Thursday, September 26, 2013, represented the 233rd anniversary of the Battle of Charlotte, a small but important skirmish between local Carolina militia and the full might of Lord Cornwallis’s British army.
In the late summer of 1780, local militia received word that Cornwallis’s army was on the march from Camden, South Carolina towards Charlotte. Militia led by Generals Joseph Graham and William R. Davie gathered as many men as they could in the Charlotte town common to contest Cornwallis’s advance. Charlottetown was then a small hamlet of only a few unpainted log cabins. One observer in 1772 described the town as having “a tolerable Court-House of wood about 80 by 40 feet … a store, a tavern, and several other houses say 5 or 6, but very ordinary build of logs.”
It was around the log Courthouse that the militia intended to stand and fight. The odds against them were overwhelming, as would soon be seen. Cornwallis’s army numbered approximately two thousand. Roughly one hundred and fifty militiamen took up positions in and around the building and in the nearby woods. The topography at least was in the Americans’ favor, as it restricted the movement of the massive British forces. “[T]he plantations in the neighborhood were small and uncultivated,” British Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton recalled, while the roads “were narrow, and crossed in every direction.”
Primitive the town might be, but the local inhabitants were hardscrabble and tough. They were largely Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and passionately anti-English. In fact, concluded Tarleton “It was evident” and “frequently mentioned to the King’s officers, that the counties of Mecklenburg and [neighboring] [Rowan] were more hostile to England than any others in America.”
Cornwallis’s men advanced from the south, their skirmishers flanking either side of an Indian trading path that led into town. Cavalry led the way, wearing the pine green jackets of the British Legion. (Despite its name, the British Legion was raised not in Great Britain but in America and consisted of loyalists from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.)
As the British advanced into town, Graham’s men shot at them from behind trees and buildings and from the protection of the stone wall which ran beneath the Courthouse. Graham was nearly killed when the musket of a man beside him exploded, scattering splinters and hot metal in all directions. Three successful volleys slowed the Brits down, until Cornwallis himself rode forward and shamed the cavalry to push the militia back. On the fourth charge, the Americans were forced back. It was a fighting retreat, with the cavalry running to fight a number of delaying actions. The British pursued them for several miles, killing a sixteen year old named George Locke, and leaving Graham himself on the field with nearly mortal wounds. All in all, British dead were approximately 12 (with over 40 wounded), the American militia half that number.
The British took possession of the cross-roads in Charlottetown, but they were unable to keep it for long. Over the course of the next week, partisans killed lone British sentries and ambushed foraging parties. The British were surrounded by enemies and their position precarious. Tarleton wrote:
“[N]o estimation could be made of the sentiments of half the inhabitants of North Carolina, whilst the Royal army remained at Charlotte town … The vigilance and animosity of these surrounding districts checked the exertions of the well affected, and totally destroyed all communication between the King’s troops and the loyalists in the other parts of the province.
“No British commander could obtain any information, in that position, which would facilitate his designs, or guide his future conduct. Every report concerning the measures of the governor and assembly would undoubtedly be ambiguous; accounts of the preparations of the militia could only be vague and uncertain; and all intelligence of the real force and movements of the continentals must be totally unattainable.”
For this reason Tarleton’s commanding officer, Lord Cornwallis, called Mecklenburg County a “damned hornets’ nest.” Within two weeks the destruction of Patrick Ferguson’s army at King’s Mountain left Cornwallis’s left flank exposed and the British retreated south to regroup.
The Battle of Charlotte had little strategic impact, but gave a foretaste to Cornwallis and Tarleton of the difficulties that awaited them in the hostile Carolina backcountry; difficulties that would metastasize to catastrophe at Yorktown just a year later.
On September 26, 2013, a stone was placed commemorating the “hornet’s nest” as part of the Charlotte Liberty Walk, a walking tour of Revolutionary sites in downtown Charlotte.
For more information, watch this “C-SPAN on the Road” video about the Battle of Charlotte.