The Battle of Ramsour’s Mill

The German Settlers along the South Fork River and its tributaries generally shied away from politics, but their attention to problems with government was probably around during the Regulator Movement and battle of Alamance County in 1769. The War of the Regulation, was an uprising in British America's Carolina colonies, lasting from about 1765 to 1771, in which citizens took up arms against colonial officials, whom they viewed as corrupt. It is believed that the people of their region were in sympathy with the Regulators.

Certainly these farmers were aware of troubles with the mother country shortly after the first battle of the war in Massachusetts, in April 1775.  On August 14 of that year 49 men came forward to sign the “Tryon Declaration of Rights and Independence from British Tyranny,” better known as the “Tryon Resolves.”  From then on, the war was surely on most folks’ minds, especially those families who had sons or husbands away fighting for one side or the other.  And the fact that there was sympathy for both sides stirred up concern and created violence in communities.

By the spring of 1780, the war for America’s independence, begun five years earlier in Massachusetts, the British decided to move south. Their Southern strategy was based on the assumption that British victories in the south would bring numerous British sympathizers to their side. This strategy apparently worked, as Georgia and then lower South Carolina fell to the British, highlighted by the fall of Charleston on May 12, 1780, and the British victory in the Waxhaw settlement just thirty miles from Charlotte on May 29. Now the British army under the command of Lord Cornwallis was poised to enter North Carolina.

Two native sons from the farms along Indian Creek had been making names from themselves on the British side. Colonel John Moore and Major Nicholas Welch had been away fighting with the British, helping to organize Loyalist militia units. In February 1779, Moore had led a party of Tories from Tryon County to Georgia.

The British army, under the command of Lord Cornwallis, was relying on the local farmers for food and animal feed. Cornwallis thought it best to wait until the grain crops had been harvested before advancing into North Carolina.

But Moore and Welch did not wait. They returned to their home area and issued a call for the supporters of the English King to come to his defense. Around June 10, those responding to the call began assembling one-half mile west of John Moore’s home along Indian Creek in what is now Gaston County.

Their objectives are not clear, but they were aware that the main body of Whigs or Patriots were under the command of General Griffith Rutherford in Mecklenburg County, and a small band under the command of Major Joseph McDowell was operating the Lincoln County area.  It is assumed that Moore intended to attach whatever enemy force he could find.

Within a few days Moore led his troops to Ramsour’s Mill, operated by Jacob Ramsour. By the evening of June 19, some 1300 men had reported and most were camped across a hill on the 300 yards east of the gristmill on land belonging to Christian Reinhardt.

It is known that a sizeable number of these were mere boys and others were surely too old to fight. Information handed down indicates that only about three-fourths of them possessed guns and some of them expected that they would be going home to spend the night and not be around for the battle the next day.

Meanwhile, General Rutherford learned of the Tory gathering on June 14. He immediately issued orders to Colonel Francis Locke of Rowan County, Major David Wilson of Mecklenburg, and to Captains Fall, Knox, Brandon, and other officers to raise men to disperse the Tories.

On Sunday, June 18, Rutherford marched with 800 men from his camp near Charlotte to Tuckaseegee Ford on the Catawba. That evening he sent a messenger to Colonel Locke advising him to meet him the following night at Colonel Joseph Dickson’s plantation about three miles northwest of Tuckaseegee Ford (about two miles west of Mount Holly). On June 19, a rainy morning, Rutherford moved his troops to Dickson’s plantation to await Locke's arrival.

But Locke did not receive Rutherford’s message. Instead, he and his officers debated their strategy and decided that the best course of action was to move immediately against the Tories at Ramsour’s Mill. He dispatched a messenger to Rutherford, requesting that Rutherford meet him at the mill. Then Locke and his men, late in the afternoon, began the sixteen-mile march toward Ramsour’s Mill.

About one-fourth of the men were mounted. It was decided that these men, under Captains Falls, McDowell, and Brandon, should act on horseback and go in front. No other arrangements were made and it was left to the officers to be governed by circumstances after they reached the enemy. Throughout the night they marched. If any Tory sympathizers along the road had been aware of what was going on they failed to get the word to the Tory encampment.

Captain Falls and his men made contact with the enemy as they came upon Tory pickets about 600 yards east of the main body of Tories. In the first moments of battle, Captain Falls was wounded, and died in the arms of his young son.

Shortly thereafter the main body of Whigs approached the battlefield from the south, crossed the branch, and began to advance up the hill, firing as they went through the thick morning fog.

The Tories were surprised and considerably demoralized at first, but seeing so few in the attacking party, rallied and poured such a volley into the Whigs that they retired to the bottom of the hill.

The Tories advanced down the hill to disperse the Whigs before they could reform. But the Whigs recovered, filled in the gaps, extended the line to their right and again advanced up the hill. The Tories retreated to the top of the hill and a little beyond so as to partly protect their bodies from enemy fire.

The Whigs pursued them, but the fire was so deadly and their losses so heavy that they in turn retreated down the hill to the bushes at the edge of the glade.

The Tories again advanced halfway down the ridge. At about this time Captain Hardin arrived behind the fence on the right flank of the Tories and opened fire. Captain Sharpe had extended the line until he turned the left of the enemy, and his company began firing from that direction.

The Tories, hard pressed in the front, fell back to the top of the ridge, and, finding that they were still exposed to Hardin’s fire on the right, as well as to that of Sharpe on the left, broke and fled down the hill and across the creek, many being shot as they ran.

When the Whigs gained the hill they saw quite a force of the enemy over the creek near the mill and supposed the attack would be renewed. Forming line, they could only muster 86, and after earnest exhortations only 110 could be assembled. Two Whig officers were dispatched to hurry General Rutherford forward, however the General, having received Locke’s dispatch of the night before, had only begun to march that morning and was met about 6 ½ miles from the battlefield.  They hastened toward the battlefield.

During the course of the battle the fog had begun to lift, revealing a terrible scene. There stood neighbor against neighbor, and in some instances brother against brother, cutting each other down in mortal combat.

The Tories remained in line across the creek for only a short time. On hearing the shouts from Rutherford’s advance about 11:30, they fell back to the top of the hill between Clark’s Creek and the South Fork River, where they hung out a white sheet and sent an officer and three men to ask conditions of surrender. This was only a ruse, however, as Colonel Moore hurriedly moved off, singly and in groups, with all his men. Earlier the Patriots had removed the planks from the bridge and these had to be replaced before the Patriot cavalry could take up pursuit. By this time the Tories were gone.

By midday, General Rutherford and his Patriot militia had reached the battlefield and dispatched Major Davie and his cavalry to round up enemy stragglers. Work began at aiding the wounded and burying the dead.

The loss on each side was about equal. Fifty-six lay dead on the side of the ridge where the heat of the battle was greatest. Many lay scattered on the flanks and over the ridge towards the mill.  Several more later died from their wounds.  Estimates of the number killed range from 70 to 112. About 100 on each side were wounded, and 50 Tories were taken prisoners.

The loss of the Tories was greater in privates, but less in officers than the Patriots.  Tory losses included Captains Nicholas and Philip Warlick, and Murray and Cumberland.  Captain Peter Carpenter was wounded.  Patriot losses, in addition to Captain Falls, included Captains Knox, Dobson, Smith, Bowman, Sloan, and Armstrong.  Captain Daniel McKissick was wounded.

To distinguish themselves, before battle the Tories stuck pine twigs in their hats and the Patriots attached slips of paper to theirs.These items, particularly the slips of paper, often became targets and an unusually large number of the dead had been shot through the head.

The dead and wounded scattered throughout. There were broken skulls, a few seen with gun-locks sunk into their heads, disabled men moving about seeking help, men with shattered shoulders and broken arms and legs. Others were breathing their last breath. Shortly after the battle many women, children, and old men came hunting for their loved ones. Christian Reinhardt’s dwelling house and all outhouses were crowded with the wounded, dead, and dying. Clothing was scattered all around, the day was hot and the soldiers quickly discarded their hats and coats. Gun stocks and broken locks were strewn about and soldiers were seen moving about with bare gun barrels in their hands, having broken the stocks in hand-to-hand fighting.

The men wore no uniforms, only common dress, and it was not possible to determine to which side many of the slain had belonged. The bodies of 30 or more soldiers who were killed in this action were taken to their homes and buried by friends while 70 bodies remained on the battlefield and were buried the next day in a long trench dug across the hill where the Tories made their last stand.

How could a relatively small band of Patriots defeat twice their number? The element of surprise was important. The unusually heavy fog that morning probably helped. The attacking Patriots had been together longer, and most likely were better trained. The Tory leadership appears to have been weak.

How important was this scrap among North Carolina farmers in the waning years of the American Revolution?  Historians largely ignored it. Local citizens, many embarrassed by the Tory defeat, the majority who came from old Lincoln County homes, tried to forget it.  But, looking back, it is obvious that this one battle effectively ended Tory support for the British cause over a sizeable territory.

Some have called this battle the first and most important “act” in the battle of Kings Mountain, often considered the turning point of the war. The speculation is that if the battle had not been fought, or if the Tories had won, they would have been with the British on Kings Mountain. This leads on to speculation as to the outcome of that battle, and what would have been the final outcome of the war if Kings Mountain had gone the other way.

Whatever the case, Ramsour’s Mill was an important battle in an important war, and by far the most dramatic event in the long history of Lincoln County.

 

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At dawn on Tuesday, June 20, 1780, a heavy fog blanketed Christian Reinhardt’s farm. Led by their cavalry, the Patriots marched to battle, coming close to the encampment before being discovered. The surprise attack caught the Loyalists off guard, but they quickly rallied and opened a destructive fire. In the first charge, Captain Gilbraith Falls was mortally wounded. Fighting became fierce, often hand to hand, but gradually Patriot forces gained the advantage. The Loyalists retreated down the ridge toward the mill, crossing to the west side of the creek where they quickly dispersed into the countryside. In less than two hours, all fighting had ceased.

As the morning fog lifted, the scene revealed many dead and wounded men scattered across the battlefield. An estimated seventy men had been killed and two hundred wounded, some so severely that they died within days. Casualties were nearly equally divided between the two sides, although the Patriot loss in officers was quite high.