A Patriot Outwits the Tories
Tour: Guilford Battle
The coordinates put you in the parking lot for the David Caldwell Historic Park, whose Visitor Center is closed indefinitely as of January 2021. However, you can visit the park year-round during the daytime (see their website for hours). A sidewalk gets you to our stop.
Loyalists (“Tories”) regularly come looking for Caldwell at his home. In March 1781, the British army under Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis camped at various places in the region while chasing the Continental army.
That March, the Continental army of Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene had returned from Virginia and was maneuvering northeast of modern-day Greensboro, preparing to lure the British into a decisive battle at Guilford Court House a few miles north.
Although various sources report similar facts, they all appear to come from a biography written by one of Caldwell’s students, Rev. E.W. Caruthers, in 1842. Unless otherwise noted, the information and quotes from this page are taken from that source. Though an earnest historian for his day, Caruthers mostly relies on second-hand reports gathered decades after these events. Believe with caution!
Saturday, March 11, 1781.
Imagine the Scene
The Log College
From the lot, walk to the paved trail into the park that parallels Cornwallis Drive closest to the lot entrance. Turn right, and stay to the right, passing the rock outline of a foundation on the left. Contrary to the markers there, it probably is not on the site of the Caldwells’ Revolutionary-era home and college. According to the most recent archaeological studies here, those piles most likely mark the second home built sometime between 1790 and 1800.
Continue down the sidewalk to the rock monuments on the left. Go to the second one, for David, and face the lawn to your right.
Building materials and household artifacts found in this immediate area in 2009 suggest a domestic structure is in front of you in 1781, possibly the first home of the Rev. David Caldwell and his wife, Rachel. If so, it is “a double cabin, or a log house, with a chimney in the middle, an outer door to each apartment, and a communication from one to the other.” The second floor houses his 1767 “Academy,” later called the “Log College.” The college “served as a boarding-room academy, a college, a theological seminary, and one of the few schools on the frontier anywhere.” Caldwell was also pastor of the Alamance and Buffalo Presbyterian churches, and a physician.
Around the house are several small log cabins the students live in. A “large brick oven” is steps from the house, and a smokehouse is nearby. The house sits within a fence, probably made of vertical planks close together, with a front gate. Caldwell owns the 275 acres surrounding you, including several farms.
Eight or nine enslaved people took care of the buildings and students during the war. After Caldwell’s horse was stolen by three men claiming it was for the army, he asked one of those men, the enslaved Tom, to steal it back that night. He did!
A War of Words
Look directly toward the parking lot. The closest tree across the lawn, where the grass gives way to dirt, was in the center of a colonial road running left to right. If this is the house location, the gate would be within your view near the modern lawn edge in 1781.
Caldwell is a well-known Patriot (“Whig”), not only because he is an outspoken advocate from his pulpits for independence, but he had served in the 1776 convention in Halifax that created North Carolina’s first state constitution. There was an additional incentive for militia and Redcoat scouts to seek out Rev. Caldwell. Cornwallis put a £200 bounty on his head, today worth around $37,000.
Caldwell built a shack on North Buffalo Creek two miles from here to use as a hideout whenever Tories came looking for him. The stream running through the modern Bicentennial Gardens to the south feeds into Buffalo Creek, so named because wild buffaloes still roamed the region when Europeans first arrived.
In Fall 1780 a rider shows up at the door seeking a rest stop, Caruthers reports. He is carrying letters from Gen. George Washington to the Continental commander in the South.[a] Rachel tells him she will feed him, but he should sleep elsewhere, because she is under constant harassment by Tories. Sure enough, the food is barely out before Loyalist militia (part-time soldiers) show up, apparently having heard of the stranger’s arrival. Rachel quickly ushers the courier out the back door and tells him to hide in a nearby thickly leaved, but thorny, locust tree, perhaps to your left or behind you. The Tories surround the house. Once they are done searching, he climbs down the far side of the trunk and escapes.
Contrary to some sources, the British army did not approach and leave the Battle of Guilford Court House on the nearby road, much less camp here before the battle. (See the Battle of New Garden for the actual route.) But detachments roamed the area foraging and seeking out Patriot leaders with Tory help.
Caruthers says a domestic servant is working in the yard on Saturday, March 11, 1781. (Likely enslaved, her name is lost to history.) The servant hears a commotion in the distance and stands on the fence to see the cause. Soon after, a group of militia soldiers arrive at the gate. They ask her to get the landlady, claiming to be Patriots seeking David’s medical help. (Militia on both sides wore everyday clothes, not uniforms.) What this band doesn’t know is what she had seen in the distance from the fence: the red coats of some regular British soldiers traveling with them! Either this party was Loyalist militiamen, or Redcoats in borrowed clothing. Rachel comes out to greet them, but the servant manages to warn her. The soldiers repeat their request. Rachel says she must check on a child, goes back in the house, and warns visiting Patriot neighbors. They escape out the back door while she goes back to the gate.
The soldiers announce they are taking over the house. (Given that the main army was miles away, this suggests the men were probably Tory militia, though it could have been a British detachment.) Over her protests, they invade the house and either order or allow her and her eight children to move to the smokehouse.
Caruthers picks up the story: They “there passed a day with no other food than a few dried peaches and apples, till a physician interposed, and procured for her a bed, some provisions, and a few cooking utensils. The family remained in the smoke house two days and nights—their distress being frequently insulted by profane and brutal language. To a young officer who came to the door for the purpose of taunting the helpless mother, by ridiculing her countrymen, whom he termed rebels and cowards, Mrs. Caldwell replied, ‘Wait and see what the Lord will do for us.’ ‘If he intends to do anything,’ pertly rejoined the military fop, ‘’tis time he had begun.’” When she asks a soldier for protection, she is told “she could expect no favors, for that the women were as great rebels as the men.
“After remaining two days, the army took their departure from the ravaged plantation, on which they had destroyed every thing; but before leaving Dr. Caldwell’s house, the officer in command gave orders that his library and papers should be burned. A fire was kindled in the large oven in the yard, and books which could not at that time be replaced, and valuable manuscripts which had cost the study and labor of years, were carried out by the soldiers, armful after armful, and ruthlessly committed to the flames. Not even the family Bible was spared, and the house, as well as plantation, was left pillaged and desolate.” Presumably the stolen goods were taken to Cornwallis’ army, now camped at Deep River Meeting House, a day’s march to the southwest.
Two days later, the Battle of Guilford Court House was fought a few miles directly north, easily heard from here. Rachel apparently spent the day in prayer with women of the Buffalo Creek congregation in one of their homes. After the battle, David helped tend to the wounded. There is a monument to him on the battlefield.
One time he sneaks back home, Caruthers says, only to have Tory militia surround the house again. He is dragged out to the yard and held under guard while the Loyalists steal whatever they can find of value inside. A neighbor woman, a Mrs. Dunlap, comes out, leans down to him, and loudly whispers a question to him, “asking if it was not time for Gillespie and his men to be here.” One of the guards overhears her, as she intended, and demands to know what she meant. Apparently Gillespie is one of the Patriot militia commanders known to be vicious to Tories, most likely Capt. Daniel Gillespie of the Guilford County Militia. Panic ensues, and the Tories flee, leaving behind Caldwell and their plundered goods!
Another time a Loyalist decides to take a fine tablecloth Rachel especially likes. She grabs it and enters into a tug-of-war with the man. When he begins to win she asks if there is no man who, having wives and daughters of his own, will stand up for her. One is shamed into doing so and makes the thief let go.
Tories show up at the door late another night. They tell Rachel they are Patriots and need to find her husband to treat wounded peers. Erring on the side of compassion, she tells them where his hideout is. Almost immediately after they leave, she realizes they tricked her. She spends the night in fear and prayer. Fortunately, the reverend was away from the hut when they arrived. In fact, he was never captured despite the many attempts.
David and Rachel were buried about a ten-minute drive from here. To pay your respects, read the “Historical Tidbits” section below before you leave, and then:
- From the parking lot, turn right on Cornwallis Drive.
- Drive 3.6 miles to Church Street.
- Turn left, and drive 0.5 miles to 16th Street.
- Turn left into the circular driveway in front of Buffalo Presbyterian Church, and park.
Walk to the left of the sanctuary. Go through the arched walkway to the back of the building, veering slightly left around the rear. Turn left and walk to the parallel lines of low bushes, which outline their plot.
After the war, Caldwell also served in the Hillsborough convention to consider the new U.S. Constitution in 1788. He turned down an offer to be the first president of the University of North Carolina, but received the university’s first honorary degrees. He is credited with preaching a sermon at the post-Revolution courthouse in Greensboro that convinced Guilford County men to volunteer for the War of 1812. He continued preaching in the churches until age 95, and died at 99 in their second home likely marked by the rock outline at the Historic Park.
Rachel largely disappears from the historical record except as assisting David with the college and raising their nine children, three of whom may have had mental illnesses. At least three others died as infants. Rachel died at 81, less than a year after David.
- David continued to teach at the Log College until 1816, and the college remained open until 1824, taking over the entire first Caldwell home after the second was built. Into the 1790s, David still had not been able to replace the library the British or Tories destroyed. Regardless, the academy graduated many ministers and other state leaders, including later Gov. John Motley Morehead. In a letter years later, Morehead described how Caldwell “made me recite, from four to six hours a day, parsing every difficult word, and scanning nearly every line, when the recitation happened to be in any of the Latin poets. Indeed you could not get along with him, with any comfort, without knowing accurately and thoroughly every thing you passed over.’” On a lighter note, a student told Caruthers that at some point, the school “‘had a goat that possessed a strong taste for books, and if ever a student, from thoughtlessness, left a book exposed, this goat was certain, if he came on it, to appropriate the whole, or part, to his own use.’”
- Like many of the Founding Fathers, Caldwell apparently disliked slavery but did not free his slaves. By 1810 the Caldwells held sixteen people captive, working at the college or his farms. A contemporary Quaker described him as a “lenient” slaveholder, and Caldwell gave him permission to hold a Sunday school for teaching his and other slaves to read. The Caldwells owned 832 acres in 1815, after purchases of tracts to the west and south, and a small grain mill. In 1818, a neighbor established in woods behind the buildings a starting point for the “Underground Railroad,” actually a series of safe houses for people escaping slavery. Caldwell surely knew about his neighbor’s activity, and one report suggests he allowed his slaves to help runaways in the woods.
- Baroody, John, Archaeological Investigations at the Site of David Caldwell’s Log College, 1980
- Brown, Gary, Caldwell Home Location, Phone interview, 12/9/2020
- Caldwell, David, ‘Biography of Rev. David Caldwell (1725-1824)’, Caldwell Genealogy, 2006 <http://caldwellgenealogy.com/library/biography-of-rev-david-caldwell-1725-1824-by-david-a-caldwell/> [accessed 26 February 2020]
- Caruthers, E. W. (Eli Washington), A Sketch of the Life and Character of the Rev. David Caldwell, D. D. (Greensborough, N.C. : Printed by Swaim and Sherwood, 1842) <http://archive.org/details/sketchoflifecharact00caru> [accessed 23 April 2020]
- ‘David Caldwell Historic Park’, Greensboro, NC <https://www.greensboro-nc.gov/departments/parks-recreation/parks-gardens/david-caldwell-historic-park> [accessed 26 February 2020]
- Johns, Catherine, Greensboro History Museum, Caldwell Homesite, 12/9/2020
- Miller, Mark, David Caldwell Research Report, Research Reports – North Carolina Digital Collections (Raleigh, N.C.: Office of Archives and History, 20 July 1978) <https://digital.ncdcr.gov/digital/collection/p16062coll6/id/7293/rec/26> [accessed 23 March 2020]
- Robinson, Blackwell, ‘Caldwell, David’, NCpedia, 1979 <https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/caldwell-david> [accessed 28 February 2020]
- Robinson, Kenneth, Archaeological Testing and Assessment, Proposed Interpretive Center, David Caldwell Historic Site, Greensboro, North Carolina (Greensboro, N.C.: Greensboro Beautiful, Inc., 2003)
- Robinson, Kenneth, Archaeology at the David and Rachel Caldwell Site: A Colonial and Federal Period Farmstead In the North Carolina Piedmont Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina (Greensboro, N.C.: Greensboro Beautiful, Inc., 2009)
- South, Stanley A., ‘Searching for Clues to History Through Historic Site Archaeology’, The North Carolina Historical Review, 43.2 (1966), 166–73
- Stoesen, Alexander, ‘Caldwell School’, NCpedia, 2006 <https://www.ncpedia.org/caldwell-school> [accessed 28 February 2020]
 South 1966, Robinson 2009. Baroody 1980 concluded this was the first home, but depended on a later date of construction for the second home than the other sources found—the average age of the artifacts he and Robinson found here dates them to the late 1790s. Also, the foundation underneath the modern layout of rocks does not match Caruthers’ description of the first home as apparently rectangular and having chimneys on each end (Baroody, Robinson) instead of in the middle as described further down in the text. Robinson (2009), repeatedly calls the foundation the second home, as South had concluded earlier.
 Caruthers 1842.
 Caldwell 2006. This source gives an incorrect size for the room, based on the 1980 study mentioned in Footnote 1.
 From the corner of Rachel’s rock nearest the sidewalk, the centerline was 70 feet directly west, where that tree now stands (Robinson 2009). From David’s rock the center was 76 feet away west, so the north-south road was curving slightly southwest toward the modern Visitor Center.
 Quoted in Caldwell.
 As illustrated on many of these pages, a few militia leaders on both sides were known for their excessive violence. This story could refer to one of two other militia captains named Gillespie, both promoted later (Lewis, J. D., ‘The Patriots and Their Forces’, The American Revolution in North Carolina <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_patriot_troops_nc.html> [accessed 23 November 2020]).
 Miller 1978.
 Quoted in Miller.
[a] Caruthers identifies this as Greene in South Carolina. Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates was in command until early December, and the army was in North Carolina that autumn until literally the last day. Given that locust trees drop their leaves in the fall, this event had to happen when Gates was in command and the army still in N.C., assuming Caruthers is right about the year. The next fall, Greene was in South Carolina.