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In June of 1781, Thomas Burke was elected the new governor
of North Carolina. He wanted to eliminate the Loyalists' stronghold
between the Pee Dee River and the Cape Fear River and he had
Brigadier General John Butler of the Hillsborough District Brigade
of Militia to raise a large army to undertake this effort.
Militiamen from Caswell, Randolph, Chatham, Wake, and Orange
counties gathered at Ramsey's Mill in the fork of the Deep River
and the Haw River. Governor Burke left the relative safety of
Halifax and traveled to Hillsborough to direct the upcoming campaign
against the Loyalists. He and his wife arrived on September 9th
- and this news was somehow provided to Loyalist Col. David Fanning.
After the battle of Little
Raft Swamp, volunteers poured into Col. Fanning's camp. He
now had the largest force of his career - 950 men. Unfortunately,
only 435 were equipped and armed. He proposed a plan to Major
James H. Craig in Wilmington - his plan to capture Governor Thomas
Burke. Major Craig realized that this would be a significant
coup and he approved Fanning's plan.
On September 9th, Col. Fanning was joined at Cox's Mill by
Col. Hector McNeill and his 70 men, and Col. Archibald McDugald
with 200 Highlanders from Cumberland County. Fanning had not
worked with McDugald before, but knew of him from John Hamilton's
Royal North Carolina Regiment.
On September 11th, his army of over 600 Loyalists marched
towards Hillsborough. Col. Fanning was aware that Brigadier General
John Butler was at Ramsey's Mill, but he left the marching column
and rode to a friend's house on the way to make sure that the
Patriot army had not moved. The Patriots were still to the southeast,
but Col. Fanning learned that a small force of twenty-five men
were camped at the New Hope River, between Col. Fanning and Brigadier General Butler.
Upon his return to his own army, Col. Fanning discovered that
Col. McNeill and Col. McDugald were under the wrong impression
that Brigadier General Butler's army was their target - and,
they had moved the Loyalists onto the road leading to Ramsey's
Mill far to the south of Hillsborough. Col. Fanning stopped the
column and kindly informed the officers what their true objective
was. He then sent Capt. Richard Edwards and thirty men to go
after the Patriots on the New
After marching all day and night, the large Loyalist army
arrived at Hillsborough in an early morning fog. Col. Fanning
divided his force into three groups and surrounded the city.
At seven o'clock he attacked. The surprise was so complete that
a small force of NC Continentals that just happened to be in
town didn't have time to react. The only real resistance was
from some snipers who fired from windows of nearby homes. These
were quickly silenced.
Col. David Fanning rushed to the governor's house to find
that Governor Thomas Burke and his men were willing to fight
to the death. He then rode up to them and somehow convinced them
that if they surrendered their lives would be spared. Governor
Burke had heard that Fanning was a man of his word, so he accepted
the terms and handed over his own sword.
Several Patriots in town tried to escape during the raid.
One officer was wearing a military helmet as he was running to
get away. Col. Fanning rode up to him and broke his sword on
the officer's metal helmet. The officer was Lt. Col. Archibald
Lytle of the NC Continental army, who had taken parole at the
Fall of Charlestown a year before.
The final resistance was from the small contingent of North
Carolina Continentals who had barricaded themselves inside a
nearby church. Most were fresh, new, and untrained recruits for
Major General Greene's army in South Carolina, and they soon
gave themselves up.
By nine o'clock in the morning, the town was taken, including
the governor, the city council, a number of Continental officers
and seventy-one soldiers, mostly militiamen.
The town jail was opened and thirty Loyalist prisoners who
were to be hanged that day were released. Col. Fanning's men
also grabbed two swivel guns from the jail. The Loyalists should
have left at that point, but discipline broke down and a number
of homes were plundered. Some Loyalists found a liquor supply
and proceeded to get drunk. A tee-totaler, Loyalist Capt. John
McLean, was placed in charge of the prisoners. From that day
on, he was known as "Sober John" McLean.
Around two o'clock in the afternoon, Col. Fanning finally
left with his prisoners and marched towards his camp at Cox's
Mill in Randolph County. Some of his followers were so drunk
that they could not keep up, and they became prisoners themselves
before the end of the day. The large force stopped after about
eighteen miles and camped near Mitchell Mountain for the night.
That night, Col. Hector McNeill had a dream that he took to
be a premonition of his own death. He told several officers,
including Col. Archibald McDugald, about the dream. They attempted
to cheer him up, but the next day he wore a hunting shirt instead
of his red regimental coat just in case.
This Loyalist raid was probably the most daring of the entire
war, and has since been hailed as "the most brilliant exploit
of any group of Loyalists in any state throughout the Revolution."
Governor Thomas Burke and most of the prisoners were taken
to Wilmington and handed over to Major James H. Craig of the
British Army. Governor Burke was soon transported to Charlestown,
South Carolina, where he was imprisoned at James Island.