This Day in History: The Battle of Charlotte & its aftermath
On this day in 1780, the Battle of Charlotte is fought. Americans were badly outnumbered, but that didn’t stop them from putting up a valiant fight! In fact, resistance in that region became so intense that the British ended up pulling out of Charlotte in mid-October.
British Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton would later note that the people in these North Carolina counties “were more hostile to England than any others in America.”
North Carolinians surely would have taken THAT as a compliment!
General Charles Cornwallis was then making his way through North Carolina with an army of about 2,000 men. He was coming off a victory at the Battle of Camden, and he was trying to find and take advantage of pockets of Loyalists in the area.
He never really succeeded. The harassing actions of North Carolinians were too persistent.
As Cornwallis approached Charlotte, American Colonel William R. Davie went to meet him. He thought he might “give his Lordship a foretaste of what he might expect in North Carolina”! Davie had roughly 150 men, but he positioned his men strategically around the (then small) town of Charlotte. One company of men was stationed at the courthouse, where they “were covered breast high by a stone wall.” Others were posted at houses and gardens further down the town’s main road.
The first British forces to arrive were the British Legion, led by Major George Hanger. These men were typically led by Tarleton, but “Bloody Ban” was sick that day. Thus, the task was given to the less competent Hanger. Perhaps the cavalry should have entered the town cautiously, but Hanger ordered that they enter at a full gallop! When the cavalry was about 60 yards out, Davie ordered his men to fire.
The cavalry charge quickly fell apart. Perhaps the men were wishing for Tarleton’s leadership in that moment?
The British infantry came next and performed better. As Davie’s men fought the infantry, two more cavalry charges were rebuffed. The last of these was apparently prompted by Cornwallis himself! He grew so frustrated with the ineptness of the Legion that he rode to the front and yelled at them: “Legion, remember you have everything to lose, but nothing to gain.”
Before too long, the American militia began to have difficulty. They were quite simply outnumbered. Davie ordered a retreat. The decision was simple. The ground, he later reported, “was no longer tenable by this handful of brave men.”
The British camped in Charlotte for a few weeks after the battle, but they had a tough time of it. Their foraging parties were constantly harassed. They could not reach out to local Loyalists, as they’d hoped. Making matters worse, they soon learned of an American victory at King’s Mountain, in South Carolina.
“[N]o estimation could be made of the sentiments of half the inhabitants of North Carolina,” Tarleton later wrote, “whilst the royal army remained at Charlotte town. . . . [T]he counties of Mecklenburg and Rohan were more hostile to England than any others in America. The vigilance and animosity of these surrounding districts checked the exertions of the well affected, and totally destroyed all communication between the King’s troops and the loyalists . . . .”
By mid-October, Cornwallis was withdrawing his troops. At least reportedly, he denounced the “damned hornet’s nest” in North Carolina as he did so.
Several important American victories were just around the corner—and, of course, the decisive victory at Yorktown was only one year away.
David Lee Russell, The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies (2000)
Banastre Tarleton, A history of the campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the southern provinces of North America (1787)
D.A. Tompkins, History of Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte (1903)
C.L. Hunter, Sketches of Western North Carolina, Historical and Biographical (1877)
John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas (1999)