Colonel David Fanning and the Piedmont Guerrilla War

Clay stove tiles excavated in 1976 from the Mt. Shepherd Pottery.

Clay stove tiles excavated in 1976 from the Mt. Shepherd Pottery.

Piedmont North Carolina during the Revolution and again during the War Between the States experienced chaos and a complete breakdown of civil order which is hard to imagine from our 21st century perspective.

The situation here in the early 1780s and 1860s can only be compared to the late 20th-century Yugoslavia or Somalia, where government and civil order collapsed in the face of personal, political and religious anarchy.

Taking a political stand then literally meant risking one’s life and property, and being willing to die for making a personal choice. We’re unaware of the enormity of our own history because the passage of time has healed these private and family grievances. In other parts of the world- Ireland, Palestine, India/Pakistan—history never seems to end, and old wounds still fester.

Historical amnesia also occurs without any kind of permanent record—without letters, diaries, memoirs, journalism of some sort- no full account of history is possible. Systematic collection of oral history is a process that only began with the New Deal’s WPA Writer’s Projects, where intellectuals were paid to investigate and record the history of the uneducated and illiterate.

In NC, the closet containing the historical record of the Revolutionary War is not bare, but what we have gives a distorted picture. In an inversion of the aphorism that ‘history is the story written by the winners,’ the Revolutionary history of the Piedmont is primarily known from the extensive written account of one of its biggest losers.

Colonel David Fanning (1754-1825) was born in Johnston County, NC. He ran away from an apprenticeship circa 1772, and ended up in Laurens District, SC, living among the Catawba Indians. After being mistreated (in effect, mugged) by a group of pro-Whig supporters, Fanning became virulently anti-Whig/ pro-Tory. After May, 1780, he became a companion and deputy of South Carolina’s Tory guerrilla leader “Bloody Bill” Cunningham. Fanning moved back to North Carolina just before the battle of Guilford Courthouse, and assembled a body of guerrillas who terrorized the Whigs of central NC from a base near Cox’s Mill on Deep River near Buffalo Ford. With the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown and the withdrawal of the British from Charleston, Fanning fled to Florida, and finally to Canada, where he lived until his death in 1825.

Fanning’s career in the Piedmont had first been examined by Wheeler in his History of North Carolina, published in 1851, and by the Rev. Eli W. Carruthers of Guilford County, who in 1854 published one of the first local history books, The Revolutionary Incidents and Sketches of Character, chiefly in the old North State. But the earliest accounts of Colonel Fanning’s exploits in Randolph County are letters written from General Alexander Gray of Trinity to Dr. Archibald Henderson of the University of North Carolina, dated March 30th, 1847. The existence of Fanning’s own handwritten manuscript memoir (evidently penned before June, 1790, according Fanning’s date in the preface) was unknown to scholars until it was copied by a researcher from the Massachusetts Historical Society. Even that copy was barely known until it came into the hands of prominent early American historian George Bancroft, who allowed North Carolina historian John H. Wheeler to publish it, with annotations by former Governor L.D. Swaim, in 1861. (see Wheeler’s Introduction to Fanning’s Narrative). Since that time it has been republished several times, and has become the standard outline of our knowledge of the Whig-Tory guerrilla war that took place in North Carolina in 1781-82.

One of the most memorable local incidents was the ambush and murder of Andrew Balfour, colonel of the local Whig Militia. Fanning confirms this in detail. Another was his guerrilla raid on northwest Randolph, attacking the courthouse in broad daylight, assassinating several Whig leaders, and burning the homes and barns of numerous Whig families. This was confirmed by local interviews conducted by Dr. Carruthers.

Another significant local event mentioned by Fanning’s Narrative is the escape of Andrew Hunter on Fanning’s stolen mare, Fanning mentions it in his memoir; the earliest printed newspaper accounts of Fanning’s exploits speak of the event, and it is known in a variety of forms dating back to stories collected by Judge Archibald DeBow Murphey.

The Whig and Tory war during the Revolution in North Carolina cries out for additional scholarship. Piecing it together won’t be easy. But every newly-discovered document reveals unknown events and details. Perhaps the most surprising unknown story is the Battle at the Mouth of Sandy Creek, in July 1781. Information about this battle was first discovered by local historian Barbara Newsome Grigg while researching 19th-century pension applications. The three Revolutionary veterans who mention the battle put it on a par with the much-better-known Battle of Lindley’s Mill in Alamance County. Another area of local interest needing further research is the Quaker community and grist mills surrounding Buffalo Ford, from the summer of 1780, when the Continental Army until the command of Baron DeKalb was bivouacked there awaiting its new commander General Gates, to 1781 and 1782, when Fanning made his headquarters there and controlled much of the Piedmont.


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3 Responses to “Colonel David Fanning and the Piedmont Guerrilla War”

  1. Bobbie Smith Says:

    I am trying to figure out the diffrents between the Regulators and the Torys and why was David Fanning trying to hang the first sheriff of Randolph co.?

  2. David Olien Says:

    I am researching Thos. Clark, Lt. Reuben Wood’s commander-can you help give me the cite for the reference in your blog to Wood and Clark participating in the defense of Charleston? Thank you

  3. Rick Buck Says:

    Excellent Work. It’s great learning more about NC, Randolph Co. & Asheboro, having lived there 20+ years.
    I went to the First Baptist Church with your family, I knew your Bro. Jack.
    I’ve ridden in that Mark 7? made out of…like 7 cars, with the multi-color headliner, from your Dad’s Yard.
    I, like you, have done massive research of the subjects at hand, and next time I’m in Asheboro, perhaps if your still @ your office on Fayetteville St. we could meet for a coffee.
    Do you have a PDF vault we can link to, As I can’t find “Fanning Narrative”.
    And any High-Resolution Maps/Image links > in the future, or a “Concise Bibliography of your references” would be helpful to all who enjoy your work, and to help fill gaps in my library.
    Mac, Again EXCELLENT WORK!!!
    I may just travel from just North of Centre,
    back down home to visit soon.

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