The Battle of Charlotte

In September 1780, Charlotte was the first stop in North Carolina for patriot families, Catawba Indians, and other refugees fleeing the British and loyalists to the south. The remains of the Continental Army gathered at the town after they were defeated at Camden the month before. Lord Cornwallis decided to invade North Carolina to destroy those remnants and support what he expected to be a large loyalist turnout. In the face of the Cornwallis’ advance, the reformed Continental Army of the Southern Department withdrew from Charlotte to Salisbury, and then Hillsboro. The North Carolina militia under Colonel William Davie remained, with orders to delay Cornwallis as long as possible.

Davie shadowed Cornwallis and made a point to harass and capture prisoners the moment Cornwallis’ army stepped foot in North Carolina on 25 September. It was the first sign that Cornwallis was mistaken about the loyalist presence in this part of the country. The next day Cornwallis ordered the British Legion under Major George Hanger to conduct a reconnaissance of Charlotte.

In 1780, Charlotte was a crossroads town of about twenty houses centered on the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. A chest high wall existed between the pillars of the courthouse, and Davie placed his best men behind it under his adjutant, Captain Joseph Graham. With their horses picketed nearby, Davie had additional companies behind the houses to each side of the courthouse. Hanger’s men nonchalantly galloped toward the town.

Hanger was Banastre Tarleton’s second in command, and with Tarleton sick with Yellow Fever, sought to emulate the aggressive and infamous commander of the British Legion. When Davie’s pickets fired their first shots at the advancing redcoats, Hanger ordered his Legion cavalry to charge. As soon as they got within sixty yards of the courthouse, Graham’s men, hitherto hidden behind the courthouse wall, rose and fired, devastating the cavalry. Hanger withdrew and reformed, and when he saw Graham’s men withdraw from the wall, charged again. This time his charge was broken up by fire on both flanks, from the Patriot militia behind the houses next to the courthouse. By this time, the Legion’s light infantry were working around Davie’s men, and Cornwallis arrived with the 33rd Regiment’s light infantry. Cornwallis, surprised and appalled by Hanger’s decision to charge into such an obvious ambush, especially when the main body further up the road could have taken the town with few casualties, admonished the loyalists, “Legion, remember you have everything to lose, but nothing to gain!”

Not willing to be decisively engaged by the Legion’s light infantry (whom Graham was withdrawing away from when Hanger mistook it for a retreat) and especially not the regular light infantry, Davie ordered his men to mount up and move north. Davie waited just outside of town along Kennedy Creek, and when a British infantry platoon appeared, let loose another devastating volley. The Americans were gone before the British could react. With all of Davie’s men mounted, British and loyalist infantry simply couldn’t bring their superior firepower to bear, a source of constant frustration for Cornwallis, Tarleton, and Hanger. Hanger, sure that the Americans were withdrawing for real this time, attempted to resurrect his reputation in the eyes of Cornwallis. He set off in pursuit with what remained of his cavalry and his light infantry.

Graham, with part of Davie’s command, attempted repeat the Kennedy Creek ambush at Sugar Hill Church, but became fixed by the Legion light infantry in a prolonged 30 minute firefight. As the Americans returned fire, Hanger charged the Americans, and after a brutal melee where no quarter was given, scattered them. Almost all of the American casualties in the Battle of Charlotte occurred at Sugar Hill Church, with Graham badly wounded and left for dead by Hanger. In total, the Americans suffered five dead and six wounded, while the British suffered over fifty casualties, mostly their precious cavalry.

Shot three times, and with saber wounds to his side, neck, and head, which exposed part of his brain, Graham crawled to a nearby creek. He was found and taken to a Patriot leaning farm whose occupants hid him from the British and loyalists, and nursed him back to health. Five months later, Captain Joseph Graham was back in the fight.

Cornwallis was wrong about Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Solidly patriotic, there was no loyalist uprising in this part of North Carolina. After the Battle of Charlotte, the British and loyalists had an outbreak of Yellow Fever, and while they recovered, Davie and his men constantly harassed the British. Cornwallis referred to the area as a “hornet’s nest”, a name the citizens of Charlotte take great pride in. With Patriot partisan activity in South Carolina increasing, and the same occurring in North Carolina, Cornwallis’ lines of communication were not secure enough to continue his advance north. He decided to wait on Major Patrick Ferguson to reinforce him after he dealt with the Overmountain men before continuing on to Hillsboro. Though a small engagement in terms of numbers, Davie’s stand at Charlotte bought the Continental Army at least another few critical weeks to reorganize.

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