. The Whig partisans directed their activities chiefly against the organized forces of the enemy with the purpose of loosening his grip on the country, always keeping in view their effects on the movements of the main armies; Fanning, on the contrary, although performing his work with equal ability, never aimed at the destruction of the enemy's organized forces, exercised no influence upon the ultimate outcome of the war, and produced no other result than to increase the undying hatred which thousands of Americans never ceased to feel for the mother country.
Craige regarded Fanning as his ablest and most trustworthy lieutenant, and on July 5, 1781, commissioned him colonel of the loyal militia of Chatham and Randolph counties. With his headquarters at Coxe's Mill on Deep River in Chatham County, he harried the county far and wide. In July with 150 men he swooped down on Pittsboro, broke up a general muster of the Whig militia, and captured fifty-three prisoners, including all the militia officers of the county present and three members of the General Assembly. A few weeks later, learning that Colonel Thomas Wade of Anson County, had collected a band of Whigs for an attack on some Tories on Drowning Creek, Fanning made a rapid and unexpected movement, fell upon Wade's force, and routed it, killing twenty-three and capturing fifty-three of his men. He continued his hostilities for six months after the surrender of Cornwallis, breaking up Whig gatherings, dispersing militia musters, destroying his enemies individually and in bands, and terrorizing all the region from Guilford to Cape Fear.
The most famous of his exploits occurred on September 12, 1781. Gathering at Coxe's Mill a band of 1,100 Tories, he set out for an attack on a force of Whigs which General Butler had assembled on Haw River; but Governor Burke who was then at Hillsboro learned of Fanning's movement in time to warn Butler who made his escape. Thereupon Fanning determined to put into execution a project he had been turning over in his mind for some time, and turning suddenly eastward, he dashed into Hillsboro early in the morning, put to rout the Whig force guarding the town, killed 15 of their number, and captured 200 among whom was the governor himself. Lingering just long enough for his men to sack the town, Fanning put out for Wilmington. The Whigs gathering in haste under General Butler attacked him vigorously at Lindsay's Mill on Cane Creek, but were repulsed. p492Both sides suffered heavy losses. Fanning himself was among the wounded and unable to continue his retreat, but his next in command conveyed the governor and other prisoners safely to Wilmington and turned them over to Craige.
This exploit was the climax but not the conclusion of Fanning's career. He continued his activities well into the year 1782 when he made overtures of peace to the state government. But the State rejected his advances, refusing to regard him in any other light than as an outlaw and compelled him to seek safety in flight. He never returned to North Carolina for when the General Assembly in 1783 came to pass "An Act of Pardon and Oblivion," offering amnesty to Loyalists generally, it excepted from its benefits three notorious Tory leaders, and one of the three was David Fanning.
From Wilmington Governor Burke was sent to Sullivan's Island. He regarded himself as a prisoner of war, but his view was not shared by his captors, to whom he was a political prisoner. They denied him the right of exchange, kept him in close confinement, and declared that they held him as a hostage for the safety of Fanning. Burke protested so vigorously against this treatment that his captors finally paroled him on James' Island. But he soon found that he had gained nothing by this change. On the island were many North Carolina Tory refugees who had been driven from their homes by the rebel government, and they regarded Burke, as the head of that government, with an intense and bitter hatred. They daily subjected him to unsparing indignities, gross insults, and threats of personal injury, and on one occasion fired into his quarters, wounding one man and killing another at his side. His appeals to General Leslie, commanding at Charleston, for protection were treated with such studied indifference, that he became convinced that he had been among these venomous enemies as part of a scheme to destroy him in such a way as to relieve the British authorities of the responsibility and odium of his death while their prisoner. Brooding over his unhappy situation, he finally convinced himself that having given his parole in exchange for protection, the refusal to grant him protection released him from his moral if not from his legal obligation to keep his part of the contract and on January 16, 1782, made his escape, returned to North Carolina, and resumed his duties as governor. Afterwards he offered through General Greene to secure the release of any officer in the hands p493of the Americans whom the British general might designate in exchange for himself; but the British general refused to consider any proposal that did not involve the return to them of their prisoner. This Burke refused to consider, and learning that many of the American officers, including General Greene, condemned his course in violating his parole, he finally withdrew all negotiations with the British. At the expiration of his term as governor he retired to private life, gave himself over to dissipation, and died within less than two years.
During Burke's captivity, Alexander Martin, who, as speaker of the Senate discharged the duties of the governor, carried into execution plans which Burke had made for the relief of the Cape Fear patriots, sending to their aid a force of 1,100 men under Rutherford, who had been exchanged, and Butler. Rutherford entered upon his work with that vigor for which he was justly distinguished. He distressed the Tories in every possible way, rivalling in this respect the activities of Fanning, "with a view of drawing the troops out of Wilmington to an engagement." In numerous skirmishes, scarcely deserving the name of battles, at Rockfish Creek, at Moore's Plantation, at North East Bridge above Wilmington, at Seven Creeks below Wilmington, he broke up Tory gatherings, destroyed Craige's foraging parties, cut off his supplies, and practically cleared the Cape Fear section, outside of Wilmington, of the enemy.
While Rutherford was thus recovering Eastern Carolina, and preparing an effort to drive the enemy out of Wilmington, came news that aroused the Americans to a frenzy of delight and sent Craige flying from North Carolina with all the speed his crowded sails could bear him. Cornwallis had surrendered! Swift express riders spread the glad tidings throughout the country. Everywhere the war-wearied patriots heard the news with unbounded joy and enthusiasm. Correspondents hastened to exchange congratulations "on this happy occasion." One good patriot rejoiced because the good folk of Hillsboro could now "enjoy peace in their beds without a dread of Mr. Fanning or his adherents." In many places business was suspended in a riot of celebrations. The judges could not attend their Edenton court because "upon the confirmation of the news of the capture of Cornwallis, we were all so elated, that the time elapsed in frolicking." Rutherford paraded his men, proclaimed the glorious news to them, and ordered suitable salutes. To the Cape Fear p494patriots not the least glorious result was the evacuation of their chief town by the hated enemy. On November 18th, Craige embarked his troops and taking with him the last representative of the British Crown who ever claimed political authority in North Carolina, Josiah Martin, and the last British soldier within her limits, sailed for Charleston.
1 The American Revolution, Vol. II, p250.
2 American War, Vol. II, p346.
3 Campaigns, p290.
4 David Fanning in Biographical History of North Carolina, Vol. V, p93.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Connor et al.
History of NC
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 11 Jul 13