The fight for Bladen County began at noon on April 3, 1781 when Lord Charles Cornwallis and his British troops stopped at the small river village of Elizabethtown for two days to rest. They were on their way to Wilmington, exhausted from a hard fight at the Battle of Guilford Court House and the ensuing long march back. The local patriot militia (Whigs), then quartered in Elizabethtown, were greatly outnumbered and decided to flee the area. With them gone, the Tories (Loyalists) seized on the opportunity and soon took control of both of Elizabethtown and the surrounding area. Bladen County quickly emerged as a hotbed for Tories regulars, attracting new volunteers who chose to side with the King.
The two commanding Tory colonels from Bladen County were John Slingsby and Hector McNeal. Slingsby served as the local commander for Elizabethtown. His chief deputy there was Captain David Godwin, a wealthy local planter. Godwin’s two oldest sons had both attained villainous reputations throughout the region. Gaining strength in numbers, the Tories soon began driving the Whigs (patriots) out of the county. Some of these same patriot families had just recently moved from nearby New Hanover to avoid the British troops who began occupying Wilmington in early 1781.
April: 24, 1781: Rested and resupplied, Lord Cornwallis and his army of 1400+ men left Wilmington headed for Richmond. They entered Duplin County on April 27, 1781 and spent about three days there. Cornwallis is documented as staying at the Duplin plantation of Robert Dickson on April 28, 1781. (Dickson, a major in the local militia, had earlier abandoned his home and moved his family to Virginia for safety.). With the British moving through the area unmolested and meeting no resistance, the Tories felt empowered. They followed in Cornwallis’ path, looting homes and taking advantage of the chaos that followed.
May 20, 1781: Cornwallis and his men made it as far north as Petersburg, VA
June 1781: Thomas Burke was elected the new governor of North Carolina. A patriot, he wanted to eliminate the Loyalists’ stronghold between the Pee Dee River and the Cape Fear River and he had General John Butler to raise a large army to undertake this effort.
June 1781: British Major James Craig, the garrison commander in Wilmington, issued a proclamation to all the nearby counties in the Cape Fear region. Under his official order, all young men in the area were to arm themselves and declare for the king by the first of August, or be declared an enemy of the king.
June 1781: Colonel Thomas Brown, commander of all Bladen Patriot Militia, was captured by the British and taken to Wilmington as a prisoner of war.
July 1781: James Kenan, a colonel in the Duplin Militia, reported to the state governor that his troops had “no powder or lead, not one round”, he said. Another militia officer, General Alexander Lillington, complained, “his men had less than three rounds each”. It was also hard to get food as the locals refused to turn over their cattle or grain to the Militia. Though most people supported the Patriot cause, they knew that the Tories were watching and were reluctant to help. They feared they might be punished.
July 1781: David Fanning had his own ideas. He proposed a scheme to Major Craig in Wilmington, a plan to move on Hillsborough with his men and capture Governor Thomas Burke. Craig realized that this would be a major coup for the British and approved Fanning’s plan. In order to do this, he would need more Loyalist troops to go with him.
August 1, 1781, British Major Craig leaves Wilmington intent on punishing those in adjoining counties who would not declare for the king. The next day he reaches Duplin County with an army of 250 Redcoats and 80 Loyalist militia soldiers. Early the next morning they met and soundly defeated Colonel James Kenan and his Patriot militia at the Battle of Rockfish Creek Bridge. (It was fought near today’s Wallace on Hwy 41.) Major Craig and his troops then meandered their way through Duplin into Jones County, then on to Kinston, New Bern, and back to Wilmington.
In Jones County, Rice Bass and John Bass were among a group of Loyalists that murdered Martin Franke, James Blackshear, and a Mr. Becton. Later, as the British troops left New Bern, Herman Bass and other Loyalists followed them at the rear. They went into the home of John Stevenson, who was believed to be a Patriot, and murdered him in the presence of his wife and family.
August 14, 1781: Early that morning the notorious Tory militia leader David Fanning captured Campbelltown (near Fayetteville). Fanning and his men scoured the country, committing frightful atrocities against many innocent citizens. But they did such good service for the British that Major Craig gave him a commission as Colonel in the North Carolina Loyalist Militia. By the speed and secrecy of his movements he succeeded in capturing many prominent Patriots, and hanged those who had incurred his personal resentment.
Like the Patriots, they, too, were a local militia, but they preferred to call themselves the King’s Militia. There were four Tory (Loyalist) camps in Cumberland County and several in Bladen, too. It was during this time that all of the North Carolina Loyalists were put under Fanning’s control.
During the latter part of August things began to heat up in Bladen. The emboldened Tories, feeling they could not be defeated, began driving the Patriots from their homes and out of Bladen County entirely. They ravaged the county in every direction, insulting and plundering the most respectable families, burning private dwellings and destroying a great amount of valuable property. Among the homes burned were those of militia Colonel Thomas Robeson and his brother Peter Robeson.
The period between April and August had been sort of a stalemate in Bladen County. The following is an edited pension application of Josiah Singletary of that county, which gives a better picture as to how the events in that area later unfolded:
SINGLETARY, Josiah, Pen #W6064, Private, Bladen and NC Militia
Soldier was born 24 Oct 1763 in Bladen, the son of Joseph Singletary and Mary Fitzrandolph. Soldier served as a substitute for his Uncle Benjamin Fitzrandolph in the fall on 1777. Soldier served in the company of Captain Charles Bullock and Lt. William Dye and under command of Colonel Thomas Brown. The mission was against Tories and some skirmishes the Tories won. William Strong was killed during this period. In another mission, the Tories were defeated and routed and ran off without some of their horses. The horses were taken into new homes. The Tories then were mostly highlanders from Scotland and being mainly immigrants and were highly loyal to the British Government.
By this time, Private Josiah Singletary was in the militia company of Captain Jared Erwin. When Cornwallis left Bladen, one of his Redcoat soldiers deserted and came down with small pox. Captain Erwin caught the small pox from the deserter, forcing Colonel Thomas Robeson to take command of the company. Colonel Robeson marched the company to Duplin (now south Sampson), but returned closer to Bladen and set up head quarters, about nine miles east of Elizabethtown.
This stand off lasted for four months. The lack of information about what the Bladen Tories in Elizabethtown were doing, was a real problem. That was solved by Mrs. Margaret McRee, the mother of Major Griffith John McRee of Bladen; she came to camp as needed to provide information on the Tories in Elizabethtown. Many of the Bladen Militia were tied down at the big bridge north of Wilmington as the British held that town. After the defeat at Rockfish, some Bladen officers returned home but the total force of the militia then was less that 80. Colonel Robeson, and Captain Peter Robeson joined the small militia of 60 men and now Colonel Thomas Robeson took command. It was determined that Mrs. McRee should not be seen in town near the Tory camp so she got Mrs. Sally Salter to obtain and feed her information and Mrs. Margaret McRee would get the information to the militia. The Tories held a few militia prisoners in Elizabethtown and apparently Mrs. Salter was allowed to feed them. She apparently told then not to leave town when paroled, because once they were paroled and they did not leave.
Colonel Robeson and Captain Erwin devised a plan to fool the Tories. They broke camp around August 25th and let it be known to all who were listening that they were leaving Bladen. They crossed into Duplin County (now Sampson) and camped near Lisbon (close to Ingold). The next day they headed east towards the Neuse River. Hearing of their retreat, the Tories in Elizabethtown were pleased and celebrated. However, on the 27th, the Patriot militia avoided any contact with locals, turned around, and headed back toward Bladen County.
Unknown to the militia, Tory Colonel David Fanning passed through Elizabethtown about noon on the 28th and the Tories excitingly told him about the Bladen Militia’s leaving. But Fanning needed to move quickly towards Hillsborough in his bid to capture Governor Burke, and he needed more troops. Since the Bladen Patriot Militia had left the area and the threat seemed low, Fanning pulled Colonel Hector McNeal and his 80 Tories from Bladen to accompany him to Hillsborough. It was a perfect opportunity for the Patriots to return.
On the evening of August 28th, the Patriot militia slipped back into Bladen. Around midnight, they quietly forded the Cape Fear in the darkness and made their way back to the little village. There they met and joined a group of parolees who had been imprisoned by the Tories. Together, they made plans to attack the Tory camp before daylight. The parolees knew where all the Tories slept and the Tory leaders Slingsby, Godwin, and Harrison were killed
In the early morning darkness, Colonel Robeson formed his troops and led them into battle. Advancing rapidly and keeping up a well-directed fire they were soon in the midst of the enemy. Colonel Robeson and six of his militia officers took a central position. The main body of men rushed to a point at a distance on his right - fired and reloaded with almost inconceivable rapidity and then rushed to a point on his left and repeated the procedure. They repeated this procedure many times, until the Tories were convinced that a thousand men or more was attacking them.
The militia gave out of ammunition but the Tories were running so fast, they never realized it. Most of the Tory officers were killed or badly wounded. Their leaders fallen, the remaining men scattered in every direction. Many fled into a deep ravine near the river, which has since come to be known as the Tory Hole, and there they met their defeat. With that, the Tory power was forever broken.
By daylight, the remaining Tories were completely routed. Most left the area and never returned. The Battle of Elizabethtown was in the early morning of August 29, 1781. Private Josiah Singletary was on active service with this company for one year. He gave high praise to Captain Jared Erwin as an uncommon man who gave much to the cause of freedom.
NOTE: From the Aug 1781 journal of Tory Colonel David Fanning.
“I got to Cross Creek (Fayetteville) on the 11th of August: and early in the morning following crossed the Cape Fear River, when Major Samuel Andrews joined me with his company and scouted through all the rebel (Whigs) settlement, on the north side of the river; and took a number of prisoners, arms and horses. I also discovered where 25 barrels of salt were concealed; designed for the rebel army (Militia). I destroyed it. We then marched down the side (of the river) and came to the plantation belonging to Captain (Peter) Robertson (Robeson)—which I burned. From thence I marched to his brother’s Colonel Robertson (Robeson) which served in the same manner. On my march, I took several prisoners, whom I paroled except 20: those I delivered to Captain Leggett, then commanding in Wilmington where I arrived on the (Aug) 24th. Having got supplied with ammunition, I proceeded up the country on the 26th.”
“On my arrival at Elizabethtown (28th) I found Colonel Slingby of the loyal militia of Bladen County, with a number of paroled rebels (released militia prisoners) in his camp. I disapproved of keeping them there and told him that I thought it imprudent and unsafe. The event proved so; for that night they, having some arms concealed, fired upon his camp and wounded him mortally. Five Captains were also wounded, some of who died afterwards of their wounds. The day following I arrived at McFalls Mill, about 60 miles. There I dispatched 90 of my men back to render assistance. But it was too late as the rebels had taken to the woods and got away.” State records Vol. 22 page 204-5. It is thought that Tory Captain David Godwin was one of the wounded and was rushed to a doctor in Wilmington, but he soon died. It is noted that Troy Colonel Hector McNeal of Bladen and his 70 Tories were not in Elizabethtown on 29 Aug 1781. McNeal and 40 Tories were killed in a firefight with General Butler at the Battle of Linsey’s Mill. Fanning was badly wounded in this skirmish as the group was coming back from Hillsboro where they had captured Governor Burke.
The Battle of Elizabethtown took place in the wee morning hours of August 29, 1781. The total of about 70 outmatched Bladen Militia troops easily defeated a much larger Tory force that numbered well over 300. God did not save the king this time.