north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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     On February 19, 1781, advance portions of General Nathanael Greene’s Southern Army crossed the Dan River, carrying the war back into North Carolina. He sent word ahead to General Andrew Pickens ordering him to utilize his militia forces to harass Cornwallis’s army. Pickens had been appointed overall commander for Mecklenburg and Rowan County militias. This jumped him over Colonel Francis Locke who nominally led the Yadkin Valley militia after William Lee Davidson’s death at Cowan’s Ford. In addition to the North Carolinians, Pickens led several South Carolina and Georgia militia companies. Pickens reported to Greene that his 700 men would follow their orders although most were “universally bent” on an “expedition into South Carolina” and that the Rowan County militiamen were deserting in droves. Pickens referred to the fugitives as being “among the worst Men” he had ever commanded.

     Initially, Greene sent only an advance party of Lee’s Legion with two Maryland Continental companies to cooperate with Pickens. The two forces united on February 23, when Pickens men almost fired on Lee’s Legion, mistaking their green coats for Tarleton’s British Legion. Captain Joseph Graham, a North Carolina militiaman, reported that his men, fearing Tarleton was upon them, decided “too late to retreat, so prepared to fight,” but the situation was resolved before bloodshed occurred. Greene appeared that evening with a small escort, gave his commanders their orders, and then returned across the Dan.

     That evening, Lee and Pickens learned that Tarleton’s British Legion was encamped nearby. Cornwallis, whose men had arrived in Hillsborough on February 20, had sent “Bloody Ban” with 200 dragoons, 150 infantrymen of the 33rd Foot, and 100 Anspach Jaegers west of the Haw River to protect local Loyalist militamen hastening to join the British army. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee later recalled that the area through which Tarleton passed had been completely plundered, and that local women told him the Tories were organizing between the Haw and Deep Rivers.

     For two days, Lee’s forces followed Tarleton. On February 25, a party of nearly 400 Tories under the command of Col. John Pyle, a local doctor, ran into advance elements of Lee’s Legion. Mistakenly thinking the green-jacketed men before them were the British Legion, Pyle’s Tories calmly moved to the roadside awaiting “Tarleton’s” passage. Lee rode the entire length of the Tory line “dropping occasionally expressions complimentary to the good looks and commendable conduct of his loyal friends.” Lee argued that fighting began as he was shaking hands with Pyle and preparing to reveal his true identity. However, North Carolinian Joseph Graham argued that it started when Legion Major Joseph Eggleston asked a Tory, “Whose man are you?” The man answered, “A friend of his majesty,” and Eggleston cut him down.

     Lee’s men made quick work of Pyle’s force. At least ninety Loyalists were sabered to death. The remainder, most who were wounded, fled. Pyle, seriously injured, supposedly hid in a nearby swamp, with only his nose above the water. Lee lost one horse. Many Whigs saw this episode as revenge for Waxhaws the previous year. Moses Hall, a North Carolina militiaman, remembered seeing six Tory prisoners “hewed to death with broadswords” when a Whig shouted, “Remember Buford!”

     Pyle’s Massacre, as the event became known, proved devastating to Cornwallis’s ability to gather Loyalist support. A large force of Tories, directly under the supposed protection of Tarleton, had been slaughtered. The disaster was made worse when several of Pyle’s men, having escaped Lee, approached Tarleton’s camp where they were mistaken for Whigs and cut down. British Captain Forbes Champaign optimistically wrote, “this unparalleled cruelty serves only to make our friends more steady and zealous in assisting us to restore their former legal and constitutional government.” Champaign could not have been more wrong. Following the Pyles debacle, Cornwallis retained little hope of a mass Loyalist uprising in the Carolina Piedmont. Andrew Pickens succinctly summed up the impact of Pyles’ rout, “It has knocked up Toryism altogether in this part.”

     The location referenced on the marker is the site along Anthony Road that local tradition has attested was the burial ground of Tories killed in the engagement. A stone placed at the site by farmer Holt Scherer in 1880 bore an inscription indicating that it was the burial location of “7 Revolution soldiers” but said nothing about them being from Pyle’s Defeat. It seems that over time locals made the assumption that this was the location of Tories killed in the skirmish.

     However, when historian Benjamin Lossing visited the area in 1849, he was told by members of the Holt family that the fighting was on Michael Holt’s plantation. Family members reportedly showed Lossing an apple tree planted where “fourteen of the slain were buried in one grave” and a persimmon tree marking “the place of burial of several others.” Deed analysis by historians Jeffrey Bright and Stewart Dunaway clearly shows that the location of the 1880 stone marker was never property that was part of the Michael Holt plantation. Therefore, if Lossing was told the truth as to the location of the fighting, it could not have taken place where the stone marker was located, and thus the highway historical marker is in error. The Holt plantation was roughly 700 yards east by southeast of the current marker, not ¾ mile southwest.

     Put simply, it remains unclear, to an extent, precisely where or when this event took place. Local historians have shown clearly that the stone marker site from 1880 does not match the location provided to Lossing in 1849. Furthermore, there does not appear to be any extant references that offer any proof that the stone marker site ever had anything to do with Pyle’s defeat, only that it was the reported burial spot of seven Revolutionary War soldiers. In that respect, the only reference to a location of the battle is that given to Lossing by the Holts.

     Ambiguity surrounds the date of the engagement as well. The February 23 notation derives from a contemporary letter written by Cornwallis, which states that Tarleton was ordered to escort Pyle into the British lines on February 23, and implies that Pyle was attacked that same day. Tarleton’s memoir, written in 1787, does not directly state on which day it took place, but suggests that the battle occurred on February 24. Lee’s memoir of the war, written in 1810, provides no date, but he wrote a letter to Greene at “12 oclock Saturday night 25th Feb. 1781” providing his commander details of the fighting. Saturday would have been February 24, so either Lee was mistaken as to what day it was (writing on Sunday, but thinking it was Saturday), or he was writing at midnight between Saturday and Sunday and thus was indicating the fighting took place Saturday morning. Andrew Pickens, who commanded the Whig militia at the engagement, wrote Greene on February 26 giving his report of the engagement, but did not offer an indication of when the event actually took place. No other contemporary source exists to confirm the date. Several modern Revolutionary War historians have used Lee’s letter, as well as the date of Pickens’s, to argue that the fighting took place on February 25. However, being that Saturday was February 24, it seems likely Lee was describing events that occurred earlier that morning.

References:
George Troxler, Pyle’s Massacre, February 23, 1781 (1973)
Carole Troxler, Pyle's Defeat: Deception at the Racepath (2003)
John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (1997)
Jeffrey Bright and Stewart Dunaway, Pyle’s Defeat (2011)
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north carolina highway historical marker program


Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee

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