Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Places: Ramsour's Mill


One of the least known but nevertheless critical venues of the American Revolution was a small mill in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. A small mill in the back country, Ramsour's Mill played its first roll in the struggle for America in the summer of 1780. With the fall of Charleston, South Carolina in May of 1780, General Charles Cornwallis was well on his way to securing the south. Georgia and South Carolina were under control, enabling the dynamic British general to turn to North Carolina with his army of more than 8,000. The southern strategy seemed to be succeeding.

Lord Charles Cornwallis

Loyalists Gather

While Cornwallis rested his army in Charleston to prepare for his next venture, two Loyalist leaders decided to act on their own. The war for independence was after all, a civil war and those are necessarily fought at the local level by the locals. Thus Loyalists Lt. Colonel John Moore and Major Nicholas Welch decided to fulfill their own ambitions by launching the first British attack on the North Carolina colony - their home territory.  By June 13, 1780, they had successfully organized a band of Loyal recruits at Jacob Ramsour’s Mill, near Clark’s Creek in Lincoln County, NC.

Patriot Response

However, General Griffith Rutherford, the canny and determined leader of the patriot forces in western North Carolina, had learned of the Loyalists gathering in Lincoln County. He immediately contacted patriot leaders Colonel Francis Locke and Major Robert Wilson, ordering them to gather the militia with the intent of stopping the assembly of Loyalists.  To that end, 400 militia from  Burke, Iredell, Mecklenburg, and Rowan Counties gathered at Mountain Creek on 19 June. The recent British victory at Waxhaws buoyed Tory sentiment, enabling Moore and Welch to gather some 1300 Loyalists - more than three times the number of local patriots. Realizing the Loyalists would only grow in numbers,  Rutherford decided on a surprise attack on the Loyalist camp. A battle that would feature neighbor against neighbor was about to start.

Patriot mounted militia led the attack

Battle or Fratricide?

In the early hours of June 20, Locke a militia band to Ramsour’s Mill,  in order to meet Adam Reep, a local patriot spy who had intelligence on Loyalist troop location and strength. With the sun rising on Ramsour’s Mill, the the rebel militia quietly moved through the early morning fog. The patriot cavalry struck quickly in the hope of surprising the Loyalists. The Loyalists defenses repulsed them but then the rebel infantry moved up. The Tories were confused at first but then Moore and Welch rallied them to repel the patriot attack. At first the defenders held back the attackers, but eventually rebel marksmen worked their way in close and then the parties clashed hand to hand. Many on both sides were poorly armed. Confusion reigned, as this was a battle without uniforms. The Loyalists wore green pine twigs in their hats, while the patriots wore white paper on their hats. The fighting was vicious - neighbor against neighbor and even brother against brother. The fighting was personal as well as political - each side holding the other as traitor. And it went on for nearly two hours - a long time for such engagements. The Loyalists eventually began to fall into confusion, and many fled. When Colonel Rutherford arrived at the scene, the Loyalists requested a truce. But demanded an immediate surrender. As they parlayed, the remaining Loyalists fled, and only about 50 fell prisoner.

The fighting was intense - and personal for many

The Result

The action at Ramsour's Mill took seventy lives and wounded left two hundred.  Most of the fallen , patriots and Loyalists, were buried in a mass grave. The defeat so badly demoralized the Loyalists in that part of North Carolina they never organized again in that area. As for the head strong Colonel Moore, he and around 30 of his men were able to reach General Cornwallis, now at Camden.  But Cornwallis, incensed by the impetuous action of Moore, as well as the defeat, threatened him with charges for disobeying his orders.


Ramsour’s Mill deprived Cornwallis of Loyalist recruits when he finally invaded western North Carolina. More importantly, patriot morale received a tremendous boost from the unlikely victory. And the Loyalists morale was such that they never could properly recruit from that area again.This indirectly led to the chain of events that culminated in the later patriot victory at King’s Mountain later that year. In a curious and ironic post script, Ramsour's Mill played another role in the struggle for the south, and Lord Cornwallis's ambitions. It was at Ramsour's Mill in January 1781 that Cornwallis paused his advance north to burn his wagons and excess baggage before resuming his futile pursuit of American General Nathanael Greene to the Dan River. This campaign exhausted Cornwallis's forces and he eventually fell back under heavy pressure from ambushes and skirmishes initiated by the rebels who now smelled blood. Cornwallis finally got to face Greene's resurgent army at a place called Guilford Court House - a "victory" that proved costly and heralded the beginning of the end for the southern strategy.

Ramsour's Mill played a role in fateful race to the Dan of 1781

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