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This Day in History: The Battle of Ramsour’s Mill devolves into a brawl

On this day in 1780, an outnumbered force of Patriot militia defeats more than 1,000 Loyalists at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill.

Although maybe it wasn’t exactly a battle in the traditional sense of the word.

“To call the fight there a battle,” historian John Buchanan observes, “would lend it a formality it did not possess. It was a clash of two armed mobs. Toward the end the fighting resembled an old-fashioned Pier 6 brawl between longshoremen and strikebreakers.”

The conflict occurred nearly six weeks after Charleston fell to the British. By then, General Charles Cornwallis thought he had completed his conquest of Georgia and South Carolina. Thus, he dispatched Lt. Colonel John Moore to his next target: North Carolina. He wanted the Tories in that state to lay low and await his arrival.

It didn’t take those Loyalists too long to ditch his instructions! They heard that Patriot Brigadier General Griffith Rutherford was in the area, so they, too, decided to gather men and provisions. Tories were instructed to join Moore near Ramsour’s Mill (in modern-day Lincolnton).

By June 20, as many as 1,300 Loyalists had assembled, although many of them did not have any arms.

In the meantime, Rutherford had ordered Colonel Francis Locke (or Lock) to gather men. These Patriot forces were to meet at Mountain Creek about 16 miles from Ramsour’s Mill. By June 19, Locke had about 400 men. A planned rendezvous with Rutherford had been missed. The militia officers held a council of war. Should they attack the Tories? Wait for reinforcements? Withdraw to Rutherford’s main force?

They decided to attempt a surprise attack at daybreak, despite their smaller numbers.

The Patriots surprised the Loyalist pickets around daybreak. Loyalists were initially shocked and scrambled a bit to respond. However, they soon realized their greater numbers; they regrouped and began firing so quickly that some of the Patriot militia immediately fled.

The Patriots’ small numbers were now even smaller, but those who were left moved forward determinedly. Soon, “the fighting came to close quarters and became ugly,” as Buchanan relates. “It was hand to hand. Rebels and Tories, Americans all, began bashing in skulls with clubbed muskets. Screams, shouts, and curses rent the air. The Rebels began to get the better of it.”

The Tories began to flee. Pretty soon, the motley band of Patriot militia had control of the ridge upon which they’d been fighting. But they really weren’t sure that it was over. The Tories were reassembling just beyond the mill. Was a counterattack coming?

Taking into account the early desertions and the casualties of battle, the Patriot militia was then down to only 110 men! Inexplicably, though, the Tories did not try to retake the ridge. Instead, they sought to trick the Patriots into letting them retreat. They pretended to be seeking a cease fire, but as an emissary traveled toward the Patriots under a white flag, the Tory forces were quietly leaving.

A small, determined force of inexperienced Patriot militia had forced a much larger Loyalist force into fleeing. Not exactly the news Cornwallis wanted to hear, was it?

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