Charlotte Hornets Nest of Rebellion Facts

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Excerpts from Sketches of Western North Carolina, Historical and Biographical by C.L. Hunter

After the battle of Camden, Cornwallis, believing that he would soon bring the rebels of North Carolina History 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 American Revolution; and the correct account of it will be here given in General Davies 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 Davies 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 Davies 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.


After the British army had been in Charlotte about a week, and having, in the meantime, consumed the most of their forage and provisions, Lord Cornwallis was placed under the necessity of procuring a fresh supply. He had already experienced something of the _stinging_ propensities of the "hornets" with which he was surrounded, and the fatalities of their attacks upon his sentries near his camp. In order to meet the emergency of his situation, he ordered out on the 3d day of October, 1780, a strong foraging party, under Major Doyle, consisting of four hundred and fifty infantry, sixty cavalry, and about forty wagons, who proceeded up the road leading from Charlotte to Beattie's Ford, on the Catawba river, intending to draw their supplies from the fertile plantations on Long Creek.

Captain James Thompson, and thirteen others who lived in that neighborhood, anticipating the necessity the British would be under to forage, had early in the morning assembled at Mitchell's mill, (now Frazier's) three miles from Charlotte, at which farm the corn was pulled--at most other places it was standing in the field. Captain Thompson and his men were expert riflemen, and well acquainted with every place in the vicinity. At this place they lay concealed about an hour, when they heard the wagons and Doyle's party passing by them and up the main road. As soon as the party had passed about half a mile, Captain Thompson and his brave followers started through the wood, and kept parallel with Doyle's party, and _almost in sight_, reconnoitering the movements of the enemy until they reached McIntyre's farm, seven miles from Charlotte. A boy plowing by the road-side, upon seeing the British soldiers pass by him, quickly mounted his horse, dashed through the nearest by-paths, and barely had time to warn the intervening families of the approach of the "red coats." After the foraging party reached McIntyre's, they left a part of their men and wagons to lay in supplies, while the other part passed on under Doyle with the expectation of proceeding two or three miles further. For this reason, Doyle was not _numbered with the slain_ in place of his second in command.

Thompson's party, finding some were halted at this place, moved directly towards the thicket down the spring branch, about two hundred yards from the house. The point of a rocky ridge, covered with bushes, passed obliquely from the road to the spring, and within fifty yards of the house which sheltered them from the view or fire of the enemy. They formed into a line about ten feet apart, and advanced silently to their intended positions. The British were soon engaged in their work of plunder; some were at the barn throwing down oats for the wagons, others were running after the chickens, ducks and pigs, while a third party were robbing the dwelling house, the inmates having previously fled out of danger. The soldiery, assisted by the dogs in chasing the poultry, had knocked over some bee-hives ranged along the garden fence. The enraged insects dashed after the men, and at once the scene became one of uproar, confusion and lively excitement. The officer in command, a portly, florid Englishman, laughed heartily at the gestures and outcries of the routed soldiers. The attention of the guard was drawn to this single point, while, at a distance in the fields, the wagons were seen slowly approaching with their cumbrous loads.

The owner of the plantation had cautiously approached, under cover, within gun-shot of his house; the rest of the party, his neighbors, with equal care, advanced sufficiently near for the sure action of their rifles. The distress and anger of the patriots were raised to the highest pitch when they saw the reckless merriment of their enemies, and the fruits of their industry thus suddenly withdrawn. Their feelings could now be no longer restrained while they were anxious to try the effects of their trusty rifles. "Boys," cried one of the sturdy farmers, "I can't stand this any longer--I'll take the captain--each one of you choose his man, and look out for yourselves."

These words were scarcely uttered in a suppressed tone, when the sight of his unerring rifle was drawn upon the expanded breast of the portly Englishman, who suddenly fell prostrate from the doorposts between which he was standing.

In two instances, where two of the patriots were firing at the same man, and seeing him fall, the second one had to quickly change from his _sighted object_ and seek another. A sentinel placed near the spot to which they had advanced, appeared to be alarmed, although he had not seen them, probably thinking of the fate of others in his situation around the camp of Cornwallis in Charlotte. Nor were his fears unduly excited.

Captain Thompson, at the distance of seventy or seventy-five yards, killed him instantly, when his companions, with a precision of aim equally fatal, laid low on the earth his respective foe. To Captain Thompson is also ascribed the honor of mortally wounding the commanding officer, when he was standing near the barn door. He was conveyed to Charlotte, with several others in similar condition, in one of the foraging wagons, and died of the wound received, at the house of Samuel McCombs, two days after. When the smoke rose, after the first discharge of the rifles, the commander, nine men and two horses lay dead or wounded on the ground. The trumpets immediately sounded a recall. But by the time the scattered dragoons had collected and formed, a straggling fire from a different direction, into which the patriots had extended, showed the unerring aim of each American marksman, and greatly increased the confusion of the surprise. Perfectly acquainted with every foot of the grounds, the patriots constantly changed their position, giving in their fire as they loaded, so that it appeared to the British they were surrounded by a large force. When that portion of Doyle's command who had proceeded forward to forage upon other farms heard the firing, they immediately returned to the assistance of his party at McIntyre's branch. Every preparation for defense, attack and retreat was made by the Americans. The alternate hilly and swampy grounds and thickets, with woods on both sides of the public road, baffled the efficient action of the British dragoons. Some dismounted, while others called out to "set on the hounds" against a foe scarcely visible, except from their deadly effects. The dogs, at first, seemed to take the track, and were followed by the soldiers. The foremost hound approached very near one of the patriots who had just discharged his rifle, and was in full retreat after his companions; but as soon as the hound came near with open mouth, he was shot dead by a pistol drawn from the breast of the rifleman. The next hound stopped at the dead body, and, after smelling it, gave a whining howl, and the whole pack retreated from the contest.

A considerable number of the dragoons were killed. The leading horses in the wagons were killed before they could ascend the hill, thus blocking up the road. Many of the soldiers in charge of the wagons cut loose some of the uninjured animals, and galloped after their retreating comrades. The precise loss of the British is not known. It is believed, however, from reliable tradition, that they had at least twenty killed and _a few_ wounded.

That a British detachment of four hundred and fifty infantry and sixty cavalry should be compelled to desist from a foraging expedition and return to Charlotte with only a small amount of provisions and a considerable loss of their number by a handful of patriots, well exemplifies the vigilance, pertinacity and courage of the "hornets" of Mecklenburg in endeavoring to protect their homes, and repel the invaders of their soil.

The country people, early advised of the advance of the foraging party, mounted their horses, rifle in hand, from every direction; and, occupying well protected positions along the main road, also faithfully endeavored to diminish the number of his Majesty's forces, and hastened the retreat of the British into Charlotte, the survivors swearing after their arrival that "every bush along the road concealed a rebel."

The names of this gallant band of patriots, of "Hornets' Nest" notoriety, were: 1. James Thompson, captain; 2. Francis Bradley; 3. George Graham; 4. James Henry; 5. Thomas Dickson; 6. John Dickson; 7. George Houston; 8. Hugh Houston; 9. Thomas McLure; 10. John Long; 11. John Robinson; 12. George Shipley; 13. Edward Shipley.

REMARKS.--Tradition says Francis Bradley was a large and very strong man, and a "terror" to the British as well as the Tories. The British officers were extremely anxious to take him as a prisoner, for his activity in harassing their scouts and foraging parties, and more particularly for the fatal aim of his rifle in _picking off_ their sentries while their army was encamped at Charlotte. The rifle he carried for six years during the Revolution, and which did such _telling_ execution, was the property of Major John Davidson (now in possession of one of his grandsons,) who, being a staff officer, could not make it perform, as it should, its death-dealing mission upon the enemies of his country. About three weeks after the gallant affair at McIntyre's Branch, Bradley was attacked, overpowered and killed by four lurking and base-hearted Tories (said not to be natives of the county). His mortal remains now repose in the graveyard at Hopewell Church, where also sleep many of his illustrious compatriots in arms. On his gravestone are sculptured two drawn and crossed swords, and beneath them the motto, _Arma Libertatis_. The inscription reads thus:

"In memory of FRANCIS BRADLEY, A friend of his country, and privately slain by the enemie of his country, November 14th, 1780, aged 37 years."

The two Dicksons moved to Tennessee; the two Houstons and McLure moved to Kentucky; Robinson settled on Crowder's Creek, Gaston county.

Doyle, the British commander, before the close of the war was made a Colonel, and afterward a Brigadier-General. In 1816 he was styled Sir John Doyle, and Governor of the Islands of Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney and Sark, on the coast of France. Surely, it could not have been for his gallant behavior at McIntyre's he acquired such honor and promotion!