John Butler’s “Want of Good Generalship”


January 22, 2015
by Hershel Parker Also by this Author


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I plan to write about how the Tory guerrilla David Fanning changed after being made a Loyalist Colonel and given his own red coat, but I keep being lured down Carolina bypaths. For this present detour, on Fanning’s official adversary, Brigadier General John Butler of the North Carolina Militia, I compiled first-hand statements from men who served under Butler and compared them to what biographers and historians say.

The first-hand accounts are available at the Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters, a resource recent enough not to be extensively utilized even by historians.[1] The site, constantly growing as Will Graves and C. Leon Harris post new transcriptions and revise older posts, is an unparalleled resource for research into the Revolutionary War in the South – not just because of the more than 20,000 transcriptions of pension depositions but because the files are almost infinitely searchable. It took only a few days to locate the material for this article, and with more imaginative search terms I might have found even more. Before the Southern Campaigns site existed in its present size, no single person could have told this story: even though the manuscript pension depositions can be viewed online, they are painstaking and time consuming to read. The Southern Campaigns transcripts make them accessible.

Source: Stewart E. Dunaway, The Battle at Lindley’s Mill, Second Edition (Hillsborough, N.C.: Stewart E. Dunaway, 2007).
Click to enlarge. Source: Stewart E. Dunaway, The Battle at Lindley’s Mill, Second Edition (Hillsborough, N.C.: Stewart E. Dunaway, 2007).

Before letting eyewitnesses speak for themselves, here’s a quick bit of background. At the end of January 1781 the British Major James H. Craig occupied Wilmington, at the mouth of Cape Fear, thereby emboldening Tories throughout eastern North Carolina. After the battle of Guilford Court House on March 15, Lord Cornwallis joined Craig for a time in Wilmington, on his way exchanging information with the young Tory guerrilla David Fanning. In July, recognizing Fanning’s high value now that Cornwallis and his army were in Virginia, Craig bestowed upon Fanning a red coat and pistols and made him a Colonel of the Loyalist militia. Glorying in his new status and mustering a larger troop of Tories than ever, on September 12, 1781 Fanning kidnapped North Carolina Governor Thomas Burke and others at Hillsborough and set off toward Wilmington, which Craig still held. Charged with rescuing the Governor was Brigadier General John Butler (1726?-1785), who had held a series of civilian offices in Hillsborough then served in the provincial congress and both the state house of commons and senate. In battles a hundred miles apart, at Lindley’s Mill and at the Brown Marsh, Butler failed at good chances to recapture the Governor. Fanning was wounded at the first battle, but his men delivered Burke to Craig in Wilmington and Craig shipped him down to British-held Charleston, South Carolina.

For almost two centuries Butler has made historians nervous because almost no one wanted to put a name to his behavior.[2] Early historians of the Revolution felt a duty to celebrate heroism whenever possible, and the evidence did not point to Butler as heroic. Hesitant to think anything “disreputable to General Butler,” a cautious mid-19th century author concluded, “Whether it was owing to the want of good generalship or to some untoward occurrences, we do not know; but the Governor was not rescued, and the expedition was not signalized by any important achievement.”[3] Half a century later another writer echoed these sentiments: “While his troops did not fight well, there is nowhere any imputation of inefficiency or a lack of courage on his part.”[4] I have found only one historian, John W. Moore (1880) who burst out in exasperation: “General Butler had always been famous for sudden retreats in the face of danger. His corps led in the race at Camden as they did at Guilford. What infatuation could have retained him in command so long is one of the mysteries of history.”[5]

Many of the men who served under Butler would have applauded Moore and hooted at most other historians. Their applications for federal pensions were recorded decades after the war, mostly in 1832 and 1833. The boys of 1781 were now old men, often suffering from natural decay of memory. Many of them illiterate, many not even knowing precisely how old they were, they were most reliable on particulars, able, for instance, to identify seasons better than years that particular events took place. What they say, in short, must be corroborated with other sources.

The depositions are nonetheless valuable accounts that must be taken seriously, especially when numerous disparate accounts all present similar information. In their criticism of Butler these aged men reinforce each other on the essentials of what they experienced in 1781. The more than two dozen complaints about their general, made independently all around North Carolina as well as in South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, are unique, I believe, in number and consistency.[6]

First, I quote a veteran who arrived at Hillsborough in August 1780 too late to join General Butler on his way to reinforce General Horatio Gates at Camden, South Carolina. He remembered how hungry Butler made him. David Chandler (Pension file R1847)[7] wrote that in Hillsborough, Butler had “left directions for our officers to follow on as fast as they could, that he would cause a sufficiency of provisions to be stored on his rout[e] for our subsistence . . . . But he had failed to leave the provisions as he had promised, and our difficulties were great in procuring them, & the more so as we passed in the rout he had taken and he had well nigh exhausted them.”

Two veterans told of the March 15, 1781 battle at Guilford Court House. Nathan Slade (W6071) recalled: “The Genl who had the immediate command of that portion of the troops to which I belonged was Butler – an officer in whose courage and skill I had then no confidence and have now but little if any respect for his character.” William Meryman (R7136) corroborated this viewpoint: “I march[ed] from Granville county to Guilford Court house where we had the great battle with the British. General Green[e] was the chief commander, and after the battle was over our General Butler was impeached for cowardice.”[8]

Many men remembered Lindley’s Mill (September 13, 1781) and Brown Marsh (September 30, 1781).[9] Joseph Neely (S31879) recalled: “Fannon [Fanning] marched to the Mill and was fired on by Butler which was returned by Fannon when Butler retreated then Mabin [Mebane] attacked them in the rear and after a considerable skirmish Col. Mabin kept the ground to the loss of Fannon about thirty killed & wounded the enemy retreated for the River we took a number of prisoners, Col. Mabin had but about 75 men after Battle he Col. Mabin paraded his men Butler was not seen that day again.” “Col. Mabin [was] commanded by Gen. Butler who fled at Lindley’s Mill, the circumstance about as set forth in the declaration.”

John Birdsong (R855): “I next served under Col John Littrell [Luttrell] & made a number of expeditions under him & in a number of skirmishes, we met Fannin [Fanning] & his men several times but the main battle was at or near Lindley’s Mill on Cain [Cane] creek, in which Col Littrell was killed . . . . Genl Butler commanded but it was understood he ran about the beginning of the battle & the command devolved on Col Littrell.”  

David Strahan (S32538): “They [the Tories] were commanded by Hector McNeal and Davy Fanning we succeeded in taking three prisoners. General Butler left us before this battle – taking with him about 500 men.”

Thomas Hinsley (S31746): “They marched in pursuit of Col Fannen to rescue the prisoners and over took him at Linleys Mill where they had a battle and some were killed on both sides and Fannen still held on to the prisoners and they followed on to south Carrolina at a place near Willmingtown called the Brick house where they had another scrimage and Gen Butler one of their commanders fled and was cashiered and Broke for cowardice.” “He says their General Butler acted cowardly in this battle &c.”

John Sarrett (W312): “eight days subsequent to the time [the day of the battle at Livingston’s Bridge] declarent was engaged in the battle of brown marsh, at a place called Baldwin’s plantation; during which engagement declarent lost his horse – this engagement was against the tories and some British also – in which we were defeated owing entirely, as declarent is of opinion, to the bad management of Gen Butler the commanding officer.”

David Barker (S6560): “after skirmishing with them for a short time, we were ordered by Genl Butler our commanding officer to retreat – Afterwards the enemy attacked us about midnight, at a place called the Brown Marsh and broke in upon our lines, and took some prisoners and bayoneted some of our men.”

Holloway Pass (S7289): “From near Willmington we retreated back up the Cape Fear River some 18 or 20 miles out of Danger and there stop[p]ed for a little time until we heard of a collection of Tories at a place called the Brown Marsh to which place we immediately was marched at this place we met the tories and some Brittish and had a severe engagement and was defeated by the bad management of Genl Butler – and if it had not been for old Colo Mebane of the Orange Regiment we would have been all taken prisoner.”

Elisha Evans (S6830): “We followed the enemy to place near Wilmington called the White Marsh. Here we overtook the enemy & had an engagement in which we were driven back; we from thence were marched to Fayetteville; and from thence back again to near Wilmington and from place to place under Genl Butler (in whom I never had Confidence as an officer) always avoiding an attack until we had the news of the Capture of Lord Cornwallis at York.”

William Marsh (S7186): Near Wilmington “a body of tories had some whig prisoners, among whom was Col. John Mebane [brother of Robert], & whom it was resolved to rescue – a skirmish consequently took place, which was ineffectual in consequence of a misapprehension of Genl. Butler who apprehending that the British troops had joined the tories ordered his troops to retreat soon after the battle commenced.”

Andrew Harwell (S31104): “I was a Sergeant of the Guard & thought that Butler acted badly.”

Nathan Slade (W6071): “When we approached near Wilmington our vanguard was attacked by what [I] took to be a mixed force of tories and british – we scarcely had time however, to prepare for the reception and repulsion of the enemy before to our surprise and deep mortification our Commanding General Butler ordered a retreat. During this expedition – which was in its character very irregular and as it seemed to me without any defined purpose or object – I was in the engagement at a place called ‘Brown Marsh’ in the lower part of this state not very far I believe from the town of Wilmington – We had pitched our camp for the night, near the above named Marsh, after a fatiguing march – at the dead hour of the night when we we[re] all asleep our repose was disturbed and we were called to action by the firing of the guard, – We were ordered to make ready hastily – which we did – The enemy came upon in full force as we supposed – and one fire only was exchanged between us – when they retreated – our officers, Genl Butler and Col William Moore shewing a great want of courage – and that presence of mind, so essential to military men in such a sudden emergency – After the first fire, the enemy as stated before retreated.”

David Williams (S3578): “they had a skirmish with the tories backed, as was supposed, by about 300 British commanded by Maj. Craig. A retreat was, on the outset ordered by their commander [Butler], which was considered by every brave American as cowardly & shameful. They had tied their horses about 200 yards in the rear of the place where they first formed for battle. When they had returned to where the horses were tied Col’s Maban [Mebane] & Brown, with about 150 men, gave the enemy a sharp returning fire, which threw them into some confusion & prevented their pursuit. Applicant remained with Maban & Brown, the rest of the Americans retreated in confusion, though there had not been one of them killed.”

Robert Browning (R1355): “So soon as Genl Butler with his forces overtook the enemy . . . He (Genl Butler) ordered his army to put themselves in battle array, which was done accordingly: no sooner however was the army arrayed for battle, than, Genl Butler ordered a retreat, assigning as his only reason for such a course as this, That the tories had artillery and he had none. Genl Butler retreated back for several miles . . . . Genl Butler took up encampment at Brown Marsh, but on the first night after he reached it his army was surprised in the night by the approach of the Tories So soon as Genl Butler was made acquainted with the fact of the enemys approach, he roused & formed his own army and ordered another retreat, Stating as his reason on this occasion, that there were Eight English officers among the Tories . . . Genl Butler retreated from this point to Fayetteville North Carolina.”

Thomas Hargis (S8663): “Field officers were Genl Butler and Col. Moore. They marched to the neighborhood of Wilmington, No. Ca. where they had a skirmish with the British. In that engagement, Genl Butler’s horse ran off with the Genl as it was rumored – but this declarant then thought & still thinks, that it was the General, and not the horse, that was the author of the blunder. Out of about five hundred Americans, nearly three hundred retreated before the Enemy with Genl Butler and his horse.”

John Gwin (S3393): “In this tour we marched towards Wilmington North Carolina, but before we reached that place We fell in with a party of the British, consisting of about 200 at Brown’s Marsh, and fought a battle with them in the night, in which battle I was wounded by a musket ball, which passed through my left hip. Genl William [sic – John] Butler, Colonels Moore, William Lytle and Robert Mebane were all in this battle, but which of them was at the head of our party I do not know, though I think it was Colonel Mebane. Genl Butler was there at the beginning of the action, but left us very soon. Some said the General’s horse got scared and ran off with him, but others said the General got scared and ran off with his horse. How the fact was I know not.”

William Mitchell (S4221): “The tories retreated [from Lindley’s Mill] before our main Army could come up with them. Butler got up within a mile of them one night before he knew it, when he learned his true position he became desperately alarmed (for he was a poor officer) and broke up his camp and marched off at right angles from Fannings route and continued his forced march all night and until late the next day when we crossed the Cape Fear river at Everetts ford. Where we encamped several days. . . . Here [at Brown’s Ferry] Butler broke up his camp believing himself strong enough to cope with Fanning and set out on a forced march to overtake him altho Fanning had received a reinforcement of about 300 british soldiers under the command of Major Craig we overtook him at Livingstons swamp. This declarant’s brother Lieut David Mitchell was officer of the day. The action was brought on under very auspicious circumstances but Butler took another panick supposing Fanning to have artillery cried out [“]Soldiers retreat they have cannon and we can not stand them[”] and he, Taylor and Moor[e] ran off with all who would pursue their flight and but for the bravery and disinterested services of Col Robert Mebane . . . the whole army would have been probably cut to pieces at the swamp. But he rallied about one hundred & fifty or two hundred of the troops and put them in order of battle and resisted the pursuit of Fanning who finding that a sharp conflict had again ensued supposed that Butlers whole force had fallen back to that point intentionally and thus he was induced to fall back in his turn and night closed the scene. We then traveled 18 miles before we overtook our field officers; who were encamped in the plantation of Capt Lucas where the defeated army encamped several days.”

Other men gave similar testimony.[10] Over two centuries after their struggles in 1781, and some 180 years after they gave their depositions, the testimony of General John Butler’s men about his behavior at Lindsey’s Mill and the Brown Marsh can be heard. Able now to listen to the words of the veterans, thanks to the ongoing transcription work of Graves and Harris on the Southern Campaigns site, we have a candid and unvarnished “bottom-up” picture of an officer who was not equal to the task he was charged with.


[1] Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters,

The quotation in the title is from Eli W. Caruthers, Revolutionary Incidents and Sketches of Character, Chiefly of the ‘Old North State’ (Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell, 1854), 231; “Bottom-up” history in the subtitle is from J. D. Lewis, NC Patriots 1775-1783: Their Own Words, Volume 1—The NC Continental Line (Little River, SC: J. D. Lewis, 2012), ix.

[2] See William Johnson, Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene (Charleston: William Johnson, 1822), Appendix B, 485-510, for Colonel Otho Holland Williams’s sly story of the highwayman who robbed Butler of his sword on his retreat from the Battle of Camden in 1780, consoling him with, “you’ll have no further use of it” (1.497). Also, see John H. Wheeler, Historical Sketches of North Carolina, from 1584 to 1851 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co. and Raleigh, N.C.: William L. Pomery, 1851), 1.85; the conspicuously uneasy Eli W. Caruthers (cited above); and the flippant E. W. Sikes, Biographical History of North Carolina (Greensboro: Charles L. Van Noppen, 1906), 5.34: “He who fights and runs away will live to fight another day.” Modern historians tend to be cautiously complimentary or wary with the exception of the critical John Hiarr in the NCpedia unpaginated text from Powell’s Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, online text

[3] Caruthers, Revolutionary Incidents, 226, 230-231.

[4] Sikes, Biographical History, 5:37.

[5] John W. Moore, History of North Carolina (Raleigh: Alfred Williams, 1880), 328-329.

[6] To insure accuracy of the following excerpts I checked the Southern Campaigns transcripts against images of the manuscripts in the Revolutionary War Pensions, , itself a great online site for military records. The spelling used here is as in the original documents.

[7] The pension file numbers are from the original files in the National Archives, and are used to index the Southern Campaigns transcripts. “S” means made by a survivor and “W” means by a widow; “R” means rejected (but, bureaucrats being bureaucrats, it does not necessarily mean the applicant was not truthful and deserving).

[8] “Impeached” in this context probably just means “blamed.”

[9] One pensioner, John Sarrett (W312), suggests that the date of the action was October 1, 1781.

[10] See, for example, Theophilus Coleman (R2162), Jacob Miles( S2006), Thomas Miles (W8457), Hugh McNary (S33067), James Clark (S8207), Robert Johnston (S7092), Moab Stevens (R10115), and James Forest (S1663).

One thought on “John Butler’s “Want of Good Generalship”

  • Since this article on John Butler was written to show what could be learned from Will Graves’s and C. Leon Harris’s great site of Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pensions Applications, I was struck by this new celebration of this still under-used site in MyEasternShoreMD today (August 17, 2015). The topic is Benjamin Irvin’s upcoming (September 9) talk at Washington College, “I Still have an Independent Spirit: The Disabled Veterans of the Revolutionary War.”

    In the article is this passage:
    “Irvin’s discovery of a trove of online pension files, underutilized by historians, sparked the idea for his book. His timely research aims to provide historical context for current debates over present-day veterans’ health care. According to Irvin, the earliest U.S. pension administration complicated disability by causing veterans to feel a sense of failure as men. ‘Some individuals, such as Moses Rollins, chose to suffer in silence rather than to be branded an object of pity or charity,’ he said. ‘This is an important discovery and I’m thrilled to pursue it at Washington College.’
    “Disability studies is a cutting-edge discipline within history and other fields, and we’re pleased to support a scholar who is doing important and original work in this area,” said Adam Goodheart, the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. “Heroic narratives of the American Revolution — which caused more deaths as a proportion of the U.S. population than any conflict except the Civil War — rarely account for the human toll. And Ben Irvin’s spring course will be the first class in the history of disability to be offered at Washington College.”

    Recently Scott Syfert added to his magisterial work on the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence by mining that seemingly inexhaustible trove of pension applicants. Yesterday I mentioned the site to a new Internet cousin in Raleigh and today he reported staying up far into the night looking up our and his Revolutionary ancestors, addicted already! Hats off to Graves and Harris!

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