FANNING, DAVID. (1755–1825). Tory partisan. Virginia and South Carolina. Although details of his origin are obscure, David Fanning was probably born at Beech Swamp, Amelia County, Virginia, and was the son of David Fanning. Having run away from a harsh master to whom he was apprenticed, the younger David was an Indian trader among the Catawba in South Carolina in the years just before the Revolution. Although he said he was only nineteen years old in 1775, he also claims to have owned one thousand acres in Virginia and two slaves. Another detail of his prewar life that may have influenced his character was a disfiguring scalp disease known as scald head; this was so offensive during his childhood that he was not allowed to eat with other people, and when he outgrew this childhood disease it left his scalp so disfigured that he always wore a silk cap. In the early stages of the split with England, he sided with the Patriots but changed sides when he was robbed of his Indian trade and a considerable quantity of goods by a gang whose members called themselves Whigs.
A sympathetic picture of Fanning is presented by Robert O. DeMond in his Loyalists of North Carolina during the Revolution (1940). According to DeMond, Fanning resided in South Carolina when the war started and was a sergeant in the same militia company as Thomas Brown when it split into Whig and Tory factions in May 1775. Having signed a paper in favor of the king at that time, he returned to his home on Reburn Creek and for the next six years—during which time he apparently received his "training" under "Bloody Bill" Cunningham, a notorious Tory partisan—he was in and out of Patriot prisons. Captured and paroled in January 1776, recaptured and imprisoned on 25 June, he escaped, was recaptured, tried for treason, and acquitted but charged three hundred pounds for court expenses. This life continued, according to his own account, for another five years. The place of his confinement usually was at Ninety Six.
On 5 July 1781 he was commissioned colonel by Major James Craig, British commandant at Wilmington, North Carolina, and for the next ten months he led his guerrillas in a number of remarkable actions. It is of this brief and final phase of his career that DeMond writes: "Probably no friend of the [British] government during the entire war accomplished more for the British, and certainly none received less credit." While Colonel Benjamin Cleveland, one of the Kings Mountain heroes, led his vigilante Patriot bands along the Upper Yadkin, Fanning undertook the same role on Deep River, some thirty miles northeast. His most impressive operation was the Hillsboro raid on 12 September 1781. Bloody retaliatory warfare continued after regular military operations had ended in the South. Fanning apparently outclassed his opposition, but when he met rebel peace overtures with the request that his followers not be required to oppose the king during the remainder of the war, the civil authorities became arrogant. "There is no resting place for a Tory's foot upon the earth," said a Colonel Balfour (ibid.). Fanning subsequently sacked Balfour's plantation and killed him. The Tory leader got the upper hand in the region and continued to raid, but he also continued efforts to arrange an armistice. He was married in the spring of 1782 and on 7 May entered a truce area on the lower Peedee. He settled in East Florida when Charleston was evacuated and went to Halifax in September 1784 after Britain ceded East Florida to Spain. He was elected to the provincial parliament of New Brunswick and served from 1791 until January 1801, when he was expelled for some unknown crime. For the latter he was condemned to death but pardoned. Fanning moved to Digby, Nova Scotia, and became colonel of militia. He died at Digby in 1825. His tombstone says he was seventy years old at that time.
In requesting compensation from the crown, Fanning claimed to have led thirty-six skirmishes in North Carolina and four in South Carolina, commanding bands that varied in strength between 100 and 950 men. For all this, he was allowed the grand sum of sixty pounds. Colonel Fanning's Narrative was written in 1790 and first published (in Richmond, with an introduction by J. H. Wheeler) in 1861. The fifty-page manuscript was subsequently reprinted several times. DeMond calls the Narrative "the best contemporary account of the Loyalists for the latter period of the war."
Craig's appointment of Fanning as commander of the North Carolina Loyal Militia came at a historic juncture in British operations in the Carolinas. For the first time, the British had learned how to wage irregular warfare against the Americans. According to the historian John S. Watterson, Fanning employed new tactics and discipline to use in a war of "quickness, mobility, deception, and improvisation" that Governor Burke and General Greene found, in the short run, impossible to counter. Had the French fleet not cut Cornwallis's supply lines to New York in September 1781, the Craig-Fanning offensive in North Carolina in 1781 might well have helped to shift the strategic balance in the southern campaign in 1782.
DeMond, Robert O. The Loyalists in North Carolina during the Revolution. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1940.
Fanning, David. Narrative of Colonel David Fanning. Davidson, N.C.: Briarpatch Press, 1981.
Fisher, Sydney George. The Struggle for American Independence. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1908.
Ward, Harry M. Between the Lines: Banditti of the American Revolution. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002.
Watterson, John S., III. "The Ordeal of Governor Burke." North Carolina Historical Review 48 (1971): 95-117.
revised by Robert M. Calhoon