The British Fill a Lane with Feathers
Tour: Race to the Dan
At the intersection of Mecklenburg Highway and Langtree Road, turn into Hobbs Lane (across from Langtree). Turn right into the utility pullout and continue until you face the intersection at the coordinates.
If you walk the ground near the tavern site—across the highway by the state historical marker—be aware that the land on the far side of the railroad tracks (including Mimi Lane) is private property.
After pushing across the Catawba River at the Battle of Cowan’s Ford, Cornwallis has sent his cavalry under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton ahead to capture Patriot militiamen (part-time soldiers) fleeing toward Salisbury. They burn Patriot (“Whig”) homes along the way, destroy civilian wagons, and kill any militia they find.
The militia had been ordered to gather at Torrence’s Tavern, where a road from Cowan’s and Beattie’s fords intersects the Charlotte-Salisbury Road. This will give them safety in numbers as they continue north. Many Whig refugees fleeing the advance of the British learn this, and also stop at the tavern.
Thursday, February 1, 1781.
Imagine the Scene
You are in a scene of confusion under a heavy, cold rain, at around 2 p.m. The tavern is somewhere near and behind the state historical marker across the highway, at the time a dirt wagon road. It is run by Mrs. Torrence (first name unknown), her husband having been killed in the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill. Militia, civilians, and their wagons, horses, or hand-carried goods surround you and the tavern. They pack a narrow lane where Langtree Road is today, coming from the fords, and the wider road in front of you, the main route between Charlotte and Salisbury. Many of the hundreds of militia, dressed in everyday clothes like the refugees, have partaken of the tavern’s goods and are drunk. Apparently the tavern ran out of mugs, because some are carrying rum and whiskey in pails.
The approach of the British army has panicked civilians. One eyewitness said refugees who did not have groups to travel with “lay out in the woods; every article of furniture, clothing, or provisions that was worth anything, was hid out; some in hollow trees, and… (any item) that would stand it, was buried in the ground. A horse, that was worth anything, was not to be seen, unless tied in some thicket, or perhaps, on some high open hill.” Women did not wear their “decent apparel.”
Look up Langtree Road.
From the west come cries of terror: “Tarleton is coming!” Militiamen push down the lane among terrified refugees. A rail fence stretches north (to your right) from the lane somewhere behind the tavern. Capt. Salathiel Martin of the Surry County Militia rides forward with a few men and orders nearby soldiers to form a line behind the fence. Some do, but most keep running toward and up the wagon road.
You see Tarleton’s 200 green-coated cavalry “dragoons” charging down the lane—at least, as best they can given the traffic jam. In addition to surprise, Tarleton knows he has the advantage of swords: Under a steady rain, the gunpowder of the militia may be wet and unreliable. Tarleton spurs his men forward by crying, “Remember the Cowpens,” a reference to the bad defeat his British Legion suffered at that battle in South Carolina, which triggered the Race.
Martin’s horse is shot dead, and they fall together. Some number of the militia are on horseback and fire an effective volley, dropping some of the dragoons, before wheeling north into the woods behind the tavern. Within seconds the British are upon Martin, and he is taken prisoner, but he escaped a couple days later.
It’s unclear how much longer the skirmish lasted. In his report Tarleton, known to exaggerate his deeds, claimed his forces broke through a strong militia line. Some sources and the casualty counts below suggest there was indeed a more protracted fight.
When the last of the militia break north, the British spread out, slashing at the wagons with their swords as refugees scream and cry. Among the victims are numerous beds; feathers from the mattresses fly and eventually coat the lane. Then the horsemen camp here for the night.
The next day the main army arrives, and Cornwallis orders the tavern burned to the ground. The army camps here overnight and renews the chase at 5:30 the next morning up the route of today’s highway, veering west to try to catch the Continentals. It receives no more militia resistance between here and the Yadkin River north of Salisbury.
Torrence’s Tavern: All locations are approximate. 1) Patriot militia and refugees mill about the tavern (light blue oval). 2) British cavalry appears on lane. 3) Militia form a line behind fence. 4) British charge and break through (length of fight is unclear). 5) Militia and some refugees flee north as cavalry attacks others.
- British: 7 killed, unknown wounded.
- Patriot Militia: 10 killed, unknown wounded, one captured.
Ironically, if Tarleton had not stopped to attack the refugee wagons, he probably would have captured the Continental Army commander. Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene was as few as four miles up the road, riding completely alone. Instead he escapes to Salisbury.
Babits, Lawrence, and Joshua Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009)
- Barefoot, Daniel, Touring North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Sites (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1998)
- Greene, George Washington, The Life of Nathanael Greene: Major-General in the Army of the Revolution (G. P. Putnam and Son, 1871), Google-Books-ID: lHRKAAAAYAAJ
- Lewis, J.D., ‘Tarrant’s Tavern’, The American Revolution in North Carolina, 2012 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_tarrants_tavern.html> [accessed 20 January 2020]
- Lynch, Wayne, ‘Tarleton and the British Legion at Tarrant’s Tavern’, Journal of the American Revolution, 2013 <https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/04/tarleton-and-the-british-legion-at-tarrants-tavern/> [accessed 20 January 2020]
- ‘Marker: M-5’, North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=M-5> [accessed 20 January 2020]
- O’Kelley, Patrick, Nothing but Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, Volume Three, 1781 (Booklocker.com, Inc., 2005).
- Reese, Joel, ‘Has History Been Wrong? Library Program Questions American Revolution Battles in County’, Statesville Record & Landmark, 2019 <https://www.statesville.com/news/local/has-history-been-wrong-library-program-questions-american-revolution-battles/article_e2aad379-43cb-50fc-90cd-b6079309e136.html> [accessed 20 January 2020]
- Rumple, Jethro, A History of Rowan County, North Carolina (Salisbury, N.C. : Republished by the Elizabeth Maxwell Steele Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1916) <http://archive.org/details/historyofrowanco00rump> [accessed 5 February 2020]