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A Welcome for Cornwallis
THREE weeks after Charleston fell and the British started toward the Waxhaw settlements, General Griffith Rutherford assembled nine hundred militiamen in Charlotte. The situation in the South, he told them, was desperate. "Go home, boys," he said, "and get all the powder and balls and flints you can find, and be ready when I call you."
The call was not long coming. In June the militia assembled in Mallard Creek east of Alexandriana. Major Davie took charge of the cavalry, other leaders were assigned troops, and Colonel William Lee Davidson was given command of three hundred light infantrymen.
Rutherford was watching closely the advance of British General Rawdon toward upper South Carolina when he learned that a force of perhaps more than a thousand Tories was assembling across the Catawba at Ramsour's Mill. At once he sent orders to Colonel Francis Locke to plan to attack the Tories; he would join him shortly and they would fall on the Loyalists. But Locke did not get the message; instead, he notified the general that he was marching to attack the Tories. And before Rutherford could reach the battleground, Locke's men had fought the Loyalists, killed many, utterly defeated the others.
More victories over loyalist groups followed. A month after the Ramsour's Mill battle, other Loyalists were defeated at a place called Colson's Mill on the Pee Dee, and on July 31 Major Davie swept down on another band of Tories near the British garrison at Hanging Rock and defeated them. But a week later, though he did heavy damage and inflicted casualties, Davie was not able to overwhelm the defending garrison there.
The British continued to advance, despite the victories over Tory groups, and deep gloom, like the sweltering heat of August, lay heavy upon Mecklenburg and the back country. Then, before daylight August 16, Cornwallis and the inept Gates came together near Camden. And before the day was ended, the two forces had clashed and those Americans who had not been killed or captured were running. It was, military students say, the worst American defeat of the Revolution. Ahead of the fleeing men, racing northward towards Charlotte, were Gates and North Carolina's Caswell. Nor did Gates stop for long until he was at Hillsboro. Caswell paused in the village; his task was to rally whatever forces might be available in the desperate necessity of stopping Cornwallis. But that was a vain hope. The road to Charlotte was wide open, so Mecklenburg feared at any rate.
But General William Lee Davidson's men, including Davie's hard-riding horsemen, were determined to make the Redcoats pay dearly for every mile of advance into North Carolina. Employing guerrilla tactics, they swept down upon detached groups, harassed foraging parties, and all the while kept vigilant eyes on the advancing main body.
General Davidson, who had been wounded severely in the fight at Colson's Mill, had been recuperating at his home in the Centre community. On the last day of August, upon the petitioning of the militia itself, he had been named a brigadier-general to succeed Rutherford, who had been captured at Camden. Now he commanded the militia of the Salisbury district, which embraced the western third of the state and was by far the largest militia district.
On the seventh of September Cornwallis started northward from Camden. Meanwhile Mecklenburg militiamen were assembling at a camp on McAlpine's Creek some seven or eight miles south of Charlotte. Immediately upon receiving his commission, General Davidson reported there and assumed command. He had some 400 back country men with nondescript weapons and few supplies. But many of them possessed their rifles - long barreled, small-bored weapons - and they knew how to shoot them. Some of these rifles had been made in Charlotte. The militia general sent out calls for volunteers to join him. Two weeks later, however, he had enlisted no other county militia, and Cornwallis was hardly twenty miles south of him in the Waxhaws. His men, he reported to General Gates, were in "high spirits" and "determined to stand out to the last extremity rather than submit to the fate of So. Carolina." Support was coming, however, and on the night of September 21 General Jethro Sumner arrived with his brigade. The day before, the partisans' spirits had been raised by the exploit of Colonel Davie and Major George Davidson, who with their horsemen had darted in to surprise a force of Loyalists pillaging the home of a patriot named Wahab (later the name would be Wauchope and then Walkup). The colonel reported that of the Tories there were "Killed 12; on the ground, wounded by our best intelligence, about 60." One prisoner was taken, and the Davie forces captured some much needed horses, saddles, and other supplies.
But at best these small victories could be nothing more than delay the British troops' arrival in Charlotte, from where Cornwallis was hopeful he could rally Loyalist support that would enable him to subdue North Carolina and perhaps end the war.
And then, early on the morning of September 25, news came into the camp on McAlpine's Creek that Cornwallis had left the Waxhaws and was coming toward Charlotte. Quickly Davidson ordered a retreat; the troops came up through Charlotte and continued for several miles past the village along the road to Salisbury. But they were not going to leave the county seat to the Redcoats without a fight. Davidson directed Colonel Davie to do what he could to delay the British advance, and Joe Graham, a youngster who had been in heavy fighting both north and south in previous months but for some time had been on his mother's farm nearby, joined Davie. Sumner continued his retreat toward Salisbury, but Davidson some five miles beyond Sugaw Creek Church paused to await his Lordship's arrival.
Shortly before noon the next day, September 26, 1780, the British entered the village. It would be Charlotte's first - and to this day, at any rate, last - enemy invasion.
Many accounts of the skirmish had been recorded, some by participants, including Cornwallis' Commissary Stedman. Historians have given considerable attention to it. Piedmont Partisan, the story of General Davidson, by Chalmers G. Davidson, includes one of the most entertaining as well as authoritative discussions of the fight. These writers agree that though it was no more than a small skirmish, it was important; they look upon it as the turning point of Cornwallis' campaign in the Carolinas. Less than two weeks later at Kings Mountain the fortunes of the British would begin their swift decline.
The British came into Charlotte from the southeast and approached the court house along East Trade Street. A British account of the skirmish, published in 1794 in London, states:
In the center of Charlotte, intersecting the two principal streets, stood a large brick- or stone-pillared building, the upper part being the court-house, and the under part the market-house. Behind the shambles a few Americans on horseback had placed themselves. The legion was ordered to drive them off: but upon receiving a fire from behind the stalls, this corps fell back. Lord Cornwallis rode up in person, and made use of the words:- "Legion, remember you have everything to lose, but nothing to gain;" alluding, as was supposed, to the former reputation of this corps. Webster's brigade moved on and drove the Americans from behind the court-house; the legion then pursued them; but the whole of the British army was actually kept at bay, for some minutes, by a few mounted Americans, not exceeding twenty in number.
Other contemporary accounts declare that Tarleton's cavalry, with one Major Hanger commanding and the Redcoat infantrymen in support, approached within three hundred yards of the little court house before the horsemen were ordered to charge. But when the defenders from behind the wall beneath the court house greeted them with a deadly accurate fire, they turned precipitately and fled. Two other charges were made before the Americans were dislodged by the British infantrymen pressing up the street and firing from the safety of the houses and outbuildings. They withdrew in orderly fashion out past Sugaw Creek Church, where in further fighting Captain George Locke was killed and young Joe Graham went down under an avalanche of saber cuts and bullets.
Tradition says that the widow Wilson and her daughter Susannah, who in later years would be known affectionately as Aunt Susannah Alexander, had gone in search of their cow and found the wounded soldier. They got him to the widow's home and treated his wounds, and then hid him away in the loft. The next day the wife of a British officer out seeking to buy chickens came to Mrs. Wilson's and in some way learned of the presence there of a wounded American. She promptly offered to send a British surgeon to attend him. Graham heard her and when she had gone, slipped away to his mother's home.
This is one of Mecklenburg's more dramatic stories of a dramatic period, but to improve on it, some believe that young Andrew Jackson was with the widow and her daughter that evening. Jackson and his mother about that time did come to live with Mrs. John Wilson, the niece of Mrs. Jackson and daughter of Margaret McKemey, wife of George McKemey. The Jacksons had fled from their Waxhaw home when the Tory marauders in that region became so frightening with the advance of the British northward. And certainly it would not have been out of character for this red-head, whose rough handling by a British officer whose boots he had refused to polish would gain him added fame, to have been prowling about the Sugaw Creek section where that day the fighting had been so intense.
That the British had encountered fierce opposition was readily admitted by the British. Tarleton, summarizing the Charlotte fighting, in his History of the Southern Campaign, 1780 and 1781, wrote:
Earl Cornwallis moved forward as soon as the legion under Major Hanger joined him. A party of militia fired at the advanced dragoons and light infantry as they entered town, and a more considerable body appeared drawn up near the court-house. The conduct of the Americans created suspicion in the British; and ambuscade was apprehended by the light troops, who moved forward for some time with great circumspection; a charge of cavalry under Major Hanger dissipated this ill-grounded jealousy, and totally dispersed the militia. The pursuit lasted some time, and about thirty of the enemy were killed and taken. The King's troops did not come out of this skirmish unhurt; Major Hanger, and Captains Campbell and McDonald were wounded, and twelve non-commissioned officers and men were killed and wounded.
But the fierceness of the Redcoats' reception did not end with their capture of the village and Cornwallis' establishment of his headquarters at Tom Polk's home across from the court house. The British commander, who had envisioned the flocking to him of the people of the region to seek protection of the Royalists, found that they would not be intimidated. A broadside, printed in Charleston, with the date of September 27, 1780, in type rather than filled in by hand, shows that his Lordship was confident of enlisting the support of the people in this section of North Carolina. Either by design or accident, the dating of the broadside was perfect, for it had been set for issuance on the day after his arrival in Mecklenburg's tiny county town. The proclamation is interesting and revealing both for what it said and the manner of its expression, but more so because it discloses the British commander's complete misunderstanding of the citizens of Mecklenburg County and those others in the general region of the back country.
In this unique paper Earl Cornwallis urged the inhabitants of North Carolina to deliver up what arms they possessed and give a military parole "to remain thenceforth peaceably at Home, doing no Offence against His Majesty's Government," for which they would be "protected in their Persons and Properties. . ."
The broadside said:
By the Right Honourable
C H A R L E S E A R L C O R N W A L L I S
Lieutenant-General of His Majesty's Forces
&c &c &c
WHEREAS THE ENEMIES OF HIS MAJESTY'S government continuing to practice every Artifice and Deceit to Impose upon the Minds of the People, have, as industriously as falsely propagated a Belief among the People of this Country, that the King's Army indiscriminately makes War and commits Ravages upon the peaceable Inhabitants, and those who are in Arms and open Rebellion against His Majesty's Authority: I think it proper, in order to remove such false and injurious Impressions, and restore as much Peace and Quiet to the Country as may be possible, during the Operations of War, hereby do assure the People at large, that all those who come into the Posts of His Majesty's Army under my Command, and faithfully deliver up their Arms, and give a Military Parole to remain thenceforth peaceable at Home, doing no Offence against His Majesty's Government, will be protected in their Persons and Properties, and be paid a just and fair price in Gold or Silver for whatever they may furnish for the Use of the King's Army; it being His Majesty's most gracious Wish and Intention rather to reclaim His deluded Subjects to a Sense of their Duty, and Obedience to the Laws, by Justice and Mercy, than by Force and Terror of His Arms.
GIVEN Under my Hand and Seal at Headquarters in Charlotte-Town, this Twenty-Seventh Day of September, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty, and in the Twentieth Year of His Majesty's Reign.
C O R N W A L L I S
By His Lordships Command,
J. MONEY, Aid-de-Camp.
G O D S A V E T H E K I N G
* * * * * * * *
CHARLESTOWN : Printed at WELLS Office. No 71 Tradd Street
But his Lordship's efforts to lure Mecklenburgers into his service were without success. His stay in Charlotte would be recorded as one of his most humiliating experiences in the Revolution.
Davie hovered about the village and harassed the British, and up on Rocky River, Davidson was sending out small detachments that struck at the enemy's foraging parties, intercepted messages sent by Cornwallis and other British officers in their efforts to keep in communication with one another, and seized and sent away Tories to prevent their reporting to the British invaders information of American troop movements. They gave Cornwallis no peace. Tarleton would write further of this backwoods village:
Charlotte town afforded some conveniences, blended with great disadvantages. The mills in its neighborhood were supposed of sufficient consequence to render it for the present an eligible position, and, in future, a necessary post, when an army advanced; But the aptness of its intermediate situation between Camden and Salisbury, and the quantity of its mills, did not counterbalance its defects. The town and environs abounded with inveterate enemies, the plantations in the neighbourhood were small and uncultivated; the roads narrow, and crossed in every direction, and the whole face of the country covered with close and thick woods. In addition to these disadvantages, no estimate could be made of the sentiments of half of the inhabitants of North Carolina, whilst the royal army remained at Charlotte town. It was evident, and it had been frequently mentioned to the King's officers, that the counties of Mecklenburg and Rohan were more hostile to England than any other in America.
The most dramatic example of this inveterated hostility, and also of the advantage of the militia's style for fighting over the close-rank method of the British, was the skirmish some eight miles north of Charlotte on Beatties Ford road, which has come to be known as the battle of McIntyre's farm. Cornwallis had been in Charlotte one week. Already his supplies were dwindling. The Redcoats' foraging parties were being so harassed by the straight-shooting Mecklenburgers that the commander had been forced to send out large detachments in search of supplies. On Tuesday, October 3, or as some records indicate, the next day, Cornwallis dispatched a force of several hundred men up the twisting red road toward Hopewell Church. At the McIntyre farm, called in a report made October 5 by General Davidson "Mr. Bradley's on Long Creek," the marauding Britishers were fired upon from the nearby woods by a group of some dozen young farmers of the neighborhood. In the words of the correspondent of the Pennsylvania Packet, happily writing back to his paper, "Captains Thompson and Knox, with fourteen men, attacked above 300 of a foraging party, who were entering Mr. Bradley's plantation (eight miles from Charlotte) with near 60 waggons, and drove them back with such precipitation that, as I am well informed, many of their horses fell dead in the streets on their return."
Though the report must have been colored by the correspondent's enthusiasm, the fight at the farmhouse was of much significance; doubtless it convinced Cornwallis that his proclamation was to have little if any effect in this rebellious region. "So inveterate was their rancour," Commissary Stedman observed, "that the messengers, with expresses for the commander-in-chief, were frequently murdered; and the inhabitants, instead of remaining quietly at home to receive payment for the produce of their plantations, made it a practice to waylay the British foraging parties, fire their rifles from concealed places, and then fly into the woods."
The McIntyre farmhouse, with the bullets of the Americans in its log walls, was very probably the oldest structure in Mecklenburg County and certainly one of the most historic. But after standing for almost two centuries, the old house was purchased several years ago by a resident newly come to Mecklenburg. And, despite efforts being attempted to have it purchased and preserved as the county's oldest historic shrine, he had it razed. Now the site is a tangled, densely overgrown spot known to hardly any of the thousands who stream by it daily over the asphalt highway that has succeeded the narrow clay road of Revolutionary days. Its destruction was another example of modern Mecklenburg's indifference to perpetuating historical sites for coming generations.
On the Saturday following this skirmish at the Beatties Ford road farmhouse, however, disaster overtook the British invaders of the back country. General Davidson was three days hearing of it; it was on Tuesday when a courier rode into the camp on Rocky River and brought him the startling and joyous news of the battle at Kings Mountain. Colonel Patrick Ferguson, commanding a force of upcountry Loyalists, in the main, had been attacked atop Kings Mountain by American militiamen; Ferguson was dead, scores of the Tories were dead with him and other scores wounded, and the others were captives. Cornwallis' trusted lieutenant, said to have been the best shot in the British army, had been completely whipped and his invading force destroyed.
When Davidson got the inspiring report, he sat down and wrote General Sumner. Some of his figures were wrong, based upon inaccurate information brought to him, perhaps, but the letter was generally correct, and in the succeeding days it was widely circulated; in Philadelphia, Congress ordered its publication and soon it was copied even in England. The general wrote Sumner:
Camp Rocky River, October 10, 1780
Sir - I have the Pleasure of handing you very agreeable Intelligence from the West. Ferguson, the Great Partizan, has miscarried. This we are assured of by Mr. Tate, Brigade Major in General Sumpter's late Brigade. The particulars from the Gentleman's Mouth stand thus: that Colonels Campbell, Cleveland, Shelby, Sevier, Williams, Brandon, Lacey, etc., formed a Conjunct Body near Gilbert Town consisting of 3000 - From this Body were selected 1600 good Horse, who immediately went in search of Colonel Ferguson, who was making his way to Charlotte - Our people overtook him well posted on King's Mountain, and on the evening of the 7th Instant at 4 o'clock, began the attack which lasted forty seven minutes; Colonel Ferguson fell in the action, besides 150 of his men - 810 were made prisoners, including the British - 150 of the prisoners are wounded - 1500 Stands of arms fell into our Hands. the enemy surrendered We lost about 20 men among whom is Major Chronicle of Lincoln County, Colonel Williams is mortally wounded, the number of our wounded cannot be ascertained. This blow will certainly affect the British very considerably. The designs of our conquering Friends near King's Mountain not certainly known, it is most probable that they will secure their prisoners in or over the mountains and proceed toward Charlotte - The Brigade Major who gives us this was in action. The above is true. The Blow is great and I give you Joy upon the Occasion.
The victory at Kings Mountain was one of the greatest of the Revolution. Many historians account it the turning point of the war. Bancroft declared it "was the fatal blow which utterly disconcerted the plans of Cornwallis, and forced him into that change of policy which had its end at Yorktown."
Because American militiamen had been so effective in disrupting communication between Cornwallis and Ferguson, it was perhaps several days before the beleaguered British commander in Charlotte learned of the catastrophe at Kings Mountain. It was staggering news. Already the British were in a most difficult situation. Food was becoming scarce and hard to obtain; many of the men were ill; worst of all, perhaps, Cornwallis was isolated in the region of a desperately hostile people. Little Charlottetown, his Lordship had found, was indeed "an agreeable village, but in a damned rebellious country." He had been correct in describing it as a hornets' nest.
On Thursday afternoon following Saturday's fight at Kings Mountain Cornwallis began evacuating Charlotte. Late that night General Davidson heard of the withdrawal, and promptly he sent a dispatch rider to General Sumner with the good news:
We have a Report from a Man of Veracity just arrived from within 6 Miles of Charlotte that the Enemy have evacuated Charlotte & that last Night at 10 O'Clock the Rear of the Army passed Barnet's Creek 5 Miles below Charlotte on the Road to Bigger's Ferry.
The general added that he was confident Colonel Davie "had a Sufficient Force to gall the enemy in their Rear."
It was to Barnett's mill that a Charlotte merchant, one William McCafferty, had led the Redcoats. This McCafferty, like another merchant there named Duncan Ochiltree, had fawned on the British to protect his property and now, with the Redcoats leaving, was fearful that the patriots would wreak vengeance upon him. So after having led the British into a swamp in the vicinity of that mill, he slipped away and rushed to Davidson's camp to report. But the general sent him under guard to Sumner with the observation to that officer that "His late Conduct is to me a demonstration that he is not a friend to his country."
It was while Cornwallis was retreating from Mecklenburg that another incident is said to have occurred that provides us with one of Mecklenburg's best Revolutionary stories. According to legend, marauding British soldiers came to the home of Captain McDowell on the York road. Mrs. McDowell talked the soldiers out of committing any damage, when she found that they too were under the command of a Captain McDowell - of His Majesty's forces.
As soon as the foraging British Captain McDowell and his men left, Jane Parks McDowell picked up her two-year-old son John, wrapped him in a blanket, and mounting her horse, rode northward into the darkness, on past Charlottetown and out the Salisbury road to the camp of the Americans, where she notified her husband and his comrades of the Redcoats' retreat toward the Catawba.
So Cornwallis and his Britishers slipped away from the hornets' nest. But he would return within less than four months for one further skirmish on the red soil of Mecklenburg. He had been in Charlotte sixteen days - from September 26 to October 12.
Blythe, LeGette and Brockmann, Charles Raven. Hornets' Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1961.