June 20, 1780, early dawn
If you’re a newcomer, or even a longtime resident, it’s possible that you’ve missed the fact that Lincolnton’s Battleground Elementary School is aptly named, for it sits directly upon the ground of a fierce Revolutionary War battle.
It’s also possible that you’ve been too distracted to notice the historic marker on North Aspen Street, just in front of Lincolnton High School. It briefly describes a decisive Revolutionary War battle on Lincoln County soil that left at least 100 dead and 200 wounded. The Patriot’s surprise attack at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill is often credited for scattering the North Carolina Loyalists, diminishing local support for the British cause, paving the way for a turn-of-the-tide Tory defeat at Kings Mountain in October, and the eventual British defeat at Yorktown.
Narratives gathered from eye witnesses, include an account by General Joseph Graham in 1825 and a second written by William R. Davie in 1803. A third narrative by Wallace M. Reinhardt, father-in-law of Warren Fair, was published in 1937. The source for much of the Reinhardt manuscript is attributed to stories told to him by Adam Reep, who was not accurately determined to be present at the battle.
For the purpose of this narrative, our primary source is a more concise article written by local historian Ann M. Dellinger.
To set the stage, the war for America’s independence began five years earlier in Massachusetts, and had entered the south. Following decisive victories in Georgia and South Carolina, Lord Cornwallis and the British army was poised to enter North Carolina in the spring of 1780.
In early June, two local officers, Lt. Col. John Moore and Maj. Nicholas Welch, flush from recent victories, returned home and issued a call for local residents to assemble and support the British. By the evening of June 19, around 1300 Loyalists, men and boys, encamped on the east bank of Clark’s Creek on the land of Christian Reinhardt (see page 4). Many of them were unarmed. On the west bank was a gristmill operated by Jacob Ramsour.
Meanwhile, a Patriot force of some 400 composed primarily of men gathered from Rowan, Burke, Iredell and Mecklenburg counties, and commanded by various officers, was being gathered to disperse them. On the evening of June 19, the Patriot force, about one-fourth of the men mounted cavalry, assembled on Mountain Creek, some sixteen miles northeast of Ramsour’s Mill.
In a discussion of possible action, cavalry officers Major James Rutherford and Captain Galbraith Falls proposed a surprise attack. After considerable debate by other officers, a decision was made to attack the Loyalist encampment at daybreak. The Patriot militia units left Mountain Creek and made an overnight march to Ramsour’s Mill, stopping about a mile from the site for officers to plan the attack. It was decided that Captains Falls, McDowell, and Brandon should go in on horseback and march in front. That was the extent of the planning since, according to Graham, “No other arrangements were made and it was left to the officers to be governed by circumstances after they should reach the enemy.”
Meanwhile, the Tories were encamped on a hill three hundred yards east of Ramsour’s Mill on land owned by Christian Reinhardt, and the site of the present-day Battleground Elementary School. It provided an excellent position.
At dawn on Tuesday, June 20, 1780, a heavy fog blanketed Reinhardt’s farm, about 300 yards east of the mill. Captain Falls and his men made contact with the enemy as they came upon the Loyalist pick guard about 600 yards east of the main body. The picket fired and fled to their camp. The horsemen pursued and turning to the right out of the road, they were within thirty steps of the encampment before being discovered.
Led by their cavalry, and Col. Locke’s men two deep behind them, the Patriots marched to battle. The surprise attack caught the sleepy Loyalists off guard without time to form their line. The Tories quickly rallied and fired back, causing the horsemen to retreat.
The Tories, seeing the effect of their fire, came down the hill exposing themselves. The horsemen rallied and returned to the fight with the infantry close behind. The Tory counterattack drove the Patriots back down the hill. The Patriots regrouped and again advanced up the hill, pushing the Tories further beyond the crest.
The sides seemed evenly matched until Patriot horsemen were able to attack the Tories on the right flank. Fighting was fierce and the action was close, according to Graham, and the parties became mixed. With no bayonets, they struck each other with rifle butts and often hand to hand. This three-pronged attack was too much for the Tories who retreated westward down the ridge and across Clark’s Creek at and near the mill. They crossed the creek at various places, including swimming the millpond, and rapidly dispersed into the countryside.
By the end of two hours, all fighting had ceased. As the fog lifted, the scene revealed the dead and wounded. According to Graham’s account, “As there was no organization of either part nor regular returns made after the action, the loss could not be ascertained with correctness. Fifty-six lay dead on the side of the ridge where the heat of the action prevailed. Many lay scattered on the flanks and over the ridge toward the mill. It is believed that seventy were killed and that the loss on each side was equal About one hundred men on each side were wounded and fifty Tories were taken prisoners. The men had no uniforms and it could not be told to which party many of the dead belonged.”
According to Graham, Captains Falls, Dobson, Smith, Bowman, and Armstrong were killed; and Captains Houston and McKissick wounded. Of the Tories Captains Cumberland, Murray, and Warlick were killed, and Capt. Carpenter was wounded. Other sources list Captains Sloan and Knox among the dead.
By midday, a large force of Patriot militia commanded by General Griffith Rutherford reached the battlefield and dispatched Major Davie and his cavalry to round up enemy stragglers. Work began at aiding the wounded and burying the dead. While the bodies of some men killed in the battle were returned to their homes for burial, the majority of the unidentified dead were placed in a long, deep trench on the west side of the hill. Unable to distinguish Loyalist from Patriots, the dead were respectfully buried together.
Today, children play on the site of carnage, and to gaze on the landscape today, with its modern athletic fields and classrooms, it’s hard to imagine the scene of 240 years ago. Yet remnants of the loss, the mass grave of 70 soldiers and the final rest of Whig Captains John Dobson and John Bowman, Tory Captain Nicholas Warlick, his brother Philip Warlick, and Israel Sain, are reverently marked and remembered at a somber wreath-laying service held annually by the Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution.