This March brings the 241st Anniversary of the pivotal battle of Guilford Courthouse, NC. While this battle is of immense importance to the Southern Campaign, several smaller battles leading up to it have been largely overlooked. Through February and early March of 1781, detachments of the American and British armies maneuvered across the modern-day counties of Alamance, Guilford, Orange, Chatham, and Caswell. This is the first of a series of three articles.
Having unsuccessfully chased General Nathaniel Greene’s small, ragged army across North Carolina, British forces under Lord Charles Cornwallis moved to the state capital at Hillsborough to announce their liberation of the state and call Loyalists to come forward and support them. Greene’s army retreated across the Dan River into Virginia, where he awaited supplies and reinforcements.
Cornwallis received a lukewarm welcome in the Hillsborough area, yet some Loyalists did organize to fight for the British. The army was small and desperately short of supplies. Sergeant Roger Lamb of the 23rd Regiment wrote that, “Such was the scarcity of provisions at Hillsborough, that it was found impossible to support the army in that place. They were even obliged to kill some of their best draft horses. They therefore passed the Haw, and encamped in Allamance Creek. This movement much dispirited the Loyalists, and raised the drooping hopes of the Americans.” Lamb continues, describing their hardships: “Sometimes we had turnips served out for food, when we came to a turnip field; or arriving at a field of corn we converted our canteens into rasps and ground our Indian corn for bread; when we could get no Indian corn, we were compelled to eat liver as a substitute for bread, with our lean beef.”
In fact, Cornwallis became forced to take oxen from the local farmers, a measure he had previously promised not to do. The civilians in the area saw a weakened, desperate British army that did not have the appearance of liberators. The army could not even support itself, relying on foraging supplies from the civilians.
Greene now took the opportunity to send part of his army back into North Carolina from Virginia. He also was in need of resupply after the grueling marches since January. The weather had been cold, and many troops lacked adequate clothing. An estimated one-fourth of the Maryland troops, his best, were sick. On February 20th Colonel Otho Williams led the army’s light infantry, the Delaware and Maryland troops, back across the Dan to observe the British and screen the movements of the main American army.
The cavalry and light infantry of each army gradually drew closer, each side foraging the countryside and scouting for signs of the enemy. Much of the coming action took place in the region that had been site of the 1760s Regulator movement, an internal conflict that had divided piedmont settlers before the war. Frustrated settlers began enforcing laws in response to a corrupt and inefficient Colonial government- it was a vigilante movement. High taxes, unfairly distributed among settlers fueled their anger. The movement was crushed in a battle near Alamance Creek. Many divisions and hard feelings lingered from the Regulator movement.
Greene’s American army, a small core of Continentals augmented by North Carolina militia, took position to the northwest of Cornwallis. Ahead of him he sent his light infantry and cavalry to watch and harass the British. Lt. Col. Light Horse Harry Lee, commanding a Legion of infantry and cavalry, wanted to engage Tarleton. Lee set out to meet his adversary but was soon distracted by a group of Loyalists.
On February 25th, Lee set out with his Legion and a group of North and South Carolina militia under Andrew Pickens. Lee learned that a group of about 400 Loyalists under Col. John Pyle were in the area, riding to join the British. Lee apparently intended to avoid them in his search for Tarleton.
A little-known fact is that many Catawba Indians from the Rock Hill area of South Carolina fought actively with the Americans in the Revolution. A group accompanied the militia here, armed with not only rifles and muskets but also more traditional spears.
North Carolina militia officer Joseph Graham recalled that,
Pickens and Lee put their forces in motion at an early hour, and came into the great road eight miles west of Hillsboro, near Mebane’s farm. The whole of the militia cavalry, seventy in number, that had swords, were placed under Captain Graham, and in the rear of Lee’s horse. Such of Graham’ men as had not swords were ordered to join another company. They followed the enemy’s trail on the road to Haw River, with the cavalry in front. During the whole day’s march every man expected a battle and hard fighting. Men’s countenances on such occasions indicate something which can be understood better than described in words. The countenances of the whole militia, throughout the day, never showed better.
The Americans met up with two riders from Pyle’s column. Thinking they were British, the riders informed Lee’s men of Pyle’s location. Lee had them report back to Pyle that he (who the riders thought was Tarleton) would be along soon to join them.
John Pyle was a former Regulator who had been living in the region for some time. He was a physician and has been described as an “amiable man,” who helped treat wounded American troops after the battle of Cane Creek the previous year.
Lee had divided his force as follows: he took part of the Legion cavalry himself, while Captain Joseph Eggleston commanded the remainder of the dragoons. Andrew Pickens led the militia. Lee wrote later that he intended to ride up to the Loyalists, and offer them the chance to surrender. He maintains that his purpose was to move past them to engage Tarleton. He had Pickens’ militia (who wore green twigs in their hats), move into the woods.
Pickens and other officers do not mention the intention to reveal themselves in their writings. Either they simply fail to mention this, or Lee did not inform them of his plan. Perhaps he did not have time to inform Pickens or the others, as events unfolded rapidly.
That evening Lee wrote to Greene describing the day’s events. He explained that his command rode up to Pyle, intending to move past them. “I did this,” Lee wrote, “that no time might be lost in reaching Colonel Tarleton. The enemy discovered their mistake on the near approach of our militia and commenced action. The rear cavalry were instantly ordered to charge by Captain Eggleston and in 10 minutes the whole body of the Enemy were routed, the greatest part of them were left on the field dead and wounded.” This is a simplified explanation that requires further investigation.
Soon the forces met up along the path, Pyle’s mounted men having moved off to the right side of the road. Lee’s dragoons rode up alongside them, Lee at the head. As he passed, Lee was “smiling,” and “dropping occasionally, expressions complimentary to the good looks and commendable conduct of his loyal friends.” It was a perfect deception. As Lee reached the head of the column, he extended his hand to greet Col. Pyle.
Pyle’s men were mounted, just like Lee’s, but had their rifles and fowlers slung over their shoulders, with muzzles down and pointed away from Lee’s riders. Lee’s men had their swords drawn as they rode alongside them. Pyle’s men were not suspecting anything when the Americans rode up beside them.
Lee explains that he was grasping Pyle’s hand and in the act of informing him of the true situation when the rear of the Loyalist column discovered Pickens’ militia in the woods and began firing on them and Eggleston’s troopers in the rear.
Horrified, Pyle cried out, “Stop! Stop! You are killing your own men! I am a friend of his Majesty! Hurrah for King George!”
Graham disagrees with Lee as to the start of the fighting. He writes in his account that,
The true statement of this is, that Major Dickson, of Lincoln, who commanded the column on our right (when their disposition for attack had been made at the last farm), and been thrown out of his proper order of march by the fences and a branch, and when Pyle’s men were first seen by the militia they were thought to be the party under Dickson, which had come round the plantation and gotten in the road before them, Captain Graham discovered the mistake; seeing them with cleaner clothes than Dickson’s party, and each man having a strip of red cloth on his hat. Graham, riding alongside of Captain Eggleston, who commanded the rear of Lee’s horse, remarked to him: “That company are Tories. What is the reason they have their arms?” Captain Eggleston, addressing a good-looking man at the end of the line, supposed to be an officer, inquired, “To whom do you belong?” The man promptly answered, “A friend to his majesty.” Whereupon Captain Eggleston struck him over the head. The militia looking on and waiting for orders, on this example being set, rushed on them like lighting and cut away. The noise in the rear of attracted the notice of Lee’s men, and they turned their horses short to the right about five steps, and in less than a minute the attack was made along the whole line.
Another account states that at the rear of the line, some of the Loyalists recognized a Maryland detachment as Americans and opened fire on them. Perhaps all accounts are true, as it is possible that both sides discovered the truth simultaneously in different areas.
Andrew Pickens, writing to Greene the next day, recalled that, “Our Men were in some measure under the same mistake, but soon found out, and nigh 100 were killed and the greatest part of the others wounded, unfortunately the Dragoons got separated from us and our Militia could not be kept from firing.” Thus Pickens explains that his men were as confused as the Loyalists, and the encounter was not well managed.
Moses Hall, in his pension application, stated that his militia captain yelled to Lee “Colonel Lee, they are every blood of them Tories!” To which Lee signaled to keep moving, hoping to continue the ruse. No doubt other soldiers of each side, talking informally, would have discovered the reality at about the same time.
Graham’s account is one of the best of the unfolding incident:
At the time the action commenced, Lee’s dragoons in the open order of march, extended about the same distance with Pyle’s men, who were in close order, an on horseback; most of them having come from home on that day, were clean, like men who now turn out to a review. Lee’s movement was as if he were going to pass them fir or six steps on the left of their line. When the alarm was given in the rear, as quickly as his men could turn their horses, they were engaged; and the Tories were over two to one of our actual cavalry, by pressing forward they went through their line, leaving a number behind them. The continual cry by the Tories was, ‘You are killing your own men! I am a friend to his majesty. Hurrah for King George!’ Finding their profession of loyalty, and all they could say were of no avail, and only the signal for their destruction, twelve or fifteen of those whom Lee’s men had gone through, and who had thrown down their guns, now determining to sell their lives as dearly as possible, jumped to their arms and began to fire in every direction, making the cavalry give back a little. But as soon as their guns were empty, they were charged upon every side by more than could get at them, and cut down in a group together. All the harm done by their fire was that a dragoon’s horse was shot down. Falling very suddenly, and not moving afterwards, the rider’s leg was caught under him, and by all his efforts he could not extricate himself, until the action began to slacken, when two of his comrades dismounted, and rolled the horse off him.
Lee’s men had so recently come to the South that they did not understand the usual marks of distinction between Whig and Tory, and after the first onset, when all became mixed, they required of each man, before they attacked him, to whom he belonged. The enemy readily answered, ‘To King George.’ To many of their own militia they put the same question. Fortunately no mistakes occurred, though in some instances there was great danger of it.
At the close of the action the troops were scattered and mixed through each other- completely disorganized. General Pickens and Colonel Lee gave repeated orders to form, but the confusion was such that their orders were without effect.
As the melee developed, Lee wrote that “in some parts of the line the cry of mercy was heard, coupled with assurance of being our best friends; but no expostulation could be admitted in a conjuncture so critical. Humanity even forbade it, as its first injunction is to take care of your own safety, and our safety was not compatible with that of the supplicants, until disabled to offend.”
Thus Lee exonerates himself of wrongdoing at this event, explaining that while the Loyalists were still armed and resisted, he could not command his men to stop. He probably could not command his men in any case, as the fighting broke out the two groups grappled with each other at close quarters.
Was Lee guilty of the crimes that Tarleton was accused of? No doubt Pyle’s Defeat would be treated as Buford’s Defeat at the Waxhaws if the tables were turned. In that battle wounded Americans were killed by Tarelton’s soldiers. Lee suffered no criticism from fellow officers or his superiors, and while British officers like Lord Cornwallis and Charles Stedman decried the event, accusations were not pursued.
Lee, unlike Tarleton at Waxhaws, was never called into question for his actions here. One American soldier wrote “Colonel Lee knew what he was about,” thus calling into question Lee’s intentions. The Legion simply fell into that passion that affects men in combat, resorting to instinct and acting uncharacteristically savage on this day.
Casualties have been estimated at about one hundred Loyalists killed, and many times that wounded. Pyle’s entire command was dispersed; the lone American casualty was a horse. Colonel Pyle himself was wounded, but escaped, hiding in a nearby pond until rescued by other survivors.
Lee still hoped to ride on and engage Tarleton, but the day was late and his men were now fatigued. He hoped to apply the same ruse, using a captured Loyalist to gain access to Tarleton’s column, but could not find an unwounded man among his prisoners. As Lee interviewed survivors, one said to him ‘Well, God bless your soul, Mr. Tarleton, you have this day killed a parcel of as good subjects as ever his Majesty had.’ Lee, who at this time was not in the humor for quizzing, interrupted him, saying: ‘You damned rascal, if you call me Tarleton I will take off your head. I will undeceive you: we are the Americans and not the British. I am Lee of the American Legion, and not Tarleton.’ The poor fellow appeared chop-fallen.”
The killing went on after the prisoners had been rounded up. Moses Hall, a North Carolina militiaman, observed that, “We went to where six were standing together. Some discussion taking place, I heard some of our men cry out, ‘Remember Buford,’ and the prisoners were immediately hewed to death with broadswords.”
Graham recalled that, “The next day our militia counted ninety-three dead, and there was the appearance of many more being carried off by their friends. There were certainly many more wounded. When Lee and Pickens retired, it appeared as if three hundred might be lying dead. Many, perhaps, were only slightly wounded and lay quietly for security.” Unfortunately few accounts of this engagement exist: some American pension applications mention it but few go into detail. This author has not identified any Loyalist accounts of the action.
It was a disaster for the fledgling Loyalist movement to support Cornwallis. The British General noted in his report, “Unluckily a detachment of the rebel light infantry . . . by accident fell in with about 200 of our friends, under Col. Pyle, on their way to Hillsborough, who, mistaking the rebels for Lt-Col Tarleton’s corps, allowed themselves to be surrounded, and a number of them were most inhumanely butchered, when begging for quarters . . . “
General Greene wrote that, “It has had a very happy effect on those disaffected Persons, of which there are too many in this Country.” Andrew Pickens observed that, “It has knowked up Toryism altogether in this part.” For many Loyalists, it was the last straw. The British army who had come to protect them could not even feed itself. Now a group that had taken the risk of coming forward to join them was deceived and cut down.
Pyle’s defeat is an example of what can happen in this type of civil war in which many troops had similar uniforms (Tarleton’s Legion and Lee’s Legion both wore short green coats) or no uniforms at all (as was the case with both Loyalist and American militia). It was not the first case of mistaken identity in the campaign and would not be the last.
To visit the site of Pyle’s Defeat, take exit #145 (at Burlington, NC) off Interstate-85, which is Route 49. Take 49 South but quickly make a right turn onto Route 1148 (Anthony Road). Follow this for under a mile until the intersection with Old Trail Road on the left. Here there is a monument for the battle, and the old lane that Pyle’s men were riding on is still visible. Artist and author Benson Lossing visited the site in 1849 during his tour of Revolutionary War sites, and sketched the pond where locals told him Pyle had hidden. The mass graves of the Loyalists are also thought to be nearby.