Battle of Colson’s Mill

A Surprise Leads to Dire Wounds

Location


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Tour: Hidden
County: Anson
Coordinates: 35.1255, -80.090.

One of John Colson’s mills was probably at or just to the west (left) of the coordinates, where today’s Pinkston River Road crosses Buffalo Creek.[1] A small but significant skirmish occurred nearby.[2] Some participants likely passed by the mill, either retreating or trying to capture prisoners. However, the exact locations of the mill and battle are unknown, so this site remains “Hidden History.”

Man in a white tee shirt that says, "Just a Regulator Guy"
Mug saying, "Do Whig Out!" on a parchment scroll

Description

John Colson, Entrepreneur

John Colson left England and landed in Wilmington around 1740, along with other family members.[3] Six years later King George III granted him 400 acres on both sides of the Rocky River at its junction with the Yadkin River, a mile-and-a-half north of the coordinates.[4] A two-room building that stood in the fork between the rivers was probably an “ordinary” owned by the family, a tavern that also provided food and perhaps lodging.[5] It served stagecoach and horseback travelers on roads passing north-south and east-west. Together the Colsons operated ferries across the rivers, and two mills. The peninsula between the rivers was such fertile farmland, some call it the state’s “Granary of the Revolution.”[6]

Photo of a wide area in a creek
Possible site of Colson’s Mill Pond in Buffalo Creek (AmRevNC photograph)

Colson was a magistrate—combination judge and county commissioner—in Anson County, which was much larger at the time.[7] But he apparently leaned Loyalist (“Tory”), because at some point he was forced by Patriots to go to the Anson Courthouse and swear allegiance to their cause. In an example of how the war divided families, his son William was a rebel. William had been named register of deeds for the county in 1772, the same year he either took over the ordinary or added his own.[8]

Patriots and Tories Skirmish

Loyalist Col. Samuel Bryant lived west of modern Winston-Salem, at the Shallow Ford far up the Yadkin River. Boosted by British victories in South Carolina, Bryant had raised nearly 800 part-time militia soldiers. They were moving down the river toward South Carolina, trying to catch up with a British regiment headed in the same direction. Bryant heard about a major defeat of Tory militia at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill in today’s Lincolnton, and that the victorious Patriot (or “Whig”) militia were coming after him!

Indeed, Brig. Gen. Griffith Rutherford had learned about Bryant’s force, and was trying to march around it from the west to prevent the British-Tory rendezvous. He sent Col. William Davidson ahead with about 160 men to slow Bryant down. Davidson headed for Colson’s ordinary and ferries.

While in the fork, apparently, Davidson learned[9] another Tory unit of 250 men was in a farm field near John Colson’s Mill. Revolutionary forces almost always camped near mills if possible, to grind (or take) grain for bread. On Friday, July 21, 1780, Davidson marched his men across the Rocky River toward the mill and then split his force. About half were sent around to his right (west) unseen, hoping to cut off the Tories’ escape route. The other half formed a line facing south toward the mill. Both Patriot groups had white pieces of paper in their hatbands. Davidson had ordered this as a precaution to keep them from firing on each other, since they were entering the battle from different directions. Militia soldiers on both sides did not wear uniforms.

Photo of a grass-covered field on a hilltop with farm buildings on the left
Field near likely Colson’s Mill site (AmRevNC photograph)

The line facing south moved forward at a trot. Per Davidson’s order, they did not stop to shoot even after the Tories spotted and began to fire at them. Davidson was in front, and stood out: Once a regular Continental Army officer, he was wearing his old coat of blue, and Tory marksmen targeted him. His son reported later, “A ball entered the umbilical region (around his navel) and passed through his body near the kidneys.”[10] But Davidson’s line kept coming, now firing and reloading as it did.

Photo of a two-lane road running downhill between trees, with bridge railings at the bottom
Pinkston River Road at possible mill site (AmRevNC photograph)

Suddenly, the other 80 or so Patriots appeared out of woods to the Loyalists’ left. Scattered men on that side of the camp began to shoot at them. However, the Tories quickly realized they could not hold, and retreated. Some likely passed by the mill either along the road or through the creek. A 1904 biography of Patriot then-Lt. Joseph Graham explained, “Being in their own neighborhood and where they knew the country, most of them escaped.”[11] In fact, John Colson was probably among those who took off. His property was confiscated by the state, like that of most Tories, and he died in South Carolina a few years later.[12]

Two Loyalists were killed in the skirmish, five wounded, and 10 captured. One other Patriot besides Davidson was wounded.

The Patriots somehow learned, perhaps from a prisoner, that they had arrived too late: Bryant’s troops had already joined the British. They went back to Rutherford’s force, which he then took to join the Continental army at Cox’s Mill (south of today’s Ramseur). Davidson, of course, was not with them. His wounds kept him out of commission for two months.[13]

Although it was a small skirmish, one historian comments, “The significance of Colson’s Mill lies in its being one of the first victories against the N.C. loyalists following the fall of Charleston and to that extent bolstered and reinforced the benefit gained by Ramseur’s (sic) Mill in helping to win the state over to the American cause.”[14]

Given the pattern of units camping at mills, and the sharp slope climbing north from the creek—which would have prevented camping right by the mill—it is tempting to think the Tory camp “near” the mill was on top of that hill. However, per Footnote 1 the records are not clear, and no archaeology has been done to test this idea.

Colson’s Supply Depot

Map showing a marker to the right of the V-shaped junction of two rivers
Site of Colson’s Depot (Depot map: © 2022 AmRevNC.com. May not be reproduced in any form without permission. Base map: © OpenStreetMap contributors)

Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, who took over the southern Continental army five months later, coordinated with the state government to collect supplies and food for his planned confrontation with the British army. In January he ordered N.C. militia Brig. Gen. Alexander Lillington to build “‘a fort for the provisions’” across the Yadkin roughly a half mile above the river junction.[15] Col. Tadeusz Kościuszko (KOSH-tchoosh-ko[16]), a volunteer from Poland, soon was designing small forts or “redoubts” to protect the depot. He also probably had Lillington’s men add a wooden wall and trenches around it. Atop a steep hill, the depot held a commanding position over the main road leading from the east to Colson’s Ferry over the Yadkin.[17] Greene also ordered trees felled across fords in the region, to prevent the British under Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis from using them, should they come that way from South Carolina.

Kościuszko estimated it would take 12 days[18] to build the depot, but a statewide tool shortage caused delays. Lillington wrote on the last day of the month that “‘a lack of axes has slowed the work,’” though they had begun putting up logs that day. Cornwallis’ second invasion of North Carolina, now known as the “Race to the Dan,” halted the effort. Lillington and his men, driving “‘300 hogs, very slowly,’” headed for Greene’s rendezvous point at Guilford Court House in modern Greensboro.[19]

Greene retreated to Virginia, resupplied, and returned to battle Cornwallis at Guilford. Cornwallis won, but his army was badly damaged. Then Greene chased the weakened British as far as Ramsey’s Mill, 70 miles to the northeast. On Wednesday, April 11, 1781, Greene’s army arrived near the depot. Greene had broken off the hunt and veered in this direction to access the depot’s supplies on the way to South Carolina.[20] The army began crossing using the ferries. With few boats in the area, it apparently took two days, since they did not leave until Sunday.

The depot operated for the rest of the war, occasionally hosting Patriot militia. The site became known locally as “Fort Hill.” A local historian says it is on the modern tract marked on the map in this section, out of view on private property.[21] Another wrote in a 1952 newspaper article, “Cannonballs about two-inches in diameter and round bullet balls of one-quarter to one-half inch in diameter are reported to have been found frequently in the grounds of the area… Shallow trenches and deep holes are still perceptible around the crest of the hill.”[22]

More Information

  • ‘Anson County, NC Map (William H. James)’, North Carolina Maps, 1878 <https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ncmaps/id/243> [accessed 10 July 2021]
  • Barefoot, Daniel, Touring North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Sites (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1998)
  • Cross, Jerry, ‘Colson’s Supply Depot’, NCpedia, 2006 <https://www.ncpedia.org/colsons-supply-depot> [accessed 10 February 2020]
  • Dann, John, ed., The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980)
  • Dunaway, Stewart, Colson’s Ferry, Mill, Ordinary, Fort: A Revolutionary War Overview, Issue E, 2010
  • Dunkerly, Robert M., Redcoats on the Cape Fear: The Revolutionary War in Southeastern North Carolina, Revised (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012)
  • Graham, William A. (William Alexander), General Joseph Graham and His Papers on North Carolina Revolutionary History (Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards & Broughton, 1904) <http://archive.org/details/cu31924032738233> [accessed 27 March 2020]
  • Graves, Will, tran., ‘Pension Application of Charles Paine (Payne), S4643’, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Applications & Rosters, 1833 <http://revwarapps.org/s4643.pdf> [accessed 20 December 2021]
  • Graves, Will, tran., ‘Pension Application of Henry Carson, S1506’, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Applications & Rosters, 1833 <http://revwarapps.org/s4643.pdf> [accessed 20 December 2021]
  • Graves, Will, tran., ‘Pension Application of Jacob Hilsabeck, S7013’, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Applications & Rosters, 1832 <http://revwarapps.org/s4643.pdf> [accessed 20 December 2021]
  • Graves, Will, tran., ‘Pension Application of James Neill, S38256’, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Applications & Rosters, 1832 <http://revwarapps.org/s4643.pdf> [accessed 20 December 2021]
  • Graves, Will, tran., ‘Pension Application of Richard C. Swearingen, S31402’, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Applications & Rosters, 1833 <http://revwarapps.org/s4643.pdf> [accessed 20 December 2021]
  • Graves, Will, tran., ‘Pension Application of William Lee Davidson [Jr], NC20’, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Applications & Rosters <http://revwarapps.org/s4643.pdf> [accessed 20 December 2021]
  • Hartley, Michael, The Ordinary in the Fork: The Search for Colson’s Ordinary (Albemarle-Stanly County Historic Preservation Commission, 1989)
  • Historical Report of the Colson Family in North Carolina (Albemarle, N.C.: Stanly County History Museum [Vertical files])
  • Lassiter, Jeff, Colson’s Depot location, Phone interview, 7/8/2021
  • Lewis, J. D., ‘Colson’s Mill’, The American Revolution in North Carolina, 2012 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_colsons_mill.html> [accessed 10 February 2020]
  • ‘Marker: K-39’, North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=K-39> [accessed 10 February 2020]
  • ‘Marker: L-51’, North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=L-51> [accessed 10 February 2020]
  • Reynolds, G. D. B., ‘Letter to Dr. Crittendon’, 15 April 1952, Stanly County History Museum (Vertical files)
  • Reynolds, G. D. B., ‘Revolutionary War Battle of Colson’s Mill’, Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, N.C., 14 April 1972)
  • Rhodes, Robin, The Colson’s Ordinary Project: Final Report (Stanly County Historic Properties Commission, 1 July 1985)
  • Sherman, Wm. Thomas, Calendar and Record of the Revolutionary War in the South: 1780-1781, Tenth Edition (Seattle, WA: Gun Jones Publishing, 2007) <https://www.americanrevolution.org/calendar_south_10_ed_update_2017.pdf>
  • Stanback, Jeffrey, ‘Fort Hill Was Fortified Storage Point for General Greene’s Army,’ Stanly News and Press, (Albemarle, N.C., 21 October 1952[d])
  • Stanback, Jeffrey, ‘Letter to Edwin Mills, Researcher, N.C. Dept. of Archives & History’, 19 March 1952(a), Stanly County History Museum (Vertical files)
  • Stanback, Jeffrey, ‘Revolutionary Camp Sites Along Pee Dee River No Longer Known’, Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, N.C., 20 June 1952[b])
  • Stanback, Jeffrey, ‘Study Reveals Much Information Concerning Old Colson Property’, Detached Newspaper Article (Stanley County History Museum [Vertical files]), 14 October 1952(c)

[1] Apparently working independently in 1952, when the state was deciding where to place its historical marker for the battle (Marker K-39), two local historians identified the point where the road crosses Buffalo Creek as the possible site of John Colson’s Mill (Reynolds 1952a, Stanback 1952a). Reynolds included a 1902 deed whose tract followed the creek eastward “to the River Road at Colson’s old mill,” then turned north along what likely is Pinkston River Road. An 1878 map shows this road as part of a route coming from Colson’s Ferry over the Rocky River. AmRevNC found two spots, one just to the west of the bridge and another a short distance upstream (both on private property) with groups of rocks that appear to be hand-shaped to fit together, like those in mill foundations and dams from the 1700s. But no expert has investigated them, so the evidence is not conclusive.

[2] Graham (1904) says the fight was “at a farm in the vicinity of Colson’s Mill, near the junction of Rocky River with Pee Dee.” (The Rocky and Yadkin become the Pee Dee there.) Local tradition holds the skirmish was in the fork between the Yadkin and Rocky rivers to the north. But three applications filed by veterans for government pensions state that Davidson’s force crossed the Rocky River to make the attack, after marching down the Yadkin (Hilsabeck, Neill, Paine). AmRevNC reviewed all pension applications mentioning “Colson,” including those in which transcribers added that word in notes. Of those about the battle, 27 merely said it was at “Colson’s” or variants. Another 11 indicated it was at or near the mouth of the Rocky River. The more specific references vary widely. The largest number said Colson’s “Mill” or “Mills” (11 applications). Others included Colson’s “Ferry” (5, 2 of which say “near”), and Hill or Creek (1 each). Four of the 7 that say Farm, Field, or Plantation add “old.” None mention the tavern/ordinary. Military forces of the day almost always camped near a mill if they could, for food and water. This was the only mill across Rocky River from the fork, but near the mouth, on land owned by John Colson.  

[3] “Historical Report of the Colson Family.”

[4] Dates: Ibid.

[5] Stanback 1952d.

[6] Barefoot 1998.

[7] Historical Report…

[8] Ibid.

[9] Graham.

[10] Pension Application of William Lee Davidson [Jr], NC20.

[11] Graham.

[12] Stanback 1952d.

[13] Graham.

[14] Sherman 2007.

[15] Dunaway.

[16] The modern Polish pronunciation, according to a Polish linguist. He notes that Kościuszko came from a region now part of Belarus, so there is no way to be sure how he pronounced his name (Gliński, Mikołaj, ‘What Is the Correct Pronunciation of Kościuszko? And Is There One?’, Culture.Pl, 2016 <https://culture.pl/en/article/what-is-the-correct-pronunciation-of-kosciuszko-and-is-there-one> [accessed 6 January 2022].

[17] Marker: K-39 essay.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Quotes from Dunaway.

[20] Sherman.

[21] Lassiter 2021.

[22] Stanback 1952c.