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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

North Carolina
in the American Revolution

Hugh F. Rankin
North Carolina
Division of Archives and History
Raleigh, 1959

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p31  Chapter 4

Disaster in the South

In 1779 the British government made a major change in its military strategy. From now on, it was decided, they would concentrate their primary efforts in the southern states. There was sound economic reasoning behind this decision. They felt they had little to gain by continuing the fight in the northern states. These states lay in the same climatic belt as England, and most of the products they grew could also be produced in England. Another disadvantage was that New England was a trading community. England's prosperity depended on her own trading efforts. As a consequence of these similar interests, the northern colonies were quite often in direct competition with the mother country.

The South, on the other hand, with its sub‑tropical climate, grew products that could not be grown in England. For instance, there was the aromatic tobacco to fill the pipes and snuff-boxes of Europe. North Carolina's tall pine forests furnished the lumber, tar, and pitch needed for Great Britain's navy and merchant vessels. Rice was grown in South Carolina; the indigo grown in that same colony failed a dye that gave European clothing a more brilliant hue. From the back country came the skins and furs that had so many uses. To put it simply, the products of the South were more valuable to England than those of the northernmost colonies. Also there were supposed to be many with loyalist sentiments in the South. These considerations led the British government to put their new plan in operation. This plan was to start as far south as Georgia, and then gradually to subdue the southern states and make them British colonies again.

In late 1778 the Georgia town of Savannah was taken. This gave the British army and naval forces a base from which they could operate. After an interval of more than a year Charleston, a most valuable seaport, was attacked. Under the command of their general, Sir Henry Clinton, the British surrounded the town. Ships in the harbor and soldiers in trenches drew an ever-tightening circle around Charleston. From late March until May, British cannon pounded the city. From time to time, British soldiers laid aside their muskets and picked up their shovels. New  p32 trenches were dug, each one a little nearer to Charleston than the last. Cavalry troops under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton ranged the countryside, driving off American reinforcements and blocking every escape route for the defenders of the city.

General Benjamin Lincoln, commanding general of the Americans within Charleston, could see neither any hope of driving off the enemy nor any possibility of saving his army through a retreat. On May 12, 1780, the American Stars and Stripes were hauled down in surrender. General Lincoln then led his more than 5,000 crestfallen soldiers out of the town to lay down their arms. Included in these troops were 815 North Carolina Continental officers and men and approximately 600 militia from the State. This defeat, as one of the American soldiers wrote, was "a rude Shock to the Independence of America."

Sir Henry Clinton sailed back to his main base in New York. As commanding general of the British army in the South, he left a short, thick‑set lieutenant general. He was Charles, First Lord Cornwallis, an English nobleman who had been involved in the American War since 1776. Clinton's orders to Cornwallis were first to conquer the rest of South Carolina and Georgia, then to march into North Carolina and Virginia. Cornwallis was in no great hurry. He rested his men while he made plans for the future.

This delay on the part of the British general gave Governor Abner Nash of North Carolina an opportunity to prepare the defenses of his State. General Richard Caswell, no longer governor, but again a soldier, started to rally the militia. Small groups of daring men began to nip at the flanks of the British. In South Carolina these guerilla fighters were led by such dashing leaders as Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, and the "Swamp Fox," Francis Marion. Mounted groups from North Carolina were under men equally bold: William Richardson Davie,  p33 William Lee Davidson, Griffith Rutherford, and Francis Locke. They rode swiftly and struck the outposts of the British suddenly and without warning. Darting quickly through the night, or making sudden daylight raids, they stung and nettled the invading redcoats.

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Francis Marion, familiarly known as the "Swamp Fox," was a guerilla leader in South Carolina.

Abner Nash was governor of North Carolina, 1780‑1781.

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The nearness of the British army presented another problem in North Carolina. The Tories began to grow restless and bolder. Since they had been defeated at Moore's Creek Bridge, their life had not been easy. In many instances they brought hardships upon themselves. The government of the State had first tried to win the loyalists by persuasion. When this failed, laws were passed declaring that loyalists had to either take an oath of allegiance to North Carolina or to leave the State. Large numbers did leave, sailing either to the British strongholds in New York and Nova Scotia or to England. Some refused to leave their homes, hiding out in the forests or banding together in groups to raid and plunder the Whigs. The Whigs struck back. On both sides, houses were burned and quite often lives were lost in clashes between former friends and neighbors.

These Tories were not necessarily evil men. They did not, however, hold the same political beliefs as the Whigs. They were just as devoted to the government of George III as the Whigs were to the cause of liberty. When they heard that the army of Lord Cornwallis was just a few days march away, they began to feel that their King had not forsaken them.

The proximity of the British army also had an effect upon the Whigs. General Griffith Rutherford called out his brigade of about 800 militia. They assembled near Charlotte. The men were still coming in when, on the night of June 14th, the general received word that the Tories were gathering in Tryon County. Because Rutherford did not wish to leave Charlotte and the  p34 vicinity unguarded, he sent word to Colonel Francis Locke and Major Joseph McDowell to break up this group.

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Major Joseph McDowell was sent by General Griffith Rutherford to quell Tory outbreaks in Tryon County.

This uprising of the Tories had had its beginning in early June. A shabbily dressed man by the name of John Moore had arrived in Lincoln County and announced that he had been appointed a lieutenant colonel in the British army. He planned to raise a company of North Carolina loyalists to fight with the redcoats of Lord Cornwallis. He designated Ramsour's Mill (near present‑day Lincolnton) as a meeting place. By June 20th, 1780, nearly 1,100 men were encamped in the neighborhood of the mill, but almost 300 of them possessed no firearms. This was the group that General Rutherford had ordered Locke and McDowell to disperse.

Locke had under his command between 300 and 400 men, most of them on foot. On June 20th they approached Ramsour's Mill. The Tories had pitched their camp along the crest of a long ridge. In front of them lay a long slope, free of brush, a position which gave them a good field of fire. Locke's men marched quietly through the trees at the bottom of the hill. They were not discovered until they bumped into a Tory outpost at the foot of the slope. The startled sentries fired a few scattered shots, and then fled up the hill shouting as they ran. This unexpected development threw the Tories into the wildest disorder. When Locke's few mounted troops began to gallop up the hill in pursuit of the fleeing outpost, the general confusion in the Tory camp became even greater. Many grabbed their muskets or rifles and fled. The braver men rushed forward and with their fire drove Locke's horsemen back down the hill.

By this time, Locke's foot soldiers had reached the edge of the clearing at the bottom of the hill. They took cover and began to return a steady fire. Gradually, Locke began to surround the Tories by having his men slip around the sides and to the rear of the enemy position.

 p35  Neither group was well equipped as armies go. Neither had distinctive uniforms. The Whigs wore little scraps of white paper in their hats; the Tories distinguished themselves by wearing a sprig of green leaves. Neither side had bayonets, and when the Whigs closed in on the Tories, some used their rifles and muskets as clubs, while others fought with their fists. Moore's Tories were driven back gradually and finally they turned and ran for their lives. Behind them at least 150 of their comrades lay dead or wounded. Another fifty had been made prisoners by the Whigs. Most of the survivors scurried back to their homes, although some went with Moore to join Cornwallis in South Carolina. At least 700 of the Tories actually fought in the battle of Ramsour's Mill, but they had been defeated by Locke's little detachment of between 300 and 400 men.

This new defeat did not completely discourage the Tories. They realized that Lord Cornwallis was not too far away and that he planned to invade North Carolina. They felt that the British army, once it started marching north, would offer them protection and support in putting down the Whigs. On the other hand, the Whigs also realized this and were determined to stamp out any signs of a Tory uprising. This thought was uppermost in General Griffith Rutherford's mind when he received word that Colonel Samuel Bryan was assembling the loyalists in the forks of the Yadkin River in Rowan County. He marched towards them. Colonel Bryan, having just heard of the crushing defeat of the loyalists at Ramsour's Mill, had no intention of fighting. He pulled his troops back to the protection of the British posts in South Carolina.

 p36  Colonel William R. Davie had been sent to watch one of the British strong points near Hanging Rock, South Carolina. First he captured a supply column and then, in plain view of the garrison, he cut to pieces three companies of Tories who were returning from a raid. Shortly after this, Davie was joined by the soldiers under Colonel Thomas Sumter of South Carolina. Sumter and Davie decided to make a sudden attack on the British. Hanging Rock was defended by North Carolina Tories under Colonel Morgan Bryan and a small number of British redcoats. The Tories were routed as Davie and Sumter attacked, but the better-disciplined British soldiers stood their ground. Although the Americans soon discovered they could not dislodge the British regulars, they did capture valuable supplies in the Tory camp.

William Richardson Davie harassed British troops in North and South Carolina and aided General Gates in his retreat from Camden. Davie became governor of the state in the years after the war.

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Farther to the west, the mountain men under Colonel Charles McDowell were also doing their best to put down the enemy. McDowell crushed one party of Tories under Patrick Moore. He then dispatched Colonel Isaac Shelby and Lieutenant Colonels Elijah Clarke and James Williams to disperse an assembly of Tories camped at Musgrove's Mill on the Enoree River in South Carolina. Upon their arrival they were dismayed to discover the Tories had been reinforced by a detachment of British regulars. Shelby lured these redcoats into an ambush. When the shooting was over, the British had suffered a loss of sixty-three killed and 160 wounded and taken prisoners. In contrast, the Americans had lost only four killed and nine wounded. This little skirmish on the Enoree is significant because it was one of the few times during the American Revolution that untrained militia were able to defeat seasoned British troops.

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Colonel Isaac Shelby's militia participated in the defeat of seasoned British troops at Musgrove Mill on the Enoree in South Carolina. Later Shelby led his troops at the Battle of King's Mountain where the British were again defeated.

Elijah Clarke (1742?‑1799)

This portrait appears on the cover of the 1996 reprint of Prof. Rankin's book, with an extended caption chronicling Clarke's life (and giving the year of his birth as 1733); a caption probably due to a recent editor, and which I therefore cannot reproduce. See the quick sketch of his life at the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

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 p37  While the local militia groups were concerned with putting down the Tories, even greater events had been taking place. These, however, were disastrous from the American point of view. After the surrender of Charleston in May, 1780, General Benjamin Lincoln had been made a prisoner-of‑war. For a time there was no American general to command the Continental army in the South. As a replacement for General Lincoln, the Continental Congress had selected General Horatio Gates to command the area known as the Southern Department. Gates had won undying fame by defeating the British under General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York, in 1777.

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General Horatio Gates won fame by defeating the British under General Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York in 1777. He was appointed to command the Department of the South in July, 1780. His glory was somewhat dimmed by his defeat at Camden, South Carolina, and he was recalled from his command in the South.

At Hillsboro, on July 25, 1780, General Gates assumed the command of the southern Continental army. At this time the army numbered around 3,000 Continental soldiers. They were joined by 1,200 North Carolina militia troops under Generals Griffith Rutherford and Richard Caswell. General Gates was impatient, and acted rashly. Soon after he had taken command of the army, he marched it southward towards the British strong point at Camden, South Carolina. His soldiers were in no condition to fight. Few of them had the necessary equipment to carry out a campaign against the enemy, and there was practically no food. As they marched along, many of the men picked and ate the green corn and peaches from the fields and orchards along the way. A large number of them became ill. Food became so scarce that some of the officers actually thickened their soup with the powder they ordinarily used to whiten their hair. It was a sick, hungry, and complaining army that marched towards Camden.

 p38  Gates decided he would approach Camden under the cover of darkness. He knew that Lord Cornwallis was aware of his arrival. By a strange coincidence, the British general decided to march out of Camden also that same night. In the blackness of a sultry August night, the armies of Generals Gates and Cornwallis stumbled into each other on a narrow stretch of land between two swamps. A few shots spattered through the night. Then both armies drew back to wait for the dawn.

As the sun came up on August 16, 1780, the battle lines of redcoats began to advance upon the Americans. Stepping across the field, they fired volley after volley, and the air rang with their shouts. They were indeed an impressive sight. Some of Gates' men stood fast, others began to fade back. Some, who had never been in battle before, turned and fled. Others followed. Their fear was contagious, and soon most of the American army was hastening from the field. A few brave men stood firm, but they were not enough to stem the onrushing red uniforms. They were crushed as the British battle lines rolled over them.

With his frightened men streaming from the battlefield, General Gates joined them in retreat, leaving near 800 dead Americans and nearly 1,000 more who had been captured by the British. The enemy had captured most of General Gates' equipment, arms, and ammunition. Nearly one‑half of those killed in the battle of Camden were North Carolinians. General Griffith Rutherford was listed among the captured officers.

Gates stopped first in Charlotte. He decided that this was not the place to attempt a reorganization of his army and rode on. In three days of hard riding he covered the 180 miles from Camden in South Carolina to Hillsboro in North Carolina. At Hillsboro he halted and began slowly to rebuild an army out of the beaten survivors of the battle of Camden.

Victorious, Lord Cornwallis rested in Camden. His plans were not yet complete for an invasion of North Carolina. On September 8, he moved his army up to a place called the Waxhaws and encamped, hoping that the Tories of the neighborhood would come in and enlist in his army. His stay there was not peaceful. Colonel William R. Davie, with 150 hard-riding men, swooped down upon an outpost of 300 British soldiers at Wahab's Plantation. The British were so surprised that they allowed Davie to capture ninety-three of their horses. By the time they recovered, Davie and his men had disappeared into the forest.

 p39  Little skirmishes such as these did not prevent Lord Cornwallis from making his plans. In his invasion of North Carolina, Hillsboro, the most important town in what was then the western part of the State, was his first goal. He hoped he would be able to drive straight up through the center of the State, by way of Charlotte, Salisbury, Salem, and Guilford Court House, and then on to Hillsboro. Tories were expected to rise and join his army as they marched through. At Hillsboro he planned to secure both recruits and supplies for his army, for, according to Governor Martin, that town was supposed to be a regular hotbed of loyalists. On paper, the campaign appeared easy, but the British general was too good a soldier to take things for granted.

Because Cornwallis feared the rough and tumble frontiersmen who lived in the mountains to the west, he sent Major Patrick Ferguson to try to keep Talmud control. To the east, the Cape Fear River furnish a waterway on which supplies could be brought as far inland as Cross Creek. Wilmington, at the mouth of the river, must be kept under British control. A detachment under Major James Craig was sent to protect that town.

It was only after his careful plans were completed that Lord Cornwallis issued marching orders to his army. As the long column moved slowly along, the partisan bands of Marion and Sumter pecked away at their flanks. They did little harm, but they did keep the British in a constant state of alarm. On September 28, followed by their long line of creaking supply wagons, Lord Cornwallis's army marched into Charlotte. Even then, Colonel Davie, with a small group of mounted men forced the entire British army to halt for several minutes on the outskirts of the town.

Charlotte, named for the queen of George III, was but a small village in 1780. The courthouse and a few small wooden structures made up the entire town. There was one advantage — a number of grist mills in the area could be used to grind grain into the flour needed to feed the army.

Accompanying the army was a familiar figure, Governor Josiah Martin. He was still as confident as ever that Cornwallis would have to do little more than march his men through the State, and North Carolina would again become a royal colony. The governor's first move was to issue a proclamation and dispatch riders to distribute it throughout the State. In this document, he confidently declared that the victorious British army  p40 was now in control of North Carolina, and once again the State was under royal rule. He could not have made a more serious error.

Although Josiah Martin had served four years as governor of North Carolina, he had never really known its people, especially those of Mecklenburg and Rowan counties. They made life miserable for the British soldiers. Nervous British sentries fired at the smallest sound. Foraging parties, sent out to collect food, were ambushed and attacked by small groups of angry patriots. Detachments of troops sent to guard the grist mill were harassed almost constantly. Snipers hid in the trees and picked off careless British soldiers. Bright red coats made good targets for men who were accustomed to aiming at the eye of a squirrel.

Lord Cornwallis had hoped that Charlotte and the surrounding countryside would prove a land of plenty. It wasn't. Instead, he found he had stirred up a hornet's nest and was soon writing Sir Henry Clinton that the people of Mecklenburg and Rowan counties were "more hostile to England than any in America."

Then, on October 12, a messenger, riding out of the west, splashed through the muddy streets of Charlotte. The news he bore knocked all British plans into a cocked hat. So distressing was his information, that the British general gave orders to his troops to pack and move back into South Carolina.

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