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Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Preface to Volume 15 of the State Records of North Carolina
Clark, Walter, 1846-1924
Volume 15

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In June, 1780, before Gen. Clinton departed from Charleston for New York, a plan of operations for the subjugation of North Carolina was agreed on between him and Cornwallis.

After South Carolina had been made secure and civil government re-established there, Cornwallis was to advance into North Carolina and Gen. Leslie was to invade Virginia, thus threatening North Carolina from that direction while engaging the Virginia forces and preventing any re-inforcements being sent to Gen. Gates. Cornwallis proceeded leisurely in carrying out his part of that programme. He thoroughly beat down all opposition to the Royal authority in South Carolina, placed strong garrisons at important points in the interior, divided the inhabitants, according to age and circumstances, into two classes of loyal militia, and organized partizan corps that became well disciplined and very effective. But aside from the additional strength derived from these bodies of Loyalists, he had strong regiments of British regulars, which he felt confident would be able to withstand any force that could be brought against them. Besides, he had many assurances that a large part of the population of North Carolina were well affected towards the Crown and were ready not only to provide supplies, but to rally to his standard. Yet out of abundant caution, before entering upon the conquest of North Carolina, he deemed it safer to provide against contingencies, and so it was arranged for Gen. Leslie to make a lodgement in Virginia, occupy Petersburg where there was a considerable store of military supplies and make incursions towards North Carolina.

The crops in North Carolina that summer were exceptionally fine, and were particularly abundant at the West, and Cornwallis urged the Tories to remain quiet at their homes, house their crops and be in readiness to join him on his approach in the autumn. Such excursions as were made along the border brought him satisfactory accounts of strong support when the hour for action should arrive.

Indeed, Gen. Caswell writing to Gov. Nash from his camp near

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the South Carolina line, on July 31st, 1780, portrayed the situation in ominous colors. “There are very few inhabitants of Anson,” wrote Gen. Caswell, “who have not taken the oath of allegiance to the King of Great Britain. Most of these,” he, however, added “are willing to break it and take up arms against him, saying that they were compelled by the British, but come in voluntarily to us. Such as are desirous of supporting the British Government are either fled with the British or lie out of it.” At best the outlook in that section was not hopeful, nor was Anson without company. After the occupation of Charlotte by Cornwallis, Gov. Nash himself wrote—“should Gen. Davidson, who proposed to make a stand in the North side of the Yadkin, be unfortunate in the attempt, it would have a very unhappy effect on our affairs, for the country below the Yadkin to within twenty miles of Hillsboro is chiefly disaffected and has been so from the beginning of the war.” And, indeed, similar conditions of disaffection prevailed in some other parts of the State, while no section was entirely free from it. Yet after the dispersal of Gates' army on August 16th, at Camden, Cornwallis was bitterly disappointed that there were no greater risings among the inhabitants. On the morning of the 17th he dispatched “proper persons” into North Carolina with directions to the Loyalists to take up arms, and assemble immediately and to seize the most violent of their adversaries and all military stores and to intercept all stragglers from Gates' army; and he promised to march without delay to their support. But he received only cold comfort. He wrote in confidence to Gen. Clinton telling of his appointment, saying that no Loyalist had given him intelligence of Gates' army: that they did not rise and assert themselves after his victory, and he commented as the fact that they had allowed Gates to pass on to Hillsboro with a guard of only six men.

His experience with the South Carolinians was equally disappointing. Indeed, a month later, he reported officially to England that the disloyalty in the country East of the Santee was so great that the account of his victory could not penetrate into it, any person daring to speak of it being threatened with instant death. Camden being more than 75 miles South of Charlotte in the direct line to Charleston, the Catawba river running almost North and South on the West of the route, Gen. Sumpter now began to operate

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on the West of the Catawba while Gen. Marion penetrated into the Southeastern counties and interrupted Cornwallis' communication with Charleston. With a large number of prisoners, with many wounded men, and his force of Regulars much weakened by disease, and the patriot bands enterprising and troublesome, Cornwallis found himself unable to reap the best fruits of his victory. He sent his prisoners to Charleston in squads of 150 under charge of a strong guard; and on the 26th of August, Marion came up with one of these detachments, captured the guard and liberated the prisoners. And his operations were so important that Cornwallis had to send a Regiment to Georgetown to retake it from the patriotic militia who had captured it, and to preserve British authority there. These and other causes delayed his forward march for a month—a fortunate respite for the North Carolina authorities.

In the meanwhile the British emissaries in North Carolina had not been entirely unsuccessful. Bands of Tories embodied in Bladen and in Anson; but in Bladen, Col. Brown, after two stout engagements, succeeded in subduing them, notwithstanding Cornwallis detached 400 men to invade that county; while in Anson Col. Abel Kolb, with a hundred resolute minute men, zealously watched over the Patriot cause and rendered such signal service in dispersing the Loyalists whenever they assembled as to receive the particular thanks of Gen. Gates, the Commander-in-Chief.

The Tories also became active in Cumberland, Chatham, Randolph and Guilford; and especially in Surry did they make such headway that Col. Armstrong could subdue them only after a sharp engagement.

The discomfiture of Gates' army at Camden was complete. The retreat of the shattered organizations became a rout. The militia largely threw away their guns and on reaching North Carolina dispersed to their homes. The Virginia militia, several hundred strong, reached Guilford Court House, but so many kept on their homeward way, that somewhat later Gen. Stevens could muster only one hundred of them.

The Maryland Continentals and Dixon's Regiment of North Carolina militia were however conspicious for their fine conduct. The British having penetrated to their rear, they charged through the serried ranks of the enemy and made good their retreat, and when

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a squadron of horse came in pursuit, they faced about and fought so desperately that only two of the British horsemen escaped. Gen. Gates and Gen. Caswell hastened without stopping to Hillsboro, where the former at once set about drawing re-inforcements and military stores from Virginia, and began to organize a new army. Gen. Smallwood, on reaching Charlotte, directed Col. Davie and a few minute men he had with him to move down the river and watch Cornwallis, while urgent calls were made for the militia to assemble and protect their country. Smallwood himself continued with the sick and wounded to Salisbury where he established a camp. Such ammunition and stores as had not been carried forward remained at Mack's Ferry low down on the Yadkin river, and these were speedily removed to Salisbury.

The care of the country from Anson to the Sea-coast had been committed to Gen. H. W. Harrington, who, with several companies of militia from Duplin, Onslow, Bladen and Cumberland and several from Albemarle counties, in all, making a force of 450 men, kept up a vigilant watch and guarded the stores at Fayetteville. In his front, Marion acted toward the coast, Col. Kolb over in Anson; and down on the Pee Dee the brave and energetic Col. James Kenan, of Duplin, with a squadron of horse, kept faithful guard.

Gov. Nash had called the General Assembly together to meet at Hillsboro the 12th of August, but a quorum of the members had not reached there on the 23rd; when time being precious, the members present recommended to the Governor to call out one-half of the militia of the State and to direct the commanding officers to appoint commissioners to provide by purchase or impressment the necessary supplies.

Accordingly the militia was directed to assemble at Hillsboro, Salisbury and Charlotte.

Gen. Caswell, having dispatched messengers to intercept the militia regiments of Col. Jarvis, Col. Seawell and Col. Exum and to direct them to Ramsay's Mills in Chatham county, on the 26th of August left Hillsboro for Kinston, but a few days later he was in camp with this brigade, whose strength was something over 800 men. Gov. Nash, however, assigned Gen. Sumner to that command; and on the 3rd of September Sumner and Caswell proceeded

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with it by way of Pittsboro to Salisbury where they arrived a fortnight later.

When the Assembly met, it addressed itself with vigor to the work before it. Responding to the recommendation of the Governor, it levied a tax in kind to be at once collected out of the abundant harvest. Notwithstanding Gen. Harrington had been appointed Brigadier General of the Salisbury District, pro tempore, in Rutherford's absence, the Assembly now elected Lieut. Col. Wm. Davidson of the Continentals to that position, and it appointed Gen. Smallwood Major-General and Commander-in-Chief of the militia, giving him precedence over all the officers in the State except alone Gen. Gates.

These appointments were the cause of some irritation. Upon learning that Col. Davidson had been appointed to the Brigadier's place that he held, Gen. Harrington promptly tendered his resignation, but he still continued to hold and act under his commission as Brigadier and rendered efficient service in the Southeastern border.

Gen. Caswell was not so complacent. In October he wrote to Gov. Nash, reminding him that in the Spring he had not only “been appointed Major-General in command of the militia, but as well a member of the Board to conduct trade in behalf of the State; and that at the late session the Assembly had been pleased to dismiss him from the command of the militia, and it is probable would have dismissed him from the Board of Trade had it occurred to them that he had been appointed a member of that Board,” and so he tendered his resignation of the latter position.

Nor did the Governor fare better. He had reported to the Assembly that his Council did not attend and gave him no aid, and he urged that other appointments should be made, and he also recommended that a Board of War should be created who would share with him the responsibility of conducting military matters when the Assembly was not in session. Accordingly the Assembly created a Board of War composed of Col. Alexander Martin, John Penn and Oroondates Davis; and this Board began its sessions September 12th. Its powers were so great as to be in derogation of the rights of the Governor, and during much of the time John Penn acted alone as the Board and controlled the military operations of

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the State. Gov. Nash was greatly incensed at this turn of affairs and at the next session of the Assembly he protested that the Legislature had no right to subvent the Constitution of the State in that manner; that it had deprived him of his rightful powers and left him with but an empty title, neither serviceable to the people nor honorable to himself, and that he would resign his office unless restored to his lawful functions. The Board of War ceased to exist on the 31st January, 1781, but Nash was not re-elected Governor.

Trade between our ports and the West Indies seems never to have been entirely arrested, and many valuable cargoes were imported; nor did the practice cease of sending out armed private vessels to prey on British commerce and make prizes of British merchantmen. It so happened that several vessels came in just about the time Gates lost his stores with cargoes tending to supply those losses. In particular, on September 4th, there arrived in the Cape Fear two prizes made by the Privateer, Gen. Nash, one cargo being invoiced at 10,000 pounds sterling and the other at 40,000 pounds; the latter indeed being one of the most valuable captures made during the war and having on board nearly everything desired by the soldiers. About the same time the Marquis of Bretigny also reached New Berne bringing a quantity of powder and 400 stand of arms, with pistols, saddles and accoutrements; while Dr. Guion's schooner likewise brought in needed supplies.

In fact the enterprise displayed by the merchants and gentlemen at our ports was no less remunerative to them than beneficial to the State. It was also troublesome to the enemy. Gov. Nash in December mentioned in a letter to Gen. Washington: “The enemy have not been entirely free of trouble off Charleston and on the coast in that quarter during this summer; they have suffered very considerably by our privateers, particularly by open row boats. These boats, with 40 or 50 men aboard, take almost everything that comes in their way. Two that went out in company returned here this week, after a leave of about 20 days, in which time they took and sent in 12 valuable prizes, besides burning, I think, 4.”


As speedily as possible after the battle of Camden, Cornwallis dispatched Tarleton to cut off Sumpter whose corps was unfortunately surprised by that energetic leader and totally routed, and scouring

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parties were sent out to take Marion, who, however, eluded all efforts to capture him, and continued to harrass and annoy the British incessantly. Expecting to advance, Cornwallis allowed Ferguson, with his partisan corps of 1,200 Loyalists, to march into Western North Carolina, to collect forage, suppress any outbreaks there and afford the Tories an opportunity to join him. Ferguson soon reached Gilberttown some thirty miles distant from the South Carolina line, and a part of his command even penetrated to Morganton.

Gen. Davidson had established his camp ten miles South of Charlotte and twenty miles from the Waxhaws where Cornwallis lay, and there on the 24th of September Sumner joined him, while Col. Locke was raising the militia and the minute men were active and vigilant. At length Cornwallis, being ready, broke camp and moved forward, his advance entering Charlotte on the 26th of September, his purpose being to establish a strong post there, and then being joined by the Loyal militia to proceed to Salisbury and Hillsboro and re-establish British government, Gov. Josiah Martin accompanying the army, ready to resume the administration.

Sumner them fell back to McGoin's Creek, leaving Gen. Davidson and Col. Davie with his mounted minute men in the immediate front of the enemy.

Gov. Nash was emphatic in his directions that anything like a general engagement was to be avoided, for a second defeat at that time would have had a most disastrous effect on the inhabitants and upon the spirit of the militia who had now rallied from the depression caused by Gates' defeat.

Early in October Gen. Butler's brigade, 700 strong, was about to make a junction with Sumner, who was East of the Yadkin and 18 miles from Salisbury. Gen. Jones, with the Halifax Brigade, had been ordered to join Harrington, but now was marching with all haste to Sumner's camp. Col. William Washington, with 100 troopers, was en route from Halifax and other partizan bands were concentrating at Salisbury. Gen. Smallwood had accepted the appointment of Major-General of the militia and was now en route from Hillsboro to the front, escorted by Col. Morgan and 300 Regulars. Gates was still at Hillsboro where 1,000 Continentals were still in camp, either without shoes or without arms, waiting on the slow Virginia authorities.

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On the other hand, Cornwallis, while not pressing forward to the East, threw a column to the Westward to connect with Ferguson or to prevent the juncture of the several bodies of militia that were marching against him.

In these trying days, Davidson and Davie bore themselves as heroes, worthy of immortal fame. Their courage, activity and zeal inspired the surrounding country, fixed all waverers on the patriotic side and suppressed all disaffection, while their vigilant and daring minute men drove in Cornwallis' foraging parties and hemmed his men within their camp, and struck hard blows whenever opportunity offered.

On October 7th, Col. Davie's horse had increased to 400, while Gen. Davidson, who took post thirteen miles to the Northeast of Charlotte, had five hundred more under his immediate command. Cornwallis had expected much from the loyal people—much in the way of supplies and additions to his forces. But he reckoned without his host. A letter from Charlotte, written about that time, says: “His Lordship took post at Charlotte with much pomp. Proclamations were issued: peace and protection were offered to all returning and penitent rebels, and death, with all its horrors, threatened to the obstinate and impenitent.

Gov. Martin, with great solemnity, assumed the Government and conceived himself reinstated.

The people generally abandoned their habitations; some fled, determined to dispute every foot of ground, and some assembled in their respective neighborhoods, determined to harrass the enemy's foraging parties.

His Lordship soon discovered that he was in the enemy's country, without provisions, without intelligence, without a single humble servant, except Peter Johnson and McCafferty, who at last deserted him in the night and came to make peace with us.”

Such was the situation while Cornwallis waited at Charlotte for the return of Ferguson from his foraging expedition into Western Carolina.

On Ferguson's advance into North Carolina runners were dispatched across the mountains and into Virginia, as well as the neighboring North Carolina counties, and the people gallantly rose to meet him. The official account of these proceedings, signed by Cols. Campbell, Shelby and Cleveland, states: “On receiving intelligence

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that Maj. Ferguson had advanced as high up as Gilberttown, in Rutherford county, and threatened to cross the mountains to the Western waters, Col. William Campbell, with 400 men from Washington county, Virginia, and Col. Isaac Shelby, with 240 men from Sullivan county, North Carolina, and Lieut. Col. John Lewis, with 240 men of Washington county, North Carolina, assembled at Watauga, on the 25th of September, where they were joined by Col. Charles McDowell, with 160 men from the counties of Burke and Rutherford, who had fled before the enemy to the Western waters.

We began our march on the 26th, and on the 30th we were joined by Col. Cleveland on the Catawba River with 350 men from the counties of Wilkes and Surry. No one officer having properly the right to command in chief, on the 1st of October we dispatched an express to Maj. Gen. Gates informing him of our situation and requesting him to send a general officer to take command of the whole. In the meantime Col. Campbell was chosen to act as Commandant till such general officer should arrive. We marched to the Cowpens on Broad River in South Carolina, where we were joined by Col. James Williams, with 400 men, on the evening of the 6th of October, who informed us that the enemy had encamped somewhere near the Cherokee Ford of Broad River, about 30 miles distant from us.

By a council of the principal officers it was then thought advisable to pursue the enemy that night with 900 of the best horsemen and leave the weak horsemen and the foot men to follow as fast as possible. We began our march with 900 of the men, about 8 o'clock the same evening, and marching all night came up with the enemy about 3 o'clock P. M. on the 7th, who lay encamped on the top of King's Mountain, 12 miles North of Cherokee Ford, in the confidence that they could not be forced from so advantageous a port.”

The column approached to within a quarter of a mile of the enemy before it was discovered. In five minutes the engagement became general and the battle was won in an hour and seven minutes.

Maj. Ferguson, together with 157 of his command were killed, and 153 so badly wounded that they could not be removed from the field according to the British returns. The first reports of British loss made by the conquerors were not unnaturally exaggerated

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and can not be followed. Ferguson had with him 100 regulars, of whom only about one-half survived. He had also about 1,000 of his partisan corps (Loyalists). Over 700 were made prisoners. The loss among the officers were particularly heavy. The loss of the patriot force was 28 killed, among them Col. Williams, and 62 wounded.

It was night before the prisoners were all secured, and the victors slept in the battle-field, but early the next morning set off Northward with their prisoners under the command of Col. Campbell. Within two months, however, all but 130 of them had been dismissed, paroled or had been enlisted in the military service for three months, and Gen. Greene was disappointed in not being able to use them by way of exchange to set free prisoners held by the British.

This important victory was one of the turning points of the war. Not only in its direct efforts but in its influences it was of the first magnitude. First, it showed the capacity of untrained militia to fight stubborn battles and win victories, and it animated the patriots to renewed zeal, while depressing those who were disposed to favor the crown. After that the Tories in that region were content to profess their good will to the King and practiced remaining at home.

The destruction of an entire corps of 1,100 men, and the loss of so many experienced, crippled Cornwallis' army and entirely unsettled his plans.

By the 10th the news had reached Sumner at camp Yadkin, and on the morning of the 12th Gates at Hillsboro transmitted the intelligence to Congress. He wrote to Jefferson, then Governor of Virginia: “This instant I received the great and glorious news contained in the enclosed letter from Brigadier Gen. Davidson to Gen. Sumner, who directly dispatched it to me by express. We are now more than even with the enemy. The moment the supplies for the troops arrive from Taylor's Ferry, I shall proceed with the whole to the Yadkin.

Gen. Smallwood and Col. Morgan are on their way to that part The latter, with the Light Infantry, was yesterday advanced eighteen miles beyond Guilford Court House; the former, with the Cavalry, lay last night thirteen miles on this side of that place.”

Cornwallis was so hemmed in Charlotte as to have received no information of the battle of King's Mountain for a considerable time. Indeed he was in utter ignorance of what was passing in

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South Carolina. For near three weeks he received no intelligence from Camden, every express for him having been taken by the active partisan bands in his rear.

On learning of the loss of Ferguson's corps, he apprehended that Ninety-Six would be at once attacked and taken, and being without supplies, determined to fall back. So on the evening of the 12th he left Charlotte and on the 21st of October he re-crossed the Catawba and went into camp near the Waxhaws. Here he first learned that Gen. Leslie had pursuant to the prearranged plan made a descent on the Chesapeake, and in the month of October had made incursions through the lower counties of Virginia, penetrating down the Black water to the South Quay near the N. C. line, and nearer the Coast to Great Bridge over the North West. In that quarter Gen. Gregory commanded, and he gallantly took the field with his militia, but fortunately no general engagement occurred. As these operations were of no advantage to Cornwallis, on hearing of them, he had once suggested to Gen. Leslie to change his base to the Cape Fear; but instead, Gen. Leslie, after occupying lower Virginia for a month, returned to New York.

As Cornwallis withdrew into South Carolina, the patriot forces followed in the same direction.

About the middle of November Gen. Smallwood was about 15 miles below Charlotte awaiting the arrival of Gen. Gates with 1,000 Regulars composed of the Maryland and Delaware regiments and of Buford's Virginia corps.

Gen. Stevens was still at Hillsboro with 500 Virginia troops, almost naked and unarmed. Gen. Gates had then set out for the front to take command in person; but the arrival of Gen. Greene, who had been appointed to succeed him, was daily expected.

The practice in calling out the militia had been to designate the number to be called out from the several counties embraced in the order, and these men were to serve sixty or ninety days as the circumstances seemed to require. The result was that the militia force was constantly being changed, the time for which the men were to serve was continually expiring, and the efficiency of the army was disastrously effected. No reliance could be placed on the number of men who would be available at any particular time in the future, and the organization of a regular force was indispensable in view

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of the probable movements of Cornwallis who appeared to be preparing for a return into North Carolina.

In this situation it was hoped that an exchange of prisoners might be affected that would liberate hundreds of our veterans that had been taken at Charleston and Camden and set free from their parole the militia who had been allowed to return to their homes under a pledge to remain inactive until exchanged.

But notwithstanding the orders of Gen. Gates that the prisoners taken at King's Mountain should be carried to Fincastle, Va., it appears that Col. Martin Armstrong frustrated that design and set at liberty some 500 of these prisoners, much to the disappointment of Gen. Greene and the Board of War. Indeed, the pressure on the British to feed the prisoners in their hands was so annoying that they would probably have been glad to make some exchange. Lord Germain, writing to Cornwallis on the subject of relieving the public of the enormous expense of sustaining these prisoners, said: “What appears to me the most practicable measures for these purposes are the inducing the prisoners to enter on board the ships of war or Privateers, or to go as recruits to the regiments in the West Indies, or as volunteers to serve upon the expedition against the Spanish settlements from Jamaica; and your Lordship will, therefore, take the proper steps for dispersing as many of them as possible in these several ways, or in such other ways as may occur to you as more practicable and effectual.”

Conformably to these directions a considerable number of the prisoners at Charleston were sent to the West Indies and were in a measure forced by the British into their service. How many North Carolinians shared that unhappy fate we have no means of determining.

Representations having been made to Congress that it was desirable to substitute another General Officer for Gates as Commander of the Southern Department, Gen. Washington appointed Gen. Greene to that command, and on December 2nd Gen. Greene arrived in camp at Charlotte and assumed command.

Walter Clark