Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ramsour’s Mill: 19th Century Reminiscences and Lore

Joseph Graham’s description of the battle of Ramsour’s Mill is detailed and clear (cf. parts 1, 2, 3, 4), but that does not mean that it’s entirely correct. Graham’s sources were imperfect, and his memory was not infallible. Graham claimed that 8 or 10 veterans of the battle vouched for his description of the battle, but these were old men whose memories were likely clear chiefly for those things they individually saw and did, not the totality of the battle. Would they have known if there were errors in Graham’s account? Even if they suspected errors, would they have been confident enough in their recollection to contradict him?

For these reasons it’s worth considering other sources of information. Available sources on Ramsour's Mill include pension applications, an interview conducted with a participant of the battle, and local lore collected by historians.

Pension Applications:

I have relied on pension applications in making sense of other battles that I’ve written about to date, knowing full well that they were submitted long after the events of the Revolutionary War and that some are quite untrustworthy. Most of the transcribed applications that I’ve read concerning Ramsour’s Mill provide few details of the battle, but some are noteworthy. A sampling appears below.

The widow of John Dickey claimed that her husband, “served as Captain of a Company under Col Locke in the Battle of Ramsours Mill. That he courageously led on the attack in that battle. That when a retreat was ordered by the Commander in that battle the said Captain Dickey refused to quit his post bravely fighting Sword in hand until the line which was broken and driven back was restored and the Battle gained.” [See transcription by C. Leon Harris]. [hat tip to Burton for emailing me about Dickey's role in the battle].

John Hargrave claimed that “in June of the year '80 he again volunteered under one Capt. Thomas Hemphill & Col. Francis Lock, for the purpose of fighting the Tories who were very numerous. That having got together about 400 they heard that the Tories had taken Maj. (then) Edward Hampton & John Russell Lieut. & had condemned them to be hanged, but that they, having determined to rescue them, met the Tories 1400 or 1500 in number at a place called Ramsour's Mill & defeating them took all their baggage & made something like 100 of them prisoners as well as he recollects.” [See transcription by Will Graves].

Captain Samuel Otterson was with the troops under Brigadier-General Griffith Rutherford and Colonel Thomas Sumter that arrived after the battle ended. He recalled, “we marched toward the house of a celebrated Tory by the name of Ramsour for the purpose of defeating some Tories who had encamped at Ramsour's mill, but before we arrived, the Militia from Rowan, N. Carolina had defeated the Tories & we turned our horses into a large field of oats belonging to Ramsour & the oats were just ripening.” [see transcription by Will Graves].

Interview with Adam Reep:

Long after the battle, Adam Reep, a man who lived near the battlefield and claimed to have participated in the fighting, was interviewed by Wallace Reinhardt, the grandson of Christian Reinhardt, the man who owned the land on which the greater part of the fighting took place. Reep’s description of the battlefield and of the fighting was used to create an important map, that served as the basis for my miniature battlefield. (Reinhardt later published an account of the battle; this is not available online).

Reep’s account differed from Graham’s in important ways. Reep claimed that he met the Whig militia, led by Francis Locke, east of the battlefield, and that he provided them important intelligence about enemy strength, position, and intentions. Locke then asked Reep to guide his forces forward. Whereas Graham seemingly described all of Locke’s forces approaching along a single route, Reep claimed that there was a division of forces. Locke’s orders were that:

“Captain Falls will continue on this road, as it runs across the hill to the Mill, and move up to within three or four hundred yards of the enemy (who were on top of the hill), halt, and wait until the main body is near enough to commence the attack from the south side. Captain Dobson will march over towards the creek and into Green’s road (a road laid off by an English surveyor of that name) and will attack the enemy from that direction. Not a gun is to be fired until all are ready; the attack must be simultaneous.”

His map of the battlefield shows Captain Falls and the cavalry advancing down the Sherrill's Ford Road, and the main body, under Locke, swinging off to the southwest in order to gain the Tuckaseegee Ford Road.

According to Graham, Locke’s infantry formed a line opposite the Tories’ center, but the “Reep” map indicates that they instead formed a line opposite the Tories’ flank.

Graham's and Reep's Versions of the Opening Attack at Ramsour's Mill. Water courses are shown in blue, roads are brown, and the outline of a ridge is shown in grey. The Tory line is shown in red, the approach of the Whig horsemen is shown as a light blue arrow, and the approach of the Whig infantry is shown as a dark blue arrow. A = Ramsour's Mill on Clark's Creek, B = Green's Road, C = Tuckaseegee Ford Road, D = Sherrill's Ford Road.

There are, however, also similarities in the two accounts. In both cases, the Whigs initially drove the Tories up the hill, only to be driven back in turn. In both cases, the Whigs eventually gained the crest of the ridge and drove back the left flank of the Tory line. In both cases, the Tories were forced to flee across the bridge spanning Clark’s Creek.

Like Graham, Reep remembered especially vividly the nightmarish condition of the battlefield once the smoke cleared:

“The scene upon the battlefield was indescribable—dead men here and there, broken skulls, a few were seen with gun-locks sunk into their heads; disabled men moving about seeking help, men with shattered shoulders, broken arms and legs, while others were breathing their last breath. Shortly after the battle many women, children and old men came hunting for their loved ones.”

Local Lore:

A compendium of local lore about the battle was collected and published by E. G. Rockwell of Davidson College, in The Historical Magazine... (July, 1867, pages 24-27). Rockwell claimed that his account was “for the most part in the words of the different narrators, from whom the traditions have been taken down.”

There are some notable similarities between Rockwell's account and Graham's. In both cases, on the eve of battle, Francis Locke and his officers decided, after some debate, to attack the numerically superior force of Tories at Ramsour's Mill and sent word to Griffith Rutherford's nearby force of their intentions (see Ramsour's Mill: Joseph Graham's Timeline). For the most part, however, the accounts differ greatly.

According to Rockwell, Locke's infantry “divided into two equal bodies; the first was to advance and fire, then retreat, and form in the rear of the second, in the mean time to load as they retired; the second division was to advance and fire, retreat and in like manner, form in the rear, and load; thus to draw the enemy on, till Rutherford came up with the main body of the army.
This was the plan of attack, with the clear understanding that each was to watch the other’s motions, and act in concert. The arrangement being thus made and understood, the attack was made about sun-rise, while the Tories were engaged in preparing their breakfast; and so complete was the surprise that they found themselves falling by the balls of their enemies almost as soon as they discovered them.”

Graham also described the Whig infantry advancing in two successive lines, but he implied that the two lines had merely become separated during the chaotic opening attack.

Rockwell attributed the American victory in large part to the coordinated movements of these two lines, and to the heroic actions of a lone horseman:

“The first division, after firing, retreated, opening to the right and left from the centre, for the second to advance, fire, and retreat in the same way. The enemy, not withstanding their surprise, attempted to form a line; but a Whig of more courage than prudence, rode up, seized their colors and rode off with them unhurt amidst a shower of balls. Having now no rallying point, their consternation increased; and the quick succession of destructive fires, kept up by the assailants, rendered their confusion complete. The Whigs not only stood their ground, but advanced, after a few rounds, upon the enemy’s camp; and in a short time obtained a complete victory, taking possession of the camp before General Rutherford arrived with the main body of the army...”

By comparison, in Graham's account the American victory was due chiefly to the Whigs gaining the flanks of the Tory line. There is some recognition of this happening in Rockwell's account, but Graham's heroic Captain Hardin was replaced by one Captain Reed.

“Capt. Reed was ordered to take his men and flank the Tories: in doing so he had to cross a bottom and a branch, and pass through some underbrush. As he emerged in view of the enemy, a man rushed out towards him, and got behind a tree, watching an opportunity to shoot him. But being a good marksman Reed kept his eye on the tree, and seeing the shoulder of the Tory not entirely covered, he took a rifle from one of his men, and shot him through the part exposed. After the close of the battle he went among the wounded, and finding one shot through the shoulder, on inquiry as to the way he received his wound, he found him to be the man he had shot, and dressed the wound for him.”

No comments:

Post a Comment