Skirmish at Charlotte, or First Attack of the Hornets

After the battle of Camden, Cornwallis, believing that he would soon bring the rebels of North Carolina into speedy submission to the British Crown, left the scene of his conquest with as little delay as possible, and designated Charlotte as the most suitable place for his headquarters. This town had been previously the rallying point, on many occasions, for the American forces, and from which they marched by companies, battalions and regiments, to the front, whenever their services were needed.

Cornwallis entered Charlotte on the 26th of September, 1780. His approach to the town was from the south, on Trade street, and, after taking possession of the place, his army lay encamped eighteen days in the old field, or commons, nearly opposite the residence of the late M.L. Wriston, with the exception of one regiment, which pitched their tents about midway between Charlotte and Colonel Polk’s mill (late Bissell’s). The head-quarters of his Lordship was in the second house in the rear of the present Springs building, with a front yard facing on Trade street. Many years after the war this building, in which Cornwallis slept “unquietly (per noctem plurima volvens”), was moved round on Tryon street, and constitutes a part of the house now (1876) occupied by Mr. Taylor, gunsmith, but so changed and remodeled that little of the original structure can be identified to remind us of the past.

The skirmish at Charlotte has been pronounced one of the most “brilliant affairs” of the Revolution; and the correct account of it will be here given in General Davie’s own words, taken from his auto-biographical sketches in manuscript, and now on file in the archives of the Historical Society of the State University at Chapel Hill.

He says:

“Charlotte, situated on a rising ground, contains about twenty houses, built on two streets, which cross each other at right angles, at the intersection of which stands the court-house. The left of the town, as the enemy advanced, was an open common on the woods, which reached up to the gardens of the village. With this small force, viz., one hundred and fifty cavalry and mounted infantry, and fourteen volunteers, under Major Graham, Davie determined to give his Lordship a foretaste of what he might expect in North Carolina. For this purpose he dismounted one company, and posted it under the court-house, where the men were covered breast high by a stone wall. Two other companies were advanced about eighty yards, and posted behind some houses, and in gardens on each side of the street. While this disposition was making, the Legion (Tarleton’s) was forming at the distance of three hundred yards, with a front to fill the street, and the light infantry on their flanks. On sounding the charge, the cavalry advanced at full gallop within sixty yards of the court-house, where they received the American fire, and retreated with great precipitation.

“As the infantry continued to advance, notwithstanding the fire of our advanced companies, who were too few to keep them in check, it became necessary to withdraw them from the cross street, and form them in line with the troops under the court-house. The flanks were still engaged with the infantry, but the centre was directed to reserve their fire for the cavalry, who rallied on their former ground, and returned to the charge.

“They were again well received by the militia, and galloped off in great confusion, in presence of the whole British army. As the British infantry were now beginning to turn Colonel Davie’s right flank, these companies were drawn off in good order, successively covering each other, and formed at the end of the street, about one hundred yards from the court-house, under a galling fire from the British light infantry, who had advanced under cover of the houses and gardens. The British cavalry again appeared, charging in column by the court-house, but upon receiving a fire, which had been reserved for them, they again scampered off. Lord Cornwallis, in his vexation at the repeated miscarriage of his cavalry, openly abused their cowardice. The Legion, reinforced by the infantry, pressed forward on our flanks, and the ground was no longer tenable by this handful of brave men.

“A retreat was then ordered on the Salisbury road, and the enemy followed, with great caution and respect, for some miles, when they ventured to charge the rear guards. The guards were of course put to flight, but, on receiving the fire of a single company, they retreated.

“Our loss consisted of Lieutenant Locke, and four privates killed, and Major Graham and five privates wounded. The British stated their loss at twelve non-commissioned officers and privates killed, and Major Hanger, Captains Campbell and McDonald, and thirty privates wounded.”

This action, although it subjects Colonel Davie to the charge of temerity, only to be excused by the event, and a zeal which we are always ready to applaud, furnishes a striking instance of the bravery and importance of the American militia. Few instances can be shown where any troops, who in one action, changed their position twice in good order, although pressed by superior force, and charged three times by cavalry, thrice their own number, unsupported, in presence of an enemy’s whole army, and finally retreating in perfect order.

The graphic account of the skirmish at, and near Charlotte, from Colonel Davie’s manuscript sketches, corrects a mistake into which several historians have unintentionally fallen in stating that Colonel Francis Locke was killed in the retreat near Sugar Creek Church, when, on the contrary, it was one of his younger brothers, Lieutenant George Locke, a brave and meritorious officer. This statement is confirmed by the notice of the family of “Hon. Matthew Locke,” in Wheeler’s “Historical Sketches,” by the sworn declaration of William Rankin, of Gaston county, who received his discharge from Colonel Locke in Salisbury, near the time of the battle of Guilford, in March, 1781, and by the declaration of Michael McLeary, of Mecklenburg, who served under Colonel Locke after Cornwallis crossed the Catawba in February, 1781, as will be found published in this work.

The reader may be curious to know the estimate the British officers placed upon this affair–the hornets-like reception his Lordship experienced on his entrance into Charlotte.

Tarleton, in his “History of the Southern Campaign in 1780, and 1781,” page 159, says, “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 the town, and a more considerable body appeared drawn up near the courthouse. The conduct of the Americans created suspicion in the British; an 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 sometime, 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 killed or wounded.”

Stedman, the English historian who accompanied Cornwallis in his southern campaign, says in his “American War,” Vol. II, p. 216,

“Charlotte was taken possession of, after a slight resistance from the militia, towards the end of September. At this period, Major Hanger commanded, Colonel Tarleton being ill. In the centre of Charlotte, intersecting the two principal streets, stood a large brick building, the upper part being the court-house, and the under part, the market house. Behind the shambles, a few Americans on horse-back 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 these 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 British army was actually kept at bay, for some minutes, by a few mounted Americans, not exceeding twenty in number.”

Stedman, who is generally accurate and impartial in his narratives, is mistaken in calling the old court-house a “brick building.” It was, as previously stated, a wooden building, placed on brick pillars ten or twelve feet high, and hence the mistake. Some allowance should also be made for Stedman’s mistake, as, very near that time, the fierce and buzzing attacks of the “Hornets” greatly obscured the accuracy of his vision. Upon the whole, the account we have of this skirmish, even under British “coloring”, and evasion of the “whole truth”, exemplifies the spirit and bravery of the “handful” of men who actually kept the whole British army in check for some time, and then retreated in good order.

Kendal, in his “Life of Jackson,” chapter 4, in speaking of the military school in which the “hero of New Orleans” was educated, says:

“In the chieftains by which he was surrounded, the virtues of patriotism, disinterestedness, caution, enterprise and courage exhibited themselves in the highest perfection. As military leaders, Marion was particularly distinguished for enterprise, vigilance and courage; Sumter was his equal in enterprise and courage, but had less circumspection; Davie, who was generally the leader of the Waxhaw settlers, appears to have united the virtues of the two. Perhaps in no instance, where the chief command was in him, did he fail to accomplish the object he undertook. His intelligence was accurate; his plans judicious, and kept profoundly secret; his movements rapid; his blows sudden as the lightning, and his disappearance almost as quick. To pursue him was useless, and it was seldom or never attempted. He frequently dared, with a handful of men, to face an army; and we have seen, by his encounter with the British van at Charlotte, that he knew how to strike terror into an enemy he was not strong enough to conquer.”

The situation of Cornwallis in Charlotte was far from being agreeable. The sentinels placed around his encampment were frequently shot down, compelling him to have pits sunk, five or six feet deep, for their protection. He possessed, it is true, a few timid friends and supporters in the adjacent country, but these could not render him any material aid. The panic which had overspread South Carolina, after the British successes in that State. had extended itself, though in a less degree, into North Carolina, and had driven many of the wealthier class to “take protection,” and thus save their property. But notwithstanding the terror of arms which preceded his arrival, Cornwallis soon became convinced that his situation was surrounded with humiliating realities which he could not easily remove. The reasons assigned by Tarleton are truthfully set forth, when he says, “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 the enemy advanced. But the aptness of its intermediate situation between Camden and Salisbury, and the quantity of mills did not counterbalance these defects.” And again he says, “It was evident, and had been frequently mentioned to the King’s officers, that the counties of Mecklenburg and Rohan (Rowan) were more hostile to England than any others in America. The vigilance and animosity of these surrounding districts checked the exertions of the well-affected, and totally destroyed all communication between the King’s troops and loyalists in other parts of the province. No British commander could obtain any information in that position which would facilitate his designs, or guide his future conduct.”

No higher encomium of the principles and patriotism of the people of North Carolina could have been well given. It is the testimony of an eye-witness, and he a cruel enemy, with the best means of information before him. Tarleton goes on to say, “The town and its environs abounded with inveterate enemies. The plantations in the neighborhood 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 estimation could be made of the sentiments of half the inhabitants of North Carolina whilst the royal army remained in Charlotte.”

And, again, Tarleton informs us, “The foraging parties were every day harassed by the inhabitants, who did not remain at home to receive payment for the product of their plantations, but generally fired from covert places to annoy the British detachments. Ineffectual attempts were made upon convoys coming from Camden, and the intermediate post at Blair’s Mill, but individuals with expresses were frequently murdered. An attack was directed against the picket at Polk’s Mill, two miles from the town. The Americans were gallantly received by Lieutenant Guyon, of the 23rd Regiment; and the fire of his party, from a loop-holed building adjoining the mill, repulsed the assailants. Notwithstanding the different checks and losses sustained by the militia of the district, they continued their hostilities with unwearied perseverance; and the British troops were so effectually blockaded in their present position, that very few, out of a great many messengers, could reach Charlotte in the beginning of October, to give intelligence of Ferguson’s situation.”

The repulse at McIntyre’s, elsewhere noticed in these sketches, is a good illustration of what Tarleton says in these quotations. Truly, the “Hornets” were enraged about that time–more vigilant and out-flying than ever before; but it should be borne in mind they were then fighting the invaders of their own soil, and in defense of the undisturbed enjoyments of “home, sweet home.”

Stedman describes, in much the same terms as Tarleton has done, the difficulties encountered by the British in procuring supplies for their army. He says:

“In Col. Polk’s mill were found 28,000 lbs. of flour and a quantity of wheat. There were several large cultivated farms in the neighborhood of Charlotte. An abundance of cattle, few sheep; the cattle mostly milch cows, or cows with calf, which, at that season of the year, was the best beef. When the army was in Charlotte we killed, upon an average, one hundred head per day. The leanness of the cattle will account for the number killed each day. At this period the royal army was supported by Lord Rawdon’s moving with one half of the army one day, and Colonel Webster with the other half the next day, as a covering party to protect the foraging parties and cattle drivers.”

The English people had then, as now, the reputation of being great beef-eaters; nor should we blame them, as the florid complexion the Englishman generally wears is mainly owing to the free use of this non-febrile and healthy food, washed down with a few potations of good old London ale.

The surprise at McIntyre’s compelled the British to move with greater forces in their foraging expeditions. It is seldom, in the historic annals of any people, that we find it required “one half” of a large army, in a sparsely settled country, to “protect the foraging parties and cattle drivers.” It indicated a spirit of determined resistance by the patriots of Mecklenburg and of the State generally, which can only be construed as a faithful maintenance of the principles of freedom proclaimed on the 20th of May, 1775.

After the victory of the Whigs at King’s Mountain, and the loss of Ferguson, one of his bravest officers, and his entire command, Cornwallis concluded to leave the rebellious post he then occupied.

William McCafferty, a resident Scotchman, and a man of considerable wealth, was employed as the guide to lead the British army by the nearest road to Winnsboro, S.C. Tradition says, that after so bewildering the army in the swamps that much of their baggage was lost, he contrived to escape, and left them to find their way out, as best they could, by the returning light of day. As the British army progressed, passing through the Steele Creek neighborhood, they encamped about three days on Spratt’s plantation, waiting to cross the swollen Catawba, and for the collection of additional supplies. A guard was placed around the encampment, and one of the number assigned to a position between the Charlotte road and a neighboring cane-brake. On the second or third day the sharp crack of a rifle was heard up the Charlotte road, and a small detachment of the British army was immediately dispatched to investigate its meaning. When the detachment arrived at the position of the sentinel, he was found dead, at the foot of a black oak, against which it is supposed he was leaning at the time. Captain William Alexander (better known as “Black Bill,”) one of the “terrible Mecklenburg Whigs,” fired the fatal shot from the adjoining cane-brake. Many others of the Sugar Creek rebels were with Captain Alexander on this occasion, but he alone ventured within killing distance. Long before Tarleton and his dragoons could reach the scene of action, Alexander and his party were entering the brushy woods of Steele Creek, on their way back to the Whig settlements of Upper Sugar Creek. The associates of Alexander were the Taylors, Barnetts, Walkers, Polks, and other kindred spirits, who shot many of the sentries around the British encampment at Charlotte, and seriously annoyed or cut off the enemy’s foraging parties. The last one of the Barnetts, belonging to this “terrible party,” died in 1829, at a good old age, within two miles of Cook’s mills, on Big Sugar Creek.

A singular incident, occurring at this period, is here deemed worthy of narration. A relative of the Spratts, named Elliott, was living on the plantation at the time the British army arrived there from Charlotte. Believing that they would capture him, if in their power, he broke and ran for the cane-brake, about a half or three-quarters of a mile below the spot where the sentinel was shot. As soon as the alarm was given of his departure, Tarleton’s terrible dragoons pursued him, but he succeeded in making good his escape into the densest part of the cane-brake thicket.

While he was listening to the terrible denunciations of Tarleton’s dragoons on their arrival at the swampy and imperious thicket, and what they would do if they could only see a bush or a cane move, he felt perfectly safe as long as he could remain motionless in his muddy retreat. But when his fears had somewhat subsided in his place of concealment, still more alarming apprehensions of danger presented themselves, on his espying a venomous moccasin of the largest size, moving slowly along in the water and mud, and directing its course so near that, in all probability, it must strike him. He could not make the least defense against his ugly approaching visitor, for fear of exposing himself to the pistols of the British dragoons. All that he could do in this dreadful predicament was to wave his hand in a gentle manner towards the snake, which caused it to stop its course and throw itself into a coil, preparatory for battle. Fortunately, just at this time, the British dragoons made their welcome departure, and Elliott moved out of the way of his serpentine majesty.

This was the “first” and “last” visit of Lord Cornwallis to “Charlotte town.” He came flushed with victory, and firmly anticipated similar success in North Carolina. He departed laboring under vexation and sore disappointment; not without bestowing a characteristic name (“Hornets’ Nest”) upon the patriotic sons of Mecklenburg around which appellation cluster many thrilling historical and traditional associations, destined to enshrine their memories in the hearts of their countrymen, throughout all coming time.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top