|Pyle’s Massacre (Battle of Haw River)
|Almance County, North Carolina
Pyle’s Massacre, also known as Pyle’s Hacking Match or the Battle of Haw River, was fought during the American Revolutionary War in Orange County, North Carolina (present-day Alamance County, North Carolina), on February 24, 1781, between Patriot and Loyalist North Carolina militia troops. Patriot militia leader Colonel Henry Lee deceived Loyalist militia under Dr. John Pyle into thinking he was British commander Banastre Tarleton sent to meet them. Lee’s men then opened fire, surprising and scattering Pyle’s force.
British General the Earl Cornwallis had been unable to crush Nathanael Greene’s army, but had managed to drive Greene across the Dan River and out of North Carolina. Cornwallis established a headquarters at Hillsborough, North Carolina on February 21 to rally Loyalists to his side.
Dr. John Pyle (1723-1804) had moved to North Carolina from Chatham County in 1767. Noted for his loyalty to the King, he had assisted the Governor in the War of the Regulation, though he was not at the Battle of Alamance. When Cornwallis appealed for Loyalist volunteers, Pyle gathered between 300 and 400 men. He requested Cornwallis provide his men with an escort, and Banastre Tarleton with his cavalry and a small force of infantry, a total of about 450 men, marched to lead Pyle to safety.
General Greene spent several days in Virginia, where he was able to resupply and gain reinforcements for his army. On February 17 he detached Colonel Henry Lee with his cavalry, and Colonel Andrew Pickens with Maryland infantry and South Carolina militia, to recross the Dan and monitor British activity. This force crossed the Dan on February 18 and set up a hidden camp along the road between Hillsborough and Haw River crossing points. From there Lee sent scouts to watch for British movements.
Word came the next morning that Tarleton was moving toward the Haw with an estimated 400 men. Lee and Pickens followed behind Tarleton, whom they learned had camped near the Haw. A planned attack was called off when scouts reported that Tarleton had again moved, after the militia companies he was expecting to meet did not show up. Pyle’s force had delayed its movement (in violation of orders) to visit with family and friends before setting off.
At noon on February 24, Lee and Pickens captured 2 British staff officers and learned through interrogation that Tarleton was only a few miles ahead. In the waning hours of the day, Lee’s Legion, who wore short green jackets and plumed helmets, encountered 2 of Pyle’s men, who mistook them for Tarleton’s dragoons, who wore similar uniforms. Lee used this to his advantage and learned that Pyle’s troops were nearby. Lee instructed Pickens’ riflemen to flank Pyle’s position, and then trotted into the camp in full salute. Lee exchanged customary civilities with Colonel Pyle and began shaking his hand when the sounds of battle commenced.
The most commonly accepted account of the battle, pieced together from reports from Lee and Captain Joseph Graham, indicates that Lee’s deception was purely chance, and that he had originally intended to avoid the Loyalists, intending instead to encounter Tarleton’s Dragoons, the more important objective. The sounds of battle apparently commenced when the militia at the rear of Lee’s Legion, recognizing the strips of red cloth on the hats of Pyle’s men as the badge of Loyalists, alerted Captain Eggleston, who was new to the South and was not familiar with local Whig and Tory badges. When he asked one of the Loyalists which side he was on, the man replied “King George”, and Eggleston responded by striking him on the head with his sabre. Seeing this, Pickens’ riflemen joined in the attack. The cavalry line turned and also attacked the Loyalists. Pyle’s men broke and ran, but many were either killed or wounded in the early exchanges. Many Loyalists, believing the attack to be a mistake, continued insisting they were on King George’s side, to no avail. After 10 minutes, the remaining Loyalists had fled, and 93 Loyalists were known to be dead, certainly more were wounded and others were seen being carried off by friends. According to local legend, John Pyle was badly wounded in the battle and crawled into a nearby pond where he concealed himself until he could be rescued. After recovering from his wounds, he surrendered to the local militia. Later they were pardoned because of Dr. Pyle’s care for wounded patriots.
Pickens and Lee never caught up with Tarleton, since Cornwallis ordered him to rejoin the main army on the night of February 24. Though pursued, Tarleton eventually got too close to the main British army for Pickens and Lee to attack safely.
There were reports of atrocities committed by Catawba Indians in a late-arriving company, with claims that men were butchered after asking for quarter. The British were quick to denounce the incident as a massacre. Cornwallis, in a letter to Lord George Germain, reported that most of Pyle’s force were “inhumanly butchered, when begging for quarters, without making the least resistance.” Lee later noted that if he had wanted a massacre he would have chased down the remnants of Pyle’s company. Rather, Lt. Col. Lee allowed those who wished to run away do so in the successful strategy of putting off the fantasy tales of the British Army of their superior Calvalry, etc., and help put an end to recruiting efforts by the Loyalists in N. Carolina for the British, as described by Lee in his memoir, “Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States” and in 1969 republished by Arno Press, Inc., New York as “The American Revolution In The South.” Ch 27. Obviously, Col. Lee had no control over the late arriving British troops slaughtered by the Cataba Indians in a separate incident. Tarleton and his commander Cornwallis likely took every opportunity to slander the Americans as butchers, as Tarleton has (a mostly undeserved) reputation himself of being a butcher.
The battle occurred a few weeks before the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and was a contributing factor in weakening British troop numbers and morale.
As late as the 1850s, local residents could point out the location of the battle and the mass graves of those killed during the skirmish; at least one known mass grave has been recently relocated. The site is marked with periwinkle and cedar trees and at one time had a stone marker (placed in 1880), which has since been removed from the site; the marker’s current location is unknown.