American Revolutionary War

Loyalists In North Carolina: Segment One

People viewed Sir Henry Clinton’s proclamation as a forced resolution in 1780. Demand was current and required complete fidelity to the British crown. Vengeance became more prominent within the war and played out among neighbors. The war in the southern colonies became Patriots versus Loyalists. At least 103 known battles raged in South Carolina without engaging any British soldiers. These skirmishes were acting like a fire feeding itself: civil war broke out along the Carolinas. A guerilla war that measures up to the full definition and leaves no family untouched.

Washington sends more troops in light of these growing expeditions and recruits a new commander for his southern army. Congress rejects Washington’s first recommendation and chooses Horatio Gates as the new leader. Civil order crumbles in the Carolinas as British armies rob citizens of their livestock and personal possessions. Many commanding leaders used their military skills to gain a hero reputation with each onset of battle. Gates fits into this category as possibly something to prove due to rumors from Saratoga and Arnold’s report. The patriot soldiers look at Gates as a poor leader who neglects their needs. It is at this time that the militia enthusiastically joins the war. Their actions change the numbers considerably for Gates and his southern army, consisting of 2/3 militia and 1/3 Continental army by the time of his arrival.

On August 16, 1780, the Battle of Camden in South Carolina ended with a large-scale defeat for the patriots. Five thousand British soldiers faced three thousand patriots on the battlefield. Militia, making up the left front flank, faced the more experienced British right line. The British have placed the best-experienced soldiers on the field in this powerful position. The militia quickly retreats, and Gates joins them as fast as his horse will carry him. Traveling night and day for over two hundred miles without stopping, Gates finally arrives in Hillsborough, NC. The battle of Camden scars Gates for the remainder of his life. The patriot defeat causes the militia to disappear into the backcountry. Gates faces a court-martial, and Washington has the opportunity to name his original choice, Nathanael Greene. Eight hundred men are deemed fit for duty by Greene’s inspection. The remainder of the men are sick, half-clothed, and starving for food and supplies. Colonel Daniel Morgan joins forces with Greene. They revive the men with needed materials and a rejuvenated spirit for the cause of liberty. Months later, Greene splits the patriot forces and faces minor skirmishes in the Carolinas. The split forces Cornwallis to deal with Greene and Morgan as two separate armies. The patriots avoid major battles by leading the British deeper into the backcountry. Broken supply lines for the British continue, and the chase is on.

Reenactment of Battle of Cowpens (photo courtesy of Good Free Photos)

On January 17, 1781, Morgan figured out how to use militia on the front line. He concludes his thoughts with the technique: Fire one shot, fall back. The British would think the militia is retreating, or the line is faltering. Cornwallis makes this fatal mistake at Cowpens. Tarlton faces defeat after chasing Morgan over hundreds of miles in the Carolinas. Tarlton escapes to join Cornwallis and seeks future revenge on the rebels. Morgan retires due to his health after the Battle of Cowpens. Rheumatism and a poor back leave him in constant pain. The stakes are rising in the south. Every family must choose a side. It’s an all-or-nothing push for victory on both sides. Greene knows from experience from Brandywine and New York and keeps the enemy away from confrontation. He weighs down the British army step by step. The scouting armies emerge into minor skirmishes, but the main armies never meet for months. The British cannot keep up with Greene, and Cornwallis decides to burn wagons, fine china, rum, and other supplies they carry. His actions in doing this would prove to be one of his worst mistakes. Greene travels nearly 40 miles a day, and Cornwallis picks up speed. Greene decides again to split his army. Two thousand patriots cross the Dan River, and the cheers by the patriots draw the listening ears of Cornwallis and his army. The hunted will now become the hunter.

February 22, 1781, Halifax, Virginia: Greene supplies his army and travels back into NC to face Cornwallis. Crossing the Dan River, Greene takes the high ground at Guilford Courthouse. March 15, 1781, the battle takes place. In hand-to-hand combat, Cornwallis makes a fatal decision. He orders the Lt to fire into the mass to break up the fighting. He kills as many of his men as he does patriots. Cornwallis wins only by sacrificing his own men. The past months have gained nothing for the British.

Turning the attention to strictly North Carolina, what part did the Loyalists play during the war? How many skirmishes occurred in the backcountry of North Carolina? History records families forcefully inflicted by the Loyalists: why did this happen? What actions did the patriot families take? The answers to these questions may never be honestly revealed: we will look at one particular area and demonstrate the example of behaviors between Patriots and Loyalists. Concentrating on a small township in the piedmont region of NC intrigues our interest.

Richmond, formed in 1774, was the chosen general proximity of a desire to construct a county courthouse. The building, strategically situated along the banks of the Yadkin River, met the needs of a growing population in Surry County. The piedmont region witnesses more conflict between the Loyalists and the Whigs than any other colony. According to records, many of these skirmishes dealt with theft, damage to property, and murder. The North Carolina militia met in Quaker Meadows on September 25, 1780, to discuss Ferguson’s expedition into western sections of South Carolina. The Over Mountain men joined them from Virginia and Tennessee. They soon began marching to locate Major Ferguson and his British army. During their absence, Gideon and Hezekiah Wright gathered many local Loyalists and attacked the Richmond Courthouse on October 3. They killed the sheriff and took prisoners. They continued to Captain William Shepherd’s home and raided his property. By October 8, 1780, the Loyalist militia contained over three hundred men. While the Whig militia was still away, Gideon Wright attacked the Richmond area again. Captain John Crause was standing guard and wounded during the raid. Wright then moved his militia to Bethabara and demanded to know of any rebels in the town. After finding no patriots, Wright left Bethabara.

Photo courtesy of Records of the Moravians in North Carolina Volume II 1752-1775 p. 635

Who is Gideon Wright? Stay tuned as Piedmont Trails explores the community of Richmond and the Loyalist militia that transformed the piedmont region of North Carolina during 1780.

The American Revolution had social consequences for every individual. The cost of independence reminded generations of the essence of war and its true meaning. End of segment one, subscribe to Piedmont Trails and don’t miss the next segment, Loyalists in North Carolina.

Notes & Sources:

  1. Babits, Lawrence Edward A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, North Carolina 1998 p. 15, pp. 23-25
  2. Carbone, Gerald M. Nathanael Greene Palgrave MacMillan New York, New York 2008 pp. 172-176, 153, 252n
  3. Clinton, Sir Henry South Carolina Proclamation Robertson, MacDonald, and Cameron-posted on Broad Street & corner of Church Street Charlestown, South Carolina 1780 2n-(notes: Clinton’s Proclamation offered full pardons to everyone who immediately returns their allegiance to the King and Great Britain. This action actually forced many families to choose sides when they would before, they could have stayed out of the conflict. The patriot militia grew rapidly during this time period and allowed Gate’s southern army to grow significantly.)
  4. Demond, Robert O The Loyalist in North Carolina During the Revolution Southern Historical Press Greenville, South Carolina 1940 pp. 63-83, 93, 161 and 213
  5. Fries, Adelaide L. Records of the Moravians in North Carolina Volume II 1752-1775 Edwards & Broughton Printing Company Raleigh, North Carolina 1925 pp. 634-649
  6. O’Kelley, Patrick Nothing but Blood and Slaughter Volume Two Blue House Tavern Press 2004 pp.318, 343
  7. Smith, Paul Hubert Loyalists and Redcoats: A Study in British Revolutionary Policy University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, North Carolina 1964 pp. 142-147
  8. Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia 1775-1780 University of South Carolina Press Columbia, South Carolina 2005

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