Posts Tagged ‘guerrilla war’

BATTLE AT THE MOUTH OF SANDY CREEK

January 19, 2009
The mouth of Sandy Creek where it meets Deep River.

The mouth of Sandy Creek where it meets Deep River.

Though the American army under Baron DeKalb camped for weeks at Buffalo Ford in the summer of 1780 on its way to Camden, and Lord Cornwallis in 1781 spent several days after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse at Bell’s Mill on Deep River, by and large the official history of the Revolutionary War bypassed Randolph County. Far more active and far more destructive was the guerrilla war which took place in the county between neighbors of opposite political persuasions.

Some extensive military operations were mounted at various times after Guilford Courthouse in an attempt to stop the depredations of the British Loyalist troops. Although little documentary evidence exists concerning the details of the battles with the Tories, it appears that one of the major skirmishes took place in July 1781 at the mouth of Sandy Creek, where several roads crossed at a ford across Deep River.

In the 1980s, Randolph County historian Barbara Newsome Grigg discovered the only records of this battle, contained in pension applications in the National Archives. In June 1832 Congress had passed a bill authorizing pensions for any surviving veterans who could provide proof of Revolutionary War service. All over the country aged vets made their way to county courthouses where they could be deposed by local judges and provide the sworn statements required by Congress. None of the three veterans who recount battling the Tories in Randolph County even lived in the county when they made their statements. All were recounting events from more than 50 years before, so details are sketchy.

For the fully transcribed pension applications of each man, see my entries for November 11, 12, and 13th, 2008.

Henry Morgan (born in 1758 in what is now Randolph County) fought with the state militia from 1779 to 1781. James Morgan was born in Maryland in 1760 but soon moved to the area and first volunteered for service in 1781 in Randolph (his relationship to Henry Morgan is not yet clear). Edward Beeson was in 1834 unclear even about his own birthday (estimated to have been in 1756), and thought he entered military service about the year 1778 in Randolph.

Henry Morgan provides the most detail about the area’s primary battle with the Tories, and even names it “the Battle at the Mouth of Sandy Creek.” James Morgan provides only a brief outline of events. Edward Beeson is very shaky on dates and places, but very good about names and people.

Henry Morgan served with the Randolph Light Horse, under the command of Col. John Paisley, Major John Nalls and Lt. William York. James Morgan was in the Randolph militia under General Butler, Col. John Collier, Captain John Hines and Lt. William York. Beeson, who was apparently in a different unit (“a Company of Foot in the Randolph regiment of militia”), was under the command of General Butler, Colonel Thomas Dougan, Major Robert McCanna, Lt. James Woods, Captain David Brower, and Sergeant William Brown. Beeson served the company as “Ensign”.


Their individual accounts of the summer of 1781 are as follows:

In 1781 Henry Morgan was “engaged in dispersing the tories wherever collected; that he was in three battles, one in July 1781 at the mouth of Sandy Creek in which we & Lieutenant William York of our company were wounded and three men David Brewer [Brower], David McMasters & Joel Benje were killed, & in August after or September we had another battle at Linleys mill in which the tories were defeated, Major John Nalls was killed here & four or five others.” [The third battle was apparently later that summer near Wilmington.]

James Morgan “was called out by Colonel Collier and placed under Captain John Hines & Lieutenant William York and marched down to Chatham county after the enemy, and says at this time he was sent out against a party of Tories and had an engagement with them, and was defeated with the loss of three men killed and two wounded among the latter was his Lieutenant William York, and says they took a good many prisoners during the time he was out in this tour. But how long he was out he cannot say precise, but believes it was seven weeks, or more.–“

Edward Beeson says “Their objective was the destruction of the Tories. Next day, after they left Johnstonville, their place of rendezvous, their Captain and three men were killed by the Tories who waylaid them. The Tories were commanded by Major Rainey, and fired on them from a steep hill on the side of Brush [Sandy?] Creek. After Brower was killed, Woods became Captain and this deponent became Lieutenant. They pursued the Tories about forty miles to Fork Creek and there besieged them in a house belonging to one John Needham. In the morning before they got to Needham’s, their Colonel (Dougan) joined them.

“This deponent was ordered with half of his company to attack the back of the house under the concealment of an orchard, while the rest were to attack in front. This deponent’s company were the first who took possession of the same, those in front having feigned a retreat to draw out the Tories, which accordingly succeeded. Twenty-one were killed, seven at the house, and fourteen at the place where they kept the horses, the Tories having fled there, to where they were concealed on the bank of a Deep River, where Colonel Dougan had himself gone with a detachment, to surprise them if they should be driven from the house.

“They then marched down to… the Brown Marsh near Wilmington, where they again had a battle with the Tories on open ground. They there again defeated them, who being reinforced by the British from their shipping at Fort Johnson, returned and defeated us in return.”


Their combined account of events can be assembled as follows:

After the battle of Guilford Courthouse in March, 1781, the local militia forces in Randolph County were engaged in fighting local Tories. In July, while moving from Johnstonville towards Chatham County, the Whig forces were ambushed at or near the mouth of Sandy Creek where it enters Deep River. Tory forces, perhaps under the command of “Major Rainey” (Raines?) “fired on them from at steep hill on the side” of the creek (the western side of Sandy Creek is a bluff fifty to seventy feet above the water level). Three Whigs were killed, and several wounded. In the Morgan’s company, Henry Morgan and his lieutenant William York were wounded; in Beeson’s company, his Captain David Brower was killed. Henry Morgan says that the others killed were David McMasters and Joel Benje.

If Beeson can be trusted, the Battle at the Mouth of Sandy Creek was followed by another battle on Fork Creek within a day or two (he says it occurred 40 miles away, which would have taken at least a whole day to ride on horseback) which killed 21 Tories and captured a number of prisoners.

This piecemeal account, while historically threadbare, can actually be confirmed by Rev. Eli W. Caruthers, our primary source for Piedmont North Carolina’s Revolutionary War history. More on that later.

Colonel David Fanning and the Piedmont Guerrilla War

January 13, 2009
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.