Women in the American Revolution History Facts

Research Topics  Presentation Tips History Essays North Carolina History American Revolution   Women's Role

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

It has been well said that "patriotic mothers nursed the infancy of the Republic." During the progress of British encroachment and arbitrary power, producing great colonial discontent, every sagacious politician could discern in the distant future the portentous shadow of the approaching conflict. In the domestic circle was then nurtured and imparted that love of civil liberty which afterwards kindled into a flame, and shed its genial and transforming light upon the world. The conversation of matrons in their homes, or among their neighbors, was of the people's wrongs and of the tyranny that oppressed them. Under such early training their sons, when grown to manhood, deeply imbued with proper notions of their just rights, stood up in the hour of trial prepared to defend them to the last. The counsels and the prayers of mothers mingled with their deliberations, and added sanctity to all their patriotic efforts for American independence. They animated the courage, confirmed the self-devotion, and shared in the sacrifices of those who, in the common defense, "pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor."

Among the widowed mothers who early instilled into their rising generation a deep love of their country, and a manful determination to defend their firesides and their homes, might be named Mrs. Steele, Mrs. Flinn, Mrs. Sharpe, Mrs. Graham, Mrs. Hunter, Mrs. Jackson and many others, as bright examples in Mecklenburg, Rowan and adjoining counties. In the hour of deepest gloom they frowned upon apathy in the common cause, materially assisted by their benefactions, and urged on the desponding in the path of patriotic duty.

General Moultrie, in his "Memoirs of the American Revolution," pays a handsome compliment to the ladies of that section of country in which his military services were performed. He says:

"Before I conclude my memoirs I must make my last tribute of thanks to the patriotic fair of South Carolina and Georgia for their heroism and virtue in those dreadful and dangerous times whilst we were struggling for our liberties. Their conduct deserves the highest applause, and a pillar ought to be raised to their memory. Their conduct was such as gave examples even to the men to stand firm; and they despised those who were not enthusiasts in their country's cause. The hardships and difficulties they experienced were too much for their delicate frames to bear; yet they submitted to them with a heroism and virtue that has never been excelled by the ladies of any country; and I can with safety say that their conduct during the war contributed much to the independence of America."

Nor were the young ladies of that period less patriotic than their venerable mothers. Their kind sympathies and voluntary contributions were exhibited on every occasion, calling for prompt and beneficent action for the gallant soldier. With fair and willing hands they embroidered colors for military companies, and presented them with the animating charge, _never to desert them_. They formed themselves into associations throughout the colonies, renouncing the use of teas and other imported luxuries, and engaged to card, spin and weave their own clothing. And still further, to arouse a patriotic spirit in every hesitating or laggard bosom, we find in the "South Carolina and American General Gazette," of February 9th, 1776, the following paragraph, illustrative of female patriotism under a manly and _singular_ incentive:

"The young ladies of the best families of Mecklenburg county, North Carolina, have entered into a voluntary association that they will not receive the addresses of any young gentlemen of that place, except the brave volunteers who served in the expedition to South Carolina, and assisted in subduing the Scovillite insurgents. The ladies being of opinion that such persons as stay loitering at home, when the important calls of their country demand their military services abroad, must certainly be destitute of that nobleness of sentiment, that brave, manly spirit, which would qualify them to be the defenders and guardians of the fair sex. The ladies of the adjoining county of Rowan have desired the plan of a similar association to be drawn up and prepared for signature."

Accordingly, at a meeting of the Committee of Safety, held in Salisbury, May 8th, 1776, we find the following entry in their minutes:

"A letter from a number of young ladies in the county, directed to the chairman, requesting the approbation of the committee to a number of resolutions enclosed, entered into, and signed by the same young ladies being read,

"_Resolved_, That this committee present their cordial thanks to the said young ladies for so spirited a performance; look upon these resolutions to be sensible and polite; that they merit the honor, and are worthy the imitation of every young lady in America."

And who were the young ladies of Mecklenburg and Rowan counties then prepared to sign such an association, and willing to bestow their fair hands, and pledge their loving hearts _only to those brave soldiers_, who, on the calls of duty, fought the battles of their country? Imagination carries us back to that eventful period, and pictures to our admiring view, among others, the following daughters of Western Carolina, as actuated by such patriotic motives:

Miss Elizabeth Alexander, daughter of Abraham Alexander, Chairman of the Mecklenburg Convention of the 20th of May, 1775, who married William Alexander, son of Hezekiah Alexander, one of the signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration.

Miss Mary Wilson, daughter of Samuel Wilson, Sen., who married Ezekiel Polk, grandfather of James K. Polk, one of our best Presidents, who consented to serve _only for one term_.

Miss Violet Wilson, sister of the above, who married Major John Davidson, one of the signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration.

Miss Jane Morrison, daughter of Neill Morrison, one of the signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration, who married Major Thomas Alexander.

Miss Polk, daughter of Colonel Thomas Polk, who married Dr. Ephraim Brevard, one of the secretaries and signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration.

Miss Margaret Polk, sister of the above, who married Nathaniel Alexander, Representative to Congress from 1803 to 1805, and in the latter year, elected Governor of the State.

Miss Jane Brevard, daughter of John Brevard, and sister of the "seven brothers in the rebel army," who married General Ephraim Davidson.

Miss Mary Brevard, sister of the above, who married General William Davidson, killed at Cowan's Ford, on February 1st, 1781.

Miss Charity Jack, sister of Captain James Jack, the bearer of the Mecklenburg Declaration to Philadelphia, who married Dr. Cornelius Dysart, a distinguished surgeon of the Revolutionary army.

Miss Lillis Wilson, daughter of Samuel Wilson, Sen., by the third wife (Margaret Jack), who married James Connor, a native of Ireland, who came to America when 21 years old, volunteered in the army, and fought all through the Revolutionary war.

Miss Hannah Knox, daughter of Captain Patrick Knox, killed at the battle at Ramsour's Mill, who married Samuel Wilson, a soldier of the Revolution.

These are the names of a few of the patriotic young ladies, then on the theater of action, who would be willing to sign such an association, stimulate the "loitering young men" to a proper sense of their duty, and promote the cause of freedom by all _fair means_.

MRS. ELEANOR WILSON.

The wives and mothers of Mecklenburg county bore a large share of the trials and dangers of the Revolution. Among these, and as a fair type of many others that might be mentioned, was Eleanor, wife of Robert Wilson, of Steele Creek--a woman of singular energy of mind, and warmly devoted to the American cause. Her husband, with three brothers and other kinsmen, settled in Mecklenburg about 1760, having moved from the colony of Pennsylvania. These brothers were Scotch Presbyterians, and arrayed by early religious education against tyranny in every form. At the Convention in Charlotte on the 20th of May, 1775, Zaccheus Wilson, representing all his kinsmen, signed that declaration, pledging himself, and his extensive connections, to its support and maintenance. At this crisis of our history there were a considerable number of timid persons, who shook their heads and characterized the actors in this opening scene of the bloody drama of the Revolution, as _madmen, rebels and traitors_. From the first to the last, Mrs. Wilson espoused the cause of liberty, and exulted in every patriotic success.

Animated by her enthusiasm, her husband and sons entered warmly into the contest. At the surrender of Charleston, her sons, Robert and Joseph, were made prisoners, but having given their paroles, were allowed to return home. But they had scarcely reached their home in Mecklenburg when the British general issued his proclamation declaring the country subdued, and requiring every able-bodied militiaman to join the royal standard. Refusing to fight against their country, and being no longer bound as they believed, by their paroles, they immediately repaired to the standard of General Sumter, and were with him in several battles. In the battle of the Hanging Rock, Captain David Reid, one of their kinsmen, was mortally wounded, and being in great agony, called for water, when Robert Wilson brought him some in his hat. In the same action, Joseph, a little in advance, was assaulted by a Tory, a powerful man, whom he knew; after a severe struggle, he killed him, and bore off his sword, now in possession of his son, David Wilson, of Maine county, Tennessee.

The elder Robert Wilson and his son John, having collected a supply of provisions and forage for General Sumter's corps, from the neighborhood of Steele Creek, were hastening to meet them at Fishing Creek, and reached that vicinity a short time after the surprise. While engaged in this employment, the two Wilsons and the supplies were captured. The prisoners were hurried to the rear, after having been brutally threatened with hanging on the nearest tree, and by a forced march reached Camden next day, where they were added to a crowd of honorable captives, such as Andrew Jackson, Colonel Isaacs, General Rutherford and others.

In the meantime, Cornwallis, leaving Rawdon at Camden, marched with the larger portion of his army to "rebellious" Charlotte, to forage upon its farms, and to punish its inhabitants for their well-known resistance to royal authority. He reached Charlotte on the 26th of September, 1780, and during his stay of eighteen days, many scenes of rapine, house burnings and plundering took place in and around that place. But the bold Whigs of Mecklenburg--the "hornets" of that section--although unable to keep the open field, were vigilant and at work, constantly popping the sentinels, and insolent dragoons of Tarleton, sent out as scouts and on foraging excursions. Becoming uneasy by these bold attacks of the rebels, frequently driving his foraging parties within sight of his camp, Cornwallis, when he heard of the defeat of Ferguson at King's Mountain, concentrated his army, and, on the 14th of October, commenced his retrograde march towards Winnsboro, S.C. During this march, the British army halted for the night at Wilson's plantation, near Steele Creek. Cornwallis and Tarleton occupied the house of Mrs. Wilson, requiring her to prepare a meal for them as though they had been her friends. Cornwallis, in the meantime, finding out that her husband and one of her sons were his prisoners in the Camden jail, artfully attempted to enlist her in the King's cause.

"Madam, said he, your husband and son, are my prisoners; the fortune of war may soon place others of your sons--perhaps all your kinsmen, in my power. Your sons are young, aspiring, and brave. In a good cause, fighting for a generous and powerful king, such as George III., they might hope for rank, honor and wealth. If you could but induce your husband and sons to leave the rebels, and take up arms for their lawful sovereign, I would almost pledge myself that they shall have rank and consideration in the British army. If you, madam, will pledge yourself to induce them to do so, I will immediately order their discharge."

To this artful appeal, Mrs. Wilson replied that "her husband and children were indeed dear to her, and that she was willing to do anything she thought right to promote their real and permanent welfare; but, in this instance, they had embarked in the holy cause of liberty; had fought and struggled for it during five years, never faltering for a moment, while others had fled from the contest, and yielded up their hopes at the first obstacle. I have," she continued, "seven sons who are now, or have been, bearing arms--indeed, my seventh son, Zaccheus, who is only fifteen years old, I yesterday assisted to get ready to go and join his brothers in Sumter's army. Now, sooner than see one of my family turn back from the glorious enterprise, I would take these boys (pointing to three or four small sons) and would myself enlist under Sumter's standard, and show my husband and sons how to fight, and, if necessary, to die for their country."

"Ah General," interrupted the cold-hearted Tarleton, "I think you've got into a hornet's nest! Never mind, when we get to Camden, I'll take good care that old Robin Wilson never comes back."

On the next day's march, a party of scouts captured Zaccheus, who was found on the flank of the British army with his gun, endeavoring to diminish the number of His Majesty's forces. He was immediately conducted to Cornwallis, who, finding out his name, took him along as a guide to the best ford on the Catawba. Arriving at the river, the head of the army entered at the point designated by the lad, but the soldiers soon found themselves in deep water, and drawn by a rapid current down the stream. Cornwallis, believing that the boy had purposely led him into deep water in order to embarrass his march, drew his sword, and swore he would cut off his head for his treachery. Zaccheus replied that he had the power to do so, as he had no arms, and was his prisoner; "but, sir," said this resolute boy, "don't you think it would be a cowardly act for you to strike an unarmed boy with your sword. If I had but the half of your weapon, it would not be so cowardly, but then you know, it would not be so safe."

Cornwallis, struck by the boy's cool courage, calmed down, told him he was a fine fellow, and that he would not hurt a hair of his head. Having discovered that the ford was shallow enough by bearing up the stream, the British army crossed over it safely, and proceeded to Winnsboro.

On this march, Cornwallis dismissed Zaccheus, telling him to go home and take care of his mother, and to tell her to keep her boys at home. After he reached Winnsboro, he dispatched an order to Rawdon, at Camden, to send Robin Wilson and his son John, with several others, to Charleston, carefully guarded. Accordingly, about the 20th of November, Wilson, his son, and ten others, set off under the escort of an officer and fifteen or twenty men. Wilson formed several plans of making his escape, but owing to the presence of large parties of the enemy, they could not be executed. At length, being near Fort Watson, they encamped before night, the prisoners being placed in the yard, and the guard in the house and in the portico. In a short time the arms of the guard were ordered to be stacked in the portico, a sentinel placed over them, and all others were soon busily engaged in preparing their evening meal. The prisoners, in the meantime, having bribed a soldier to buy some whiskey, as it was a rainy day, _pretended_ to drink freely of it themselves, and one of them seemingly more intoxicated than the rest, insisted upon treating the sentinel. Wilson followed him, as if to prevent him from treating the sentinel, it being a breach of military order. Watching a favorable opportunity, he seized the sentinel's musket, and the drunken man suddenly becoming sober, seized the sentinel. At this signal, the prisoners--like vigilant hornets, rushed to the stacked arms in the portico, when the guard, taking the alarm, rushed out of the house. But it was too late; the prisoners secured the arms, drove the soldiers into the house at the point of the bayonet, and the whole guard surrendered at discretion. Unable to take off their prisoners, Wilson made them all hold up their right hands and swear never again to bear arms against the "cause of liberty, and the Continental Congress," and then told them they might go to Charleston on parole; but if he ever found "a single mother's son of them in arms again, he would hang him up to a tree like a dog."

Wilson had scarcely disposed of his prisoners before a party of British dragoons came in sight. As the only means of escape, they separated into several small companies, and took to the woods. Some of them reached Marion's camp at Snow Island, and Wilson, with two or three others, arrived safely in Mecklenburg, over two hundred miles distant, and through a country overrun with British troops.

Mrs. Wilson was the mother of eleven sons. She and her husband lived to a good old age, were worthy and consistent members of the Presbyterian Church, died near the same time, in 1810, and are buried in Steele Creek graveyard.

About 1792, all the sons moved to Tennessee, where at the present time, and in other portions of the West, their descendants may be counted by the hundreds. Robert Wilson, who was said to be the first man that crossed the Cumberland mountains with a wagon, married Jane, a daughter of William and Ellen McDowell, of York county, S.C. Both Jane and her mother went to King's Mountain after the battle, and remained several days in ministering to the wants of the wounded soldiers. It was mainly on the account of Robert Wilson's distinguished bravery at King's Mountain that William McDowell gave him his daughter Jane in marriage--a worthy gift, and worthily bestowed on a gallant soldier.

MRS. ELIZABETH STEELE.

The long, arduous and eventful retreat of General Morgan through the Carolinas, after the battle of the Cowpens, and the eager pursuit of Cornwallis to overtake him, encumbered with more than five hundred prisoners, on his way to a place of safety in Virginia, affords many interesting incidents. General Greene having met Morgan on the eastern banks of the Catawba river, at Sherrill's Ford, and directed his forward movements, proceeded to Salisbury, a little in advance of his forces. It had been slightly raining during the day, and his wet garments, appearance of exhaustion and dejection of spirits at the loss of General Davidson at Cowan's Ford, as he dismounted at the door of the principal hotel in Salisbury, indicated too clearly that he was suffering under harassing anxiety of mind. Dr. Reed, who had charge of the sick and wounded prisoners, while he waited for the General's arrival, was engaged in writing the necessary paroles for such officers as could not go on. General Greene's aids having been dispatched to different parts of the retreating army, he was alone when he rode up to the hotel. Dr. Reed, noticing his dispirited looks, remarked that he appeared to be fatigued; to which the wearied officer replied: "Yes, fatigued, hungry, alone, and penniless!" General Greene had hardly taken his seat at the well-spread table, when Mrs. Steele, the landlady of the hotel, entered the room and carefully shut the door behind her. Approaching her distinguished guest, she reminded him of the despondent words he had uttered in her hearing, implying, as she thought, a distrust of the devotion of his friends to the cause of freedom. She declared money he should have, and immediately drew from under her apron two small bags full of specie, probably the earnings of several years, "Take these, General," said she, "you need them and I can do without them." This offering of a benevolent heart, accompanied with words of kindness and encouragement, General Greene accepted with thankfulness. "Never," says his biographer, "did relief come at a more propitious moment; nor would it be straining conjecture to suppose that he resumed his journey with his spirits cheered and lightened by this touching proof of woman's devotion to the cause of her country."

General Greene did not remain long in Salisbury; but before his departure from the house of Mrs. Steele, he left a memorial of his visit. Seeing a picture of George III. hanging against the wall, sent as a present to a connection of Mrs. Steele from England, he took it down and wrote with chalk on the back, "O George, hide thy face, and mourn," and replaced it with the face to the wall. The picture, with the writing uneffaced, is still in possession of a grand daughter. Mrs. Steele was twice married; her first husband was a Gillespie, by whom she had a daughter, Margaret, who married the Rev. Samuel E. McCorkle, a distinguished Presbyterian minister; and Richard Gillespie, who was a Captain in the Revolution, and died unmarried. By her second husband, William Steele, she had only one child, the Hon. John Steele, who died in Salisbury on the 14th of August, 1815. He was a conspicuous actor in the councils of the State and Nation, and one whose services offer materials for an interesting and instructive biography.

Mrs. Steele died in Salisbury on the 22d of November, 1790. She was distinguished not only for her strong attachment to the cause of freedom, but for the piety which shone forth brightly in her pilgrimage upon earth. Among her papers was found, after her death, a written dedication of herself to her Creator, and a prayer for support in the practice of Christian duty; with a letter, left as a legacy to her children, enjoining it upon them to make religion the great work of life.