Tory Massacre

Fayetteville Observer newspaper, Monday, October 12, 1857
The Tory Massacre, article by Richard Everett
contributed by Myrtle Bridges

A little more than a year ago last winter, we made a tour through the Southern States, and in the course of our rambles tarried a while at the little village of Hillsborough, North Carolina. It was a location hallowed to our mind by many revolutionary associations. In his memorable retreat across North Carolina, in February 1781, the ragged but gallant army of Gen. Greene forded the river Haw, a short distance from Hillsborough. All through the revolutionary struggle the neighboring country was noted for its affrays, which were constantly occurring, either between the patriots and English troops, or the patriots and their traitorous enemies, the Tories.

Not far from Hillsborough, we were shown the scene of the terrible massacre of Tories by the troopers of “Lee’s Legion.” Great changes have taken place since those eventful times, and our guide could only point out the vicinity of the conflict, there being no veteran to designate the exact spot. Let us recall the circumstances of that terrible affair.

Although driven across the river Dan, into Virginia, Greene had no idea of abandoning the South; but in the old and wealthy county of Halifax, endeavored to recruit his wearied troops, and prepare again to meet the foe. As a preliminary step to the movement of his whole army, Greene sent Col. Henry Lee, with his legion of cavalry and two companies of Maryland militia, to harass the British force and disperse the bands of Tories which were organizing throughout the Carolinas.

Col. Lee had formed a squadron of cavalry, uniformed and armed precisely after the fashion of Tarlton’s celebrated corps; and no man in the American service was more dreaded by the foe than “Legion Harry,” as he was generally styled throughout the American camp, especially backed by his troopers. About the middle of February, Lord Cornwallis issued a proclamation, inviting all those who were loyal to the king to join his standard, promising protection and reward, and at the same time threatening “rebels” with the halter, if found with arms in their hands. Soon after this event, Lee crossed the Dan and advanced slowly into North Carolina.

By curious circumstance it happened that just at this time Col. Tarlton, with his legion and some companies of infantry, left the British camp and moved toward the Virginia line on a marauding expedition. Lee had advanced only one day’s march when his scouts brought information of Tarleton’s approach, and that he was then encamped at a plantation only six or eight miles distant. Lee resolved to attack the English troops that very night. Arranging his forces, he moved up within a short distance of the British camp and waited for darkness.

It so happened, however, that Tarleton was on the point of removing his camp to another plantation; that very afternoon he put his arrangement in force, and moved away some fifteen miles, in a direction contrary to Lee’s calculation. Therefore, in the evening, on approaching the British encampment, with great circumspection, the American troops were sorely mortified to discover that the sagacious Briton was no where to be found. Greatly chagrined, Lee was on the point of pushing with all haste after the British Colonel, when the indomitable scouts again came in with information. They brought intelligence that one Col. Pyle, a noted Tory with a company of four hundred mounted loyalists, was close at hand, making for Tarleton’s camp, unaware that he had moved. Lee resolved to capture the whole party by stratagem. Sending forward a couple of troopers to meet the Tories and conduct them to camp, he placed the militia and riflemen in ambush on each side of the road, and drew up his legion in proper form to receive the Tory battalion. It was his intention to lead the Tories into an ambuscade, and take them all prisoners. To the honor of Col. Lee, be it recorded, that he did not contemplate nor plan the massacre which followed.

As the Tories approached, Lee sent his Adjutant to greet the Colonel and direct him where to post his men. The Adjutant returned with word that “Col. Tarleton’s wishes should be cheerfully complied with.” Lee saw that his stratagem was working to perfection. Col. Pyle marched his men to the place indicated by Lee, and drew them up in two ranks along the road, in such a manner that they were hemmed in by the concealed militia on one side and Lee’s legion on the other. Whey the Tory lines were formed, lee, at the head of his troopers, rode slowly towards it and passed along directly in front, until the two Colonels were opposite each other. As Lee extended his hand to Pyle, the loyalists raised the shot of “God save the King,” in which the Americans joined, in order to carry out their plan and prevent discovery. Col. Lee then complimented the number and fine equipment of his corps, and hoped they would do good service in the King’s cause! He then turned and was about to give the signal for the legion to cover the Tory troops with their carbines, when a sudden burst of musketry, mingled with yells and cheers, broke from the lower extremity of the line.

The Tories discovered the American militia aiming at them, perceived they were betrayed, and commenced firing their carbines. The militia returned with a heavy volley, which killed more than forty men. A terrible hand to hand fight ensued, in which the Americans were completely victorious. Lee and his chief officers endeavored to stop the carnage, but the memory of many Tory outrages nerved the arms of the troopers, and they hewed down their hated enemies without heeding their cries for quarter. Some two hundred men, according to some accounts, were killed in less then twenty minutes. Stedman, in his history of the war, puts the number of the killed and wounded at three hundred; but Botta, who is generally first-rate authority, thinks this number too large. Tradition says that ninety horses were also killed and wounded. Col. Pyle, badly injured by a saber cut, fled for shelter to a small pond near by, and plunging into the water concealed himself among the reeds, with nothing but his head above the surface, until the fight was over and the field deserted. He then crawled out and made his way to the British camp. The Americans did not lose a man or horse, killed or wounded.

A few of the Tories managed to reach the British camp and carry to Tarleton the terrible intelligence that Pyle’s detachment was cut to pieces by the “rebel vagabonds.” Expecting, with good reason, that those same “vagabonds” were in search of him, the Colonel broke up his camp and pushed for the main army, Lee following hard upon his track.

Much valuable plunder was taken from the defunct Tories. Their equipments and arms were all new, from the British stores, and they soon replaced the miserable arms borne by some of the American troops. Sixty-five horses were also taken, with new saddles and rigging complete. Lee, reinforced by three hundred riflemen, pushed after Tarleton, until he was within a few miles of the main army. “Fortune, the capricious goddess,” said Lee afterwards, “gave up Pyle and saved Tarleton.”