The unsuccessful attempt made by General Lincoln to take Savannah, and the subsequent capture of the army under his command at Charleston, induced Sir Henry Clinton to regard the States of South Carolina and Georgia as subdued and restored to the British Crown. The South was then left, for a time, without any regular force to defend her territory. Soon after the surrender of Charleston, detachments of the British army occupied the principal military posts of Georgia and South Carolina. Col. Brown re-occupied Augusta; Col. Balfour took possession of Ninety-Six, on the Wateree, and Lord Cornwallis pressed forward to Camden. Sir Henry Clinton then embarked with the main army for New York, leaving four thousand troops for the further subjugation of the South. After his departure the chief command devolved on Lord Cornwallis, who immediately repaired to Charleston to establish commercial regulations and organize the civil administration of the State, leaving Lord Rawdon in command at Camden. North Carolina had not yet been invaded, and the hopes of the patriots in the South now seemed mainly to rest on this earliest pioneer State in the cause of liberty.
Charleston surrendered on the 12th of May, 1780. On the 29th of the same month Tarleton defeated Col. Buford in the Waxhaw settlement, upwards of thirty miles south of Charlotte, on his way to the relief of Charleston. Just before the surrender, a well organized force from Mecklenburg, Rowan and Lincoln counties, left Charlotte with the same object in view, but arrived too late, as Charleston was then completely invested by the British army. And yet this force, after its return, proved of great service in protecting the intervening country, and prevented the invasion of North Carolina until a few weeks after the battle of Camden.
At this critical period General Rutherford ordered out the whole militia, and by the 3d of June about nine hundred men assembled near Charlotte. On the next day the militia were addressed by the Rev. Alexander McWhorter, the patriotic President of “Liberty Hall Academy,” (formerly “Queen’s Museum”), after which General Rutherford dismissed them, with orders to hold themselves in readiness for another call. Major, afterward General, Davie having recovered from his wounds received at Stono, near Charleston, again took the field, and part of his cavalry were ordered to reconnoiter between Charlotte and Camden. Having heard that Lord Rawdon had retired with his army to Hanging Rock, General Rutherford moved from his rendezvous to Rea’s plantation, eighteen miles north-east of Charlotte, to Mallard Creek. On the 14th of June the troops under his command were properly organized. The cavalry, sixty-five in number under Major Davie, were equipped as dragoons, and formed into two companies under Captains Lemmonds and Martin. A battalion of three hundred light infantry were placed under the command of General William Davidson, a regular officer, who could not join his Regiment in Charleston after that place was invested. About five hundred men remained under the immediate command of General Rutherford. On the evening of the 14th of June he received intelligence that the Tories, under Col. John Moore, had embodied themselves in strong force at Ramsour’s Mill, near the present town of Lincolnton. He immediately issued orders to Colonel Francis Locke, of Rowan; Major David Wilson, of Mecklenburg; also to Captains Falls, Knox, Brandon, and other officers, to raise men to disperse the Tories, deeming it unwise to weaken his own force until the object of Lord Rawdon, still encamped at Waxhaws, should become better known.
On the 15th General Rutherford advanced to a position two miles south of Charlotte. On the 17th he was informed Lord Rawdon had retired towards Camden. On the 18th he broke up his camp south of Charlotte, and marched twelve miles to Tuckasege Ford, on the Catawba river. On the evening of that day he dispatched an express to Col. Locke, advising him of his movements, and ordering him to unite with him (Rutherford) at Col. Dickson’s plantation, three miles northwest of Tuckasege Ford, on the evening of the 19th or on the morning of the 20th of June. The express miscarried, in some unaccountable way, and never reached Colonel Locke.
When General Rutherford crossed the river on the evening of the 19th, it was believed he would march in the night, and attack the Tories next morning; but still supposing his express had reached Colonel Locke, he waited for the arrival of that officer at his present encampment in Lincoln county, where he was joined by Col. Graham’s regiment. At ten o’clock at night of the 19th, Col. James Johnston, a brave officer, and well acquainted with the intervening country, arrived at Gen. Rutherford’s camp. He had been dispatched by Colonel Locke from Mountain Creek, sixteen miles from Ramsour’s Mill, to inform Gen. Rutherford of his intention of attacking the Tories next morning at sunrise, and requested his co-operation. Gen. Rutherford, still expecting his express would certainly reach Col. Locke soon after Col. Johnston left his encampment on Mountain Creek, made no movement until early next morning.
In pursuance of the orders given to Col. Locke and other officers from headquarters at Mallard Creek, on the 14th of June, they quickly collected as many men as they could, and on the 18th Major Wilson, with sixty-five men, crossed the Catawba at Toole’s Ford and joined Major McDowell, from Burke, with twenty-five horsemen. They passed up the river at a right angle with the position of the Tories, for the purpose of meeting other Whig forces. At McEwen’s Ford, being joined by Captain Falls with forty men, they continued their march up the east side of Mountain Creek, and on Monday, the 19th, they united with Col. Locke, Captain Brandon and other officers, with two hundred and seventy men. The whole force now amounted to nearly four hundred men. They encamped on Mountain Creek at a place called the “glades”. The officers met in council and unanimously agreed it would be unsafe to remain long in their present position, and, notwithstanding the disparity of the opposing forces, it was determined that they should march during the night and attack the Tories in their camp at an early hour next morning. It was said that the Tories being ignorant of their inferior force, and being suddenly attacked would be easily routed. At this time, Col. Johnston, as previously stated, was dispatched from Mountain Creek to apprise General Rutherford of their determination. Late in the evening they commenced their march from Mountain Creek, and passing down the south side of the mountain they halted at the west end of it in the night when they again consulted on the plan of attack. It was determined that the companies under Captains Falls, McDowell and Brandon should act on horseback and march in front. No other arrangement was made, and it was left to the officers to be governed by circumstances after they reached the enemy. They accordingly resumed their march and by day light arrived within a mile of the Tories, assembled in strong force, about two hundred and fifty yards east of Ramsour’s Mill, and half a mile north of the present town of Lincolnton. The Tories occupied an excellent position on the summit of the ridge, which has a gentle slope, and was then covered with a scattered growth of trees. The foot of the hill on the south and east was bounded by a glade and its western base by Ramsour’s mill pond, The position was so well chosen that nothing but the most determined bravery enabled the Whigs, with a greatly inferior force, to drive the Tories from it, and claim the victory of one of the most severely contested battles of the Revolution.
The forces of Colonel Locke approached the battle ground from the east, a part of his command, at least, having taken “refreshments” at Dellinger’s Tavern, which stood near the present residence of B.S. Johnson, Esq., of Lincolnton. The companies of Captains Falls, McDowell and Brandon were mounted, and the other troops under Col. Locke were arranged in the road, two deep, behind them. Under this organization they marched to the battle-field. The mounted companies led the attack. When they came within sight of the picket, stationed in the road a considerable distance from the encampment, they perceived that their approach had not been anticipated. The picket fired and fled to their camp. The cavalry pursued, and turning to the right out of the road, they rode up within thirty steps of the line and fired at the Tories. This bold movement of the cavalry threw them into confusion, but seeing only a few men assailing them they quickly recovered from their panic and poured in such a destructive fire upon the horsemen as to compel them to retreat. Soon the infantry hurried up to their assistance, the cavalry rallied, and the fight became general on both sides. It was in this first attack of the cavalry that the brave Captain Gilbraith Falls was mortally wounded in the breast, rode about one hundred and fifty yards east of the battle ground, and fell dead from his horse. The Tories, seeing the effect of their fire, came a short distance down the hill, and thus brought themselves in fair view of the Whig infantry. Here the action was renewed and the contest fiercely maintained for a considerable length of time. In about an hour the Tories began to fall back to their original position on the ridge, and a little beyond its summit, to shield a part of their bodies from the destructive and unceasing fire of the Whigs. From this strong and elevated position the Tories, during the action, were enabled at one time to drive the Whigs nearly back to the glade.
At this moment Captain Hardin led a small force of Whigs into the field, and, under cover of the fence, kept up a galling fire on the right flank of the Tories. This movement gave their lines the proper extension, and the contest being well maintained in the center, the Tories began to retreat up the ridge. Before they reached its summit they found a part of their former position in possession of the Whigs. In this quarter the action became close, and the opposing parties in two instances mixed together, and having no bayonets they struck at each other with the butts of their guns. In this strange contest several of the Tories were made prisoners, and others, divesting themselves of their mark of distinction, (a twig of green pine-top stuck in their hats), intermixed with the Whigs, and all being in their common dress, escaped without being detected.
The Tories finding the left of their position in possession of the Whigs, and their center closely pressed, retreated down the ridge toward the pond, still exposed to the incessant fire of the Whig forces. The Whigs pursued their advantages until they got entire possession of the ridge, when they discovered, to their astonishment, that the Tories had collected in strong force on the other side of the creek, beyond the mill. They expected the fight would be renewed, and attempted to form a line, but only eighty-six men could be paraded. Some were scattered during the action, others were attending to their wounded friends, and, after repeated efforts, not more than one hundred and ten men could be collected.
In this situation of affairs, it was resolved by Colonel Locke and other officers, that Major David Wilson of Mecklenburg, and Captain William Alexander of Rowan, should hasten to General Rutherford, and urge him to press forward to their assistance. General Rutherford had marched early in the morning from Colonel Dickson’s plantation, and about six or seven miles from Ramsour’s, was met by Wilson and Alexander.
Major Davie’s cavalry was started off at full gallop, and Colonel Davidson’s battalion of infantry were ordered to hasten on with all possible speed. After progressing about two miles they were met by others from the battle, who informed them the Tories had retreated. The march was continued, and the troops arrived at the battleground two hours after the action had closed. The dead and most of the wounded were still lying where they fell.
In this action the Tories fought and maintained their ground for a considerable length of time with persistent bravery. Very near the present brick structure on the battle-ground, containing within its walls the mortal remains of six gallant Whig captains, the severest fighting took place. They here sealed with their life’s blood their devotion to their country’s struggle for independence.
In addition to those from their own neighborhoods, the Tories were reinforced two days before the battle by two hundred well-armed men from Lower Creek, in Burke county, under Captains Whiston and Murray. Colonel John Moore, son of Moses Moore, who resided six or seven miles west of Lincolnton, took an active part in arousing and increasing the Tory element throughout the county. He had joined the enemy the preceding winter in South Carolina, and having recently returned, dressed in a tattered suit of British uniform and with a sword dangling at his side, announced himself as Lieutenant Colonel in the regiment of North Carolina loyalists, commanded by Colonel John Hamilton, of Halifax. Soon thereafter, Nicholas Welch, of the same vicinity, who had been in the British service for eighteen months, and bore a Major’s commission in the same regiment, also returned, in a splendid uniform, and with a purse of gold, which was ostensibly displayed to his admiring associates, accompanied with artful speeches in aid of the cause he had embraced. Under these leaders there was collected in a few weeks a force of thirteen hundred men, who encamped on the elevated position east of Ramsour’s Mill, previously described.
The Tories, believing that they were completely beaten, formed a stratagem to secure their retreat. About the time that Wilson and Alexander were dispatched to General Rutherford, they sent a flag under the pretense of proposing a suspension of hostilities for the purpose of burying the dead, and taking care of the wounded. To prevent the flag officer from seeing their small number, Major James Rutherford and another officer were ordered to meet him a short distance from the line. The proposition being made, Major Rutherford demanded that the Tories should surrender in ten minutes, and then the arrangements as requested could be effected. In the meantime Moore and Welch gave orders that such of their own men as were on foot, or had inferior horses, should move off singly as fast as they could; so that, when the flag returned, not more than fifty men remained. These very brave officers, “before the battle”, and who misled so many of their countrymen, were among the first to take their departure from the scene of conflict, and seek elsewhere, by rapid flight, “more healthy quarters”. Col. Moore, with thirty of his followers, succeeded in reaching the British army at Camden, where he was threatened with a trial by court-martial for disobedience of orders in attempting to embody the Loyalists before the time appointed by Lord Cornwallis.
As there was no perfect organization by either party, nor regular returns made after the action, the loss could not be accurately ascertained. Fifty-six men lay dead on the side of the ridge, and near the present brick enclosure, where the hottest part of the fight occurred. Many of the dead were found on the flanks and over the ridge toward the Mill. It is believed that about seventy were killed altogether, and that the loss on either side was nearly equal. About one hundred were wounded, and fifty Tories made prisoners. The men had no uniform, and it could not be told to which party many of the dead belonged. Most of the Whigs wore a white piece of paper on their hats in front, which served as a mark at which the Tories frequently aimed, and consequently, several of the Whigs, after the battle, were found to be shot in the head. In this battle, neighbors, near relatives and personal friends were engaged in hostile array against each other. After the action commenced, scarcely any orders were given by the commanding officers. They all fought like common soldiers, and animated each other by their example, as in the battle of King’s Mountain, a little over three months after. In no battle of the Revolution, where a band of patriots, less than four hundred in number, engaged against an enemy, at least twelve hundred strong, was there an equal loss of officers, showing the leading part they performed, and the severity of the conflict. They were all
“Patriots, who perished for their country’s right, Or nobly triumphed on the field of fight.”
Of the Whig officers, Captains Falls, Knox, Dobson, Smith, Bowman, Sloan, and Armstrong were killed. Captain William Falls, who commanded one of the cavalry companies, was shot in the breast in the first spirited charge, as previously stated, and riding a short distance in the rear, fell dead from his horse. His body, after the battle was over, was wrapped in a blanket procured from Mrs. Reinhardt and conveyed to Iredell (then a part of Rowan) for burial. Captain Falls lived in Iredell county, not far from Sherrill’s Ford, on the Catawba. There is a reliable tradition which states that when Captain Falls was killed a Tory ran up to rob the body, and had taken his watch, when a young son of Falls, though only fourteen years old, ran up suddenly behind the Tory, drew his father’s sword and killed him. Captain Falls was the maternal grandfather of the late Robert Falls Simonton, who had the sword in his possession at the time of his death, in February, 1876.
Captain Patrick Knox was mortally wounded in the thigh; an artery being severed, he very soon died from the resulting hemorrhage. Captain James Houston was severely wounded in the thigh, from the effects of which he never fully recovered. Captain Daniel McKissick was also severely wounded, but recovered, and represented Lincoln county in the Commons from 1783 to 1787. Captains Hugh Torrence, David Caldwell, John Reid, all of Rowan county, and Captain Smith, of Mecklenburg, came out of the conflict unhurt. William Wilson had a horse shot down under him, and was wounded in the second fire. Several of the inferior officers were killed. Thirteen men from the vicinity of Fourth Creek [Statesville] lay dead on the ground after the battle, and many of the wounded died a few days afterward. Joseph Wasson, from Snow Creek, received five balls, one of which it is said he carried “forty years to a day”, when it came out of itself. Being unable to stand up he lay on the ground, loaded his musket, and fired several times.
The brick monumental structure on the southern brow of the rising battle-ground, about fifty or sixty yards from the present public road, contains the mortal remains of six Whig Captains; also those of Wallace Alexander, and his wife, who was a daughter of Captain Dobson, one of the fallen heroes on this hotly-contested field of strife.
The loss of the Tories was greater in privates, but less in officers, than the Whigs. Captains Cumberland, Warlick and Murray were killed, and Captain Carpenter wounded. Captains Keener, Williams and others, including Lieutenant-Colonel John Moore and Major Welch, escaped with their lives, but not “to fight another day.”
On the highest prominence of the battle-ground, in a thinly-wooded forest, is a single headstone pointing out the graves of three Tories, probably subordinate officers, with the initials of their names inscribed in parentheses, thus: “[I.S.] [N.W.] [P.W.] “–with three dots after each name, as here presented. A little below are two parallel lines extending across the face of the coarse soap stone, enclosing three hearts with crosses between, as much as to say, “here lie three loving hearts”.
Near a pine tree now standing on the battle-ground, reliable tradition says a long trench was dug, in which was buried nearly all of the killed belonging to both of the contending forces, laid side by side, as the high and the low are perfectly equal in the narrow confines of the grave.