LINCOLNTON – The Battle of Ramsour’s Mill, which happened in Lincolnton, is considered by many to be a pivotable point in the Revolutionary War. The grounds upon which the battle was fought on June 20, 1780 have been preserved.The end of January 1781, Lord Cornwallis and a few thousand men reached Ramsour’s Mill. While there, Cornwallis stripped his army of anything that might slow it down, burning nearly his entire baggage train—tents, wagons, luxury goods—in a giant bonfire.
The second annual “Burning of the Baggage” hosted by the Lincoln County Historical Association was held on Saturday. While baggage wasn’t actually burned, a group of individuals who take part in “Thunder Over Carolina,” a reenactment of the lives of those who were involved in the battle, and members of the Lincoln County Historical Association convened to honor the day. The Lincoln County Hearth Cookers opened the cabin and prepared food that may have been served in Revolutionary times and two women demonstrated hand spinning.
At the event, Bill Anderson briefly explained what is thought to have happened. A more detailed synopsis was contained in the most recent newsletter, “The Lincoln County Historian,” published by the Lincoln County Historical Association.
At our own Ramsour’s Mill during 25-28 January 1781, British commander Lieutenant General Charles Earl Cornwallis made a fateful decision to destroy his army’s excess baggage. His plan was to lighten the army sufficiently to recapture British soldiers recently lost at the Battle of Cowpens as well as engage and defeat the American Continental Army led by Major General Nathanial Greene. Cornwallis’s decision was necessary, but as time would tell, insufficient to realize his goal.
The American Revolution began in April 1775 in New England. By 1778, a stalemate was reached with Britain controlling New York City and many coastal areas. At the same time, General George Washington maintained the Continental Army in the field at various strategic locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York State. Thus, Britain developed its “Southern Strategy.” That was to invade the southern colonies: Georgia, both Carolinas, and Virginia, where many Loyalists resided who presumably would rally to Britain’s side. This strategy might have worked, but was waylaid by unforeseen events, including two events at Ramsour’s Mill. The first occurred in early June 1780, when Loyalists gathered for self-protection. They were soundly defeated by a much smaller force, Patriot militia from Rowan County led by Colonel Francis Locke and the follow-up larger force led by Brigadier General Griffith Rutherford. This story is important, but this article is about the second event that occurred the following January.
On 12 May 1780, the British Army captured Charlestown (as Charleston was known), South Carolina, and essentially occupied the entire state through outposts at Georgetown, Cheraw, Camden, and Ninety Six. Cornwallis defeated the Southern Continental Army at Camden on 16 August. In September, he invaded North Carolina and occupied Charlotte. Then the unexpected British loss at the Battle of Kings Mountain forced Cornwallis to reassess the vulnerability of South Carolina. In October, he withdrew his army to Winnsboro, South Carolina. In January, a huge reinforcement arrived, led by Major General Alexander Leslie. At about the same time, at detachment from the army led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens by Brigadier Daniel Morgan. Despite this setback, Cornwallis invaded North Carolina again, this time further to the west through Lincoln County. Aside from his general goal of subduing North Carolina, he had the urgent goal of recapturing British soldiers taken prisoner at Cowpens. In fact, Cornwallis’s intentions are known exactly from his own written assessment to his superior:
“My Plan for the Winter’s Campaign, was to penetrate into North Carolina, leaving South Carolina in security against any probable attack in my absence.
Lord Rawdon with a considerable body of Troops [in Camden] had charge of the defensive and I proceeded about the middle of January, upon the offensive operations. I decided to march by the upper in preference to the lower roads leading into North Carolina, because Fords being frequent above the Forks of the Rivers, my passage there could not be easily obstructed. General Greene having taken post on the Pee Dee, and there being few fords in any of the great rivers of this Country below their Forks, especially in Winter, I apprehended being much delayed, if not entirely prevented from penetrating by the latter route. I was the more induced to prefer this route, as I hoped in my way to be able to destroy or drive out of South Carolina the Corps of the Enemy, commanded by General Morgan, which threatened our valuable district of Ninety Six; and I likewise hoped by rapid marches, to get between General Greene and Virginia, and by that means force him to fight without receiving any reinforcements from that province, or failing of that to oblige him to quit North Carolina with precipitation, and thereby encourage our friends, to make good their promises of a general rising, to assist me in re-establishing His Majesty’s Government.” (Cornwallis 1781 in NCSR 1895, XVII:996)
On 22 January, Cornwallis’s army entered North Carolina. It had at least 2,500 professional soldiers plus an entourage of camp followers. Such a large group overwhelmed any community in its path and thus limited the time it could stay in any one location. Beginning on 24 January, but completed on the next day, it reached Ramsour’s Mill, a well-known site better equipped to accommodate such a large group. Foraging groups were immediate dispatched to collect grain and livestock. Cornwallis knew that Morgan had passed through Ramsour’s Mill just 3 days earlier. He may have also known the British prisoners were being led by Colonel Andrew Pickens a bit further to the north. Both American groups were just 20 miles away on the Catawba River.
While at Ramsour’s Mill, Cornwallis made a fateful decision to lighten his entire army. He believed that was the only way possible to recapture British prisoners and engage the main American Army before it could escape to Virginia. Thus, he ordered excess baggage be destroyed. Again, in his own words:
“I therefore assembled the Army on the 25th at Ramsoure’s Mill on the South Fork of the Catawba, and as the loss of my light Troops [at Cowpens] could only be remedied by the activity of the whole Corps, I employed a halt of two days in collecting some flour, and in destroying superfluous Baggage. And all my Waggons, except those loaded with Hospital Stores, Salt and Ammunition, and four reserved empty in readiness for sick or wounded. In this measure, tho’ at the expence of a great deal of Officer’s Baggage, and of all prospect in future of Rum, and even a regular supply of provisions to the Soldiers, I must in justice to this Army say that there was the most general and cheerful acquiescence. (Cornwallis 1781 in NCSR 1895, XVII:996–997)
This destruction was largely accomplished by burning. Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, who participated, later wrote:
Lord Cornwallis sett the example by burning all of his Wagons, and destroying the greatest part of his Baggage, which was followed by every Officer of the Army without murmur. ... Cornwallis ordered “The Supply of Rum for a time will be Absolutely Impossible.” ... Without Baggage, necessaries, or Provisions of any sort for Officer or Soldier, in the most barren, inhospitable, unhealthy part of North America, opposed to the most savage, inveterate, perfidious, cruel Enemy, with zeal and with Bayonets only, it was resolved to follow Greene’s army to the end of the World.” (Babits and Howard 2009, 15–16)
This extreme measure was probably necessary, but nonetheless was afterwards proven insufficient for Cornwallis to achieve his goals. The British prisoners were securely marched to prisoner-of-war camps in Virginia. Also, Greene by defending the Catawba River and by ingenious screens and maneuvers evaded being forced into battle until 15 March under his own terms at Guilford Courthouse.
• Babits, Lawrence Edward, and Joshua B. Howard. 2009. Long, Obstinate, and Bloody, The Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
• NCSR. 1895. State Records of North Carolina. Winston, NC: Walter Clark, ed., M. I. & J. C. Stewart.
Battle Week is slated to be held at the Ramsour’s Mill Battle site in June.
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