Cornwallis Quits Charlotte, Abandoning the Autumn Campaign of 1780

The War Years (1775-1783)

August 19, 2019
by Ian Saberton Also by this Author


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This article is a companion piece to one of mine that appeared in this journal on July 18, 2017. Beginning with the start of the autumn campaign on September 7, 1780, it went on to describe Cornwallis’s advance from Camden to Charlotte, together with events elsewhere. Leaving what transpired next and its knock-on effect to a later day—namely now, it concluded, “Overall, the situation was most precarious and ripe for disaster.”

It was not, however, that article but another of mine that provided a graphic account of the British entry into Charlotte, which took place on the 26th. Appearing in this journal on February 17, 2017, this further article related the revolutionary militia’s resistance, the later events of that day, and the hornet’s nest of opposition stirred up by the village’s occupation.

So what did indeed transpire next? In short, “Events, my dear boy, events,” as Harold Macmillan, a British Prime Minister, remarked when asked by a journalist what would throw his administration off course. So it was while at Charlotte that unforeseen events conspired to terminate the autumn campaign.

The first of these was the entirely unexpected ferocity with which the inhabitants of the locality continued resolutely to oppose the occupation of Charlotte itself. On October 3 Cornwallis commented to Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour, the Commandant of Charlestown, “This County of Mecklenburg is the most rebellious and inveterate that I have met with in this country, not excepting any part of the Jerseys.” It soon became apparent that the village was completely unsuitable for a small intermediate post, so effectually would it have been blockaded and so high would have been the risk of its being taken out in detail. Preoccupied with defending itself, the post would have exerted no control over the surrounding territory and afforded no protection to messengers coming to and from Cornwallis as he pursued his onward march. Extraordinarily difficult as it already was to communicate with South Carolina (almost all of the messengers being waylaid), Cornwallis faced the prospect of totally losing the communication if he proceeded farther. He nevertheless contemplated advancing as late as the 11th, but as Col. Francis Lord Rawdon explained to Balfour, the lack of communication with South Carolina brought about by the inveteracy of the Mecklenburg inhabitants, the uncertainty of cooperation with a diversionary force intended for the Chesapeake, and the possible consequences of a second event of calamitous proportions convinced him that he had to turn back. He quit Charlotte at sunset on the 14th.

The second event was the defeat of Major Patrick Ferguson and his loyalist militia. Instead of pressing ahead to join Cornwallis, he dallied and was overtaken on October 7 by revolutionary irregulars while posted on King’s Mountain near the north-west border of South Carolina. Ferguson was killed and his entire party consisting of the American Volunteers (a small British American corps) and some 800 militia was captured or killed.

“Certain it is,” asserts Major George Hanger, who was presently commanding the British Legion, “that he was defeated for this plain reason: he was beyond the reach of support. He was too far advanced on the left of the British army to retire on the approach of a very superior force. Detachments have been the ruin both of modern and ancient armies and will be again. They must sometimes be risked but they are ever attended with danger. Every detachment employed at such a distance that it cannot fall back safely on the main army or be supported from it must ever be looked upon as in the air. King’s Mountain, where Ferguson halted and fought, was fifty miles in a direct line from Charlotte town.”[1] By implication Cornwallis was not free of blame for the disaster. While, admittedly, having sound reasons for not reinforcing Ferguson offensively, he appears to have taken no account of the need to support him for defense.

Nothing is so certain as the unexpected, and it was the unexpected, magnifying the risks of losing territory to the south, that ultimately put paid to the northward invasion.

On October 8 or 9 Cornwallis fell ill with a feverish cold and the command then devolved on Rawdon. His mettle was soon tested during the harrowing withdrawal from Charlotte. The troops began by taking the road leading to the Old Nation Ford on the Catawba and were guided by William McCafferty, a Scotch-Irish merchant in Charlotte, who had remained behind in an endeavor to save his property. According to Joseph Graham, a revolutionary officer in the locality, “McCafferty led them the road to the right about two miles below Charlotte, which goes to Park’s Mill. When they got near that place, he suggested that they were on the wrong road and that he must ride a little out of the way to the left to find the right one. When he got a short distance from them, he wheeled about, as he well knew the country, and left them. The scene of confusion and disorder which succeeded among them is not easily described. They were two miles to the right of the road they intended to go, the night was dark, and being near Cedar Creek, they were intercepted by high hills and deep ravines. They attempted at different places to file to their left along byways in order to reach the main road; but finally most of them got into the woods, were separated into parties, and kept halooing to find which way their comrades had gone. By midnight they were three or four miles apart and appeared to be panic-struck lest the Americans should come upon them in that situation. They did not concentrate until noon the next day about seven miles from Charlotte. Owing to the difficult passes they took, the darkness of the night, and the scare upon them they left behind them forty wagons and considerable booty which was found dispersed for the most part near Park’s Mill.”[2] Completing the picture are the remarks of Charles Stedman, Cornwallis’s commissary, who was present: “In this retreat the King’s troops suffered much, encountered the greatest difficulties; the soldiers had no tents; it rained for several days without intermission; the roads were over their shoes in water and mud. At night, when the army took up its ground, it encamped in the woods in a most unhealthy climate, for many days without rum. Sometimes the army had beef and no bread; at other times bread and no beef. For five days it was supported upon indian corn, which was collected as it stood in the field, five ears of which were the allowance for two soldiers for twenty-four hours… The water that the army drank was frequently as thick as puddle. Few armies ever encountered greater difficulties and hardships; the soldiers bore them with great patience and without a murmur. Their attachment to their commander supported them in the day of adversity, knowing, as they did, that their officers’ and even Lords Cornwallis and Rawdon’s fare was not better than their own. Yet, with all their resolution and patience, they could not have proceeded but for the personal exertions of the militia, who, with a zeal that did them infinite honour, rendered the most important services [in obtaining provisions].”[3]

Hanger for his part adds to the picture: “I caught the yellow fever at Charlottebourg. Tarleton was just recovering from it as I sickened. When the army marched from that town, myself and five officers who had the same disorder were put into waggons and carried with the army. They all died in the first week of our march and were buried in the woods as the army moved on. My sickness happened in the autumn, at which time the rainy season sets in, when small rivulets, which generally the soldier may walk through and not wet him above the ankles, swell in a few hours to such an height as to take a man up to the neck and oftentimes for some hours impede the march of an army. In passing several of these small brooks the straw on which I lay in the waggon was wetted. Kind nature had endowed me with a constitution much stronger than the generality of mankind, or the damps I encountered must have killed me.”[4]

It was only on the 21st, when the Catawba was passed at Lands Ford, that matters generally began to take a turn for the better. The troops arrived at Winnsborough on the 29th, less the 7th Regiment and the sick, who had been sent to Camden. The village presented certain important advantages for an encampment. According to Tarleton, “Its spacious plantations yielded a tolerable post; its centrical situation between the Broad River and the Wateree afforded protection to Ninety Six and Camden; and its vicinity to the Dutch Forks, and a rich country in the rear, promised abundant supplies of flour, forage, and cattle.”[5]

The autumn campaign is not the only occasion when Cornwallis’s strategic judgement may be questioned. Part and parcel of it was his assessment, as stated at the beginning of my first article mentioned above, that it was necessary to retire within the walls of Charlestown unless the invasion of North Carolina was attempted. Such an apocalyptic view was at variance with Clinton’s instructions of June 1, 1780, which more or less implied that offensive action had to be consistent with the security of Charlestown and its dependencies. Maintaining control of South Carolina—and incidentally Georgia—was thus the primary object, there were sufficient troops for this purpose, and the invasion of North Carolina was contingent on this requirement continuing to be met—a contingency which Cornwallis had disregarded.

During the autumn campaign the war in the back parts of the Carolinas plumbed new depths of savagery. Unusually for a period in which writers out of delicacy omitted the details of barbarities, Ferguson on October 1 gave Cornwallis a graphic account of a particularly shocking case[6] which he also mentioned in a call to arms published in unexpurgated form by Samuel Cole Williams:[7] “Two old men have been brought in here to day most barbarously maim’d by a party of Cleveland’s men, who, after drinking with them in disguise for some time, fell upon them, altho unarm’d, and after butchering two young men, one of whom a son to one of the old, left them for dead and I fear past recovery.” They had lopped off the father’s arms. Ferguson went on to observe, “It appears from various accounts that Cleveland gives orders for such cowardly acts of cruelty,” a valid point which I also make elsewhere.[8]


Another low was reached at the close of the Battle of King’s Mountain and in the ensuing days. Taking part in the battle on the revolutionary side were 440 overmountain men, 310 North Carolinians, and 160 men from South Carolina. Courageous, hardy, but often uncultivated in mind or manners, they were expert marksmen ideally suited to take on Ferguson. Momentous as their victory was, it was tarnished by maltreatment of their prisoners, beginning at the surrender. Despite the white flags and kerchiefs raised by the loyalists, many revolutionaries continued firing until they were weary of the slaughter. In consequence 157 loyalists, but only 28 revolutionaries, were killed, and the numbers of wounded on either side were quite disproportionate too. The night was spent on the battlefield, but the cries of the wounded loyalists were little heeded and next day they were left to perish, having been stripped of their clothes and blankets. During the march of the rest into captivity “there seems to have been individual cases of savage severity, even to murder, exercised towards the prisoners,” so much so that Col. William Campbell felt it necessary in his general orders of the 11th to “request the officers of all ranks in the army to endeavor to restrain the disorderly manner of slaughtering and disturbing the prisoners.”[9] Anthony Allaire, one of Ferguson’s officers, gives an example of the sort of maltreatment that went on: “Several of the militia that were worn out with fatigue, not being able to keep up, were cut down and trodden to death in the mire.”[10] Perhaps the worst example, because it was “officially” sanctioned, was the holding of a mock trial at Bickerstaff’s Old Fields on the 14th, when some thirty of the loyalists were condemned to death and nine summarily hanged. As to Ferguson, the hatred of the revolutionaries was so intense that, not content with stripping his body naked, they urinated on it.

Maltreatment of loyalists east of Camden was also taking a downward turn. Although relatively few, they were being plundered and either dispersed or murdered in cold blood. By mid September Richard England at Camden was reporting to Cornwallis, “There are hourly people coming in from Peedee giving dreadful accounts of the depredations committing there by the rebells. They bring in with them all their family, Negroes etc.”[11]

Cornwallis for his part was also culpable. Despite implying to Lord George Germain, the British secretary of state, on September 23 that native Americans were to remain quietly at home, presumably on account of their indiscriminate form of warfare, he four days later agreed to Balfour’s proposal to employ the Cherokees against the overmountain settlers, “altho’ it is positively contrary to my instructions.”[12] “Great nations,” observes Hanger, “have many individuals amongst them who as individuals are men of the greatest honour and probity, but great nations (speaking politically of them) are great rogues in their transactions with their natural enemy. So are great ministers and great generals, although in their private characters they are all honourable men.”[13] By late October Lt. Col. Thomas Brown, the Superintendent of Indian Affiars at Augusta, was busily arranging matters, and shortly afterwards the Cherokee attacks began. The upshot was that the overmountain settlers became too preoccupied with defending themselves to present a further threat to South Carolina and Georgia. The Cherokees would pay a high price for going on the warpath, many of their towns being razed to the ground in December and March.

The pressing need for more cavalry or mounted men became ever more apparent as autumn progressed, given that the enemy were mostly mounted militia and could not be overtaken by infantry. “Horse is the thing to cover this country,” commented Lt. Col. John Harris Cruger,[14] who was supported by Lt. Col. George Turnbull: “Dragoons or mounted men must be got to check these rebells which lays waste the country and murders the well affected in cold blood.”[15] For this reason Cornwallis approved the raising of a number of dragoons: two, possibly three, troops of 40 men each for Ninety Six, one of 60 for Camden, and possibly another of 60 for Georgetown. “Altho’ these corps may be expensive,” he remarked, “I am convinced there can be no other means of securing the vast tract of country that it is necessary to guard.”[16]

As ever, the British were losing the propaganda war. According to Cornwallis, “Favorable accounts for us circulate very slowly, whilst the most improbable lies fly like lightning through the province.”[17] The pernicious effect on the territory between Camden and the Pee Dee was described by Major James Wemyss[18] in a letter of September 30 from Cheraw Hill: “I have offered pardon to all people now in arms who have not broke their paroles or oath of allegiance that will surrender themselves, but without any effect. They are deluded in a most extraordinary manner by reports of a large army coming from the northward, the arrival of a French fleet and army etc. etc.,”[19] none of which was presently true as far as the war in the south was concerned.

Now that King’s Mountain had effectively demolished the royal militia as a force to be reckoned with in the Backcountry, it had become incumbent on Cornwallis to plug the gap with regular and British American troops. Before again attempting an invasion of North Carolina, he had come to recognise that a reinforcement of such troops was essential, not only to secure the territory behind him, but also to supplement his force for another mistaken northward advance. Having recovered from his illness, he formally resumed his command on November 1.[20]



Lyman C. Draper, King’s Mountain and its Heroes (Cincinnati, 1881).

Marianne McLeod Gilchrist,Patrick Ferguson, “A Man of Some Genius” (NMS Publishing, 2003).

Joseph Graham, ‘Narrative’, in William Henry Hoyt ed., The Papers of Archibald D. Murphey (Publications of the North Carolina Historical Commission, Raleigh, 1914).

George Hanger ―

An Address to the Army (London, 1789)

Anticipation of the Freedom of Brabant(London, 1792)

The Life, Adventures, and Opinions of Col. George Hanger (London, 1801).

Ian Saberton ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War, 6 vols (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 2010).

David Schenck, North Carolina 1780-81 (Raleigh, NC, 1889).

Charles Stedman, History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War (London, 1792).

Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (London, 1787).

Samuel Cole Williams, Tennessee during the Revolutionary War (Reprint of 1944 edition, University of Tennessee Press, 1974).


[1]Hanger, Address, 71-2.

[2]Graham, “Narrative,” Murphey Papers, 2: 252-3.

[3]Stedman, History, 2: 224-5.

[4]Hanger, Life, 2: 408-9.

[5]Tarleton, Campaigns, 169.

[6]Saberton ed., The Cornwallis Papers (“CP”), 2: 162.

[7]Williams, Tennessee, 151.

[8]See Ian Saberton, The American Revolutionary War in the south: A Re-evaluation from a British perspective in the light of The Cornwallis Papers (Tolworth UK: Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd, 2018), 42-3.

[9]Draper, King’s Mountain, 326.

[10]Ibid., 518.

[11]CP, 2: 269.

[12]CP, 2: 100.

[13]Hanger, Brabant.

[14]CP, 2: 198.

[15]CP, 2: 263.

[16]CP, 2: 105.

[17]CP, 2: 174.

[18]Wemyss: pronounced “Weems.”

[19]CP, 2: 217.

[20]For subsequent events, see my article “Cornwallis’s refitment at Winnsborough and the start of the Winter Campaign, November – January 1780-81,” Journal of the American Revolution, March 18, 2019.

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