A Surprise Becomes a Rout
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Park at the edge of the driveway, facing in the direction you were driving, and keep an eye out for company trucks. Before you leave the area, consider stopping into their gift shop to load up on locally produced treats for your trip!
As the British Army under Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis prepares to enter North Carolina from the south, Loyalists are gathering to join him.
Supporters of King George from this region gathered at the Moravian village of Bethabara under Col. Gideon Wright. Then they marched toward Charlotte where the British were camped. However, they raided Patriot homes along the way for supplies and for revenge. The Loyalists (“Tories”) camped on the east side of a ford at the Yadkin River for two weeks to continue their attacks.
Most of the local part-time Patriot soldiers called “militia” had gone south with the Overmountain Campaign to attack a British corps, resulting in the Battle of King’s Mountain (S.C.). Capt. Andrew Carson, who was probably left behind to protect the home front, lived west of the ford. When Wright camped, Carson rode to Salisbury to get help. Some men came back with him.
Saturday, October 14, 1780.
Imagine the Scene
Two Forces are Thrown a Curve
Look further along the road.
You are by the Mulberry Fields Road, a dirt wagon road between Salem and Mulberry Fields (modern Winston-Salem and Wilkesboro). The modern road may be on the original route, which matters on this day. This entire area was probably still wooded, and a sharp downhill drop is hidden from your view, past the modern house ahead to your left. Those features combined with the curves cause a surprise.
By sheer chance, 160 Virginia Patriots who had left home too late to join the Overmountain Men learned of the Tory actions, and headed east in search of them. They ran into the 150 militia Carson had gathered somewhere behind you. Not part of the regular army, these men wear regular clothes and carry their personal weapons. Most have muskets, but some Virginians carry more accurate rifles. All probably ride on horseback past you heading for the ford. Either as they round the curve near the modern house ahead, or perhaps the one directly ahead of you, they spot trouble.
The first of between 350 and 500 Loyalist militia are riding up the road toward you from the river. Some of their number are still crossing the ford, about a mile from here. Wright and his brother “‘are at the head of these Banditts (and) Plunderers, whose ignorance is to be dreaded, having not the least principles of Honor or honesty.’”
Once source says the Wrights were former New Yorkers who fought in the French & Indian War. After moving to N.C., Gideon gained permission to build the Surry County Courthouse on his land in 1771, and he became justice of the peace. He joined Royal Gov. William Tryon against the Regulators that same year.[a]
Recall the surprise you feel when you turn a corner and almost run into someone, and multiply it by hundreds of people wanting to kill you! Perhaps you now know how both sides felt. The Patriots are the first to react, some yelling “Tory, Tory!” The other side reacts with “Rebel, Rebel!” The Tories fall back toward more open ground behind them. (The fact they don’t simply spread out and start shooting suggests the area was still dense forest.)
Drive past the house and downhill until you can see the end of the modern road. The first fighting took place on land now hidden from view, on private property behind the houses there.
The wagon road continued across a small stream that runs from left to right behind the modern homes. The Patriots ride past you and the two sides spread out into lines along opposite sides of the branch. They begin to exchange gunfire across it.
The Virginian marksmen with rifles figure out Loyalist Capt. James Bryan is an officer, not always obvious with militia. Some target him, and Bryan and his horse fall: Each has taken five bullets, perhaps the same five. The Tories are disheartened by this, and start to fall back.
Officer Death and Cowardice
Drive to their second line:
- Return to Courtney-Huntsville Road.
- Turn left.
- Drive 1.3 miles through Huntsville, curving left through town, and turn left onto Mulberry Fields Road.
- Drive to the end.
The road turns to dirt, but there is a turnaround at the end. Public right-of-way extends to this area. Please respect the property owners’ rights beyond the gate.
You are back on the original road, behind the first Tory position. The Tories draw back and form another line somewhere in this vicinity. The Patriots advance to within 50 yards or less below you, the effective range of the day’s muskets.
A source based on veteran’s pensions says, “Capt. Henry Francis of the Virginia militia was shot through the head and fell dead on the ground a few steps from his son, Henry. His other son, John, took careful aim and fired at the Loyalist who had killed his father.” (Francis is buried somewhere in the trees on the far side of the field, out of sight, near the former road.)
The two sides exchange more rounds. Outnumbering the Patriots, the Tories hold their ground at first, but the Virginia sharpshooters continue taking their toll. Finally another Loyalist captain, Isaac Campbell, can’t take it anymore. He panics and runs for the ford. Within a few minutes, the rest of the Tories follow him through the woods or up the road, some yelling “we are whipped!” The Patriots rush toward and past you. In passing some of the Tory wounded, they stop long enough to club them to death.
A Tory Pays for His Heroism
Follow the ones running up the road. At Courtney-Huntsville Road turn left, just as the old road probably did around this point. Drive a tenth of a mile and take the next right, Shallow Ford Lane. Drive to the cul-de-sac at the end and look into the wooded ravine to the left.
The original roadbed is on private property on the other side of the ravine. No doubt most of the Tories are not bothering to go that far, and are pouring through this ravine toward the ford downhill.
However, one Tory fights to the end, an African-American named Ball Turner. Perhaps within your view, Turner finds a protected spot and continues firing. Eventually a group of Patriots figure out his location from the puffs of gun smoke. They charge his position and kill him.
Fording to Safety
- Go back to Courtney-Huntsville Road and turn right.
- Drive 0.7 miles, and turn right into the unpaved entry to the Bob Pate Memorial Access Area, near the bridge over the Yadkin.
- Park near the river.
The ground here is uneven and often muddy, but you cannot see the ford area from a vehicle. Walk to the small boat ramp, which is hard to see until you get near the water. Go as close to the river as you safely can. Look to the right where the river turns out of sight downstream.
In the middle of the river is an island of silt collected on a long outcrop of rock. (In summer, its trees are almost impossible to separate from those in the background on the other side.) Just out of sight to the right is Shallow Ford. As this was the only ford on this part of the Yadkin River that could support wagons, it was heavily used for many years before and after the Revolution. Roads from the ford led to the Moravian towns around Salem (now Winston-Salem) in the east and Salisbury to the south, in addition to Mulberry Fields. The route crossed the island. (The roads are still partly visible, but unfortunately are not accessible to the public.)
Early in the morning of the day of battle, you see through changing leaves the Tory militia. They are riding down the far slope toward the island in a column, most or all on horseback. The rear of the column is still making its way across when you hear the gunshots from the battle breaking out. The column hurries its pace, but not all are across when the movement stops. Men from the front start splashing back to the left, many or most on foot, having abandoned their horses. The rear turns around and retreats back to the left as men run past.
The battle has lasted all of 45 minutes. But it is one of several battles that prevent Loyalists from joining the British at the pivotal Battle of Guilford Court House the following March. The lack of militia troops to put up against many hundreds of Patriot militia at that battle helps explain the mortal damage done to Cornwallis a month after he crossed Shallow Ford.
Due in part to the defeat of his western wing by the Overmountain Men a day after this battle, Cornwallis called off his 1780 invasion. But in January, after a large number of well-trained soldiers were captured at the Battle of Cowpens (S.C.), he chased their captors in what has become known as the “Race to the Dan.”
Starting on Tuesday, February 7, 1781, and continuing into the next day, the British army crosses here from right to left. They are headed to the Moravian towns to resupply during their pursuit of the Continental Army of Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene. Greene had crossed at the Trading Ford downriver a week earlier, but the river was too high for Cornwallis to follow him. The British started to camp in Salisbury until it dropped. Cornwallis decided he could not wait any longer and must take the longer route via this ford. Given that he assumed Greene was headed for the upper fords of the Dan River at or west of modern Danville (Va.), it was not that far of a detour.[b]
The crossing by around 2,000 men, along with camp followers and cannons, likely takes around six hours—not counting an overnight halt due to darkness. They camp on a plantation at least a mile to the east.[c]
The Patriot militia cavalry of Col. Joseph Graham had slowed Cornwallis near Salisbury and dogged his march all the way here. You see it arrive in time to cross over, climb the far hill, and watch the last of the Redcoats march away.
You can catch a glimpse of the ford by turning right out of the Access Area and crossing the bridge. Ripples in the water on the right side of the island, perhaps reflecting sunlight depending on the time of day, show the river is shallow there.
The Battle of Shallow Ford: All locations approximate, except on original roadbeds. 1) Patriot and Tory militia surprise each other on the road. 2) The sides exchange fire across a branch. 3) Tories fall back, lines reform, and firing resumes. 4) When a Tory officer breaks, the rest retreat across the ford with Patriots following.
- Loyalist Militia: 14-15 killed, 4 wounded, 30-40 captured.
- Patriot Militia: 1 killed, 4 wounded.
After the Battle
The Patriots did not pursue the Loyalists immediately. However, they headed toward Bethabara the next day for food, and spread out to track down the fleeing Tories. The Patriots decided to give pardons to them rather than try to hold them as prisoners, a common practice. As mentioned, most of the latter do not fight again during the war, depriving the British of additional forces they needed.
- A ferry operated near the ford as early as 1748.
- As a 17-year-old, frontier legend Daniel Boone crossed the ford east-to-west with his family in Spring 1752. They were on their way from Pennsylvania to their first N.C. home near modern Mocksville.
- Brownlee, Ann, ‘Shallow Ford on the Yadkin’, 2011 <http://shallow-ford.net/index.html> [accessed 19 January 2020]
- Brownlee, Ann, Trading Ford Sites, Phone Interview, 9/2/2020
- Copeland, Travis, ‘The Battle of Shallow Ford, October 14, 1780’, Journal of the American Revolution, 2020 <http://allthingsliberty.com/2020/09/the-battle-of-shallow-ford-october-14-1780/> [accessed 3 May 2021]
- 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]
- Hill, Michael, ‘Shallow Ford’, NCpedia, 2006 <https://www.ncpedia.org/shallow-ford> [accessed 19 January 2020]
- Jones, Randell, Before They Were Heroes at King’s Mountain, North Carolina/Tennessee Edition (Winston-Salem, NC: Daniel Boone Footsteps, 2011)
- Lewis, J.D., ‘Shallow Ford’, The American Revolution in North Carolina, 2014 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_shallow_ford.html> [accessed 19 January 2020]
- Pancake, John S., This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782 (University, AL : University of Alabama Press, 1985) <http://archive.org/details/thisdestructivew00panc> [accessed 13 October 2020]
- Peasley, John, ‘Letter from John Peasley to Jethro Sumner [Extract]’, Documenting the American South: Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, 1780 <https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.php/document/csr14-0743> [accessed 3 May 2021]
- Salter, Frank, ‘Wright, Gideon’, NCpedia, 1996 <https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/wright-gideon> [accessed 3 May 2021]
- 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>
 Vestal, Sam, Shallowford Farms Popcorn, Phone call, 11/9/2020.
 AmRevNC.com has no financial ties to this company. We just appreciate their sharing their driveway!
 Thus a Patriot major had described them to a general earlier, in a letter seeking help (Jones 2011).
 Lewis 2014.
 Graham 1904.
[a] Salter 1996.
[b] Pancake 1985.
[c] Sherman 2007.