The American Revolution in North Carolina

The Battle of Haw River

February 25, 1781


Patriot Cdr:

Lt. Col. Henry Lee (VA)
Loyalist Cdr:

Col. John Pyle
Killed:

0
Killed:

99
Wounded:

1
Wounded:

150
Captured:

0
Captured:

Unk
Original County: 

Orange County
Present County:

Alamance County

aka Pyle's Defeat, aka Holt's Race Paths.

One of the most important battles of the war in this state occurred on February 25, 1781, two miles west of the present town of Graham on the old road to Alamance.

Patriot troops, commanded by Lt. Col. Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, surprised a strong Loyalist force under the command of Col. John Pyle on the old Alamance road during the Revolutionary War, and in the ensuing battle ninety-nine of the Loyalist soldiers were killed. There is a stone marker that identifies the site of this battle.

Lord Cornwallis, the British commander, marched into the village of Hillsborough in early February, and learned that the Patriot army which he had pursued northward from South Carolina had retreated across the Dan River into Virginia. Grateful for a few days' rest, the British set up camp in the Orange County seat. On February 18, Lord Cornwallis ordered Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to take a troop of men west of Haw River to seek recruits for the army.

Across the Dan River in Virginia, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, the Patriot commander of the Southern Deparment of the Continental Army, learned of Lt. Col. Tarleton's mission, and at once sent orderered two of his men, Lt. Col. Henry Lee and Brig. Gen. Andrew Pickens, to stop the British force. The Patriots crossed the Dan River that same night and pushed on through straggly forest and over unplowed meadows toward the Haw River, where they hoped to cut off Lt. Col. Tarleton's advance. Early the next morning they arrived at the Salisbury Road, eight miles west of Hillsborough. Lt. Col. Tarleton, they learned, had already passed this spot, and so the Patriots turned westward to follow him.

Lt. Col. Henry Lee had marched his men for a short distance when he met two young farmers on horseback. Lt. Gen. Cornwallis had dispatched reinforcements that morning to Lt. Col. Tarleton, and these youths were scouts who had been sent ahead of the reinforcements to locate Lt. Col. Tarleton's camp. The scouts immeditely mistook Lt. Col. Lee's men for Lt. Col. Tarleton's troop since both units dressed in green coats. Lt. Col. Lee realized the advantage of this mistake. He thanked the scouts and told them to rejoin the reinforcements with "Colonel Tarleton's compliments," and to request that the British troops move off the road to let "Tarleton's" cavalry pass.

As soon as the scouts had departed, Lt. Col. Lee divided his men into several troops, placing one under the command of a Capt. Joseph Eggleston and another under NC militiaman Capt. Joseph Graham, and he himself took command of the third. Capt. Eggleston's troops circled through the woods, and Capt. Graham's men followed a short distance behind those under Lt. Col. Lee and Brig. Gen. Andrew Pickens.

Lt. Col. Lee came in sight of the enemy a short time later. They had drawn up along the right side of the road in review formation, sitting stiffly in their saddles with their rifles or muskets slung over their shoulders, and their eyes straight ahead. At the far end of the line sat their commander, Col. John Pyle, unaware that the advancing troops were not Lt. Col. Tarleton's men.

Riding slowly past the Loyalists, his own troops close behind him, Lt. Col. Lee nodded approvingly and smiled at his enemies. He reined his horse up in front of Col. Pyle and returned the latter's salute. Col. Pyle stretched out his hand in welcome.

Some of the British at the far end of the formation now spotted Capt. Eggleston's men in the woods behind them. Without command they began to fire. Lt. Col. Lee instantly dropped Col. Pyle's hand and drew his own sword. Capt. Eggleston swooped out of the woods with his men who began a hand-to-hand battle with the Loyalists, slashing at them with their swords and firing their muskets.

"Stop! Stop!" screamed Col. Pyle, "You are killing your own men!"

His cry ended abruptly as a Patriot sword knocked him from his horse. The clash of swords and blast of rifles rose to a crescendo amid the screams of the wounded and dying Loyalists, still ignorant of what was happening. As each Patriot wheeled his horse to face a new opponent, he called out, "Whose man are you?" "The King's! The King's!" screamed the Loyalists, and the Patriot sword cut them down.

Finally the confusion and panic subsided. Ninety-nine of Col. Pyle's men lay dead. A ghastly scene surrounded the Patriots. Lt. Col. Lee had intended to surround Col. Pyle's men and force them to surrender, but the British themselves had begun the battle which cost many of them their own lives.

As soon as he could reassemble his troops, Lt. Col. Henry Lee sent for one of the Loyalist prisoners to be questioned. A middle-aged man was brought forward, bleeding profusely from a head wound. He stared at Lt. Col. Lee, still believing him to be Tarleton. "God bless your soul!" he exclaimed, "Mr. Tarleton, you've just killed as good a parcel of subjects as His Majesty ever had!" The mistake angered Lt. Col. Lee, "You damned rascal!" he shouted. "We are Americans, not British. I am Lee of the American Legion!"

Meanwhile, several of the wounded Britishers had reached the O'Neal Plantation, some two miles away, where Lt. Col. Tarleton was camped. Without reinforcements Lt. Col. Tarleton realized that he had no chance against the Patriots, and so he ordered camp broken at once and fled toward Hillsborough again. The Patriots arrived the next morning to find his camp deserted.

On February 26, Lt. Gen. Cornwallis marched westward toward Haw River. He planned to gather volunteers in the Loyalists settlements and then attack the Patriot army which was encamped at Guilford Court House. The British reached Guilford on March 15, and the battle commenced shortly after noon. Although Maj. Gen. Greene's men outnumbered those of Lord Cornwallis, Maj. Gen. Greene was forced to retreat to a better position, and the victory was won by the British. Lt. Gen. Cornwallis did not pursue Maj. Gen. Greene but decided instead to return to Hillsborough.

Known Patriot Participants

Known British/Loyalist Participants

Lt. Col. Henry Lee - Commanding Officer

Lee's Legion, led by Lt. Col. Henry Lee, with 240 men in seven (7) known companies, led by:
- Capt. James Armstrong - 1st Mounted Troop
- Capt. Joseph Eggleston - 2nd Mounted Troop
- Capt. Michael Rudolph - 3rd Mounted Troop
- Capt. Allen McClane - 4th Dismounted Troop
- Capt. Henry Archer - 5th Dismounted Troop
- Capt. James Tate - 6th Dismounted Troop
- Capt. Thomas Alexander - detachment of Mecklenburg County Regiment under Col. Lee.

Salisbury District Brigade of Militia led by Brig. Gen. Andrew Pickens (SC) (a temporary position) and Lt. Col. William Farr (SC), with 500 men in the following units:

Caswell County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. William Moore (wounded), with eight (8) known companies, led by:
- Capt. William Douglas
- Capt. Herndon Haralson
- Capt. Arthur Loving
- Capt. John McClary
- Capt. George Oldham
- Capt. John Oldham
- Capt. Robert Parks
- Capt. Dudley Reynolds

Chatham County Regiment of Militia detachment of one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. Nicholas Nall

Guilford County Regiment of Militia detachment of one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. Daniel Gillespie

Lincoln County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. Joseph Dickson and Maj. John Carruth, with three (3) known companies, led by:
- Capt. James Byers (from Mecklenburg County)
- Capt. Joseph Graham (from Mecklenburg County)
- Capt. Thomas Lofton

Mecklenburg County Regiment of Militia detachment of two (2) known companies, led by:
- Capt. William Alexander
- Capt. James Reese

Orange County Regiment of Militia detachment of two (2) known companies, led by:
- Capt. James Lansdale
- Capt. Adam Sanders

Rowan County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Lt. Col. David Caldwell and Maj. Thomas McGuire, with three (3) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Hugh Hall
- Capt. Samuel Reid
- Capt. Richard Simmons

Surry County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Maj. Micajah Lewis, with two (2) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Joel Lewis
- Capt. Salathiel Martin

Wilkes County Regiment of Militia detachment of four (4) known companies, led by:
- Capt. John Chandler
- Capt. Jesse Hardin Franklin
- Capt. Charles Gordon
- Capt. William Lenoir

Maryland Light Company, led by Capt. Edward Oldham (MD)

Boykin's Company of Catawba Indians, led by Capt. Samuel Boykin (SC)

Col. John Pyle - Commanding Officer

North Carolina Loyalists Recruits - 400

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