A Humble Crossing
The Shallow Ford, located some 15 miles west of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is,a shallow section of the Yadkin River which, in colonial times, afforded a safe place for travelers to cross. The ford is formed by a sand and gravel bar. Upstream from the ford, a stretch of hard rock crosses the river and below the stretch of rock the gradient decreases, reducing the strength of the current and depositing sediment creating the bar that forms the crossing. It provided a natural game crossing and fish trap, which was used by the Indians. By 1748, six families had settled near the ford. Within two years a ferry and tavern operated there. Soon Moravians settled nearby and cut the first road to the ford and over the years several others were cut, making it a transportation hub of sorts. By the time of the American Revolution, the Shallow Ford was a focal point for travelers. While the Yadkin River could be crossed at other fords and ferries, heavier wagons could cross at only two places: the Trading Ford, near Salisbury (Rowan county), and the Shallow Ford (Surry county). Several roads converged on both sides of the river.That humble crossing would be the instrument of a little heeded but important event in shaping the outcome of the war.
A Southern Strategy
The year 1780 was to be the comeback year for the British in North America with their pivot to a "southern strategy." And a grand and effective strategy it first proved to be. By the fall of 1780, the British commander in the south, General Charles Cornwallis, moved north into North Carolina after subduing most of Georgia and South Carolina. The final phase of the grand strategy of subduing all of the south before moving north into Virginia. He had set up his headquarters in Charlotte where bands of Loyalists rallied to the crown.
|Loyalist Militia gathered with the arrival of Cornwallis|
The absence of local patriot militia groups who had gone to King's Mountain left a vacuum for Loyalists to rise up and wreak havoc in their prospective counties. In Surry County, local Loyalist brothers Gideon and Hezekiah Wright rallied hundreds of Tories who began exacting revenge on the properties of absent patriots and killing those who opposed them. On October 3rd and 8th, they attacked patriots in Richmond, the county seat, where they killed the county sheriff.
|Western NC and Surrey Co in 1780|
When news spread of the Loyalist uprising, patriots from nearby areas began to mobilize to stop them. The news of the surprise defeat of the renowned Major Patrick Ferguson at King's Mountain helped electrify the patriots, who had been subdued by Cornwallis's maneuver north. Now things were changing. Patriot militia General William Lee Davidson now believed that the local Tories intended to join Lord Cornwallis' forces in Charlotte. He sent fifty men from Charlotte, along with two companies of patriot militia from Salisbury. They were joined by 160 men from Montgomery County, Virginia, under Major Joseph Cloyd. (who had come to the Carolinas to fight the now dead Ferguson). All of the converging patriots came under the leadership of Cloyd.
A Place of Battle
|Competing militias would clash in a small but pivotal battle|
along the Yadkin River at Shallow Ford
All this activity came to head on 14 October when a band of 600 Loyalists under Colonel Gideon Wright crossed the Yadkin River on their way to join General Cornwallis in Charlotte. On Saturday morning, 14 October, Cloyd's force of 350 men waited on the west side of a small stream near the Shallow Ford crossing of the Yadkin River. About 9:30 they spotted the Loyalist force that terrorized the county for the past weeks. The force numbering between 400 and 900 crossed the Yadkin and were moving westward on the Mulberry Fields Road. A cry of "Tory! Tory!" went out among the patriots. From across the creek they heard similar cries of "Rebel! Rebel!"
|NC patriot militia|
The patriots deployed and battle lines soon formed. Volleys were exchanged. One Captain James Bryan, of the notorious Tory Bryan clan, who led the advance element of Loyalist forces, was quickly killed. Five rifle balls passed through him and his horse. The patriots advanced towards the ford as the Loyalists fell back and formed again. Captain Henry Francis of the Virginia militia was shot through the head and fell dead on the ground a few steps from his son, Henry. His other son, John, took careful aim and fired at the Loyalist who had killed his father. Though outnumbered, the patriots soon had the advantage and several more Loyalists fell. After another quick exchange of fire, the Loyalists retreated in disorder across the Yadkin, shouting "we are whipped, we are whipped." Enraged patriots beat the wounded Loyalists to death after their comrades had fled. A black Loyalist named Ball Turner continued to fire at the patriots. An angry party of patriots found his location and riddled him with musket balls. The Loyalists soon made good their escape. Captain Henry Francis of the Whigs lost his life, and four others were wounded. The Loyalists lost some fifteen killed. The engagement took less than an hour.
|Shallow Ford Battle Marker|
As the engagement ended, a relief party of three hundred militia under Colonel John Peasley arrived, along with Colonel Joseph Williams of Surrey county. Williams had heard the musket fire from his nearby home. The next day, Major General William Smallwood arrived at Salem with about 150 horsemen, thirty infantry, and three wagons. Smallwood, a Marylander, had been put in command of all North Carolina militia. As a colonel in 1776, Smallwood had commanded the famed Maryland Line on Long Island and is featured in my novel of that campaign, The Patriot Spy. Smallwood had left Guilford Courthouse the previous day. Seeing the local force had defeated the Loyalists, he launched his men in pursuit of those who had fled. As a result of Shallow Ford, the Wright brothers' Loyalist forces in Surry County were essentially nullified for the duration of the war. Hezekiah Wright himself was later shot and wounded in his own home. His brother Gideon fled to the safety of Charlestown, where he died on August 9, 1782.
|General William Smallwood|
The results of the double defeats at King's Mountain and Shallow Ford were a major blow to Cornwallis: patriot morale increased dramatically along with their numbers, while demoralized North Carolina Loyalists were never able to gather such a force again. Cornwallis had to withdraw into South Carolina for the winter. His grand strategy was set back by a year, with even graver implications for any hope of a British victory.
Fittingly, the Shallow Ford played a minor role the following year when on 7 & 8 February Cornwallis's army crossed it in the legendary pursuit of General Nathanael Greene in the maneuvers that led to the Battle of Guilford Court House on 15 March, 1781.