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Home North Carolina Alamance County City of Burlington Historical Markers Pyle's Defeat

Pyle's Defeat

Maple Avenue at Anthony Road, Burlington, NC, USA

Latitude & Longitude: 36° 3' 38.1816", -79° 26' 0.1428"
  North Carolina State Historical Marker
    North Carolina State
Historical Marker
    Marker Text:
"A body of Tories, going to join Cornwallis' Army at Hillsborough, was destroyed by a Whig force, Feb. 23, 1781. 3/4 mile southwest."
     On February 19, 1781, advance portions of General Nathanael Greene’s Southern Army crossed the Dan River, carrying the war back into North Carolina. He sent word ahead to General Andrew Pickens ordering him to utilize his militia forces to harass Cornwallis’s army. Pickens had been appointed overall commander for Mecklenburg and Rowan County militias. This jumped him over Colonel Francis Locke who nominally led the Yadkin Valley militia after William Lee Davidson’s death at Cowan’s Ford. In addition to the North Carolinians, Pickens led several South Carolina and Georgia militia companies. Pickens reported to Greene that his 700 men would follow their orders although most were “universally bent” on an “expedition into South Carolina” and that the Rowan County militiamen were deserting in droves. Pickens referred to the fugitives as being “among the worst Men” he had ever commanded.

     Initially, Greene sent only an advance party of Lee’s Legion with two Maryland Continental companies to cooperate with Pickens. The two forces united on February 23, when Pickens men almost fired on Lee’s Legion, mistaking their green coats for Tarleton’s British Legion. Captain Joseph Graham, a North Carolina militiaman, reported that his men, fearing Tarleton was upon them, decided “too late to retreat, so prepared to fight,” but the situation was resolved before bloodshed occurred. Greene appeared that evening with a small escort, gave his commanders their orders, and then returned across the Dan.

     That evening, Lee and Pickens learned that Tarleton’s British Legion was encamped nearby. Cornwallis, whose men had arrived in Hillsborough on February 20, had sent “Bloody Ban” with 200 dragoons, 150 infantrymen of the 33rd Foot and 100 Anspach Jaegers west of the Haw River to protect local Loyalist militamen hastening to join the British army. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee later recalled that the area through which Tarleton passed through had been completely plundered, and that local women told him the Tories were organizing between the Haw and Deep Rivers.

     For two days, Lee’s forces followed Tarleton. On February 25, a party of nearly 400 Tories under the command of Col. John Pyle, a local doctor, ran into advance elements of Lee’s Legion. Mistakenly thinking the green-jacketed-men before them were the British Legion, Pyle’s Tories calmly moved to the roadside awaiting “Tarleton’s” passage. Lee rode the entire length of the Tory line “dropping occasionally expressions complimentary to the good looks and commendable conduct of his loyal friends.” Lee argued that fighting began as he was shaking hands with Pyle and preparing to reveal his true identity. However, North Carolinian Joseph Graham argued that it started when Legion Major Joseph Eggleston asked a Tory, “Whose man are you?” The man answered, “A friend of his majesty,” and Eggleston cut him down.

     Lee’s men made quick work of Pyle’s force. At least ninety Loyalists were sabered to death. The remainder, most who were wounded, fled. Pyle, seriously injured, supposedly hid in a nearby swamp, with only his nose above the water. Lee lost one horse. Many Whigs saw this episode as revenge for Waxhaws the previous year. Moses Hall, a North Carolina militiaman, remembered seeing six Tory prisoners “hewed to death with broadswords” when a Whig shouted, “Remember Buford!”

     Pyle’s Massacre, as the event became known, proved devastating to Cornwallis’s ability to gather Loyalist support. A large force of Tories, directly under the supposed protection of Tarleton, had been slaughtered. The disaster was made worse when several of Pyle’s men, having escaped Lee, approached Tarleton’s camp where they were mistaken for Whigs and cut down. British Captain Forbes Champaign optimistically wrote, “this unparalleled cruelty serves only to make our friends more steady and zealous in assisting us to restore their former legal and constitutional government.” Champaign could not have been more wrong. Following the Pyles debacle, Cornwallis retained little hope of a mass Loyalist uprising in the Carolina Piedmont. Andrew Pickens succinctly summed up the impact of Pyles’ rout, “It has knocked up Toryism altogether in this part.”

George Troxler, Pyle’s Massacre, February 23, 1781 (1973)
Carole Troxler, Pyle's Defeat: Deception at the Racepath (2003)
John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (1997)
Patrick O’Kelley, Nothing But Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, III (2004)
Burke Davis, The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign (1962)
Richard K. Showman, Robert E., McCarthy, and Dennis Conrad, and others, eds., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene (1971-2005)
Banastre Tarleton, Campaigns of 1780-1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (1781)
Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (1812)
Joseph Graham Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Pyle's Defeat Historical Marker Location Map, Burlington, North Carolina