Monday, July 12, 2010

Ramsour’s Mill: Joseph Graham Clarifies

Early histories of the southern campaign of the American Revolution said little about the battle of Ramsour’s Mill. In 1820, Joseph Graham, then an aged veteran, sought to set straight the historical record.

Joseph Graham first saw military service during the American Revolution with the 4th North Carolina regiment. He began active duty late in 1778, and was discharged 9 months later. During that time he served primarily as quartermaster sergeant and he was present at the battle of Stono Ferry (June 20, 1779). The North Carolina Continentals were captured en masse with the surrender of Charleston, South Carolina (May 12, 1780), and so when Graham returned to the field it was with the Mecklenburg, North Carolina, militia regiment. Graham was appointed regimental adjutant. The Mecklenburg militia (including Graham) largely missed participating in the battle of Ramsour’s Mill (June 20, 1780); however, they were engaged at Rocky Mount (July 30, 1780) and Hanging Rock (August 6, 1780). When the British invaded North Carolina in September, 1780, Graham commanded a volunteer force at Charlotte (September 26), where he fought with distinction and was badly wounded. At the end of the year he was appointed captain of a company of militia dragoons, and Graham led these men at Cowan’s Ford (February 1, 1781), Hart’s Mill (February 17, 1781), Pyle’s Defeat (February 17, 1781), Clapp’s Mill (March 4, 1781), and Weitzel’s Mill (March 6, 1781). In the Fall, he was promoted to major and led detachments at Raft Swamp (October 15, 1781), and More’s Plantation (November 14, 1781). Graham also served during the War of 1812, as brigadier-general commanding a force of North and South Carolina militia.

Joseph Graham, late in life.

Joseph Graham did not attempt to write his own history of the southern campaign, but rather wished to furnish material for those who would. In a letter to Colonel Charles Conner (dated November 27, 1820), he noted:

“I have a great number of loose sheets in continuation if properly connected and corrected, in my opinion would be interesting and voluminous, not a regular History of the war in this section of Country but rather a Supplement to the Histories of [John] Marshall, Ramsey [David Ramsay] and [Henry] Lee; some things omitted by them entirely, others inaccurately described and others where well described incidents are omitted which are worthy of being preserved, especially where the men of what was then Mecklenburg [County] and Rowan [County] were concerned… I will be responsible and furnish the facts; if you and a partner will furnish the arrangement and language…” [1]

Connor soon shared Graham’s written material with Judge Archibald Murphey, who was then working on a history of North Carolina. Murphey gushed to Graham (letter dated January 10, 1821), “Col. Connor delivered to me in Raleigh, your account of the battle at Ramsour’s, which I have read with much interest, for it was the first time I had any correct idea of that affair. I have the account in my possession, and will shortly give it to the public.”

Murphey soon submitted the account to the Hillsborough Register.

Later that year, Graham wrote to Murphey (letter dated October 8, 1821) about the reception this account received:

“Since the printers furnished me with an account of the Battles of Ramsour’s it has been examined by 8 or 10 persons who were in that affair, they all admit of the correctness and being circumstances to their recollection which they had forgotten.”

That same year, Graham sent Murphey accounts of Rocky Mount, Hanging Rock, and other engagements that had received little attention from the early historians. [2]

Coming soon: Graham's account of the battle of Ramsour's Mill.

Note 1: Graham echoed this complaint in a later letter to Archibald Murphey, writing:

“In the Histories of the Revolutionary War by Marshall, Ramsey & Lee the details given of transactions in this Section of Country [i.e., the Carolinas] are frequently inaccurate and several things which had a bearing on the general result entirely omitted. They had not the means of correct information, except Lee who did not join the Southern Army with his Legion until the month of February, 1781, after which his narrative may be generally relied on.

“It may be remarked that… of all the battles fought in the South, there were not more than three or four official reports ever published. The Historians had to collect some of their information from common fame and other precarious sources. The truth is that many of the officers of that time were better at fighting than writing and could make better marks with their swords than with their pens. Their object did not appear so much to have their names puff’d in the columns of a news paper as to destroy their Enemy or drive him from their Country and Establish its Independence…”

Note 2: Graham’s letters do not make clear how he obtained his information. His comments in the note above suggest that he relied neither on written accounts by others, nor on common knowledge. He visited the battlefield not long after the fighting ended, and his memory for what he saw and heard was likely one source.

Graham wrote to Murphey, “For the truth of the facts he states he appeals to those who were present on the several occasions related, of whom it is believed more than 100 are yet living.” This comment implies that Graham had also discussed the battle with some number of surviving participants in later years and that he had reason to believe that his understanding of Ramsour’s Mill was consistent with the recollections of others.


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  3. The 4rth NC was a crack unit. Lincoin Using them as his primary assalt unit at Stono Ferry.

  4. The history of the NC regiments is something I wish I knew more about. A reading topic, perhaps, for the future.

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  7. Are you aware of the pension application of John Alexander W20586 ( where his wife Susannah claims to have saved the life of Captain Joseph Graham? If you are, can you direct me to any resources where I can learn more about it?

  8. I haven't seen that pension application before -- thank you for bringing it to my attention. The event in question is known as the "Battle of Charlotte," which it occurred in September of 1780. Graham's wounding there is described in his papers.