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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Defiance At Alexander's Old Field: The Backcountry Resist The Crown - June 6, 1780

Defiance At Alexander's Old Field 
The Backcountry Resists The Crown 
Tuesday, June 6, 1780

By: C.W. Roden 

After a hot and exhausting journey of over two weeks on foot, Captain John McClure and his Patriot militia men finally reached their homes in the District Between the Broad and Catawba Rivers -- now modern-day Chester County -- about midday on Wednesday, May 31, 1780.

If you remember from the previous blog post, McClure and his men decided to return home after the surrender of Charleston. McClure, a young man in his mid-20s, arrived at the home of Justice John Gaston, a resident of Fishing Creek and well known local Patriot leader in the community.

It was there that McClure learned of the shocking massacre of Buford's Continentals at the Waxhaws two days before by Tarleton's British Legion. McClure and three of Justice Gaston's sons who were present along with another militia officer named Steel made an oath declaring that they would never submit nor surrender to the enemies of their country; that liberty or death, from that time forth, should be their motto. Each of these men had at one time served three years in the company of Captain Eli Kershaw of the 3rd Regiment of South Carolina Militia, with the motto "Liberty or Death" inscribed upon their caps. 

This small core group of upcountry Patriots voted that night to continue the fight against the British forces at the cost of their lives if necessary. They were about to go on the offensive. It was just a question of when and where. 

The British Establish Their Rule In The Upstate

The area around Rocky Mount and the Great Falls of the Catawba bustled with activity in the late spring of and early summer of 1780. After the fall of Charleston and the surrender of the Southern Continental Army on May 12, 1780, the British forces began to focus more activities inland establishing outposts and subjugating the State. 

In the upcountry the Crown's forces established a Royal Post of three log fort-like houses at Rocky Mount under the command of British Lt. Colonel George Turnbull. The garrison at Rocky Mount would eventually come to include 150 men of the New York Volunteers Provincial Regiment and a troop of some 40 dragoons of the now infamous green-coated British Legion commanded by Captain Christian Huck, a name that would in due course become almost as hated in the upcountry as that of his commander "Bloody Ban" Tarleton. This force was to begin the process of recruiting local Loyalists to the main British forces to help establish control among the local population.  

The reaction of local Loyalists was one of undisguised glee. Many of them were still bitter over their defeat during the Snow Campaign in November of 1775 and other petty humiliations inflicted since then by their Whig neighbors. The Loyalists in South Carolina were ready to avenge themselves against their "traitorous" neighbors. Many family feuds and old scores between bitter neighbors -- some dating back at least a generation -- or simply would be "settled" with robbery and murder under the guise of patriotism and loyalty to respective causes.

In some cases Loyalist fathers and brothers fought Patriot sons and brothers and brother-in-laws in the bitter, ugly civil war that would rise from British occupation of the State, and subsequent resistance to the Crown's authority. Neither those loyal to the British Empire nor those loyal to the State of South Carolina and her declared independence  would be entirely clean from the ugliness and horror that would soon follow. 

Clinton's Proclamation

On Saturday, June 3rd, British Commander In Chief Sir Henry Clinton issued a proclamation to the people of South Carolina that was destined to undermine any efforts at pacifying the State. The proclamation encourage the local population to swear an oath of loyalty to the British Crown and to formally enlist in the new Loyalist forces being formed to fight for the Empire. 

The proclamation reads:

"Whereas after the arrival of His Majesty's forces under my command in this province, in February last, numbers of persons were made prisoners by the (British) army, or voluntarily surrendered themselves as such, and such persons were afterwards dismissed on their respective paroles; and whereas the surrender of Charles town (Charleston), and the defeats and dispersion of the rebel forces, it is become necessary that such paroles should be any longer observed; and proper that all persons should take an active part in settling and securing His Majesty's government, and delivering the country from that anarchy which for some time past hath prevailed; I so hereby issue this my proclamation, to declare, that all the inhabitants of this province, who are not prisoners upon parole, and were not in the military line, (those who were in fort Moultrie and Charles town at the times of their capitulation and surrender, or were then in actual confinement exempted) that from and after the twentieth day of June instant, they are freed and exempted from all such paroles, and may hold themselves as restored to all the rights and duties belonging to citizens and inhabitants. 
"And all persons under the description before mentioned, who shall afterwards neglect to return to their allegiances, and to His Majesty's government, will be considered as enemies and rebels to the same, and treated accordingly." 

This proclamation enraged the local Patriots. 

In one short document, Clinton not only revoked the paroles of the Carolina militia who signed oaths in Charleston, but also required them to take an active part in restoring British control to the State and to take up arms against their friends, family, and neighbors still in arms against the British Empire, or risk being considered enemies of the Crown and suffer the consequences. The proclamation offered no middle ground and forced many who were neutral in the war up till that time to pick a side. 

The settlers of the South Carolina Upcountry were mainly Scotch-Irish Protestants, many descended from Ulster-Scots, who traveled from Pennsylvania and Virginia via the Great Wagon Road and settled in the Carolinas and Appalachia. These people grew up on their parent's stories of English cruelty in the old country. Now having seen firsthand the brutality of the British Legion at the Waxhaws, and incidents like the burning of Colonel Sumter's home after the fall of Charleston, these people were being forced to choose between loyalty to the Empire, or being branded outlaws. 

Many of those in the backcountry would not stand to be bullied.

On Sunday, June 4th General Clinton would leave South Carolina with much of the British forces to return to New York City and rejoin the main British and Hessian forces there still locked in the stalemate with Washington's Continental Army. He would leave behind General Cornwallis and a corps of about 5,000 British soldiers. Clinton was confident that the small number of British regulars were enough to pacify the rebellious former colony long enough for new recruits of Loyalists to take over control and join Cornwallis as they would march north later that year into North Carolina and then to Virginia, repeating the same process and catching Washington between two British armies. 

His strategy was beginning to take shape and Clinton left South Carolina confident that his final proclamation would be the final nail in the coffin of resistance in the Southern State. 

First Act Of Defiance In The Upcountry  

From his newly established base at Rocky Mount, one of Turnbull's first acts was to send soldiers to distribute handbills among the people calling upon them to meet him at Alexander's Old Field near the community of Bechamville the next day on Tuesday, June 6th and to enroll their names as loyal subjects of King George III and receive British protection. 

Soon after doing this, a Loyalist militia captain named Henry Houseman visited the home of Justice John Gaston, who was known to be a prominent Patriot in the area with a great deal of influence. Houseman believed that the old justice could and would bring many of his neighbors around to his way of thinking. 

After treating his guest with proper Southern courtesy, Justice Gaston listened to Houseman's request and firmly rejected it. Houseman warned Gaston against causing any trouble for his sake before he departed. Justice Gaston sent his sons to various places in the community for men to meet at his house that same night. By midnight 33 men arrived, including Captain McClure. They were clad in hunting-shirts and moccasins, wool hates and deer-skin caps, each armed with a hunting knife and a rifle. 

The historic marker for the site of Justice John Gaston's home is
located on SC Highway 9 just west of Fishing Creek Bridge
between the Town of Richburg and Fort Lawn, SC.

The group were just as outraged as Gaston that Housemen was trying to force their loyalties and understood exactly what needed to be done. Captain John McClure led the group early the next morning as they set out down the Old Indian Trail running from upper Fishing Creek to lower Rocky Creek  coming upon Alexander's Old Fields before daybreak. 

The term "Old Fields" refers to large prairies, or open fields, that already existed when European settlers first arrived. It is presumed that these field were created by the local Native American tribes when they burned large areas of firests when hunting herds of wild game. The field was named for an area settler.

Captain Houseman and a group of armed Loyalists and others from the surrounding neighborhood were gathered at the field, some 200 in number. Many of the latter had no real desire to take British protection, but believed that they had no choice. 

The armed Patriot militia, seeing their neighbors and friends present on the field took extra careful aim at the armed Tories. Many of the locals had already taken the oath of allegiance when McClure's men opened fire from the trees, dropping several of the armed Loyalists.

The attack took the Loyalists completely by surprise. A general stampede of men took place as the group scattered. Some dropped to the ground to play dead as the Patriot militia continued to fire at Houseman's Loyalist militia in the open field. The Loyalists managed to return fire only once before withdrawing from the field and retreating to their outpost at Rocky Mount. 

The small battle took only a few minutes, resulting in 4 Loyalists killed and several more wounded. McClure's Patriots suffered only two wounded and none killed. Nine of the people who took the British oath were taken prisoner and ultimately paroled, or renounced their oaths and joined McClure's militia. A few of these men would pay later that summer when captured and hanged by the Loyalists for violating their oaths to the Crown. 

The First Act Of Defiance

The actions of Justice Gaston and Captain McClure's men would be the very first act of resistance to British rule in South Carolina's Upcountry. The victory, though small, came just after the Fall of Charleston and Buford's Massacre and greatly raised the morale of the upcountry Patriots. It was the linchpin of resistance in South Carolina. The battle and routing of Houseman's Loyalists would spur even greater resistance throughout the Upstate. 

Another equally important act of defiance against the British and their Loyalist allies would take place two days later at a place called Mobley's Meeting House, which we will talk more about in the next blog post in this series. 

Marker at the site of the Battle of Beckhamville
(Alexander's Old Fields) on June 6, 1780.

Historical marker at the site of the battle is located in
Chester County, SC near the intersection of SC 97 and SC 99
near the Town of Great Falls.

For more information about The Battle of Beckhamville please consult the following sources that were used to help with this blog post: 
The outstanding book: The Day It Rained Militia by Michael C. Scoggins (2005) ISBN 1-59629-015-3
and the Chester County Historical Society at their website: http://www.chestercohistorical.org/

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to bust in on your interesting history story C.W. but present day Brits were threatened with economic reprisal by Mr. Obama over the pending "Brexit" vote on June 23. The British People will decide if they stay or leave the European Union.

    Obama said if they leave he'll put them on the back burner in any trade negotiations. That's a polite threat. What's next? His decree their flag should be in a museum too? The British People need to decide on their own and the US should support whatever decision they make.

    The Brits aided the Confederacy with a warship (1863 or so?) and you South Caroline folks might want to return the favor. Not tell the Brits which way to vote of course... just supporting their right to self-determination in a membership of Nation States.

    Here's my way of putting it:

    We, the good People of these United States, hereby pledge and affirm our support for the good People of Great Britain in whatever decision is affirmed by Vote regarding continued British membership in the European Union.

    The Founders of our Nation... those well known, little known and unknown faced a similar dilemma which resulted in our Nation separating from yours. In ages past, we were enemies in war... now longtime Friends and Allies.

    No foreign Despot should be allowed to interfere in Your decision. Mr. Obama has done so.

    He politely threatened the British People; threatened to backburner economic trade negotiations with Great Britain if you dare withdraw and act against His Supreme Desires.

    Such Tyranny violates our most Fundamental Beliefs and We over here stand united with You, the British People, there across the pond.

    Either way the vote goes the British People face the possibility of economic hardship. Our Governments must work together, with all due speed, no matter what Your decision... as true Friends and Allies always must.

    With this document We the People of these United States vote no confidence in Mr. Obama’s policy in this matter and hereby Affirm our greatest confidence and support in the Wisdom of the People of Great Britain to control their own destiny.

    Steve manturtle Gambone