Local historian: Chatham County was a big player in America’s independence

BY BOB WACHS, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/10/20

The Fourth of July holiday has come and gone on the calendar but memories — of long-ago and present day — are still with us.

And, says one local historian, had it not been for a turn of …

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Local historian: Chatham County was a big player in America’s independence

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The Fourth of July holiday has come and gone on the calendar but memories — of long-ago and present day — are still with us.

And, says one local historian, had it not been for a turn of events, Chatham County could have played an even bigger role in America’s war for independence from England than it did.

It was July 4, 1776, when representatives from the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia and signed the Declaration of Independence, pledging “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to the cause. But even though the colonies made their case, England wasn’t about to give up her interests without a fight. And a long fight it was — from April 19, 1775, when the Minutemen clashed with British troops at the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord until the English surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1783.

Fast forward to today and you’ll find Gene Brooks living in retirement in Pittsboro, where he taught U.S. history from 1962 until 1991 at both Pittsboro High School and Northwood High. To folks who know him, it’s no surprise that he’s aware of considerable details and information about that war and Chatham County’s role in it and how, if a planned surprise attack had happened, the war might have ended near Moncure.

Somewhere it must have been written and pre-ordained that Brooks would be a historian.

It’s in his DNA.

After all, it was his ancestor Isaac Brooks — “seven or eight generations; I don’t know how many ‘greats’ that is,” he says — who came up to Chatham County from the Fayetteville area around 1750 to settle in western Chatham County a few miles south of Siler City where his reconstructed cabin sits along the road named in his honor.

“The interesting thing about him,” Brooks says today, “is that before he came to Chatham, his family farmed 600 acres on Rockfish Creek around today’s Cumberland County. But in that day, England would give land to a family for every man, woman and child in it because their only hope for making money was trade with the colonies. There wasn’t any gold or anything like that so England needed settlements. But before moving, he sold his 600 acres for a brace of pistols.”

Although his classroom days are over, Brooks still believes strongly in history and its importance and will produce a mini-lesson in a moment about Chatham County’s place in it.

“It’s that old dull saying that if you don’t study history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” he says. “I just feel an obligation to tell the stories of the folks who made us.”

A big part of the story of Chatham County’s people, places and participation in the Revolutionary War came about because of England’s strategy.

“The British planned to cut the colonies in two, cutting the south off,” Brooks says, “and raise a force of Loyalists, folks loyal to the King and to England.”

After news of Lexington and Concord reached North Carolina, both Patriots and Loyalists increased their recruitment efforts and when news came in January 1776 of a planned British army expedition to the area, Royal Governor Josiah Martin ordered the Loyalist militia to gather in anticipation of their arrival.

“There were a lot of Scotch Highlanders,” Brooks says, “some who had gathered near Carthage and were marching to Wilmington where they were to join the British troops.”

But not only had Loyalists mustered — so had Patriot militia and Continental troops who blocked several routes to the coast until the morning of Feb. 27, 1776, when the under-armed Loyalists were met at Moore’s Creek Bridge, about 20 miles north of Wilmington in present-day Pender County.

Early that morning, Highlanders charged across the bridge, brandishing swords, only to be met by a hail of musket fire resulting in overwhelming defeat for the Loyalists. Official records say Loyalist casualties were 420 killed or wounded and 850 captured, some several days after the battle while the Patriots suffered one killed and one wounded. For all intents and purposes, that ended both Loyalist recruiting and warfare in North Carolina until 1780.

“The Loyalists lost interest in recruiting after that,” Brooks says, “and a change in British tactics led to the war coming to our area.”

British General Charles Cornwallis was in the colonies after several trips back and forth to England, partly to care for his ailing wife who died in 1780, and after a series of victories and losses in battles in the northern colonies.

“The strategy becomes to capture cities in the south,” Brooks says. “Cornwallis takes Charleston and Savannah and begins establishing enclaves, outposts into the back country of South Carolina. Along the way, Patriots harass the British with guerrilla strikes, most notably by Francis Marion — the Swamp Fox — and Andrew Pickens and Thomas Sumter. But in August 1780, Gen. Horatio Gates, who has been put in charge of the southern Continental army, is routed by Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina. His reputation is ruined, partly because he outruns his troops in retreat and he never gets over this.”

At this point, George Washington sends Nathanael Greene south to pick up the pieces and reorganize the army. He does this, bringing with him cavalry officer Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee. “Cornwallis decides to go all in,” Brooks says, “and chase them. He cuts his supplies loose and takes off with about 2,000 troops, including German mercenaries. The British then send word to areas in western North Carolina that if citizens there don’t join with the Loyalist militia that his troops will destroy the area.

“That,” Brooks says, “was the wrong thing to say to those mountain folks. When Cornwallis sent his favorite officer, Major Gen. Patrick Ferguson, to the area, he was soundly defeated and lost his life in a battle — Kings Mountain — on the border of the two Carolinas on Oct. 7, 1780.”

Patriot losses were put at approximately 30 men while the British suffered more than 1,100 killed, wounded and captured.

“Cornwallis lost an important part of his army there,” Brooks says, “but there was another engagement before action began to shift toward Chatham County. In January of 1781, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton — known as ‘the Bloody Butcher’ for his tactics — met a colonial force near a place where they used to gather cattle, Cowpens, South Carolina, and was soundly defeated. After that, it was a race between Cornwallis and Nathanael Greene to cross the Dan River in Virginia — Greene to get away and Cornwallis to capture him.”

But by that time, according to Brooks, Cornwallis, who had suffered tremendous loss of life and was running out of supplies, began to give up on his strategy of subduing the south and turned toward Wilmington. Green got to the river first, crossed it and took time to rest and reorganize.

“Two months later they met one more time at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse,” Brooks said.

Historians point out that statistically that battle was a British victory but Cornwallis suffered the loss of 25% of his 2,100 troops, prompting British Whig Party leader and war critic Charles James Fox to say, “Another such victory would ruin the British army.”

It was shortly after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse that war and fighting came to Chatham County. Following that battle, British troops remained on the field for two days, burying their dead and treating the wounded. A week later found them encamped at Dixon’s Mill near Snow Camp in Alamance County, heading south and east toward Wilmington, still under British control.

“The British came across Hickory Mountain toward Pittsboro,” Brooks says, “probably crossing somewhere around where the Catholic church is between Pittsboro and Siler City.”

While camped at Snow Camp, British troops slaughtered most of the local livestock for food and Cornwallis took over Simon Dixon’s house as his headquarters.

By now, Nathanael Greene was back in North Carolina and was pursuing Cornwallis, who had come through Pittsboro, camped briefly south of town and was headed toward southeast Chatham County and on to Cross Creek (Fayetteville) and the coast as quickly as he could.

Arriving at Ramsey’s Mill, near the present day Lockville Dam near Moncure, Cornwallis camped for two days and stationed troops at the mill while he used the Ramsey Tavern as his headquarters. Troops spent those days building a makeshift bridge out of rocks from the mill dam so they could cross Deep River. Throughout the encampment, Col. Henry Lee and his troops — Lee’s Legion — had harassed the British while they worked. At the same time, Greene’s army was within about 10 miles of Ramsey’s Mill and plans were made to confront the British there, but reconnaissance parties showed the timing and strength of both armies wouldn’t allow the Americans to pull off the attack. When Cornwallis learned of the nearness of Greene’s forces, he crossed the bridge, destroyed it and hurried off east as quickly as he could.

“Just think,” Brooks says, “if there had been a little more time and that plan had come to pass, the war might have ended at Moncure. Eventually, of course, British troops moved on to the coast and then north, where they were surrounded and surrendered at Yorktown.”

For the remainder of the war years, Brooks points out, there were skirmishes and hostilities in Chatham County. One of the better known is the raid on the Chatham Courthouse in July 1781, after Cornwallis had escaped the area, by the British Loyalist David Fanning and his Tory militia. On July 18, 1781, Fanning led a raid on the town and courthouse and captured more than 50 patriots, many of whom were members of the local and revolutionary governments and officers in the Continental army and Patriot militia. He took 14 of those he considered most dangerous to Wilmington, where they were imprisoned on British ships.

Fanning was captured 14 times by Patriot forces between 1785 and 1788 but always managed to escape. In August 1789, he agreed to a conditional pardon in exchange for his abandoning the Loyalist cause. He kept his agreement until Cornwallis captured Charleston in May 1780. After that, he dedicated himself to the Loyalist cause, culminating in the raid at Chatham Courthouse, an attack on Hillsborough, the state capitol, and the skirmish at House in the Horseshoe in Moore County.

After the British surrender at Yorktown, Fanning fled the area, going first to Florida and then to Canada, where he died. He was one of three people specifically exempted from a round of pardons in 1783.

Although the period was one of combat and violence, Brooks says Chatham County’s Revolutionary War history wasn’t all about violence.

“I think it’s interesting to note,” he says, “that, for instance, while Chatham was part of Orange County a man named William Hooper from Hillsborough served as clerk to Chatham County. Folks may remember him, along with John Penn and Joseph Hewes, as a signer from North Carolina of the Declaration of Independence. And when Chatham’s five representatives to the Constitutional Convention, who believed strongly in limited government, arrived in Hillsboro for that session, only one of the five signed the document because there was no Bill of Rights at first.”

Brooks traces his love — and life — of history to his childhood.

“I’ve always had a deep respect and appreciation for older folks,” he says. “My father died when I was young, 8 years old, and I spent considerable time with my grandparents and older family members. I just think older folks and history are very important.”

When he finished his college years at what was then East Carolina Teacher’s College, Brooks approached Chatham County school personnel for employment.

“I thought I might get a job on the western side of the county,” he says, “but they didn’t need a history teacher. (Principal) Roy Kidd needed one at Pittsboro and he hired me on the spot. Turned out what he really needed was a big man physically so we shook hands on it. Later my mother said I should call him to make sure I still had a job since we hadn’t signed a contract and I hadn’t heard from him all summer. So, I did and he sent me a letter as a contract. There was a misspelled word in it and my mother said to me, ‘I believe you can work for this man,’ since I can’t spell either.”

Later, after Pittsboro High School and Horton High School combined to form Northwood when integration came to the county, Brooks served as a vice principal along with the late Bishop Leach.

“It’s been a good experience,” he says of his teaching career. “I just wish more people would understand that real history is complex and convoluted and complicated, just like people. We’re all flawed individuals. I wish we could spend more time honoring people for the good they did along the way.”

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