A Battle of Common Men

I have always been fascinated with family genealogy.  In my quest to find my heritage, I stumbled across a little known battle of the American Revolution, the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill.  It took place on June 20, 1780 near present-day Lincolnton, North Carolina during the British campaign to gain control of the southern colonies.

On June 18, American General Griffith Rutherford and his troops were encamped near Charlotte, North Carolina when he received information that a body of Loyalists were assembling west of Charlotte at Ramsour’s Mill.  As Rutherford began moving his troops toward the mill, he sent messages to several area militia leaders including  Lieutenant Colonel Francis Locke of the North Carolina militia.

Locke had already amassed 400 men at Mountain Creek which was about 16 miles from the mill.  The colonial troops intelligences had informed Locke that the size of the Loyalist force was three times that of their own.  Nonetheless, without word of Rutherford’s movement, the decision was made by Locke to attack early on the following day.

John Moore was a Loyalist who had served with the British at the Siege of Charleston.  After his return home, which was a few miles from Ramsour’s Mill, on June 10, he called together a group of about 40 Loyalists from the region.  At this meeting he shared with them instructions from Lord Charles Cornwallis.  The instructions explicitly said that the Loyalists were to avoid organizing until British troops had entered the area.  However, Moore was moved to action when he learned that a group of about twenty Patriots were in the area trying to track him down as well as other Loyalists.  Moore decided it was time to confront the Patriots regardless of Cornwallis’s instructions.  He told his men to return to their homes and to rejoin him in a few days at Ramsour’s Mill.  The first of those men, numbering about 200, began gathering on a hill about 300 yards from the mill.  In the following days, with news of a British victory at Waxhaws, the Loyalists were energized and more began to join their cause.  By June 20, they had amassed a gathering of about 1,300 men.

The Patriot cavalry column approached the mill region and were met by Loyalist guards posted on the road.  The guards fired their weapons and hastily retreated to join the ranks of the other Loyalists.  The cavalry made an initial charge and the Patriot infantry began to move up.  The Patriots took advantage of the confusion and turned the Loyalist flank, allowing them to take high ground on the ridge.  General Rutherford was only a few miles from Ramsour’s Mill.  When he received word of the fighting, he sent his cavalry and infantry to assist.

First hand accounts of the battle are on file in the National Archives.  In one such account, it was stated that Colonel Locke was unable to reform his line and issued orders for a retreat.  Captain John Dickey defied the orders and led his company to a more advantageous position from which they used their marksmanship to turn the effort into a victory.  The account says that when Dickey was order by Locke to retreat that he loudly sworn that he would not. He ordered his me to “Shoot straight, my boys, and keep on fighting; I see some of them beginning to tumble.” It is Dickey’s failure to follow orders that is credited with “saving the day” for the Patriots at Ramsour’s Mill.  His victory was the inspiration of a ballad written and sung by his troops:

“Old Colonel Locke kept pretty well back,
While brave Captain Dickey commenced the attack.
He, Colonel Locke, ordered us to retreat and reform,
Which made our old hero mightily storm.”

By the time Rutherford reached the battle, he was met with Loyalists bear the white flag of truce seeking time to deal with their dead and wounded.  Rutherford’s forces instead demanded a complete surrender.  While Rutherford and the Loyalists negotiated terms, most of the other Loyalists fled.  In the end, only 50 were taken prisoner.

In the end, tallying up the casualties was made difficult by the fact that on neither side did hardly any wear uniforms.  The death toll was estimated at 50-70.  They also estimated about 100 on each side wounded.  Throughout the battle, there was a shortage of ammunition.  Reports indicated that the muskets were sometimes used as clubs.

Ramsour’s Mill was a battle between “neighbors, near relations, and friends”.  It was a battle in which 400 cause-driven American Patriots defeated 1,300 Loyalist militiamen.  Though it did not involve any regular army forces from either side, it was significant.  The battle demoralized area Loyalists to the point that they never organized again the area.  Moore and about 30 of his men joined Cornwallis at Camden.  Even there he was demoralized as he was threatened with charges for disobeying Cornwallis’s orders.

For me, Ramsour’s Mill meant so much more.  My grandfather seven generations ago, Adolphus Rievenmacher, (Our last name has obviously evolved over time since arriving in America.)  while in his 60’s was a part of the Patriots who fought that day.  While trying to deliver a message, he was killed by Tory Loyalists.  Two of his sons were also involved in area campaigns.  They both fought at the nearby Battle of Kings Mountain.

Adam Reep, one of Adlophus’s sons who according to his pension records fought at Ramsour’s Mill, remembered vividly the nightmarish condition of the the battlefield .  He said, “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.”

This battle may not have involved enlisted military men, but to me it is more American than I ever imagined.  Common men rising up, taking arms, taking a stand for liberty and independence, and to think the blood of one of them flows through me grounds me even more as an American.

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