Reflections

The Career of General Joseph Graham of North Carolina

In Charlotte, a major uptown thoroughfare is Graham street – named for General Joseph Graham - although today the man behind the name is largely unknown.

Joseph Graham was raised in the Carolina backcountry near present day Charlotte. He enlisted as a private in May 1778 and served in the Fourth Regiment, North Carolina line. During Graham’s service he fought at the battles of Stono, Rocky Mount and Hanging Rock, as well as a half a dozen other skirmishes.

But it was the Battle of Charlotte on September 25, 1780 that made Graham a bona fide hero. That month, the local militia received word that Lord Cornwallis’ army was on the march from Camden, South Carolina towards Charlotte. Graham was sent to join General William R. Davie and gather as many men as they could in the town common to contest Cornwallis’ advance. Fifty-six militiamen joined Davie’s cavalry and took up positions in and around the Courthouse in Charlotte. Cornwallis’ men advanced from the south, their skirmishers flanking on either side of the Salisbury Road which led into town. Cavalry led the way, wearing the pine green jackets of Tarleton’s British Legion. (Despite its name, the British Legion was not in fact composed of British men, but rather of loyalists from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.)

As the British advanced into town, Graham’s men shot at them from behind trees and buildings and from the protection of the stone wall under the courthouse. Graham was nearly killed when the musket of a man beside him exploded, scattering splinters and hot metal in all directions. Three successful volleys stopped the British dragoons in their tracks. Yet the British greatly outnumbered the militia, and eventually their superior numbers began to push the Carolinians back.

As they were driven from Charlotte, Graham and his men turned and fought several delaying actions along the wooded creeks that crossed the Salisbury Road. The British cavalry chased Graham and his men for several miles north. They caught a number of militia, including one young private, sixteen year old George Locke, who they hacked him to death.

Graham and his men were pursued as far as the grounds of Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church, just north of town, where Graham and his men turned and fought. The militia and British dragoons fired pistols at one another at short range, and then closed to engage in hand to hand combat with sabers and short swords. According to one of Graham’s descendant’s recollection:

“As Captain Graham was engaged in a hand-to-hand fight, his horse backed under a limb of a tree which knocked him off. He received three bullets in the thigh, one saber thrust in the side, one cut on the back of the neck and four upon the forehead. And from one of these some of his brains exuded. The cut on the back of the neck must have been given as he fell or fought on foot. It cut a heavy silver buckle which he wore on his stock entirely in two; but for the buckle it would have severed his head from his body.”

Graham was left near death, broken and bleeding on the grass while his men scattered and fled. The British cavalry regrouped around the Church, gathered their wounded and prepared to return into town. As they passed Graham’s body upon the ground, bleeding from nine wounds, one British soldier aimed a pistol at him, intending to finish Graham off. The commanding British officer, Major Hanger advised, “put up your pistol; save your ammunition; he has had enough.”

The British rode off. Graham crawled to a nearby spring where he waited to die. That night a young woman named Susan Alexander found him as she came to fetch water. With the aid of her mother they carried Graham back to their house. His clothes were caked with blood, and he was badly cut up, but he was alive. The Alexanders hung flax sacks around the bed so no prying eyes could see that a wounded patriot officer was there. They kept watch over him for several nights. Graham was so quiet that more than once they thought he had died.

A few days later British foragers arrived near their farm, looking for milk. It was not safe for Graham to stay. Despite his condition, he had to be moved further into the countryside to another safe house. The Alexander family helped mount Graham on a horse, and he was spirited to a friendly home to recover. It would take him over two months to do so.

Over forty years later, in October 1832, Graham testified in court in Lincoln County as to his war service, in order to qualify for his pension. The nine scars Graham received in the Battle of Charlotte, “this Court [can] testify are visible at this time.” Mrs. Alexander, who saved his life, was granted a pension in 1851 for her services to Graham following the Battle of Charlotte.

Following the Revolutionary War, Graham purchased an iron smelter in Lincoln (formerly Tryon) County, across the Catawba River from Mecklenburg along the main stagecoach road from Spartanburg to Salisbury. Nearby, Graham built a plantation home for his growing family named “Vesuvius Furnace” after Mount Vesuvius, the volcano just outside Naples, Italy. The iron business made Graham very wealthy, and his family was well known and successful. His son, William A. Graham, would become NC Governor, a US Senator and a nominee for Vice President. (A noted descendent is the Reverend Billy Graham). The Graham name remains famous in Charlotte, long after Joseph Graham fought, bled and nearly died fighting the British in Charlotte.

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From the forthcoming book “Most Treasonable:” The Controversial History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (McFarland & Co., 2013).