Sunday, September 12, 2010

Concluding Thoughts on Ramsour’s Mill

Ramsour’s Mill was an important battle of the American Revolution, but how that battle was fought is not well understood. As I noted in the first post of this series, the case can be made that Ramsour’s Mill marked the turning point of the southern campaign of the American Revolution. However, none of the participants maintained journals (at least none are extant), and surviving correspondence from the time contains few mentions of the battle. Instead, the main sources of information are first and second-hand accounts written during the 19th Century. These accounts reflect a principally American view of the battle (i.e., Whig rather than Tory), and unfortunately, there is considerable disagreement among these accounts.

Here then are some tentative conclusions about the battle based on the sources available to me:

  • The battle was fought on June 20 or June 22, 1780, on a ridge east of what was then Ramsour’s Mill and north of today’s Lincolnton, North Carolina. June 20 is the date listed in every military history that I have read, but to the best of my knowledge, all ultimately rely on a single source: Joseph Graham. Prior to Graham’s influential account, some authors gave the date as June 22. The Loyalist Anthony Allaire met survivors of the battle on June 23 in Ninety-Six, South Carolina, which is more than 130 miles distant from the battlefield (using modern-day highways). Unfortunately, he did not state how these men got to Ninety-Six; if they walked than only the 20th is plausible.

  • The Tory defenders appears to have outnumbered the Whig attackers, but probably by a smaller number than is usually given. A typical military history of the battle claims that something like 400 Whigs attacked and defeated 1,300 Tories (1/4 of whom were unarmed). Once again, Graham is the main source for this information. However, there is reason to believe that Graham’s numbers were inflated. A key piece of evidence, I believe, is the dimensions of the ridge itself, which suggests a Tory force closer to 500 men than one that was close to 1,000 men.

  • Both Whigs and Tories fought bravely. A point made clear by Graham is that one side did not have a monopoly on heroics. The men who fought at Ramsour’s Mill had been raised in a similar environment, and indeed, in some cases were literally neighbors. The Whig victory cannot be convincingly attributed to one side being better shots or being made of sterner stuff than the other.

  • Three factors that may have contributed to the Whig victory were a) weather, b) arms and ammunition, and c) flank attacks.

  • Weather: A tradition concerning the battle of Ramsour's Mill is that the area was blanketed by fog at the time of the Whigs’ early-morning attack. (cf. battle summary by the Lincoln County Historical Association). This fog helped the Whigs to surprise the Tories and it screened from view their inferior numbers and their movements towards the Tory flanks.

  • Arms and Ammunition: In general, both Whig and Tory militia in North Carolina were lacking in arms and ammunition. Francis Locke’s attacking force seems to have been exceptional for being fairly well supplied in this regard. Indeed, some early accounts of the battle (specifically Gordon and Lee) claimed that Locke’s force was especially made up of those few troops that were well equipped for war. Following Graham’s account and Allaire’s journal, it seems that ¼ of the Tories fled at the beginning of the battle because they had no arms at all, and the rest retreated in large part because they had used up their limited supply of ammunition.

  • Flank Attacks: Graham vividly described how the Whigs surreptitiously gained first the right flank, then the left, of the Tory line. Neither movement was a part of some battle plan (indeed, it seems that Francis Locke did not have one). Instead, these movements were the result of individual captains acting on their own initiative. The flank attacks may have seemed especially threatening to the Tories in combination with the smoke and fog. The Tories' worsening ammunition situation may also have limited their ability to counter these attacks and help explain why the fighting on the Tory left flank devolved into hand-to-hand combat.

Whig vs. Tory at Ramsour's Mill.