North Carolina Patriot Women Who Talked Back to the Tories

Engraving depicting a shooting Nancy Hart. Perhaps the most famous southern woman to resist marauders was Georgia's Nancy Hart, but there is evidence of several others.(Library of Congress)

On January 10, 1776, the British governor of North Carolina, Josiah Martin, then bobbing on the HMS Scorpion off Wilmington, appointed just over two dozen Loyalists as colonels, nine of them Cross Creek Highlanders (notably Donald MacDonald) and at least six former Regulators (five in Guilford, one in Chatham).[1] These men, having raised companies of soldiers, were to seize from the rebels “arms, ammunition, provisions, horses and carriages,” while taking “all possible care that the women and children” were left “unmolested.” The colonels were to march their men to Wilmington where, joined to a formidable expected British force, they would subdue all the North Carolina rebels. MacDonald claimed to be distressed that some inhabitants were so afraid of him “as to fly before His Majesty’s Army as from the most inveterate enemy.” The Colonel’s “determined resolution,” he declared, was “that no violence shall be used to women and children.”[2] Nevertheless, on February 14, according to Samuel Acourt Ashe, “many inhabitants of Wilmington moved out, carrying the women and children.”[3] On February 5, 1776 MacDonald added that “private property” should not be violated.[4] He did not explain how he could seize horses and carriages without violating private property.

Despite these promises, the North Carolina Loyalists were cruel to Patriots from the outset, to go by the documents quoted here. Jesse Jones in his pension application said that about the time of a battle at the “widow Moores Creek” (February 27) he had reconnoitered near Wilmington “in order to keep the slaves in subjection and to protect the women & children of those who were engaged in the service of their country.”[5] The Regulators called out by Governor Martin may have molested some rebels along their way to Cross Creek, for word quickly reached western North Carolina that the “Scotch & Tories” were said “to be committing great depredations in the Country around Cross Creek,” according to my cousin John Sparks, who arrived too late for the battle.[6] Samuel Castle, who set out for Cross Creek from Wilkes County but also got there too late, thought that “the Scotch Tories” near Cross Creek had become “very troublesome, annoying the Whig settlement adjacent to where they lived very much.”[7] Later, on May 12, a large British naval force carrying troops under Gen. Henry Clinton was off the North Carolina coast, and at Clinton’s direction, Lord Cornwallis “ravaged and plundered” the American Maj. Gen. Robert Howe’s plantation in Brunswick.[8] On May 13 a Wilmington man charged that a “few women, who lived in the house, were treated with great barbarity; one of whom was shot through the hips, another stabbed with a bayonet, and a third knocked down with the butt of a musket.”[9] Then Cornwallis sailed away toward Charleston with Josiah Martin.

Despite the promises of Martin and MacDonald, brutality became commonplace. Throughout the war, bands of Tories in North Carolina sacked houses and farms of Whigs, most often when Patriots had left their households occupied only by women and children. In pension depositions transcribed on the Southern Campaigns website, at this writing, the word “depredation” (plural or singular, and however spelled) is used almost 700 times to describe the raids Tories made on Whig homes and farms. These were plunderings, pillagings. Robbery was compounded by wanton slaughter of livestock, destruction of crops, wrecking of kitchen and other household implements, shredding of clothing and beds, and intimidation or actual abuse of inhabitants. We know what the Tories looted. From Mrs. Elizabeth Forbis the Tories took “horses, except perhaps a colt that was unfit for work, her provisions, grain, cattle, and almost every thing on the plantation.”[10] Mrs. Mary Morgan lamented that their feather-beds were “dragged into the yard, ripped open,” their “blankets and other furniture,” their “stock of every kind—horses, cattle, hogs, &c., driven off before their eyes—and the very bread and meat prepared for their next meal devoured in their presence by a set of voracious harpies in human shape.”[11] My cousin William Sparks reported that “a party of tories, about 150 in number, robbed my Father, taking a horse saddle and bridle, six guns, all our pewter (we had no delft ware in those days) and whatever else they could carry.” Thomas Shipp caught up with one gang about late 1781 at Chestnut Ridge and “killed three of the Tories,” but the others fled, leaving “all their plunder, such as horses, Saddles, Blankets, some Guns &c &c.” Dan Merrell told of being “repeatedly” called out to stop “some outrage & cruelty perpetrated” by Tories, “or upon some apprehension that they were organizing a force to do mischief; it was indeed a Tory warfare, when the summons to arms, might be & was often, the light of a dwelling house on fire, or women & children flying for safety, from Tory cruelties.” Alexander Gray testified in support of William Clark’s pension application: “Fannin & his troop made several private trips into this neighbourhood in one of which he murdered Colo. Belfour and Capt Bryant, each in his own house, with his family around him: and burnt several houses and barns where the man of the house was not at home.” This was the May 10, 1782 raid, half a year after Yorktown.[12] There was little the Patriot women could do: resistance might cause the Tories to harm children or other women in the house.

Colin McRae, a boy during the war, told E. W. Caruthers that Tory raiders first seized the precious bag of meal. Having “been previously robbed,” McRae recalled, “my mother had no bed clothes except one cotton sheet which was carefully wrapped round my infant brother John, by his mother’s side. One of the company seized hold of the corner of this sheet and continued to jerk and shake it until the infant rolled out on the naked floor.”[13] In 1844 William Whitfield’s widow, Mary Whitfield, at age eighty-seven testified: “That when her husband left her and went to the war, she had to break up housekeeping & live with her father’s family in Duplin county N. Carolina until the war closed. that they suffered a great deal, while her husband was out, her father & her three Brothers were frequently called out against the Brittish & Tory parties, & left her & her mother & four other sisters alone to keep house & support themselves, while the Tory party frequently came upon them, took their possessions, killed their cattle and stock, & burnt their smoke house & barn and stole her father’s negroes & took them off & her mother, herself & family were frequently compelled to hide & secret themselves from fear of the ravages of these Tory parties.” A Rowan County man, William Gipson, came home from a six months’ enlistment to find that during his absence “his mother, a widow woman,” had been “tied up & whipped by the tories, her house burned, & property all destroyed.”

No history of the suffering of Patriot women in North Carolina in the Revolution can be anywhere near definitive. There were no newspapers in the state for several years, no diaries written by literate women and miraculously preserved from Tory house-burnings. There was no statewide push in 1783 and afterwards to document the war as it affected average people. More than a third of a century passed before two men, Archibald McBryde (or McBride) and Archibald D. Murphey, began to gather material for the history of the Revolution in North Carolina, and not until the 1830s and 1840s did David L. Swain, E. W. Caruthers, and others try to recover McBryde and Murphey’s research and supplement it with fresh research and even interviews with some aged eyewitnesses.[14] Starting in 1832 a different kind of history was written in the pension applications by the surviving soldiers of the Revolution and sometimes by their widows—history from the ground up. These records, however, were hard to use until Will Graves and C. Leon Harris put their ongoing transcriptions into a great searchable modern archive.

All Patriot women in North Carolina suffered[15] and some stood up to the Tories. Perhaps the first story of defiance to reach print is Alexander Gray’s in 1847. This passage takes up after Col. David Fanning has “called Bryan to the door, and shot him down while surrounded by his wife and children”: “Fanning then proceeded with his troop to the house of William Bell, on Deep River, on the road which leads from Salisbury to Raleigh; Bell, having for safety repaired to the American camp, left none at home but his wife and negroes; but fortunately about 6 or 8 of the neighbors, armed as was usual, came in: when the Tories rode up within 30 or 40 yards and made a halt, the old Lady, who had the voice of a stentor and a spirit like that of a Washington or Lee, give orders (so loud that Fanning and his men could hear it,) to those within to throw open all the windows, take good sight, and not draw a trigger until they were sure of bringing a man down. This give Fanning a fright which caused him to retreat, without doing further mischief except burning Bell’s barn.”[16] A letter from Gray was Caruthers’s source for this episode and other exploits of Martha Bell such as her spying for Richard Henry Lee and William Washington.[17] Her greatest triumph was in defense of her aged father, then visiting her. When Tories came at the old man with drawn swords she seized a broad-axe: “Raising that over her head, tightly grasped with both hands, she said to them, in the most positive manner, and with a sternness which was irresistible, ‘If one of you touches him I’ll split you down with this axe. Touch him if you dare!’” They “stood for a moment, abashed, confounded, and then left the house.”[18]

Women could be brave even when life was not at stake. In his book on the Presbyterian minister David Caldwell,[19] Caruthers says that Mrs. Caldwell, after previous plunderings, still possessed the “very elegant table cloth” which her mother had given her when she set up housekeeping. She and a Tory were both tugging at it when she appealed to the thieves “with a woman’s eloquence—asked them if they were not born of women, or if they had no wives or daughters whom they respected, and for whose sake they would treat others with more civility.” Luckily for her, “a small man” stepped up and said she “should not be treated so rudely any more.”

Caruthers in his 1856 book describes Mrs. Robert Rowan’s behavior when Tories searched “every nook and corner” of her house for her husband. The Tories then told her “that she must tell them where he was, or they would kill her; but she told them that her husband did not hide in the cuddies, and dared them to hurt her; for, she said, if they did, they would see him before that time next day.”[20] After “plundering the house and destroying everything they could not carry off, they went away,” overpowered by her “womanly firmness and independence.”

Having been given a horse to replace what had been stolen, Mrs. Elizabeth Forbis faced down the Tory who was about to seize it: “she moved up right in front of him, with her hoe raised over her head; and, with a firm countenance and an earnest manner, told him if he touched the horse she would split his head with the hoe.” They “left her with the horse.”[21] She lived to tell Caruthers her stories.

Caruthers told of Margaret Caruthers (not one of his family) whose youngest son had been killed and scalped by neighboring Tories disguised as Indians. Later two Tories came to plunder the house, at first taking her only mare from the stable to a tree. Then they went into her corn crib, typically built so that anyone went in “somewhat longitudinally, head foremost,” and had to back out one leg at a time. First moving the mare, she took a hickory stick drying by the chimney, one twice the size it would be when carved into an axe handle, and as the first Tory crawled out and the other was half out she cudgeled them severely. They crawled off “the best way they could” and did not return. Said Caruthers: “one act often furnished as good a test of native character as a whole life.”[22]

Because some women filed for pensions after their husbands had died, we have more women’s voices than Caruthers had. Elizabeth Ketner’s (or Kitner), at eighty-six in 1840, made this declaration: “[her husband] went a tour of two months with a waggon load of Ammunition from Salem to Henry Courthouse in Virginia & from there to some place where the Main Army was & carried the powder to them, and while he was gone the British Army passed by her house coming from the Shallow ford on the Yadkin River to Houser Town & Rob’d her of all her corn, & small grain meat and every thing almost that her & family had to live on, even her Ducks & Chickens some of them asked her if she had a husband she said yes: Where is he they asked, She told them he was gone with a waggon to haul a load of Ammunition to the American Army to shoot you red coats that have rob’d me & my living[.]”

Few male North Carolina Patriots had been honored by 1856, Caruthers rightly said, while “the female portion of the Whig community, many of whom were, in their sphere, as patriotic, suffered as many privations and hardships, and made as resolute a resistance to oppression as the men, have been entirely neglected.”[23] Although he drew his information from only in a few counties in the central portion of the state, Caruthers did more than anyone else to document the suffering of Whig women and children. He reflected on the larger implications of the stories he heard 267: “It would take a volume to record their virtues and their noble deeds; and all that the writer of the present work designs is merely to notice a few and show what may be done, or what abundant materials there are in the country, that others, who are more competent, may be excited to undertake the task and do the work to better purpose.”[24] From the 1850s onward, historical study of the Revolution in North Carolina never faltered—but it gathered speed after almost all the witnesses were dead.

After the Centennial, the survivors of the Civil War turned fresh attention to the Revolution and recovered or embellished their local history. Around the turn of the twentieth century stories of women’s bravery saw print, as on February 25, 1898, when Col. R. B. Creecy, the editor of the Elizabeth City Economist printed his “The Legend of Betsy Dowdy.” Learning that the Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore was advancing on the Great Bridge, Betsy Dowdy of Currituck Banks late on December 9, 1775, had saddled Black Bess and set off to the nearest North Carolina militia. She and her horse waded and swam the Currituck Sound and “forded numerous small streams” and rode “more than 50 miles to reach the rebel militia commanded by General William Skinner.” Isaac Dunn and his wife Mary star in an Anson County equine story. While galloping to escape a band of Tories, Dunn tossed their baby daughter (Susannah) to his wife, who caught her. A “group of Tories hunting for Isaac came . . .  seeking information about her husband. She refused to give it and was struck on the head and face with a Tory saber. Fortunately she was wearing a bonnet with hickory splints which broke the thrust and saved her life. However, she carried the scar during her long life.”[25]

This impulse to identify and celebrate local heroines did not lead to much new study of ordinary North Carolina Patriot women. Despite the scarcity of contemporary evidence, there may be more clues in the Southern Campaigns website, for example, and a rigorous search of North Carolina newspapers might turn up more stories of women who talked back to the Tories, and perhaps others who fought back.

 

[1] Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, 10:441-443, http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.html/volumes/volume_10.

[2] Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, 10:429-430.

[3]  Samuel A’Court Ashe, History of North Carolina (Greensboro: Charles L. Van Noppen, 1908), 1:500.

[4] Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, 10:443.

[5] Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters, http://revwarapps.org/; quotations have been verified against images of the original documents on Fold3.com.

[6] Ashe, History of North Carolina, 1:498-500, describes the fast response of rebels in the west.

[7]  “Troublesome” meant something like “turbulent,” and “annoying” meant “molesting.”

[8]  John H. Wheeler, Historical Sketches of North Carolina (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co, 1851), 77.

[9]  Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Hunter), June 29, 1776.

[10] E. W. Caruthers, Interesting Revolutionary Incidents: And Sketches of Character (Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell, 1856), 263.

[11] Ibid., 271.

[12] See my “Fanning’s Bloody Sabbath as Traced by Alexander Gray,” JAR (May 4, 2015).

[13]  Caruthers, Interesting Revolutionary Incidents, 236.

[14] See E. W. Caruthers’s preface to Revolutionary Incidents: And Sketches of Character (Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell, 1854), not to be confused with his 1856 work of a similar title.

[15] Robert O. DeMond in The Loyalists in North Carolina during the Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 1940) was so sympathetic to the suffering of Loyalists that he told twice (99 and 113) how Jean Dubois and Mrs. McNeill had to move away from Wilmington.

[16]  In Newspapers.com the Salisbury Carolina Watchman (June 4, 1847) is so blurred that I accept some punctuation from the Raleigh Register (September 11, 1847). “Give,” twice used, is idiomatic for “gave.”

[17] Caruthers, Interesting Revolutionary Incidents, starting 308.

[18]  Ibid., 330.

[19]  Life and Character of David Caldwell (Greensborough: Swain and Sherwood, 1842), 243.

[20]  Caruthers, Interesting Revolutionary Incidents, 266.

[21] Ibid., 270.

[22] Ibid., 289-291.

[23] Ibid, 266-267.

[24] Ibid, 267.

[25] Mary Louise Medley, History of Anson County, North Carolina, 1750-1976 (Charlotte: Anson County Historical Society, 1976), 53. In the Wadesboro Messenger and Intelligencer (February 20, 1913) Mary Dunn tosses the baby to Isaac. In the Charlotte Observer (December 27, 1931) Isaac tosses the baby to Mary.

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