Pyle's Defeat

The Battle of Fort Moultrie by John Blake White, 1826

Pyle’s defeat epitomizes the brutal nature of the American Revolution in the southern backcountry. Here, the Revolution most resembled a civil war. Local Patriot and Loyalist militias clashed in a series of struggles that ultimately culminated in British defeat and General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in 1781.

Pyle’s defeat, or “massacre” as it is sometimes known, followed a turning point in the British southern campaign. Expecting an enthusiastic outpouring of Loyalist support, the British southern forces under Charles Cornwallis penetrated deep into the Carolina backcountry after victories at Savannah, Charleston, and Camden. The tide began to turn against the British after resounding American victories at the Battle of King’s Mountain and the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781.

Following Cowpens, Cornwallis decided to march his men north toward Virginia in an effort to cut off the rebellion at the source. The newly commissioned commander of Continental forces in the South, Nathanael Greene, pursued Cornwallis in a race to the Dan River in February. Greene tasked General Andrew Pickens with tailing Cornwallis’s troops, harassing his men and disrupting their supply line. Greene successfully reached the Dan River in advance of Cornwallis and sent another officer, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, into North Carolina to meet up with Pickens. Together, the two commanders were to prevent Tory reinforcements and recruitment.

While on their mission, Pickens and Lee received reports that a British force under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton had been spotted moving toward the Haw River. Tarleton had orders to gather and escort Loyalist recruits to the main army. While attempting to thwart Tarleton, Pickens and Lee came across a force of around 400 Loyalists on February 25. Lee’s legion wore green jackets similar to those worn by Tarleton’s dragoons, and he used this to his advantage. Lee decided to lead his men alongside the Tory ranks pretending to be Tarleton. Once Lee reached the leader of the force, John Pyle, a fight broke out for reasons that remain unclear, most likely a Loyalist discovered the ruse. The Patriots overtook the Loyalists with bayonet and musket fire at point-blank range, killing close to 100 men, wounding and dispersing the rest.

Lee’s victory was a rather contentious one. He maintained that he had no intention of ruthlessly attacking Pyle’s force; rather, he hoped to surround them and force their surrender. Pickens and Lee both claimed to have tried desperately to restrain their men from causing more bloodshed. Some Patriots understood Pyle’s defeat as revenge for Tarleton’s failure to accept the surrender of Americans at the Battle of Waxhaws. The British, however, viewed Pyle’s defeat as nothing less than a massacre, as exemplified in Cornwallis’s insistence that Pyle’s force was “inhumanly butchered, when begging for quarters, without making the least resistance.”

Regardless, Pyle’s defeat contributed significantly to the gathering momentum of the Patriot forces in the South., while Loyalist numbers and morale suffered a severe blow. At the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March, American forces severely crippled the Royal forces by inflicting heavy losses on the British. Over the next several months, Patriot forces in the South held off the British and helped to ensure a British surrender in October.