Cornwallis Becomes the Hunted
Tour: Tory War
County: Chatham, Lee
The Ramsey’s Mill site is perhaps the least visitor-friendly location on AmRevNC. The first “stop” was destroyed for a highway, so that can only be viewed by driving through it. The coordinates mark the intersection of the Moncure-Pittsboro Road and U.S. 1 South, the starting point for that drive. Park on the shoulder of the road near the exit/entry ramps, on the north (Pittsboro) side of the highway, to read the first section.
Though we encountered no one in our visits, the second stop is unkempt, and people appear to camp there at times. Consider taking a companion if that makes you uncomfortable.
That stop requires walking down a rough former access road, and the best view requires a brief but semi-dangerous scramble down a rocky bank to the river’s edge. Alternate directions are provided to an obscured view from a vehicle, for those with mobility or safety concerns.
An Army Goes to a Tavern
After the Battle of Guilford Court House in today’s Greensboro, British Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis was moving his army toward Cross Creek (now Fayetteville) to recover. The British had been at Dixon’s Mill in Snow Camp, and marched through Pittsboro to Ambrose Ramsey’s tavern and mill on the Deep River, arriving Monday, March 26, 1781. They needed to cross the river to get to Cross Creek.
Continental Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene believed his army was in better shape after the battle, so he ordered a march on Cornwallis. He sent cavalry ahead under Col. “Light Horse” Henry Lee to try to slow the British down. This exactly reversed Cornwallis’s chase of Greene prior to Guilford, led by cavalry under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, including the “Race to the Dan.” The hunter had become the hunted!
After following much of the route of Moncure-Pittsboro Road, the colonial road the British used from Chatham Court House (today’s Pittsboro) turned more directly toward the river near here. As it approached the river, it may have run parallel to today’s highway, uphill to the right. Then it cut across at an angle near the modern southbound bridge and downhill past the northbound bridge.
Ramsey’s Tavern was by that road where US 1 South runs now: The site was destroyed when the hill was cut. As you approach the bridge following the directions below, imagine the tavern hanging in the air directly above the pavement at the height of the hilltops near the river, probably in line with the start of the guard rail. It had a steep roof, porches on front and back, and chimneys on each end, built well enough to last until the 1950s.
British campfires and camp followers spread from the tavern area in both directions, from the hill down to the flats by the river below. The army had no tents, and limited supplies. Cornwallis made the tavern his headquarters.
On Tuesday the 27th, in the distance 200–300 yards north (to the right when facing the river), scattered gunshots rang out. A company of 25–40 state cavalry troopers under Col. François Lellorquis Marquis de Malmédy, a French volunteer with the Continental Army, were skirmishing with British sentries (“pickets”) at the north edge of the camp.[a]
Baron de Globack of Malmedy’s command led the charge, one source says. When he joined the force, he was surprised to find no one carried swords, as cavalry soldiers typically did. He had each man armed with a “‘hickory club, one end… mounted with a heavy piece of iron.” To set the example, he tossed away his sword in favor of a club.[b]
The firing picked up as the cavalry charged. When the pickets ran, the Americans captured three or four of them. But the militia were quickly surrounded by an estimated 400 “Hessians”—German mercenaries fighting for the British—and could not go back the way they came. They passed deeper into the camp through the Hessians, “to whose heads (they) applied the clubs so effectually”[c] they were able to curl north to escape under heavy fire, probably within view of where you sit. Two Patriots were wounded, and an unknown number of the British or Hessians. Tarleton, possibly fearing a trap, did not pursue them.
Take US 1 South over the Deep River to the first exit, Exit 78, Deep River Road.
A Dam Bridge
From Exit 78, at the end of the ramp, turn left. Cross modern US 1 and continue down Old US 1. If mobility or safety is an issue for you, click this footnote for alternate directions.
Otherwise, as soon as you see a guard rail on the right near the river, slow down. Turn left before the rail on the left into a wide turnout and park. Walk down the old double-track lane to the right, along the bridge toward the river.
Start looking left about halfway to the water. You can stop as soon as you see an old bridge support (abutment) in the middle of the river, in the distance near modern US 1. If you are adventurous, for the best view continue to and carefully down the riverbank to the water’s edge.
Ramsey built his grain mill on the flats of the Deep River near a series of falls, in the late 1760s or early ’70s. He also built the tavern on the hill above in that period, plus several outbuildings.
Ramsey had a channel dug along the far side of the river, later enlarged into the canal still visible today. Then he had a wooden structure built and filled with stones at the far north end, to divert water into the channel. Hidden behind the trees that extend farthest into the river today, near the 19th-Century abutment, is a depression that was the mill pond. That pond was filled using a “mill race” cut from the channel back toward the river, where a dam held back the flow. The Ramsey’s Mill building was just this side of the northbound bridge. (Souvenir hunters should note that state archaeologists investigated the site when that bridge was built.)
The road from Pittsboro to Cross Creek first used a nearby ford, probably where the abutment for the later bridge stands. The ford was either a “horse ford,” shallow enough for equines but not wagons and cannons, or so rocky that crossing it was slow. Cornwallis thus ordered troops to build a crude bridge, probably on the ford, though perhaps a little upstream. A Patriot veteran testified years later: “At this place large rocks rise in several places in the river and the enemy had taken the trunks of the largest trees and placed them along on these rocks so as to form a bridge. He recollects he was astonished to conjecture how human strength could have placed so large trees in that position across the river.”[i] Most sources suggest they pile up rocks from the mill pond dam to fill the bridge in. There was a house on this side of the river, and a few local Patriots took potshots, but they could not do much damage.
Later in the day of the skirmish, the bridge was completed and the army moved out in a hurry: Cornwallis had learned that Greene’s army was only 12 miles away, to the left along the river, the side he had to cross to! The British leave so fast, meat is left hanging in the tavern’s slaughter house uphill, and troops who died here of their Guilford wounds are left behind unburied.
The next day Greene’s army arrived. They ate the meat, and even edible garbage, they were so hungry. They buried the British dead somewhere in the vicinity. The day after that Greene wrote, “I wish it was in my power to pursue them further; but want of provisions, and a considerable part of the Virginia militia’s time of service being expired, will prevent our further pursuit.” (The part-time soldiers known as “militia” usually signed up for short periods of time.) Greene defended them in a letter to Gen. George Washington, pointing out it was planting season.
The two armies never came this close again. In his letter, Greene said, “In this critical and distressing situation I am determined to carry the War immediately into South Carolina.” He argued this would force the British to either follow him or give up their posts in S.C., in which case they would lose more than they would gain by holding N.C.[d]
Greene moved his army back the way it came. Brig. Gen. John Butler remained behind. Of the 800 North Carolinians who fled the battlefield at Guilford Court House, 240 made their way here. The General Assembly, incensed over their conduct, had drafted all of those militia into the state’s new Continental army regiments, which were sent on to Greene. Butler stayed here with other militia until April 21st, when they headed to Heron’s Bridge to help monitor British forces occupying Wilmington. Cornwallis had gone as far as Wilmington to recover, and from there went to Virginia.
Starting soon after the war, a number of schemes were tried to let boats get upriver past the falls. The mill channel was expanded into a canal-and-lock system. By the Civil War, the town of Lockville ran along the river from just south of Old U.S. 1, up and onto the heights north of the current highway. There were several mills including Ramsey’s (then called “Pullen’s”), a machine shop, a merchant, and a number of homes. In 1873 the entire town was sold to the Deep River Manufacturing Company, which focused on finding ways to transport iron from upstream to its foundries downstream. In this period at least 150 people lived here, and the village survived into the next century.
Ramsey’s Mill burned down in 1911. The tavern was picked apart by souvenir hunters and time before its final destruction by the state.
- Barnette, Angela, Lockville Hydroelectric Plant (Lockville Dam, Canal, and Powerhouse), Historic American Engineering Record (Atlanta, Ga.: National Park Service, 1987)
- Chilton, Mark, ‘Going Back to Lockville’, Wandering through the NC Piedmont, 2009 <https://piedmontwanderings.blogspot.com/2009/07/dont-go-back-to-lockville.html> [accessed 25 May 2020]
- Graham, Nicholas, ‘Lockville in Old Maps « North Carolina Miscellany’ <https://blogs.lib.unc.edu/ncm/index.php/2009/07/21/lockville-in-old-maps/> [accessed 13 December 2019]
- Greene, George Washington, The Life of Nathanael Greene: Major-General in the Army of the Revolution (G. P. Putnam and Son, 1871)
- Hadley, Wade, Doris Horton, and Nell Strowd, Chatham County, 1771-1971, Second Edition (Lillington, N.C.: Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1976)
- Lewis, J.D., ‘The American Revolution in North Carolina – Ramsey’s Mill’, 2012 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_ramseys_mill.html> [accessed 13 December 2019]
- ‘Marker: H-18’, North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=H-18> [accessed 13 December 2019]
- O’Kelley, Patrick, Nothing but Blood and Slaughter The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, Volume Three, 1781 (Booklocker.com, Inc., 2005)
- Osborn, Rachel, and Ruth Selden-Sturgill, The Architectural Heritage of Chatham County, North Carolina (Pittsboro, N.C.: The Chatham County Historical Association, 1991)
- Rankin, Hugh F., The North Carolina Continentals (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1971)
- Robinson, Kenneth, Archaeological Data Recovery at the Lockville Historic Complex (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Dept. of Transportation, Planning and Environmental Branch, 1997)
- 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>
- Thomas, Beth, Brent Glass, and Wilson Angeley, ‘Lockville Dam, Canal, and Powerhouse’ (Raleigh, NC, 1984) <https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/nr/CH0018.pdf> [accessed 13 December 2019]
 Other potential stops here could not be included on this page, because there is no public access to them.
 Continue across the river and take the first left, Lockville Road. Though a public road, it quickly narrows to driveway width, with limited or no turnarounds. Larger vehicles will need to stop in the left fork going to the Lion’s Club building, which is on private property. Smaller ones may continue until you can see across the open space to the left. The mill site described in this section is on the other side of the trees on the apparent “island” in the river, which is actually river flats separated by a human-made channel, as you will read.
 Robinson 1997.
[a] Rankin 1971, Sherman 2007. Some modern sources say this was Lee’s troops trying to set a trap with infantry help, but the two cited here reference primary documentation showing otherwise. Lee was approaching from the other side of the river but never engaged the British, and the rest of the Continental Army was camped further west.
[b] O’Kelley 2005.
[d] Quoted in Sherman.
[i] Pension statement of John Chumbley of Amelia County, Va., quoted in Sherman.