On February 25, 1781, the Continental cavalry of Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s Legion and Brigadier Andrew Pickens’s militia encountered several hundred loyalists commanded by Colonel John Pyle at Holt’s Race Paths in North Carolina. Pretending that he was British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, and his Continentals the similarly clad troops of Tarleton’s British Legion, Lee moved his men alongside Pyle’s column. When the two forces were opposite one another, the Americans attacked Pyle’s loyalists without warning and slaughtered them. While the general outlines of this event, usually termed “Pyle’s Massacre,” are well known, the pension applications of American participants provide new information regarding Pyle’s operations prior to the destruction of his unit, details of the actual assault on the loyalists, and indications that Pyle’s Massacre was not the result of accident, as Lee and others claimed, but instead may have been deliberately ordered by Lee.
Major General Nathanael Greene’s Continental Army had just concluded its successful retreat across North Carolina, eluding the pursuing British army under Lieutenant General Charles, Earl Cornwallis, by crossing the Dan River into Virginia on February 14. While Greene’s troops rested from their exertions, their commander pondered taking the offensive. Greene wanted to keep pressure on Cornwallis in order to deny the British soldiers the opportunity to recuperate from their exhausting march and inhibit the recruitment of North Carolina’s numerous loyalists. To strengthen his army for the task ahead, Greene wrote to militia officers across Virginia and the Carolinas, state governors, and Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who led Continental forces in Virginia, to request reinforcements.
Henry Lee was eager to return to action. Only two days after the army had crossed the Dan River, Lee wrote to Greene proposing that he return to North Carolina that evening, February 16, and harass the British. Greene agreed and on the eighteenth he ordered the Legion, with two companies of Captain Andrew Oldham’s Maryland Continentals, to cross the Dan and unite with a force of seven hundred militia under Pickens that had trailed Cornwallis through North Carolina. Lee’s mission was to “rouse the drooping spirits” of the North Carolinians and “check the audacity” of the British and loyalists.
After breaking off his pursuit of Greene, Cornwallis fell back to Hillsborough, where on February 20 he “published a proclamation, inviting all loyal subjects to repair to the King’s standard, and to take an active part in assisting him to restore order and constitutional government.” Hundreds of loyalists came to Cornwallis’s camp, but few enlisted. Tarleton attributed this reluctance to their fear that Greene’s army would soon return, “and the dread of violence and persecution” at the hands of the Americans “prevented their taking a decided part in a cause which yet appeared dangerous.” Tarleton noted that the British had never made a serious attempt to assist the loyalists in North Carolina, who over the previous five years had suffered “a variety of calamities which … had not only reduced their numbers and weakened their attachment, but had confirmed the power and superiority of the adverse party.”
A few loyalists did accept commissions from Cornwallis and Josiah Martin, the former royal governor of North Carolina, who was with the British army. They returned to their homes to recruit, but another loyalist officer had already achieved considerable success. Fifty-seven-year-old Doctor John Pyle of Chatham County had been appointed a colonel in North Carolina’s royal militia by Governor Martin in 1775. Pyle had taken part in the loyalist uprising in early 1776 and was captured after the loyalists’ defeat at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge on February 27. Imprisoned in Virginia, Pyle escaped and made his way home, where he was allowed to remain after taking an oath of allegiance to the state government. Now, with Cornwallis apparently in control of North Carolina, Pyle saw an opportunity to take up arms once again in support of the king. He notified Cornwallis of his plan, and the British general promised to send troops to protect the loyalists while they assembled.
Recruiting in the region between the Haw and Deep rivers, Pyle quickly organized a strong force of mounted militia. The exact number of loyalists enlisted by Pyle remains unknown. Tarleton estimated their strength at 200, while Lee stated in a report to Greene that Pyle had 350 men. In his memoirs, Lee gave a higher figure of 400. Pickens told Greene that Pyle’s force consisted of 200 to 300 men. Joseph Graham, a North Carolina militia captain whose troops were with Lee’s Legion, calculated Pyle’s strength at more than 300. Several eyewitnesses to the subsequent massacre of the loyalists gave estimates of 300 to 500. Most historians accept a figure in this range; John Buchanan uses 400 in his account of Pyle’s Massacre; John S. Pancake states that the loyalists numbered 300 to 400, and Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard put Pyle’s force at “nearly 400.” Even a low estimate of 250 to 300 would have augmented the strength of the British army by more than ten and as much as fifteen percent.
On February 23, Cornwallis detached Tarleton with 200 cavalry, 150 British infantrymen, and 100 Hessian jaegers to form a junction with Pyle’s force. Cornwallis had instructed Pyle to march to Hillsborough, or to find Tarleton and unite with him. It appears that no rendezvous point had been agreed upon, leaving Pyle and Tarleton to search for one another as the loyalist party marched toward Hillsborough. Tarleton crossed the Haw River on February 24 and “dispersed a party of American militia, who had united to counteract the intentions of the loyalists.” From prisoners Tarleton learned that Continental troops were expected to arrive in the vicinity soon. He therefore dispatched a messenger to find Pyle and urge him to hasten his march. Later in the day, Tarleton received more specific intelligence confirming that Lee’s Legion had also crossed the Haw River to link up with Colonel William Preston’s corps of Virginia militia. Lee’s movement, according to the information Tarleton received, was “for the purpose of intimidating or dispersing the King’s friends.” Tarleton sent a second message to Pyle ordering him to hurry. If Tarleton could unite with Pyle quickly, the British Legion commander planned “to proceed against either Lee or Preston before they united,” and he sent spies to monitor the movements of both of the American units.
Pyle’s men had been marching toward Tarleton, overcoming scattered opposition from North Carolina militia units and capturing other militiamen who had completed their terms of service and were returning to their homes. Captain Joseph Hackney and “the whole of his company” were captured by Pyle’s loyalists on February 19 and sent under guard to Hillsborough, where they were imprisoned. Several days afterward, a group of militiamen including Philip Higdon, a Colonel Knowles, and a Lieutenant Hackney “were taken prisoners by the Tories commanded by a Doc’t. Pyles” and forced to accompany the loyalists. Militiamen Thomas Barnett and Solomon Geren were also captured, and Pyle evaded another North Carolina militia unit that had been ordered to halt what Daniel Smith described as “great outrage … killing burning & plundering” by Pyle’s men. Lee mistakenly attributed the destruction to Tarleton’s detachment.
While Pyle skirmished and maneuvered, Lee’s Legion crossed the Dan River on February 19 and camped that night “within twenty five miles of Hillsborough.” Lee ran into difficulty finding Pickens, but he achieved some success in raising the North Carolina militia. On February 21, Lee informed Greene that the militia was assembling, and that he expected Pickens to arrive soon. That belief was optimistic, as Pickens and Lee did not unite until the morning of February 23. The first meeting between the two forces almost turned disastrous when Pickens’s men mistook Lee’s Legion for Tarleton’s British Legion. Lee’s soldiers, like those of Tarleton’s Legion, wore green uniform coats as a sign of their elite status. Although the coats were not identical, they were similar enough to confuse some of Pickens’s men who nearly opened fire on Lee’s Legion before they realized their error. Lee was relieved to have found Pickens; however, he expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of support from the populace. He told Greene that he was “much mortified with the timidity & treachery of the people.” Instead of turning out to fight on the American side, “they swarm to the town, take the oath of allegiance to the King of G. Britain, & I verily beleive, would have mustered yesterday had not our troops visited their country.”
Pickens experienced problems of his own with the militia. His force consisted of Georgians, South Carolinians, North Carolinians who had joined him on his march through that state, and Catawba Indians. On February 19, Pickens had described to Greene “the difficulty in turning the Men out they seem to be much averse to the march so far to the Northward.” The next day, Pickens complained that the militia from the Salisbury district of North Carolina was in a “bad state,” with the men “continually deserting and no persuasion can prevail with them.”
After Lee’s junction with Pickens, the combined force set out to find and harass the enemy. Reconnaissance parties roved ahead of the main body of American troops, who made their way through fields and forests to avoid detection. Their route paralleled the road running from Hillsborough to the Haw River crossing, and progress was slow. The scouts returned to camp on the night of February 24 to report that they had seen no one moving on the road. They brought with them “a well-grown boy,” nineteen-year-old Samuel Findley, who lived along Alamance Creek with his widowed mother. Upon learning that Lee was “much in want of a person to pilot him through that section of country,” Findley, who was “well acquainted” with the area, obtained his mother’s permission to accompany the Legion.
The Americans resumed their march on the morning of February 25, heading toward Hillsborough. At about noon, militia Colonel William Moore met them and reported that a British detachment was in the area and believed to be heading toward the plantation of American militia general John Butler. Moore’s account led Lee to believe that the British force was “a foraging party.” Guided by Findley, the Americans changed direction, picked up the trail of the enemy on the Salisbury Road, and pursued the British, hoping to catch them at Butler’s. As they pressed forward, Lee and Pickens received new and disturbing information. Their quarry was not a foraging party, but a large force under Tarleton that had already crossed the Haw River and expected “to be joined during the night by large bodys of enlisted Carolinians.” Seeing an opportunity to “prevent by a timely stroke this junction,” the American commanders resumed their pursuit, crossing the Haw with “the utmost dispatch.” Lee sent a messenger to the Legion infantry, which was some distance behind, informing them of his movements so that they would be ready “to secure our retreat in case of disaster.”
The Americans marched to Holt’s Plantation, where Lee learned that Tarleton was only four miles away at O’Neal’s Plantation. Lee and Pickens pushed forward in an effort to catch Tarleton’s force, “it being our wish,” Lee wrote, “to decid[e] the contest that evening.” Pickens observed that “never was there a more glorious opportunity of cutting off a detachment than this.” As the Legion cavalry and mounted militia rode through the countryside, Pickens found that most of the inhabitants of the area were loyalists. “So very little was the expectation of an American party, the Inhabitants seemed prodigiously rejoiced, imagining we were a fresh party of British. We found them chiefly in arms and prepared to join Tarlton that evening,” he wrote.
In his memoirs, written more than thirty years afterward, Lee claimed that his cavalry captured two British Legion officers in a farmhouse along their route. However, neither Lee nor Pickens mentioned this in their original reports, nor did Captain Joseph Graham in his later account. Lee’s memory was probably in error on this point, but it is clear that around this time Lee decided “to pass as a re-enforcement sent from Hillsborough to Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton.” The troops marched with an officer and several Legion dragoons riding several hundred yards ahead. Given the loyalist sentiments of the area’s residents, Lee’s deception would help to prevent anyone from warning Tarleton of the Americans’ approach. “This stratagem could not fail of imposing on the country people,” Lee observed, “inasmuch as both cavalry and infantry were dressed in short, green coats, with other distinctions exactly resembling some of the enemy’s light corps.” A South Carolina militiaman later noted that Lee had taken measures to deceive any loyalists that his troops encountered. “Col. Lee’s men were prepared with red (or Tory) plumes or feathers which they stuck in their caps,” Manuel McConnell recalled. “We imitated them [loyalists] as much as possible.”
After continuing down the road for about three miles to the vicinity of Holt’s Race Paths, the American vanguard met “two well-mounted young countrymen.” The Legion officer questioned them, and assuming that he and the troops behind him were Tarleton’s, they replied that they were loyalists and had been sent ahead by Colonel Pyle to locate Tarleton’s camp. Pyle and his men “had not complied with the orders they received” from Tarleton on the previous day. Instead, Tarleton stated, “being all equally ignorant of the customs of war,” Pyle’s loyalists had not hastened their march as instructed. “Though forewarned of their danger,” the men “thought fit to pay visits to their kindred and acquaintances before they repaired to the British camp: Inspired by whiskey and the novelty of their situation, they unfortunately prolonged their excursions,” and as a result encountered Lee when at last they set out to meet Tarleton.
The officer who met the two loyalists sent a dragoon to Lee with a report of what they had said, and then sent Pyle’s officers, escorted by two cavalrymen, to the Legion commander. Before they arrived, Lee sent a message to Pickens ordering him to conceal his militia on the column’s left. This, Lee wrote, “was readily to be done, as we were then in a thick wood.” The messenger also told Pickens that Lee had “determined, in conformity with the concerted plan, to make an attempt with the Legion, of turning the occurrence to advantage.”
Lee greeted the loyalists with “cordiality,” and “listened with seeming satisfaction” as they told him of “the laudable spirit which had actuated Colonel Pyle and his associates, and which they asserted was rapidly spreading through the country. Finding them completely deceived (for they … believed the troops they saw to be … Tarleton’s, addressing [Lee] as that officer). Lee sent one of them back with two dragoons to his van, thence to proceed to Colonel Pyle with Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton’s gratulations, and his request that [Pyle] would be so good as to draw out on the margin of the road, so as to give convenient room for his much fatigued troops to pass without delay to their night position.” The second loyalist remained with Lee, who sent an order to the officer commanding the advance guard “to halt as soon as he got in sight of the loyalists.”
Lee’s officer did as instructed, and Lee soon joined him with the remainder of the Legion cavalry. Pyle’s troops, in accordance with Lee’s directions, had halted and moved to the right of the road. Pyle was at the rear of his men, who were armed with “rifles and fowling pieces,” the weapons slung over their shoulders. Lee led his column alongside the loyalists, and as the American troops passed Pyle’s men “uttered salutations of a friendly kind, believing us to be British.” Soon the two forces were arrayed side-by-side in the road, with the Legion cavalry “in the most eligible situation for any vicissitude,” Lee wrote.
The events that followed, and Lee’s intentions, have never been adequately explained. In his letter to Greene written on the night of the massacre, Lee stated that he moved past Pyle in the guise of British troops “that no time might be lost in reaching Col Tarleton,” thereby implying that he had no intention of engaging in combat with the loyalists. Three decades later, in his memoirs, Lee told a different story, asserting that when he reached Pyle, he intended to “make known to the colonel his real character … with a solemn assurance of his and his associates perfect exemption from injury and with the choice of returning to their homes” or joining the Americans. Lee claimed that he actually reached and greeted Pyle, and “was in the act of consummating his plan” when fighting broke out.
According to Lee’s initial account, the combat began when “the enemy discovered their mistake on the near approach of our militia & commenced action.” Lee gave essentially the same story in his memoirs, writing that “the enemy’s left, discovering Pickens’s militia, not sufficiently concealed, began to fire upon the rear of the cavalry commanded by Captain [Joseph] Eggleston. This officer instantly turned upon the foe, as did immediately after the whole column.” Pickens, however, indicated in his report to Greene that the Americans began the fighting. Pyle’s men mistook the Americans for Tarleton’s troops, Pickens wrote, and “Our men were in some measure under the same mistake, but soon found out” and attacked the loyalists.
Other participants also indicated that the conflict resulted when either Pyle’s loyalists or the Americans unexpectedly discovered the other side’s true identity. Captain Joseph Graham, riding behind the Legion cavalry at the head of seventy North Carolina mounted militiamen armed with swords, stated that at first he believed Pyle’s men to be some of Captain Joseph Dixon’s American militia who had been on Graham’s right earlier. But when he noticed that “these men had on cleaner clothes than Dickson’s party, and that each man had a strip of red cloth on his hat,” Graham turned to Captain Eggleston of the Legion, who was riding next to him and said: “That is a company of Tories; what is the reason they have their arms?” Eggleston then turned to a man he took to be one of Pyle’s officers and asked: “To whom do you belong?” The loyalist replied that he was “a friend of His Majesty,” and Eggleston “struck him over the head.” Graham wrote that “the militia … on this example being set, rushed on the Tories like lightning and cut away.” Graham gave a slightly different version of events in his pension application, indicating that the militia and not Eggleston had begun the attack. “None of Lee’s men knew their [Pyle’s loyalists’] character but Lee himself, his men having so recently come to the south did not know the distinguishing mark of the Tories, but when the [American] militia came near and discovered the red strip of Cloth each man had in his hat, [the American militia] made the first attack on them,” Graham declared.
In the only known account from someone who was with Pyle’s force at the time of the attack, American prisoner Philip Higdon stated that while he and the other captives were “marching with the Tories they were overtaken by Col Lee & a battle immediately commenced.” Lee’s guide, Samuel Findley, said that the Americans “surprised” Pyle’s men “in a lane.” North Carolinian William Lenoir recalled the onset of the action similarly, asserting that the Americans “fell in with a body of Tories … with whom they immediately engaged.” These recollections can be construed to support the view that the incident began by chance, but they could also be interpreted as evidence that reinforces the belief of some American participants that the attack on Pyle was planned.
Thomas Boyd of the North Carolina militia declared that after Pyle “mustered his men on the side of the road in order to receive the supposed Colonel Tarleton,” the American commanders “moved up with their mounted men (leaving the infantry some little distance behind in order for battle).” Upon reaching “the upper end of Colonel Pyles line,” Boyd stated, the American horsemen wheeled and “facing to Pyles line, amidst shouts of long live King George from both parties, our troops drawing their swords attacked the Tories and cut them down.” Moses Hall also described what appears to have been a premeditated attack on Pyle’s loyalists: “Colonel Lee knew what he was about and so did Major [Joseph] Dixon. But … my Captain Hall, perceiving they were Tories and thinking that Colonel Lee did not know it … called to Colonel Lee across the Tories’ line and told him, ‘Colonel Lee, they are every blood of them Tories!’ Colonel Lee gave him a sign to proceed on with the execution of the command, which was to march on until a different command was given. In a few minutes or less time, and at the instant that they, the Tories, were completely covered by our lines upon both flanks … the bugle sounded to attack, and the slaughter began.” Samuel Eakin gave a shorter but similar account, asserting that the loyalists “were killed on orders being to give them Blueford’s play.” The terms “Buford’s Play” and “Tarleton’s Quarter” were commonly used by American troops after May 1780 and meant to kill all enemy soldiers, taking no prisoners. Such acts were considered legitimate retaliation for Tarleton’s alleged massacre of American soldiers at the Battle of the Waxhaws on May 29, 1780. Although actual evidence of the atrocities attributed to Tarleton is virtually nonexistent, at the time most Americans believed the massacre story to be true, and those who did not nevertheless encouraged that belief in order to stiffen resistance to the British.
Whether the attack upon Pyle’s force resulted from the Americans’ sudden realization that the men arrayed along the road next to them were loyalists, or occurred because Lee ordered it, there is no disputing the fierceness of the assault. Still convinced that Lee’s troops were British, Pyle’s men “made no preparation to resist.” Some of the stunned loyalists cried out “that they were friends of King George,” while others shouted “God save the King,” “You are killing your own men,” and similar declarations of their allegiance as Lee’s dragoons and the mounted militia hacked at them with sabers. The assault was so fierce that Graham recorded that some of the militiamen’s “swords broke, others bent.” Between twelve and fifteen of Pyle’s men, realizing that “their professions of loyalty were to no avail,” managed to unsling their rifles and fired wildly. The fusillade caused some of Lee’s troopers to hesitate, but when they realized that the loyalists’ “guns were empty,” the American dragoons charged and “cut [them] down in a group together.” Thomas Miles of the North Carolina militia claimed that Captain Dudley Reynolds killed Pyle, and in doing so saved the life of Colonel William Moore. Pyle, although believed to have been killed, survived his wounds and managed to escape.
The encounter lasted no more than ten minutes. Samuel Eakin described it as “a total rout and slaughter.” Another North Carolina militiaman related how he and other American troops, “drawing their swords attacked the Tories and cut them down … a great slaughter was made.” Matthew Vandiver stated that the loyalists were “cut to pieces,” an assertion that William Lenoir verified was “literally” true. “I never before witnessed the works of death carried to such an extent in so short a time,” Thomas Lofton of North Carolina declared, “Pyles with his Tories being all either killed or wounded.” Captain Graham added that “some Catawba Indians … who did not overtake us until the close of the action …. were suffered to kill seven or eight wounded men with spears before they were made to desist.”
Only one of the soldiers with Lee was injured in the action, although the American prisoners with Pyle did not fare so well. When the handful of Pyle’s men fired their rifles, one shot struck the horse of William Moore, a North Carolinian. The horse fell and the impact as its body struck the ground dislocated and fractured Moore’s right knee. He was unable to extricate himself, but as soon as the fighting ended, two of his comrades rolled the horse’s body and freed Moore. The injury was severe enough to end Moore’s military service, yet he was fortunate compared to several other Americans. “The slaughter was indiscriminate,” said Philip Higdon, one of the captured militiamen with Pyle. “Several of the prisoners were killed among the number was the unfortunate Col Knowls.” Solomon Geren “was retaken from the Tories” and sent home soon afterward “in consequence of a wound he had received” from his liberators. Like Higdon and a few other prisoners, Thomas Barnett was more fortunate, and recorded that he was “Rescued by Lee’s troop of Horse,” apparently escaping the incident without injury.
Many of the surviving loyalists fled, and the Americans did not pursue them. In his report to Greene, Lee stated that after the encounter “the night came on & we necessarily deferred farther operation.” Pickens said the same when he wrote to Greene a day later. In fact, the Americans were in no condition to undertake a pursuit. Graham described the chaos that followed the massacre: “At the close of the action, the troops were scattered, mixed, and completely disorganized.” Pickens and Lee “gave repeated orders to form, but the confusion was such that their orders were without effect. These officers appeared sensible of the delicate situation that they were in. If Tarleton, who was only two or three miles off, with nearly an equal force, had come upon them at this juncture, the result must have been disastrous. Lee’s men, though under excellent discipline, could with difficulty be gotten in order. The commandants exhibited great perturbation,” Graham noted, “until at length Lee ordered Major [John] Rudolph to lead off, and his dragoons to fall in behind them.
As the American column began to leave the field, Lee remained at the scene and dispatched a sergeant to find a prisoner who could act as a guide. The sergeant returned with a man named Holt, “who had received a slight wound on the head, and who was bleeding freely.” Upon delivering the prisoner, “the sergeant apologized to [Lee] because he could find none who were not wounded” among the captives. Lee questioned Holt about the terrain and roads. When Lee finished his interrogation, Holt, still believing that his attackers were British troops, told Lee: “God bless your soul, Mr. Tarleton, you have this day killed a parcel of as good subjects as ever His Majesty had.” Graham, who was nearby, heard Lee’s angry response. “You d——d rascal, if you call me Tarleton, I will take off your head,” Lee shouted. Graham saw that Holt “appeared thunderstruck.”
Pyle’s casualties have never been precisely determined. Lee told Greene that “the greatest part of them were left on the field dead and wounded.” He provided more detail in his memoirs, writing that “the conflict was … bloody on one side only. Ninety of the royalists were killed, and most of the survivors wounded.” Pickens gave a similar estimate, stating that “nigh one hundred were killed and the greatest part of the others wounded.” Graham wrote that when the Americans left the field after the slaughter ceased, “it appeared as though three hundred might be lying dead.” On the day after the battle, the American militia returned to the site and “counted ninety-three dead, and there was the appearance of many more having been carried off by their friends. There were certainly many more wounded.” Graham suggested that some of the injured loyalists may have pretended to be dead “for security.”
Some American participants believed that Pyle’s casualties were much higher. Samuel Eakin thought that four hundred loyalists were killed. Pyle and everyone with him were “all either killed or wounded,” according to Thomas Lofton. “The greater part of [Pyle’s] men (265 it was said) was killed,” William Falls recalled later. Another North Carolina militiaman, David Cockerham, asserted that the Americans “killed and crippled about three hundred” loyalists and “took about thirty prisoners.” William Gaulden thought that the total number killed and captured was 150. Jonathan Harris declared that Lee’s troops “took a number of those who escaped death during the engagement prisoners,” while William Rutledge insisted that the Americans killed “nearly all that were in the action & took no prisoners.”
Several of Pyle’s men were certainly captured, because John Efland of the North Carolina militia reported that he was one of those later assigned to guard “the prisoners made by Col. Lee in the battle … with the Tories under Pyle.” Not all of the captives survived, however. Moses Hall stated that “a considerable number” of Pyle’s men were taken prisoner, and that “the evening after our battle with the Tories,” some of his fellow militiamen invited him to view the captives. Hall described what happened next: “We went to where six were standing together. Some discussion taking place, I heard some of our men cry out, ‘Remember Buford,’ and the prisoners were immediately hewed to pieces with broadswords. At first I bore the scene without any emotion, but upon a moment’s reflection, I felt such horror as I never did before nor have since, and returning to my quarters [was] overcome and unmanned by a distressing gloom.”
Most historians have accepted Lee’s figure of about ninety loyalists killed, although that number would actually have included Colonel Knowles and other Americans captured by Pyle and killed in the melee. Carole Watterson Troxler argues that the evidence points to a higher death toll, about two hundred. She also tentatively identified sixty survivors, many of whom may have been wounded as their names appeared on British hospital lists after the massacre. Tarleton did not estimate loyalist casualties, writing only that “several wounded loyalists entered the British camp.” Surprisingly, these survivors still believed that they had been attacked by the British; they “complained to Tarleton of the cruelty of his dragoons.” After learning the details of Lee’s attack on Pyle, Tarleton denounced the “inhuman barbarity” of the Americans. Cornwallis described the event in similar terms, writing that Pyle’s men “were most inhumanly butchered, when begging for quarter, without making the least resistance.”
Historian John Buchanan notes that Lee became “sensitive” to such accusations. In his memoirs, Lee tried to justify his actions, explaining that “during this sudden rencounter, in some parts of the line the cry of mercy was heard, coupled with assurance of being our best friends; but no expostulation could be admitted in a conjuncture so critical. Humanity even forbade it, as its first injunction is to take care of your own safety, and our safety was not compatible with that of the supplicants, until disabled to offend.” Pickens was untroubled by the violence, instead complaining to Greene that the unexpected encounter with Pyle’s loyalists “blasted” his hopes of catching Tarleton’s detachment. He did see some benefit from the action, remarking that “this Affair … has been of infinite Service. It has knocked up Toryism altogether in this part.” Greene told Major General von Steuben that Lee’s troops “made a dreadful carnage” of Pyle’s men, and agreed with Pickens that the blow would demoralize North Carolina’s loyalists and hinder British efforts to recruit them. “It [Pyle’s Massacre] has had a very happy effect on those disaffected Persons, of which there are too many in this Country,” Greene wrote to Thomas Jefferson. Greene observed to Pickens that “the defeat of the Tories was so happily timed, & in all probability will be productive of such happy consequences, that I cannot help congratulating you on your success.” 
Did Lee plan and order an attack on Pyle’s unsuspecting loyalists? Barring the discovery of some previously unknown document written by Lee or one of his officers admitting that Lee did so, the truth will never be known. However, given Lee’s mercurial temperament and similar, verified actions and statements by Lee on other occasions, the idea is plausible.
On February 13, 1781, a party of Lee’s dragoons was pursued by some of Tarleton’s cavalrymen and one of Lee’s buglers, James Gillies, was killed before the British Legion troopers were driven off. Lee, infuriated by the death of Gillies, ordered a lieutenant to pursue the fugitives, and “to give no quarters” to any who tried to surrender. When the detachment returned after having captured Captain David Miller and several other prisoners, Lee “reprimanded” the lieutenant “on the spot for disobedience of orders.” He decided to hang Miller in retaliation for the death of Gillies, and the captain’s life was spared only because more British troops were rapidly approaching, thus leaving Lee no time to conduct an execution. Lee freely admitted that he had given orders to take no prisoners and to hang Miller, justifying his actions as retaliation for what he termed the “murder” of Gillies and other alleged atrocities committed by Tarleton’s Legion. The incident demonstrated Lee’s volatile temper and how he could flare into a violent rage upon even a minor provocation.
Three months later, after Lee’s Legion and partisans under Brigadier General Francis Marion captured Fort Motte in South Carolina, Lee again threatened British prisoners with death. Lee insisted that the stubborn defense made by Captain Donald McPherson and the fort’s garrison had been futile and therefore the garrison could have been denied quarter after McPherson surrendered. “Mercy was extended,” Lee wrote, “although policy commanded death, and the obstinacy of McPherson warranted it. … McPherson was charged with having subjected himself to punishment, by his idle waste of his antagonist’s time. … Powerfully as the present occasion called for punishment, and rightfully as it might have been inflicted, not a drop of blood was shed.”
Lee’s account was not quite accurate, because some of his men executed several captured loyalists. According to Levi Smith, the commander of the loyalist contingent in Fort Motte, Lee’s men executed three loyalist prisoners before hanging Smith. He was dangling from the hangman’s rope when Marion was informed of what was happening. Marion rushed to the scene and ordered that Smith be cut loose immediately. Cornet William Harrison of the Legion dragoons remarked casually that the men were “only hanging a few Tories.” Marion repeated the order, which was obeyed. The partisan general, observing the dissatisfaction on the faces of the Legion cavalrymen, declared “I’ll let you know, damn you, that I command here and not Colonel Lee!” Lee provided a different version of events, writing that Smith was “very obnoxious, and his punishment was loudly demanded by many of the militia serving under the brigadier; but the humanity of Marion could not be overcome.”
Less than a month later, after Lee and Pickens captured the British post at Augusta, Georgia, another prominent loyalist was murdered. Colonel James Grierson, commander of the local loyalist contingent, was confined in his own house when one of Pickens’s men, James Alexander, entered and “shot him through the body, and returned unmolested by the sentinel posted at the door, or the main guard,” wrote Thomas Brown, the officer who had commanded the Augusta garrison. Grierson “was afterwards stripped, and his clothes divided among the soldiers, who, having exercised upon his dead body all the rage of the most horrid brutality, threw it into a ditch without the fort. Thus fell the brave, unfortunate Colonel Grierson … by the hand of a bloody, sanctioned, and protected villain, in shameful violation of a solemn capitulation.”
Some accounts state that Lee had already left Augusta when the murder occurred on June 6, but Doctor Thomas Taylor, who was present, asserted that Lee was still in the town and had ignored warnings that Grierson was in danger. Taylor wrote that “Col Lee indeed & his officers express’d abhorrence of the Fact but to my certain knowledge he refus’d to prevent it, for that very Morning I sent to see that gallant unfortunate Man [Grierson] & … he told me that his Life was threatened & if not remov’d from the Place where he then was he was certain the Threat would be executed. He therefore begg’d me to represent the matter thro’ Col: Brown to Col: Lee which I did but in vain.”
Such instances of Lee’s willingness to order or condone violence against the British and loyalists add credence to those accounts stating that Lee ordered the attack on Pyle’s force. Circumstances also increase the likelihood that it was a deliberate assault. Lee’s primary goal was to strike Tarleton’s detachment, and if the Americans were burdened by hundreds of prisoners any pursuit of the British would have been rendered more difficult if not impossible. Leaving the prisoners under guard would have required a substantial number of militiamen, reducing American strength and along with it the chance of defeating Tarleton. Nor could Lee ignore Pyle and allow Cornwallis to receive such a significant reinforcement. Lee’s only other option would have been to release Pyle and his men on parole, but doing so would not have guaranteed that the loyalists would have returned home. Lee and Pickens must have been well aware that numerous Americans had taken British parole, then ignored the terms and returned to the fight. From a purely military standpoint, the slaughter of Pyle’s men was the easiest way to deal with the problem, and would bring the additional benefit of further terrorizing North Carolina’s loyalists, who as Tarleton noted were already intimidated by years of persecution. Perhaps this was what Lee was thinking when he encountered Pyle. Yet however justified his actions may have been from the standpoint of military necessity, and whether or not Lee ordered the assault, Pyle’s Massacre stands out as the most brutal slaughter committed by either side in the Revolutionary War.
(The author wishes to thank his former student at Kennesaw State University, Zack Godfrey, for his assistance in researching pension applications related to Pyle’s Massacre.)
 Henry Lee to Nathanael Greene, Feb. 16, 1781, in Richard K. Showman and Dennis Conrad, editors, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, (hereafter PNG), Vol. 7 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 298; Buchanan, 362; Henry Lee, The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee, ed. Robert E. Lee (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), 253.
 Tarleton, 232; Lee to Greene, Feb. 25, 1781, Andrew Pickens to Greene, Feb. 26, 1781, PNG, 7:348, 7:355, 7:370; Lee, Memoirs, 256; Graham’s estimate appears in Hayes, 91; in their pension applications, Samuel Eakin put Pyle’s strength at 500, S3317, Oct. 16, 1832, Jonathan Harris gave an estimate of 400-500, W4979, Aug. 16, 1833, Thomas Barnett stated that there were 300 loyalists, S8041, May 28, 1833, Thomas Lofton’s estimate was 500, S17114, Dec. 10, 1832, David Cockerham said there were 400, S8240, Aug. 15, 1832, Thomas Boyd gave a figure of 300, S17286, Aug. 20, 1833, and William Lenoir calculated that Pyle had 300 or 400 men, S7137, May 1, 1833, all pension applications from National Archives, Washington, DC; Buchanan, 363; John S. Pancake, This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782 (University: University of Alabama Press, 1985), 173; Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 38. The estimated increase in the strength of the British army had Pyle joined Cornwallis is based on the calculations of Babits and Howard who state that Cornwallis commanded between 1,900 and 2,200 men, 219.
 Lee to Greene, Feb. 20, 1781, Feb. 21, 1781, and Feb. 23, 1781, PNG, 7:324, 330, 336; Buchanan, 362. Regarding the similar uniforms worn by Lee’s and Tarleton’s legions, see Bright and Dunaway, 25.
 Lee, Memoirs, 256-257.
 Boyd, S17286; Hall, “Account,” in Hayes, 96-97; Eakin, S3317. For a detailed account of the Waxhaws incident, see Jim Piecuch, The Blood Be Upon Your Head: Tarleton and the Myth of Buford’s Massacre (Lugoff, SC: Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution Press, 2010). Charles Royster, author of Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), believes that the massacre occurred “without Lee’s direct order,” but mentions a militiaman’s account that supports the view that Lee planned the attack on Pyle. Royster notes historian Christopher Ward’s opinion that the attack was “a piece of strategy fully matured and intentionally executed, whose outcome shocked its author,” 37-38.
 Historians who accept Lee’s estimate of ninety dead loyalists include Hayes, 105; Babits and Howard, 38; Buchanan, 364; and Royster, who gives a figure of one hundred, 37. Troxler, 36-37, 64; Tarleton, 232; Cornwallis to Lord George Germain, March 17, 1781, in Tarleton, 265.
 Buchanan, 364; Lee, Memoirs, 258; Pickens to Greene, Feb. 26, 1781, Greene to Pickens, Feb. 26, 1781, Greene to Thomas Jefferson, Feb. 29 , 1781, Greene to Friedrich von Steuben, Feb. 29 [March 1?], 1781, PNG, 7:353, 355, 358, 367, 376.
 Steven D. Smith, James B. Legg, Tamara S. Wilson, and Jonathan Leader, “Obstinate and Strong”: The History and Archaeology of the Siege of Fort Motte (Columbia: South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2007), 26; Lee, Memoirs, 348.