The Battles of McPhaul's Mill and Raft Swamp, 1781
by John Henry McPhaul for the Red Springs Revolutionary Bicentennial Celebration on October 5, 1974
Too little has been recorded about the history of the Revolutionary War in North Carolina by northern historians and school textbook writers. Some historians have given slight notice to the battles of Moore's Creek Bridge and Guilford Court House; but the conflicts which occurred here in this section of North Carolina have all but gone unnoticed — even by native North Carolinians and by those of us whose ancestors were participants in these historical events.
This colonial muster commemorates two Revolutionary War battles which occurred in close proximity to what is now the Town of Red Springs, North Carolina — the Battle of McPhaul's Mill and the Battle of Raft Swamp.
The British made two attempts to subjugate the patriots in the southern states during the American Rvolution. The first occurred in 1776, prior to the Declaration of Independence. They had assembled a moderate-sized flotilla in England and had sent it toward Charleston, South Carolina. They knew there were more Loyalists in the South who were willing to fight for the Birtish than in any other section of the colonies. They therefore alerted their Loyalist followers to be ready to help when the invastion began. Bridadier Gen. Donald McDonald and Col. Donald McLeod were presumably sent by British authorities to this general section of North Carolina to influence their countrymen and other Loyalist sympathizers to participate in this first Loyalist uprising in support of British authority. These influential Scotsmen were successful in this purpose but the army they assembled was eventually defeated at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, North Carolina on February 27, 1776. The subsequent invasion attempt by the British at Charleston, South Carolina in June 1776 was also unsuccessful and this first attack on the South had failed. It was more than three years before they returned.
The first meeting of the General Assembly of the state of North Carolina under the Constitution met at New Bern, North Carolina on April 8, 1777 and promptly passed an "Act for declaring what crimes and practices against the State shall be treason, and what shall be misprison of treason, and providing punishments adequate to crimes of both classes, and for preventing the dangers which may arise from persons disaffected to the State." From the time of the passage of this act until the summer of 1779, there was comparative peace and security in this section of North Carolina. There were occasional individual acts of cruelty, depredations or house burning, and some acts of oppression by petty officers, both civil and military. These however, were small matters in comparison with what had preceded and what followed.
The second attempt by the British to subjugate the Patriots in the southern states began in November 1779 with the successful British invasion of Savannah, Georgia; and continued with the successful British invasion of Charleston, South Carolina in April and May, 1779 [which ended in 1780 –SE]. These invasions were followed by a series of battles in South Carolina and the Battle of Guilford CourtHouse in North Carolina during which the British Army gradually weakened. Once again we presume it was the British authorities who had sent former army officers Col. Hector McNeill and Col. Archibald McDonald, to this section of North Carolina to influence their countrymen and other Loyalist sympathizers to participate in this second Loyalist uprising in support of British authority. These former officers were quite enthusiastic and gave the most glowing accounts of the British Army and its officers. They said the British Army had money at command in any amount, that they would be certain to conquer the country, and that the Scottish people would be handsomely rewarded if found on the King's side. Thus excited, the Scottish Loyalists and Tories began again, gradually to rise and embody. The ensuing civil strife in this section reached its greatest intensity during a six month period in the year 1781. The conflicts pited neighbor against neighbor; Whig or Patriot against Loyalist or Tory. The country soon presented a terrible scene of bloodshed, devastation and wretchedness. The skirmishes and battles which occurred during this period have been referred to collectively by local historians as the Tory War.
Lord Cornwallis had won his costly and questionable victory at Guilford Courthouse, had completed his march through Fayetteville, North Carolina to Wilmington, North Carolina, and was well on his way to ultimate defeat at Yorktown, Virginia when the Tory War began. The following is a chronological listing of the skirmishes and battles occurring during the Tory War:
– Skirmish at Legat's (now Davis') Bridge, 1781
– Massacre at Piney Bottom, 1781
– Seizure of Pittsboro, North Carolina, Tuesday, July 17, 1781
– Skirmish at Stuart's (now McPherson's Mill) Creek, Thursday, July 26, 1781
– Beginning of Col. Thomas Wade's retaliatory raid, Thursday, July 26, 1781.
– Affairs at Sproules Ferry, Sunday, July 29, 1781.
– Battle of Beatties' (now Gilchrist's) Bridge, Saturday, August 4, 1781.
– End of Col. Thomas Wade's retaliatory raid, Saturday, August 4, 1781.
– Skirmish at the House in the Horseshoe, Sunday, August 5, 1781.
– Seizure of Campbellton (now Fayetteville), N.C., Tuesday, August 14, 1781.
– Battle of Elizabethtown, North Carolina, Wednesday, August 29, 1781.
– Affair at Indian Branch, September, 1781.
– Battle of McPhaul's Mill, Saturday, September 1, 1781.
– Skirmish at Kirk's Farm, September, 1781.
– Seizure of Hillsboro, North Carolina, Wednesday, September 12, 1781.
– Battle of Cane Creek (Lindley's Mill), Thursday, September 13, 1781.
– Battle of Raft Swamp, Monday, October 15, 1781.
[There was also a battle at Rockfish Creek in Cumberland County, an article about which will be posted in time on this site. –SE]
As indicated earlier, the people of the Town of Red Springs are staging this colonial muster in order to commemorate the following two battles from the period of the Tory War:
The Battle of McPhaul's Mill
"Following the Seizure of Campbellton (now Fayetteville), North Carolina, Colonel David Fanning and the Tories marched down the Cape Fear River to Wilmington, North Carolina. During this march, they burned the plantation homes of Captain Thomas Robeson and Colonel Peter Robeson, members of the Whig family for whom the County of Robeson is named. They remained at Wilmington three days, during which time Col. Fanning received a commission from Major Craig, of Lieutenant Colonel, and a suit of rich regimentals, with suitable epaulettes, sword and pistols. He set out on his return to Chatham County. At McPhaul's Mill, having encamped, intelligence was received by express that Colonel Thomas Wade, of Anson County, with six hundred and sixty men were at Beatties' (now Gilchrist) Bridge, on Drowning Creek [now Lumber River –SE], twenty miles south of McPhaul's Mill. The express reached the camp about eight o'clock at night. Fanning ordered his men to mount their horses and march immediately. At the dawn of day, ten miles north of Beatties' Bridge, they came up with Colonel Hector McNeill, having with him three hundred men; the whole number then amounted to three hundred and forty. Fanning took the command, and soon learning that Colonel Wade had crossed the bridge to the eastern side of Drowning Creek, he turned to the right, and passed up a swamp to a crossway, expecting to find Colonel Wade between that swamp and the creek. The crossway was distant about three-quarters of a mile from Beatties' Bridge. Fanning halted at the crossway and gave notice of the order of battle. His men were directed to pass the crossway, two deep, and all having got over, Colonel McNeill was ordered to turn down the swamp to the left towards the bridge, to cut off Wade's retreat in that direction. He was ordered not to bring his men into action unless Fanning should be hard pressed and in danger of being defeated, but to watch the progress of the battle and if Wade should be routed, by securing the pass to the bridge, to prevent his retreat, and capture as many prisoners as possible. Fanning was to turn to the right from the end of the crossway with all the other men, and they were directed to follow him in the same order in which they passed the crossway, until he should reach the extreme left of Wade's line, when upon a signal to be given by him, they were to dismount and commence the fight. Eleven men were left to guard the crossway and prevent the escape of the horses, the swamp being impassable for miles except at this crossway.
"These orders being given, Fanning preceding his column, passed the crossway, his men following him. As soon as he passed, he discovered Wade's men drawn up on the top of the hill in line of battle. The ground was favorable for his attack. There was no undergrowth of bushes, and the pines were thinly scattered on the slope of the hill. Fanning immediately perceived the injudicious position which Wade had taken, and confident of victory, rode on to the left of Wade's line. Before, however, he had proceeded as far as he had intended, one of his men was thrown from his horse, and in the act of falling his gun fired. Instantly, Wade's line fired, and eighteen horses belonging to Fanning's men were killed. Fanning wheeled, gave the signal to dismount, which was instantly observed by his men, who poured in a deadly fire upon Wade's line. Fanning rode along his line in front and ordered his men to advance upon every fire, and they continued to advance and fire until they got within twenty-five yards of Wade's line, when it suddenly broke, and the men fled in the utmost confusion. Fanning, pursuing with activity, and expecting that their retreat by the bridge would be cut off by Colonel McNeill, he had no doubt of taking them all prisoners. To his astonishment, he found that Col. McNeill had not occupied the ground to which he was ordered; that he had passed down the right of Wade's line, only a short distance and left the way to the bridge open. Fanning pressed on the fugitives, and soon took forty-four prisoners. He then directed a few of his men to mount, and with them he pursued Wade at full speed, for two or three miles. But Wade had fled at full speed, and Fanning could not overtake him.
"During this fight, as well as upon every other occasion, Fanning displayed the most daring courage. Dressed in rich British uniform, he rode between the lines during the fight, and gave his orders with the utmost coolness and presence of mind. It is strange that he had not been selected by some of Wade's men, as he was at the close of the fight, not twenty yards distant from them. He did not lose one of his men, only two or three were slightly wounded. As he ascended the hill, Wade's men shot over his, and when he approached the summit, Wade's men were so panic stricken that they fired without aim. Wade lost twenty-seven men, and of the prisoners taken, several died of their wounds."
This is perhaps the only written account of the Loyalist and Tory victory at the Battle of McPhaul's Mill which has been preserved from historical oblivion. It should be of special interest to those with forebears whose consciences directed them to remain loyal to the King of England during the "times which tried men's souls." There are many such individuals now residing in this section.
[The previous account was taken from Reverend Eli Caruthers in his two-series work, Revolutionary Incidents: and Sketches of Character, Chiefly in the Old North State, published in 1854 and 1856. Reverend Caruthers travelled the region and interviewed living witnesses to the various incidents he recorded in his series. –SE]
The Battle of Raft Swamp — Monday, October 15, 1781
"The Loyalist and Tory successes continued following their victory at McPhaul's Mill. One of the most amazing feats of the Loyalists during the Tory War was the Seizure of Hillsboro, Revolutionary Capitol of North Carolina, on September 12, 1781. At this time, they captured the Patriot Governor of North Carolina, Thomas Burke. On the following day, the Loyalists resisted an attempt by General Butler and three hundred Whigs to free the "Rebel Governor" as he was called by the Loyalists. This was known as the Battle of Cane Creek. Ultimate success for the Loyalists was not to be, however, and their organized resistance in this area to the cause of freedom for the colonies came to an abrupt and permanent end with the occurrence of the Battle of Raft Swamp.
In August, 1781, General Griffith Rutherford, Whig Officer in command of the
militia in Salisbury district, was released from imprisonment following his
capture at General Gates' defeat at Camden, South Carolina. He was soon informed
of the state of things in the region of the Cape Fear and Pee Dee Rivers, and
received from the officers of the surrounding country a request for assistance.
With characteristic promptness, he ordered out the next detachment liable for
duty to rendezvous on Little River in Montgomery county by September 15, 1781.
There assembled on the plantations of a Mr. Robinson, near the apponted time,
about nine hundred and fifty of the infantry and near two hundred cavalry, seventy
of whom were equipped as dragoons. They were in two troops, one under Capt.
Simmons of Rowan County, and the other under Capt. Graham of Mecklenburg County.
Robert Smith, of Mecklenburg County was appointed Major and invested with the
command of the whole cavalry. By the time of the battle, he had been appointed
Colonel. Near the end of the month, they commenced their march by slow movements,
on the road towards Fayetteville, North Carolina. By the time they reached Drowning
Creek, they had received some small accessions: Capt. John Gillespie joined
them with a troop from Guilford County, Capt. Bethel was there with a troop
from the same County, and Col. Owen was there with thirty-five mounted men from
Bladen County. The entire force was now fourteen hundred men; three hundred
and fifty horses and one thousand and fifty on foot. This was an army which
had nothing to fear in the region and they had only to march through the country.
After crossing Drowning Creek
at Monroe's Bridge, this army turned to the right aiming to keep between
the heads of the waters which run into the Pee Dee river on the right and Rock
Fish Creek and Cape Fear River on the left. They eventually encamped near McPhaul's
Mill and made their attack on the Loyalist force from this place.
The Loyalists had never dispersed since the capture of Governor Burke, and about six hundred of them were now embodied on the Raft Swamp under Colonels Duncan Ray, Archibald McDougald and "One-Eyed" Hector McNeill. Old Colonel Hector McNeill, brother-in-law of the famous Jennie Bahn McNeill [How was he her brother-in-law? did he marry a sister of 'Scribbling Archie' McNeill or a sister of Jennie Bahn Smith? Does this imply Old Colonel Hector McNeill was a brother 'Scribbling Archie'? I do not believe he was his brother.], had been killed the previous month at the Battle of Cane Creek; and the Loyalists had elevated "One-Eyed" Hector to the rank of Colonel to conceal the fact that the old Scottish commander had been slain. Col. David Fanning's services had also been lost to the Loyalists for he had been wounded at Cane Creek. Tradition indicates that Col. Fanning did review the Loyalist troops as they practiced daily in the military exercises on or near the spot on which Floral College later stood.
On October 15, 1781, Col. Hector McNeill marched his army down about five miles below McPhaul's Mill and encamped in the woods at the mouth of Brown's (later McDougald's) Branch on the southwest side of the Little Raft Swamp and about a mile above the Lowry Road. It was here that the entire six hundred Loyalists assembled. After some consultation, they concluded to cross the Little Raft Swamp, and take their stand upon the face of the hill at the Lowry Road on the Northeast side of the swamp. There they would "give the Whigs Jesse" as they came out of the swamp, which they would have to do on a causeway which was little better than none.
Two days previous, Loyalist Col. Archibald McDougald visited his old friend, Whig Neill Brown, Esq., so called to distinguish him from Tory Neill Brown who lived near Antioch, North Carolina [which today is well marked by the presence of Antioch Presbyterian Church at a crossroad in Hoke County a short drive westward on Highway 211 over the county line from the town of Red Springs in Robeson County, NC –SE]. (Both Neills have numerous descendants in this vicinity.) Colonel McDougald had no sooner returned to the Loyalist army when Daniel McArn and another scout were seen coming at full speed, their horses almost run down. On coming up, they announced that the Whigs were coming in full gallop, and were close at hand. While they were yet speaking, Major Graham and his dragoons came in sight, having seen McArn and pursued him.
[Henry H. Hodgin, Jr., an upper Robeson County historian of note, and Lacy C. Buie of Philadelphus whose historical opinion also was respected locally, both claimed that initial conflict leading up to the Battle of Raft Swamp began just below Richland Swamp near Highway 71 on the old Mikey Brown place. Today, this Brown home is gone but its site — and the old Brown cemetery close by — is very near where the two historians agreed the battle began and which from that place was fought northward along the Lowry Road to its conclusion. –SE]
The Loyalists had taken up the causeway and thought that no mortal would then attempt to cross; but Graham and his Whigs, on their big horses plunged in and floundered through, much to the surprise of the Scottish. They then formed into a line by turning alternately to the right and left as they cleared the swamp. Tradition indicates that Daniel McArn leaned against a pine tree and played his bagpipes as the battle began, but the martial strains were not sufficient to inspire the Loyalists to victory. As the Whigs attacked, all was confusion among the Loyalists, and some fled at first sight. Others tried to get into order and about one hundred and fifty did so; but as soon as the Whigs were formed into line and started up the hill at a gallop, they all fled, each one his own way. They kept the Lowry Road in a northeasterly direction towards the Big Raft Swamp; and this probably gave their enemies a better opportunity of attacking them en masse. It was a running fight from Little Raft Swamp to Big Raft Swamp. When the Loyalists reached the Big Raft Swamp, they crowded and jostled each other, all trying to cross the causeway at once. This retarded their own progress over the narrow causeway which was two hundred yards wide. The Whigs entered the causeway almost with them, using the sabre against all they could reach. Thus wounded, the Loyalists would throw themselves off on each side into the swamp, quitting their horses and making off into the swamp. The Whig dragoons near the front fired their pistols at them in their retreat. By the time the Whigs got half way through, the causeway was crowded with dismounted horses for twenty steps before them. Since it was impossible for them to pass, two or three stout men dismounted and kept pushing the horses over into the swamp and out of the way. By the time the causeway was cleared, the Loyalists were scattered and completely beaten. It was getting too dark to shoot and the Whigs thought it was inexpedient to pursue the victory further. The Whigs were collected by the sound of the trumpet at the West side of the Big Raft Swamp and marched back to where General Rutherford was encamped near McPhaul's Mill.
The Whigs suffered practically no casualties but the Loyalists had sixteen killed and about fifty wounded. During the pursuit from Little Raft Swamp to Big Raft Swamp Loyalist William Watson was overtaken and cut down. His brother John Watson, who was only a few paces ahead, was also cut down while in the act of turning around to beg for his life. A little further on, they shot down Thomas Watson of another family, but he got to Edward Campbell's that night where he lived a week and died. They next cut down Peter McKellar from the Ashpole community. He was buried at the roadside where he fell in a field belonging to one John McMillan through whose plantation the battle was fought. (John McMillan also has numerous descendants in this area.) A small post, with the initials of his name near the top marked the place of Peter McKellar's grave for many years. A little above the road, on the hill of the Big Raft Swamp several others were killed whose names are now forgotten. They were buried on the brow of the hill overlooking the Big Raft Swamp. Capt. Neill McPhaul, Neill Currie and others of the wounded subsequently died at Charleston, South Carolina, to which place many of the Loyalists fled for refuge following this battle and the war's end which occurred four days later when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia.
[Touching on the burial of the dead in this battle, I am reminded of Lacy C. Buie telling me that some of the fallen along the Lowry Road were buried near the intersection of the Lowry Road and McLeod Road west of Red Springs, forming a small cemetery that had had wooden markers years before. I was astonished by this tradition because a year or so before that a friend and I had discovered evidence of some burials there. While bicycling along the Lowry Road about 1966, we encounted at the northeast corner of this intersection a newly dug, large area where sand and dirt were being dug out to a depth of about 6 feet. We climbed down inside. The machinery employed to dig the pit had gouged a clean, vertical wall ten or so feet from the edge of the Lowry Road. I noticed some three feet down from the surface on this dirt wall at least three horizontal holes in a row. Upon closer inspection, bones could be seen in each hole. The jawbone that I found there was human. –SE]
This was certainly a decisive victory for the Whigs, and the spirit of the Loyalists was completely broken. They were never afterwards able to offer any organized resistance to the cause of freedom in this area.
(Editor's Note: Much of the material for the story was extracted from "Revolutionary Incidents" by Rev. E.W. Caruthers, D.D., published in 1856)
About one mile south of Red Springs on Highway 211, a sign that commemorates the Battle of Raft Swamp stands beside the highway. About two miles east of that sign, on the Old Lowry Road, the last Revolutionary War Battle in North Carolina was fought.
The Battle of Raft Swamp occurred on October 15, 1781 in a running engagement between about 600 Tories and 1400 Whigs. The fight broke the last Tory resistance in the area and happened only two days before British General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia.
Henry Hodgin, Red Springs Historian, said that according to local legend the battle started on Richland Swamp, which crosses Highway 710 two miles south of Red Springs. [More accurately , it crosses 710 about one mile south of Red Springs.] Hodgin said the first started near "Whig Neill" Brown's home and proceeded up the Old Lowry Road until it crossed Big Raft Swamp.
The Tories were shown no mercy in the fight as some were chased for miles to be cut down. Most of them had to leave the area after the War. Some immigrated to Nova Scotia, the West Indies and the Carribean.
Soldiers Gather for the Last Battle
In August of 1781, General Rutherford, a popular patriot leader in North Carolina, was exchanged and releasee from captivity in a British prison in St. Augustine, Fla. He resumed the command of his former district in North Carolina and became informed with the state of things in the regions about the Cape Fear and Pee Dee Rivers.
General Rutherford gathered a group of troops and rendezvoused with other Patriot forces in Montgomery County. At the end of September, as he marched toward Fayetteville, the Whig forces grew to about 1400 men.
The Whigs were commanded by General Rutherford and lead by Captains John Gillespie, Bethel, Owen, and Simmons. Col. Robert Smith and Major Graham were given charge of the cavalry. Caruthers notes that the cavalry, "scoured the country, and being in advance of the infantry, did all the fighting."
Caruthers notes also that "this was an army which had nothing to fear in this region, and they had only to march through the country."
Col. Fanning and the Tories had captured N.C. Governor Burke, a patriot, on September 12 and had not dispersed from the Raft Swamp Region after transporting their prisoners through McPhaul's Mill enroute to Wilmington. The Tories were led by Colonels Ray, McDougald, and "one-eyed Hector" McNeill.
According to Caruthers, Col. Fanning had an arm broken in a battle on Cane Creek about one month before. Col. Fanning and Major Elrod reviewed the Tory troops, which numbered about 600, near the site of Floral College, which was located on Highway 71 near Maxton.
Tories Stand at Raft Swamp Crossing
Spies in the camps kept each force informed on the position and strength of the other. The Tories knew that the Whigs were advancing near Lumber River [then called Drowning Creek] so they moved their forces "about five miles below McPhaul's Mill and encamped in the woods at the mouth of Brown's now McDougald's Branch, on the south-west side of the Little Raft Swamp, and about a mile above the Lowry Road."
The next day the Tories learned that General Rutherford and his forces had arrived at McPhaul's Mill. According to Caruthers the Tories then crossed the Little Raft Swamp and took a stand on a hill on the north-east side, on the Lowry Road. Caruthers notes that the Tories planned to "give the Whigs Jesse" as they came out of the swamp.
Henry Hodgin interpreted the figure of speech as "give the Whigs hell."
The Tories sent out Daniel McArn and another scout to the west to get information. According to Caruthers the Tories had just crossed the swamp when they saw McArn and the other scout "coming at full speed, their horses almost run down."
Patriots Cross Swamp and Rout Tories
Major Graham and his dragoons, heavily armed mounted soliers, rode up after McArn, having seen the scouts and chased them. The Tories had torn up the bridge on the Old Lowry Road and ha[d] greased its logs. According to Caruthers the Tories, "thought that no mortal would then attempt to cross but Graham and his men, on their big horses plunged into Raft Swamp and floundered through, much to the surprise of the Scotch."
According to Caruthers there was much confusion among the Tories and some fled at first sight of the cavalry. "Others tried to get into order, and about 35 did so; but as soon as the Whigs were formed into a line and started up the hill at a gallop, they all fled, each one his own way."
Caruthers notes that a traveller who was on the road when the Whigs approached "apprehended no danger, and made no efforts to get out of the way." According to Caruthers he became fearful at the sight of the dragoons, fell down on his knees and began to beg for his life. One Whig pulled out a pistol and shot him down, without breaking his gallop.
The Whigs chased the Tories on the causeways of Old Lowry Road on the Raft Swamps and rode over the Tories, cut them with their sabres, and tumbled the riders and their sand hill ponies off the causeway into the water.
Caruthers notes that "William Ryan, Esq., who was on that expedition against the Tories, told me that when they came to the Big Raft Swamp "It looked funny" to see the little Scotch ponies that had been jostled off the causeway, and had sunk into the water on each side, some with only their noses above the surface."
Sixteen of the Tories were killed and about 50 wounded. The Whigs lost on or two horses and one man.
Henry Hodgin said that, according to local tradition, during the battle many of the Tories hid out in a "goose pond" which was located off the Old Lowry Road near Raft Swamp.
Whigs Hunt for Tories
During the battle William Watson and his brother John, were overtaken and cut down. Thomas Watson, Peter McKellar, Joseph Corbett, Archibald Black and a young man named Armstrong were shot down.
According to Caruthers an old Scotchman surrendered to the Whigs but Ma[j]or Charles "Devil Charley" Polk rode up and frightened the captive. The Scotchman ran and according to neighborhood tradition, Major Polk chased him and split his head open with his sword.
When the Tories found that General Rutherford was remaining in the area sending out dragoons in every direction, and penetrating the swamps in search of them, they began to think that he was determined to put them all to the sword.
According to Caruthers the Tories either came in to surrender or fled beyond the reach of the Whigs. Some fled to a truce zone established by British leader, Major Gainey, and General Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion, in South Carolina on the Pee Dee River.
Treatment of Tories After the War
Caruthers notes that after the British armies left North Carolina, it was a fearful time for the Tories until peace was concluded in the fall of 1783. The peace treaty made provisions for the Tories, but it took several years to get order established.
According to Caruthers many of the Tories who had been active and prominent in the War, fled from the country. Some went to Scotland and some to the West Indes. Most of them went to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick where the British Government had made provisions for them. Many of them remained until law and order was established and found concealment in the swamps or protection under the wing of Whig friends.
After the War, Caruthers notes that poverty and desolation reigned over the
country. "Murder, robbery, intemperence, licentiousness, gambling, and
horse-racing everywhere abounded; and of this the records of the country and
circuit courts afford ample proof."
The Battle of McPhaul's Mill
by J.S. Edgerton, Jr., and Mrs. Dorothy P. Edgerton, 1981. Copyright 2015.
In much of the information that has been written pertaining to the local history of the Revolutionary War in the area of southeastern North Carolina, there is very little to be found concerning the minor battles of the conflict, much less information on the participants of those battles that took place locally. However, after many trips to libraries, the archives, and talking with people who really know the history and the important locations of the historical events that took place two centuries ago, I have been able to piece together the information of some of these local happenings.
The Tories of southeastern North Carolina had become very quiet following their crushing defeat at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge on that freezing day of 27 February 1776. After this Whig victory, much of the major fighting took place in the northern section of the present day United States, but in December of 1778, the British commanded by Sir Henry Clinton seized Savannah, Georgia, which gave them a foothold in the south. Savannah became a supply depot through which much of the badly needed material and supplies could be delivered to the British soldier.
The next objective for the British was the seaport of Charleston, South Carolina, which they took in May of 1780, along with 5,500 troops and countless supplies. The surrender of Charleston opened the doors for the British conquest of all of the colony of South Carolina.
In May of 1781, the British major, James H. Craig, who was an experienced and able officer, seized the seaport town of Wilmington, North Carolina. He commanded about four-hundred men, and they fortified themselves in the town, with Major Craig using the Episcopal Church as his command post headquarters. He then issued an invitation to all Tories to rally to the service of their king, George III of England.
About this time, there came riding out of the South Carolina canebreaks a man whom the Whigs of North and South Carolina would find very hard to forget. He always wore a red silk kerchief around his head, and he was named David Fanning, or "Scalding Dave". It seems that when Fanning was a young boy, he had been apprenticed to a loom maker in Wake County, North Carolina. Fanning had found his master to be a cruel tyrant, and ran away from his job, half naked and with his head afflicted with the "tetter worm". Young Fanning was taken in by the John O'Daniell family in Hawfield, Orange County, North Carolina. Here he was cured of his ailment, but he was left bald and was very self-conscious about his appearance for the rest of his life. At Hawfield, he quickly learned reading and writing, and by his dare-devil courage and sense of excellent timing, he became a superb horse tamer.
Fanning's "military" career began in North Carolina as a raider and a bushwhacker for Cornwallis until he and his British army marched out of the state, leaving Major James H. Craig in command of the British at Wilmington, North Carolina. It seems that Fanning and Craig were "two peas in a pod": they had a mutual liking for surprise raids and houseburnings.
Fanning was formerly chosen the leader of his British troop of Tories in Chatham County, North Carolina, so he prepared to ride to Wilmington, North Carolina to receive his commission as a colonel of the Loyal Militia. On their march to Wilmington they burned the plantation home of Colonel Thomas Robeson, the patriot for whom Robeson County, North Carolina is named. Their stay in Wilmington lasted for three days, and Colonel Fanning received his commission from British Major James H. Craig, with a suit of rich regimentals, with epaulettes, sword and pistols.
Colonel Fanning with forty men began their march back to Chatham County, and when they arrived at McPhaul's Mill and tavern, they decided to camp for the night and move on about daylight of the next day. That night about eight o'clock , word reached Colonel Fanning that Colonel Thomas Wade, who commanded about four-hundred Whigs from Anson County, North Carolina was camped at Beattie's Bridge over the Lumber River, which was about twenty miles from them at McPhaul's Mill and tavern. Colonel Fanning immediately ordered his men to mount and prepare to march to engage Colonel Wade at Beattie's Bridge when fortunately he came upon Lieutenant-Colonel Hector McNeill leading three-hundred Tory soldiers.
Colonel Fanning took command of the total three-hundred and forty men, and soon learned that Colonel Wade had crossed to the eastern side of the Lumber River, so he turned to the right and went past the swamp to a crossway where he expected to find Colonel Wade between that swamp and the creek. The crossway was about a mile from Beattie's Bridge.
When they came to the crossway, Fanning stopped and gave orders for the upcoming battle. He instructed his men to go over the crossway two-deep, and when they had all gotten over, he told Lieutenant-Colonel Hector McNeill to go to the left towards the bridge. This was to stop Wade's retreat in that direction. Lieutenant-Colonel McNeill was ordered not to bring his men into the fight unless Fanning should be hard pressed and in danger of being defeated, but for McNeill to only watch the battle and if Colonel Wade and his men wrre routed he should guard the pass to the bridge to stop his retreat, and to capture as many prisoners as possible. At the end of the crossway, Fanning said that he would turn right with all the other men following him, in the same order which they first passed the crossway. When he reached Wade's line on the extreme left, he would then give a signal for the men to dismount and keep up the fight. Eleven men were left guarding the crossway and preventing the horses from escaping, and this crossway was the only swamp crossing for miles.
When these orders were given, Colonel Fanning riding at the head of his column went past the crossway with his fighting men following him. As he passed, he saw that Colonel Wade's Whig army were gathered on the top of the hill in a battle line. He also saw that the ground where they would do battle was favorable for his attack, there was no undergrowth of bushes, and the few pines were sparsely scattered on the hill's slope.
Immediately Fanning became aware of the position which Colonel Wade had chosen and he was now filled with the confidence of victory. With the strong smell of victory in his nostrils, Fanning led his men to the left of Colonel Wade's line. Before they had gone as far as they had intended to go one of Fanning's men was accidently thrown from his horse. In the fall, his gun was fired and this caused Wade's line of excited Patriots to fire. None of Fanning's men were hit by the volley, but eighteen of his men's horses were killed.
Colonel Fanning wheeled and gave the signal to dismount, and his men obeyed instantly and inflicted a deadly fire upon Colonel Wade's line. During the fighting Colonel Fanning rode up and down in front of his line of men urging them on and ordering them to advance upon every shot. They were soon within twenty-five yards of Colonel Wade's line of fighting Whigs. Suddenly, the Whig line broke and they all fled in confusion and terror, with Colonel Fanning and his Tories actively pursuing them.
Fanning just knew that Colonel Hector McNeill and his men would cut off the retreat of Colonel Wade and take the complete Whig army prisoner, but his dreams of such a complete victory were suddenly dashed when he learned that McNeill had not carried out his orders correctly by not occupying the exit. The road to the bridge was left open, but Fanning pressed on toward the retreating Whigs. Forty-four were made prisoners and he ordered some of his men to remount and pursue the rest of them. They chased Colonel Wade and his men for two or three miles but the Whigs had gotten a head start and they could not be overtaken and caught.
Colonel David Fanning must have created a splendid and terrifying figure as he dashed in between the lines of battle wearing his rich British uniform, yelling at the top of his lungs, and brandishing his military saber. It is strange that he was not singled out by one of the Whigs, as he was probably not twenty yards from them at the close of the fight.
Only three Tories were slightly wounded. One of these men was Captain Neill
McPhaul—son of John McPhaul who settled at McPhaul's Mill in the mid to
late1750's—who was more seriously wounded at the Battle of Raft Swamp,
one and a half months later on 15 October 1781. From there Captain McPhaul fled
to British-held territory around Charleston, South Carolina, where he died a
few days later [not entirely accurate, according to Neill McPhaul's daughter's account of his death]. General Cornwallis had surrendered his army at Yorktown, Virginia,
just prior to McPhaul's death. Neill's widow, Mary Perkins McPhaul, alias "Pretty
Polly", petitioned the new government for a source or means of support,
and obtaining the necessities of life. The North Carolina General Assembly in
1789 passed an act which allowed the lands of the Tory Neill McPhaul to descend
to his male heirs. His widow's children and descendants were not deprived and
totally stripped of everything following his decision to adhere to the Loyalist
Caruthers, Eli W. Interesting Revolutionary Incidents and Sketches of Character, Chiefly in the Old North State. Philadelphia. Hayes and Zell. 1856.
Demand, Robert O. The Loyalists in North Carolina During the Revolution. Hamden, Connecticut. Archon Books. 1940.
Fowler, Malcolm. They Passed This Way, A Personal Narrative of the Harnett County History. Marceline, Missouri. Walsworth Publishing Company. 1955.
McPhaul, John Henry. "Colonial Muster Commemorating the Revolutionary War Battle of McPhaul's Mill." 1972.
Oates, John A. The Story of Fayetteville. Charlotte, North Carolina. the Dowd Press, Inc. 1950.
Rankin, Hugh F. North Carolina in the American Revolution. State Department of Archives and History Printing Company. Raleigh, North Carolina. 1959.
Ross, Malcolm. The Cape Fear. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. New York. 1965.
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