Haw River, North Carolina
Haw River, North Carolina
HAW RIVER, NORTH CAROLINA. 25 February 1781. General Andrew Pickens and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee crossed the Dan from Virginia into North Carolina on 18 February, ahead of General Nathanael Greene's main army, with the mission of breaking up the Loyalist uprising for which Cornwallis had called. After a frustrating failure to surprise Colonel Banastre Tarleton, and learning that several hundred mounted militia were marching to join the British in Hillsboro, the rebels decided to try a trick. The green uniform of Lee's Legion was so similar to that of Tarleton's Legion that Lee would pretend his men were a reinforcement sent to join Tarleton. Two captured officers of the latter's command were placed with Lee's cavalry "to give currency to the deception" (Lee, p. 256). This stratagem worked immediately. Two of Colonel John Pyle's approximately three hundred Loyalists rode up and were gulled into thinking that Lee was Tarleton. One was sent back with two rebel dragoons to ask that Pyle pull his troops off to the side of the road so Tarleton could lead his "much fatigued troops … without delay to their night positions" (ibid., p. 257). Meanwhile, Pickens's militia, who could be identified by the green twigs in their hats (the insignia of the southern militia), were hidden in the woods. Lee said his plan was to get his cavalry among the unsuspecting enemy troops and then give them the alternatives of disbanding or joining the Patriot side.
Fortunately for Lee's plan, Pyle's mounted men had formed on the right side of the road so that Lee would lead his troopers the length of their front to meet Pyle. Furthermore, they had their rifles and fowling pieces on their shoulders, so the rebel cavalry, with drawn sabers and close to the heads of the enemy's horses, could do a lot of damage before the Loyalists could recover from their surprise and defend themselves. Here, in Lee's words (writing in the third person) is what happened:
Lee passed along the line at the head of the column with a smiling countenance, dropping, occasionally, expressions complimentary to the good looks and commendable conduct of his loyal friends. At length he reached Colonel Pyle, when the customary civilities were promptly interchanged. Grasping Pyle by the hand, Lee was in the act of consummating his plan, when the enemy's left, discovering Pickens' militia, not sufficiently concealed, began to fire upon the rear of the cavalry commanded by Captain Eggleston. This officer instantly turned upon the foe, as the whole column did immediately afterward. The conflict was quickly decided, and bloody on one side only. Ninety of the royalists were killed, and most of the survivors wounded. Dispersing in every direction, not being pursued, they escaped. During this sudden encounter, in some parts of the line the cry of mercy was heard, coupled with assurance of being our best friends; but no expostulation could be admitted in a conjuncture so critical. Humanity even forbade it, as its first injunction is to take care of your own safety, and our safety was not compatible with that of the supplicants, until disabled to offend. Pyle, falling under many wounds, was left on the field as dying, and yet he survived. We lost not a man, and only one horse.
The British accused Lee of a massacre in violation of the standards of warfare. Lee defended himself by pointing out that he did not order a pursuit of the fleeing Loyalists and did not have much choice but to act with quick brutality, since Tarleton's Legion was only a mile away.
In the following month, on 15 March, Cornwallis fought the battle of Guilford Courthouse without any Loyalist troops in his ranks. The action at Haw River is the main reason why.
revised by Michael Bellesiles