Battle of Lindley’s Mill

Patriots Fail to Rescue the Governor

Location


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Coordinates: 35.9034,-79.3270.

Type: Sight
Tour: Regulators
County: Alamance

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The tour of this Sight starts in the cemetery of Spring Friends Meeting House. You can park on the shoulder of Stockard Road, or there is an unmarked pull-in at the north edge.

Lindley Mills still operates, producing speciality flours for gourmet bakers. It has kindly agreed to let AmRevNC visitors use its lot later in this tour. Please consider supporting them by visiting their Web site, and respect their rights by only parking where directed and not exploring their property.

That part of the tour location is not regularly maintained and may (or may not) require hiking shoes and awareness of woodland hazards!

Context

With both the British and American armies gone from the area, Col. David Fanning and his Loyalist militia army have kidnapped Gov. Thomas Burke and 200 others in Hillsborough, including much of the state government.

Situation

Tory

Fanning’s army of 705 Loyalists (“Tories”) left Hillsborough the previous afternoon headed for their home base at Cox’s Mill, near today’s Ramseur.[a] It now approaches Stafford Branch where that enters Cane Creek, near a mill owned by Thomas Lindley.

Patriot

Brig. Gen. John Butler’s Patriot militia have been trying to clear Loyalist activity from this region, and he learns of the raid. Knowing the road Fanning will have to take, Butler leaves his camp at Ramsey’s Mill (south of today’s Jordan Lake). He places his army of at most 500 men on a plateau the road curves around.[b]

Date

Thursday, September 13, 1781.

Timeline

Small boy in a blue shirt that says, "Do Whig Out!"

Imagine the Scene

Spring Hill Meeting House

Walk to the area with no graves in the middle of the cemetery. The original meeting house was in this vicinity.

Site of Spring Friends Meeting House: Empty section of modern cemetery
Possible location of meeting house (AmRevNC photograph)

Face Greensboro-Chapel Hill Road and look to the left, past the current meeting house, to the spring house by the road. The wagon road Fanning’s army used crossed the modern road diagonally, on the far side of the clearing past the spring house.

Standing here is the original meeting house, a log building built by 1756. At around 9 in the morning, the rear of Fanning’s army of Loyalists has reached this section of the road with the prisoners. These are militia in all manner of outfits, not uniforms. They are on or leading horses, likely going slow because of the prisoners.

Color drawing of three men in brown or green long coats with muskets,, and one in a green vest and white shirt with a flintlock pistol
Typical militia outfits

Fanning halts the column and rides forward, having received word no scouts were sent ahead of the army. The governor and his party are moved under guard to the south side of the meeting house. For at least 15 minutes, everyone waits. Then shots ring out to the southwest past the modern sanctuary; the more experienced soldiers can tell they are nearly a mile away. The prisoners jump up in excitement, and the guards order them to sit down.

Most of Butler’s Patriot (“Whig”) army appears on foot at the top of the hill directly south (across Greensboro-Chapel Hill Road). The captain of the guards orders them to crowd the prisoners into the meeting house. Tories dismount and rush from the road across bottom of the hill you are on and form lines. Some of the guards join them after the prisoners are closed away.

Butler’s line attacks toward you. Intense volleying breaks out from here down to the right, past the home of Thomas Lindley somewhere nearby. You hear Tory Col. Archibald McDugald threaten to kill the prisoners. It is possible he yells or messengers this to Butler; regardless, the Whigs eventually withdraw over the hill. Fanning comes back and confers with McDugald, who takes off down the road toward the front of the column. More sounds of distant fighting arrive, and then McDugald returns for orders. After he goes back, Fanning orders his men to follow the Patriots, and the Tories eventually attack them.

View of hill Butler attacked from, looking along a road past a rural intersection toward a farm field on the right and distant trees
Direction of Butler’s attack, from the meeting house location (AmRevNC photograph)

Walk to the monument with rocks embedded in it, behind and to the far left of the large tree in the center of the cemetery.

One casualty was the elderly Thomas Lindley, who probably died from the stress of the battle raging by his nearby home (exact location unknown). The memorial bears the date, one day after the battle. He and his wife are buried somewhere in the cemetery.

Walk to the far right corner, the one nearest the current meeting house, and look for the marker that says, “In Memory of the Whig and Tory soldiers…”

As the marker says, some casualties of the battle were buried here.

To see a likely remnant of the wagon road:

  1. Drive or walk cross Greensboro-Chapel Hill Road to the meeting house.
  2. Walk toward the small stream coming from the spring house.
  3. Cross the two foot bridges, turn right, and walk to the bottom edge of the circular clearing.
  4. Look into the woods and you should be able to spot the sunken remains.

The Ambush

Return to your vehicle and:

  1. Go to Greensboro-Chapel Hill Road.
  2. Turn right from the cemetery or left from the meeting house, and drive 1.5 miles to Lindley’s Mill Road.
  3. Turn left and drive south 1 mile to the mill on the right.
    Note: The mill now is an industrial facility with a grain silo and multiple truck bays; please do not interfere in its operations.
  4. Enter the driveway and immediately turn right, uphill.
  5. Park clear of the driveway.

Cross the road and walk down to the creek. One map suggests Lindley’s Mill was just to the right of the road on this side.[c] Take the small double-track path on your left to the other side of the meadow in the distance. Read the monuments on the left if you wish. Then go a little further to where the trail curves left between the hills.

Face away from Cane Creek.

The fighting has not yet broken out. To your right, down the road that appears now as a sunken trail winding toward you off the hill, the front of Fanning’s army approaches.

Hill Tory vanguard walked down, wooded with a sunken line coming down it
Hill down which the Tories approach, and the road, which appears as a trail (AmRevNC photograph)

Riding or leading horses as before, they cross the small stream at the base of the hill and go past you toward the mill. Suddenly heads and musket barrels appear from behind the rise on the left (where the monuments are). A volley of fire pours into the Tories. That slope is actually a ridgeline off the plateau you passed, with a ravine hidden behind, making it perfect cover for an ambush. A detachment of Butler’s men have been waiting behind the crest. Col. “Old” Hector McNeill realizes their precarious position and orders the Tories to retreat. They turn on their heels and scramble back across the hill, released horses likely adding to the confusion before they scatter. Fanning witnesses the ambush and rides back to check on the prisoners.[1]

Photo of a low ridge covered in trees
View of the ambush ridge from the curve of the road (AmRevNC photograph)

After a delay, McDugald arrives on the far side of the hill, and questions McNeill’s courage. McNeill, on horseback, puts his men into a line and brings them back here. They charge across the branch and up the ridge. Somewhere within sight of you, McNeill and his horse are hit by gunfire, and both fall. A half-dozen musket balls kill McNeill instantly. McDugald leads an orderly withdrawal back over the hill and up the road, and then goes back to coordinate with Fanning.

Photo looking down the ridge toward a wide creek at the bottom
Patriot ambusher’s view of the road (AmRevNC photograph)

By this point, Butler is threatening the rear of Fanning’s army as described earlier. After his second conference with Fanning, McDugald returns to the vanguard behind the rise and takes over McNeill’s command. When he hears Fanning’s wing renew the fight with Butler up on the plateau, McDugald forms his unit into a line of attack starting where you are standing and up the rise into the distance on the right. McDugald likely makes multiple assaults up the ridge, withdrawing across the small stream each time.

Years later, a veteran who did not arrive in time for the battle said he visited the next day. He found bodies on the field, among them three Whigs he knew, including Philip Geane. He added, “from the place where Geane lay it was evident that he was the first man that fell in the action…” That suggests Geane was on this ridge.

On the way home he met Geane’s wife heading here to get the body. By a terrible irony, her first name was Mourning. She never remarried, so she spent this rest of her life Mourning Geane.[d]

Local lore claims some of his men were buried in a pit under or near where you stand.

Return to your vehicle at the mill lot and look at the plateau across the street.

The Fanning counterattack was coming toward you from the far side of the plateau. Sources are unclear about how the battle ended. Perhaps the Patriots ran out of ammunition, but for whatever reason Butler orders a withdrawal, probably to a now defunct road uphill from the mill. From there he could retreat in either of two directions: down that road west, the one Fanning planned to take, or north up today’s Lindley’s Mill Road.

A Continental officer attached to the militia, Lt. Col. Robert Mebane, keeps his unit on the field despite the retreat order, to hold off the Tories from both directions. At one point, probably near the summit you see, he is carrying gunpowder to his men in his hat, his face black from him wiping it with powdered hands. Eventually Mebane gives up the field and rejoins Butler’s main force.

From the ambush to this point is said to take four hours, though the two sides did not have enough bullets to fight that whole time. One veteran says he fired 11 rounds.[e]

The Tories do not advance, perhaps for a simple reason. Somewhere on the plateau right at the end of combat, Fanning says, “I received a shot in my left arm, which broke the bone in several pieces; my loss of blood was so great, that I was taken off my horse, and led to a secret place in the woods.”[2]

More graves are roughly 150 yards north of the ambush site on the plateau, possibly on the top of the rise (since plowed over by farmers).

Battle Map

Battle map of Lindley's Mill
Battle map: © 2020 AmRevNC.com. May not be reproduced in any form without permission. Base map: © OpenStreetMap contributors.

The Battle of Lindley’s Mill: All locations are approximate. 1) Patriot unit ambushes front of Tory army. 2) Rest of Patriots confront the rear of the Tory army; prisoners are moved into meeting house. 3) Patriots fall back to plateau; Tories attack. 4) Patriots retreat north or west. 5) Tory army turns south toward Wilmington.

Casualties

Participants and secondhand sources differ on casualties[f]:

  • Tory: 27–100 killed (most say around 40), 60–90 wounded.
  • Continental/Patriot: 4–50 killed (most say 25), 90 wounded.

After the Battle

The entire area was dotted with the dead and wounded afterward. Quakers from the area gathered to take care of them. Also coming to help was a Loyalist, Dr. John Pyle, whose unit was destroyed in a February skirmish known as Pyle’s Defeat (or Massacre). He lived three miles south of the mill, somewhere east of Lindley’s Mill Road just across the modern Chatham County line. He came to treat the wounded on both sides, which earned him back some respect from local Patriots.

With Fanning down and Butler’s army intact, Fanning and his officers decided their army would take the prisoners to the British authorities in Wilmington instead of Cox’s Mill. From the ambush site where you were standing, they continued toward Lindley’s Mill, turned left (probably just before the modern bridge), forded Cane Creek, and marched south. Fanning was among those left behind. He remained hidden in the area for four days until he was able to travel back to his home to recover.

Historical Tidbit

Lindley’s Mill Road was also the route the British army of Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis took when withdrawing from the Battle of Guilford Court House toward Cross Creek (today’s Fayetteville). It was coming from a stop at Cane Creek Meeting House to the west along Greensboro-Chapel Hill Road (to the left if looking up Lindley’s Mill Road).

More Information

Girl in a white tee shirt with a picture and list of patriot women

[1] Fanning 1865.

[2] Ibid.

[a] Number from Fanning.

[b] Number from Dunaway 2009.

[c] Dunaway.

[d] Graves, Will, tran., ‘Pension Application of Philip Grane [Geane], R4188’, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Applications & Rosters, 1847 <http://revwarapps.org/r4188.pdf> [accessed 27 August 2021].

[e] Dunaway.

[f] Ibid.

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