Major Thomas Young: A Sixteen-Year-Old Carolina Patriot
The best way to describe what it was like for a South Carolina backcountry teenage partisan in 1780 is to tell it in his own words. The basic text is taken from Thomas Young’s Memoirs.[i]
The British had captured Charleston in May of 1780 and Lord Cornwallis, along with his commanders including Major Patrick Ferguson and Colonel Banastre Tarleton, moved into the Carolina backcountry to recruit more Tories and repulse the rebellious Whigs, sometimes referred to as Partisans.[ii] Carolina’s backcountry rapidly erupted into civil war. One often didn’t know who was friend or foe and there was no law or judicial enforcement that far from the coast in 1780. The British and their Loyalists quickly won several battles including the Battle of Camden. This loss, as well as the Battle of the Waxhaws where Tarleton reputedly massacred Colonel Abraham Buford’s surrendered Continental infantry, delivered severe blows to the Whigs.[iii] These events forced men and their families to declare loyalty either to the Crown and King George III or to the great cause of liberty. Emboldened by the British victories, the Tories increased their raiding of Whig properties.
In the middle of June 1780, along Bush Creek near what is today Union, South Carolina, sixteen-year-old Thomas Young heard theworst news of his life. Partisan Colonel Thomas Brandon had just broken the news to his sister, Thomas’ mother. The Tories had killed Thomas Young’s older brother, John.
A notorious Tory known as Bloody Bill Cunningham and his band had been tipped off about the campsite of Colonel Brandon and the Little River Regiment. Adam Steedham, a captive of Colonel Brandon, had escaped to tell Cunningham that the Partisans were camped near the Fairforest community. The Tories surrounded the camp just before dawn and killed a few of Brandon’s men, including John.
The Youngs buried their loved one a day later and Thomas made a vow not to rest until he had avenged John’s death. With his father’s consent, Thomas joined the Little River Regiment of mounted militia. This regiment was commanded by Colonel James Williams and closely supported by Colonel Brandon, who had recently left General Sumter’s command. Many of the regiment’s men and boys, including the Youngs, came from the Duncan Creek Presbyterian Meeting House.
It was against this backdrop of war that Thomas and his cousin Christopher Brandon joined the ranks of the local militia. Their first engagement with the Tories occurred at Stallions (Stallings) Plantation on July 12, 1780. This plantation was located a dozen miles north of where - on that same day - Colonel William Bratton whipped the British Provincial Captain Christian Huck in the York District, now York County, South Carolina.[iv]
Thomas and half of the fifty-man party rode with Captain Love toward the front of Stallions’ house and Brandon took the rest of the troops to the rear of the house. Love’s troops dismounted, tied their horses out of harm’s way, and approached the house as a line of infantry. Mrs. Stallions rushed out of her home and ran up to her brother. Thomas Young wrote, “She begged him not to fire upon the house. Love told her it was too late now, and that their only chance for safety was to surrender. She ran back to her home and sprang up on the door step, which was quite high. Just at that moment the house was attacked from the rear by Colonel Brandon’s party and Mrs. Stallions was killed by a ball that was shot through the opposite door.”[v]
Immediately Thomas and his companions gave a shout and rushed the house, firing at the Tories, who returned fire from the windows. Thomas said, “In a few minutes, a Tory stuck a rifle out the window with a white flag on it. Love and Stallions met after the fight and shed many bitter tears.”[vi]
UP THE MOUNTAIN
Throughout the summer, Thomas participated in many patrols and skirmishes, including a Partisan victory in August at Musgrove’s Mill on the Enoree River. In late September, British Major Patrick Ferguson was dispatched to the western backcountry to suppress the rebellion, while General Cornwallis and Banastre Tarleton moved north and captured Charlotte. Ferguson sent couriers into the backcountry, including the mountains, with the message that if the rebels in the area didn’t put themselves under his standard and take the oath of loyalty to the King, he would “… march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders and lay their country to waste with fire and sword.”[vii] This decree riled up the Partisans all over the west and into the mountains of Virginia, and what is now West Virginia and Tennessee. These over-mountain men rode south to Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River and headed toward the Cowpens rendezvous.
The Cowpens was a popular place to graze cattle before shipping to city markets and the men favored this camping spot because they could easily get beeves to eat. They slept at random in the open woods. According to Thomas, they awoke to a cold and rainy daybreak and immediately rode east toward the Broad River to locate Ferguson and his British-trained and equipped Tories. Thomas recounted that, “At a meeting house on the eastern side of the river, we discovered some signs and continued our pursuit for some distance when a halt was ordered. Here we met George Watkins, a Whig who had been taken prisoner and was on his way home on parole. He gave us information on the position of the enemy.”[viii]
Ferguson was camped with about 900 musket-bearing Tories on top of Kings Mountain, a hill about 600 yards long and 250 yards wide. After a quick consultation, the commanders elected William Campbell of Virginia as the leader of the assault. The Partisans, also numbering about 900 men, rode straight to the mountain and surrounded it. The rain had just stopped and it was approximately three in the afternoon of October 7, 1780. Thomas remembered that a signal shot was fired; the men let out a war whoop and they started up the mountain. “Ben Hollingsworth and I took right up the side of the mountain,” Thomas said, “and fought our way from tree to tree. I recollect I stood behind one tree and fired till the bark was nearly all knocked off and my eyes got pretty well filled with it. One fellow shaved me pretty close, for his bullet took a piece out of my gun stock. Before I was aware of it, I found myself apparently between my own regiment and the enemy, as I judged from seeing the paper which the Whigs wore in their hats and the pine knots the Tories wore in theirs, these being the badges of distinction.”[ix]
The Tories made two or three bayonet charges against the Partisans, but the Partisans repelled them each time. Unfortunately, the beloved Colonel James Williams was mortally wounded just before taking the summit. Nevertheless, Thomas charged to the summit amid smoke, shouts, shots, and cursing. It was mass confusion for a short time until Ferguson was shot off his white horse with no fewer than seven bullets in his chest. Then the tide of the battle turned against the Tories. The Tories surrendered, but many of the Partisans screamed “No quarter,” and “Tarleton’s quarter,” referring to Tarleton’s action against the Continentals at the Waxhaws. The Partisan commanders restored order and won the largest victory of the Southern Campaign to date. The Tories lost 225 men, had 160 wounded and 700 taken as prisoners. The Partisans had only 28 killed and 62 wounded. Colonel James Williams died the next day from his wounds.
The evening after the battle, the Partisans hanged nine Tories. Thomas said his hands put the noose over Adam Steedham’s neck. He didn’t specify when he hanged Steedham, but it could have been at this event. After the fate of the Tories here, the Loyalists were reluctant to take up arms for the King, and Cornwallis would have to use his British Regulars to subdue the Carolinas.[x]
Thomas never attained his revenge on Bloody Bill Cunningham, who had escaped to the East Florida after massacring fifteen of Thomas’ compatriots at Hayes Station several weeks after the surrender at Yorktown.
[i] Young, Thomas. “Memoirs of Major Thomas Young 1764-1848.” Orion Magazine, October and November, 1843.
[ii] Edgar, Walter. Partisans and Redcoats, Perennial, Harper Collins Publishers, 2003. pp. 51-53.
[iii] Barbour, R. L. “South Carolina’s Revolutionary War Battlefields, A Tour Guide.” Pelican Publishing Company, 2002. p. 37.
[iv] Barbour, R. L., Ibid. p. 41
[v] Young, Thomas, Ibid.
[vi] Young, Thomas, Ibid.
[vii] Barbour, R. L., Ibid. p. 64
[viii] Young, Thomas, Ibid.
[ix] Young, Thomas, Ibid.
[x] Morrill, Dan L. “Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution.” The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America. P. 125.