Alexander Davidson III & the Battle at Ramsour's Mill
June 20, 1780
This victory was the first for the Patriots since the fall of Charleston, SC.
During 1775 through 1777, the outcome of the American Revolution seemed contingent on events taking place in New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Beginning in 1778, a stalemate had developed in the northern colonies. The British had too few men and too little popular support to hold onto large swaths of territory. Most of their forces were located in or around New York City. The American Continental Army had become increasingly professionalized and fueled by the passion of overthrowing tyranny, but it was still not able to drive the British army from its strongholds.
This stalemate led to a shift in the conflict, the southern colonies were now becoming the crucial tipping point of the war effort for both sides. The British overran the state of Georgia in 1779, captured Charleston, South Carolina in May of 1780, and shortly thereafter took control of the South Carolina countryside.
With the surrender of Charles Towne, Lord Charles Cornwallis controlled South Carolina and Georgia. Lord Cornwallis and his 8,300 man army now set their sights on North Carolina as the next colony to secure for the British crown. Most classrooms teach that the turning point of the war in the South is usually regarded as the Battle of King’s Mountain, South Carolina in October, 1780. But, the Battle at King's Mountain would have never occurred had it not been for the Patriot’s decisive stand at Ramsour’s Mill. Had it occurred without the victory at Ramsour's Mill, King's Mountain would have had a decidedly different outcome. After their defeat at Ramsour's Mill, many of the Tories went home never to fight again.
At King's Mountain a sizeable British force (primarily consisting of Loyalist militia), was completely destroyed. The British army had seen its greatest victories before King’s Mountain (Charleston, Camden) and its worse defeats afterwards (Cowpens, Yorktown). However, it can be argued, that the true turning point in the war was the first moment that British fortunes began to decrease. So when did British fortunes peak and when did they first begin to decline? Arguably, the peak of the British war effort occurred on June 18, 1780, when the British won a minor battle at Hill’s Ironworks in South Carolina. At this engagement, the British had defeated the last band of organized American resistance in South Carolina, seemingly completing their conquest of that colony.
The tipping point was just 2-days later, that turned the tide and began their decline that began on June 20, 1780 when a large force of British Tories (Loyalist militia) was defeated at Ramsour’s Mill in North Carolina. This defeat led to a complete collapse of the Loyalist support in North Carolina. The defeat of these Loyalist forces greatly reduced the probable success of a British invasion of North Carolina, and helped American forces to renew their contest for South Carolina.
The Battle of Ramsour's Mill took place on June 20, 1780 near present-day Lincolnton, North Carolina, during the British campaign to gain control of the southern colonies in the American Revolutionary War. About 400 American militia (Whigs) defeated 1,300 (Tories) Loyalist militiamen. The battle did not involve any regular army forces from either side, and was literally fought between neighbors. But, they were all Americans, regardless if they were German, Scotch Irish Immigrants, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists - those fighting for the crown against those fighting for independence. Family loyalties were divided, William Simpson was on a scouting party for the Patriots and he heard that the battle had started near his family's homestead, so he hurried back to Ramsour’s Mill as fast as he could, fully intending if he got there in time, to kill his brother Rubin, whom he learned was a spy for the Loyalists.
Ramsour’s Mill was a grist milll for corn meal and flour, location well known to the locals. There was only one of the main road from Charlotte that ran past Ramsour’s Mill. Everything else was animal or Indian trails, with occasional wagon tracks.
On June 18, 1780, Patriot General Griffith Rutherford, who was camped near Charlotte, North Carolina, learned that a large force of Loyalists was assembling at Ramsour's Mill, near present-day Lincolnton. Rutherford began moving his troops in that direction, and on June 19 he sent orders to Lieutenant Colonel Francis Locke and other local leaders to call up their militia. Four hundred men, primarily farmers responded from the Burke, Iredell, Mecklenburg, and Rowan Counties. Locke gathers a force of 400 cavalry and infantry at Mountain Creek, about 16 miles to the northeast of Lincolnton. Their intelligence showed that the Loyalist force was more than three times their size, but it was decided to attack early the next morning without waiting for Rutherford's forces to join up. At daybreak on June 20, they were one mile from the Loyalist camp, located on a hill about 300 yards east of the mill belonging to Jacob Ramsour. Shrouded in fog and mist, the Patriot Militia force of Colonel Francis Locke, 400 strong, attacks the Loyal Tory Militiamen under the combined command of Lt. Colonel John Moore and Major Nicolas Welch.
The Tories were encamped on a hill, three hundred yards east of Ramsour's Mill, and half a mile north of the present flourishing village of Lincolnton. A ridge stretches nearly to the east on the south side of the mill-pond and the road leading from the Tuckasege Ford by the mill, crosses the point of the ridge in a northwestern direction. The Tories occupied an excellent position on the summit of the ridge; they’re right on the road fronting to their south. The ridge had a very gentle slope, and was then interspersed with only a few trees, and the fire from the Tories’ muskets would have its full purpose in front, for more than two hundred yards. The foot of the ridge was bounded by a glade, the side of which was covered with bushes. The road passed the western end of the glade at right angles, opposite the centre of the line, and on this road a fence extended from the glade to a point opposite the right of the line. The picket guard, twelve in number, were stationed on the road, two hundred and fifty yards south of the glade, and six hundred yards from the encampment.
There were 1,300 Loyalists at Ramsour’s Mill, does not say that all of these men took place in the fighting. In fact, some of the Loyalists were without arms and might have fled to the mill before the battle was joined. As soon as the action began those of the Tories who had no arms retreated across the creek. These were joined by others when they were first chased back up the ridge, by the two hundred Whigs that were well armed, as they got initial possession of the ridge.
The Whig companies of Captains Falls, M’Dowell and Brandon being mounted, along with the other troops, under Colonel Locke, were arranged in the road two deep behind them; and without any other organization or orders they charged into battle. When the horsemen arriving first, came within sight of the picquet they plainly perceived that their approach had not been anticipated. The British picquets fired once and fled towards their camp. The horsemen pursued, and turning to the right out of the road they rode up within thirty steps of their main line and fired at the Tories. Whig Captain M'Kissick was wounded early in the action, being shot through the top of the shoulder; and finding himself disabled, went from the battleground about 80 poles to the west. About the time the firing ceased he met ten of the Tories coming from a neighboring farm, where they had been until the sound of the firing startled them.
The American (Whig) horsemen who surprised the Loyalist (Tories) had pursue the pickets back towards the Tory encampment, but they were ill prepared to receive a counter attack from the rallied formation of the encampment’s main line. The horseman were quickly driven off by superior numbers. When the Tories began to give chase and pursue them back down the ridge, they met the oncoming Patriot infantry, who had tried to keep up with the horsemen in their pursuit of the picquets. But their movements being very irregular, their files were open six or eight steps, and when the front approached the Tories, the rear was still hundred and sixty yards back. The Tories, who came down the hill a little distance and were now in the open in fair view. Here the action was renewed and the battle was fully enjoined.
A second assault by the Patriots surged back uphill only to be quickly dispersed by the musket fire from the newly established Tory battle line. Following up their repulse of the second Patriot attack, the Tories once more descended down the hill in hopes of driving the Patriot forces from their position.
In this battle of neighbors, near relations and personal friends fought each other; and as the smoke would from time to time blow off they could recognize each other. In that quarter the action became so close, and the parties mixed together in two instances; and having no bayonets, they struck at each other with the butts of their guns.
In the thickest of the fight a Dutch Tory, seeing an acquaintance, said: "How do you do, Billy? I have knowed you since you was a little boy, and never knew no harm of you except you was a rebel." Billy, who was not about to renew the acquaintance, knew his gun was empty, clubbed it and made a pass at his old friend's head, who dodged and said: "Stop! Stop! I am not going to stand still and be killed like a damn fool, needer," and immediately made a swing at Billy's head, which he also dodged. A friend of Billy whose gun was loaded put it to the Dutchman's side and shot him dead.
During this melee, the Whig Colonel Locke was unable to reform his line on the ridge and ordered his men to fall back. However, Captain John Dickey refused and led his company to a better position on higher ground, where his rifle marksmanship turned the tide. When ordered to retreat by Colonel Locke, Dickey, a well known Presbyterian elder soundly cursed Locke, saying he would not retreat. The Patriot Infantry formed a new battle line along a glade between the Old Sherrill’s Ford Road and the Tuskaseegee Road. This new line poured a deadly fire into the approaching Tories halting their advance and forcing them to retreat once again to the safety of the crest of the hill. Captain Dickey called out, “Shoot straight, my boys, and keep on fighting. I see some of them beginning to tumble.” Captain Dickey was later credited for saving the day at the Battle of Ramsour's Mill.
The Tories, being in confusion retreated, forced by the second assault from the Patriots as they surged back uphill, only to be quickly dispersed by the musket fire from the newly established Tory line at the top of the hill. The Tories had quickly recovered from their panic and poured in a destructive fire which obliged the Patriots to retreat once more. At a convenient distance, the greater part of the Whig horsemen rallied, and returning to the fight exerted themselves with renewed spirit. The Tories, now coming down the hill a second time, encounters some of the Whig infantry now approaching from the Whig’s right flank.
The Whig infantry fired several times at the Tories being on their left. They deployed to the right in front of the glade, and came into action without order or system. In some places they were crowded together and in each other's way; in other places there were none. As the rear came up they occupied those places, and their line gradually extending, the action became general and obstinate on both sides. In a few minutes the Tories began to retreat back to their position on the top of the ridge and from there, soon fell back a little behind the ridge to shelter part of their bodies from the fire of the Whigs, who were now fairly exposed to their fire.
Once again, the Whig (center) infantry tries to advance up the deadly slope of the ridge. In this situation the Tories’ fire became so destructive that the Whigs fell back to the bushes near the glade, and the Tories leaving their safe position to pursued them again half way down the ridge. It was at this moment, Captain Vinsant led his company of Whigs into the battle, and under cover of the fence kept up a galling fire on the right flank of the Tories; and some of the Whigs discovering that the ground on their right was more favorable to protect them from that of the Tories, also obliqued in that direction towards the east end of the glade. This movement gave their line the proper extension. They continued to oblique until they completely turn the left flank of the Tories; meanwhile, the contest was being well maintained in the centre.
By turning the Tories left flank, the Whigs continue to advance along the edge of the glade collapsing in on the Tories as the went. The Tories found part of their former position on the ridge occupied by the Whigs. In that quarter, the action became desperate, running out of ammunition, with close hand to hand combat, and the parties mixed together in two instances; having no bayonets, they struck at each other with the butts of their guns splitting open their skulls. In this strange contest several of the bloodied Tories were taken prisoners, and others of them, divesting themselves of their mark of distinction (which was a twig of green pine top stuck in their hats), intermixed with the Whigs, and all being in their common dress, escaped unnoticed.
The Tories finding the left of their position now in possession of the Whigs and their centre being closely pressed, retreated down the back side of the ridge back towards the mill and fled west across the bridge at Clark’s Creek. The Whigs pursued until they got entire possession of the ridge, when they perceived to their astonishment that the Tories had collected in force on the other side of the creek beyond the mill.
As the Loyalists try to reform a line on the opposite bank of the creek near the Ramsour’s Mill, Colonel Locke formed a new Patriot line along the crest of the hill. The Loyalists were in disarray and many fled the battlefield all together. The Whigs expected the fight would be renewed, and attempted to form a line; but only eighty-six men could be paraded. Some were scattered during the action, others were attending to their wounded friends, and after repeated efforts not more than a hundred and ten could be collected. In this perilous situation of things it was resolved that Major Wilson and Capt William Alexander, of Rowan, should hasten to General Rutherford and urge him to press forward to their assistance. Rutherford had marched early in the morning, and was now, at the distance of six or seven miles from Ramsour's Mill.
Meanwhile, at the same time, a flag of truce was sent by Moore as a way to buy time for the withdrawal of his remaining forces from the Mill without further engaging the Patriots. His was successful and the battle at Ramsour’s Mill had ended.
Upon the news, Gen. Rutherford orders Major Davie's cavalry at full gallop, and Colonel Davidson's infantry were ordered to hasten on with all possible speed. At the end of two miles they were met by others from the battle, who informed them that the Tories had retreated. Their march was continued, and the troops arrived on the ground two hours after the battle had closed. The scene upon the battlefield was indescribable — dead laying about with musket holes and broken skulls, a few were seen with gun-locks sunk into their heads; disabled men moving about seeking help, men with shattered shoulders, broken arms and legs, while others were breathing their last breath.
As neither side had uniforms to distinguish who was friendly and who was foe, and many of the soldiers were forced to fight hand to hand. There were trees behind which both Whigs and Tories occasionally took shelter were hit by the balls; and one tree in particular, on the left of the Tories’ line, at the root of which two brothers lay dead, was implanted by three balls on one side and by another two on the other side.
To identify themselves, the Patriots had pinned white paper on their hats while the Tories struck green twigs to theirs. Since the men had no uniforms, it could not with certainty, identify to which party many of the dead belonged. Furthermore, and unfortunately, the Whigs who wore a piece of white paper in their hats in front, and some of the Tories being excellent riflemen, used the paper as a mark at which they took aim, and several of the Whigs were shot in the head.
The dead and most of the wounded were still lying where they fell. In the end, of the 70 men who died, 56 lay dead on the face of the ridge alone, where the forces advanced and retreated where the heat of the action prevailed; many more lay scattered on the flanks and over the ridge towards the mill. The wounded were approximately one hundred on each side, some of whom afterwards died from their wounds. It is believed that more than seventy men were killed, and that the loss on each side was nearly equal. About two hundred more men were wounded, and fifty Tories ended up taken as prisoners.
Majority of the perished soldiers, Patriot and Loyalists, were buried together in a mass grave, they were after all, all Americans. That evening and on the next day the family relatives and friends of the dead and wounded came in, and a scene was witnessed truly afflicting to the feelings of humanity. Shortly afterwards, many women, children and old men came helping to identify their loved ones. The kindred of the contestants came as they discovered there were heart-rending scenes of the dead, bleeding wounded bodies and broken skulls.
Annual Celebration at Mass Grave at Ramsour's Mill
Aerial View of Ramsour's Mill Battlefield
This victory was the first for the Patriots since the fall of Charleston, SC. Their defeat so badly demoralized the Loyalists that they never reorganized again in that area.
The Patriot victory at Ramsour’s Mill, left Cornwallis lacking for new recruits for his invasion of the western sections of North Carolina. In addition, Patriot morale has substantially increased following their victory, indirectly leading to the later victory at King’s Mountain on October 7, 1780.
At King’s Mountain Alexander Davidson would meet and fight along side another Patriot, his son’s future father-in-law, John Murphy.
1783 Tax list of Rutherford Co. North Carolina. Alexander Davidson is 38, father of 10 children owns 225 acres, 5 horses; 19 cattle. 1783 TAX LIST of RUTHERFORD COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA In Capt. Vinsant’s Company Tax Records, Alexander is listed with Moses Bridges, Aaron Bridges