Growing up in Pennsylvania there was certainly no shortage of historic Revolutionary War sites and old homes. Washington’s Crossing, Valley Forge, the Betsy Ross House, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, plus notable estates, to name a few. The area is rife with history. As a kid, my dad, history enthusiast extraordinaire, dragged my mom and me around to battlefields and other historic sites on a regular basis. I wasn’t always overly excited to visit these places at the time, but I have a great appreciation for historical sites today.
I never gave one thought to the role the Carolina’s played in the Revolution. Have you? Many people think of Philadelphia or Boston when they think of the American Revolution. It’s what we were taught in school. I was mildly surprised to find that the Carolinas played an integral role in the Revolution. Because of this, I feel like I need to give a little background here, so bear with me.
Shortly after the inception of the colony of Carolina the Lords Proprietors, who enticed potential colonists and indentured servants with promises of land, political representation, and religious freedom in a bid to attract more settlers, the colony became more unmanageable as the colonists realized these promises were empty.
As time went by the Lords Proprietors continued to catch flak from the local citizens, which grew more discontent as the years passed. Eventually the Carolinas were split into two in the early 1700’s. North Carolina established its own form of representative government and rapidly became discontent with taxation without representation. Sound familiar? Remind you of the Boston Tea Party perhaps? Hmmmm…. Eventually, these feisty locals caused the Lords Proprietors to hang up their hats and sell the land back to the crown.
The Halifax Resolves were issued by this locally controlled North Carolina government. These resolves pushed for separation from England, gave authority to its delegates to vote for independence, and paved the way for the United States Declaration of Independence a few months after.
Why does this matter? Because it eventually evolves into the role of the rural Carolinas in the American Revolution.
Mecklenburg County, NC, home of the city of Charlotte was a hot-bed of rebellious activity. This rebellious nature continued throughout the war. Whigs (those supporting the Revolution) and Tories (those that remained faithful to the King) sparred frequently. Keep in mind these locals may be neighbors, acquaintances, or friends. They were not uniformed men enlisted in the army.
Referred to as a Hornet’s Nest of Rebellion by General Cornwallis, North Carolina was instrumental in fighting the British in the Revolutionary War. During this period, the Mecklenburg County and Charlotte area was considered to be “back country” and was sparsely populated. Although the area was not very populated the people that lived in the area, mostly Scotch-Irish, were not keen on the British presence. Much like hornets defending their nest, they repeatedly stung the General’s troops with guerilla warfare tactics to remind them that they were not welcome. If you’ve seen the movie The Patriot you will have an idea of what I’m talking about. The movie is based in part on several historical figures and battles that occurred here in the South.
This takes me to Sanford, North Carolina. The Alston House, commonly referred to as the House in the Horseshoe, is located in the horseshoe of the Deep River. This Revolutionary homestead dates back to 1770. Owned by Phillip Alston, a Whig colonel, the house was the site of a skirmish on 29 July 1781.
Flash forward to 1 August 2015. I’m standing on the grounds of the House in the Horseshoe. The sun is blazing and the heat is unbearable. Soldiers in various garb were milling about the encampment. White canvas tents, peddlers selling their wares, women and barefoot children were seated in the shade of the tents. The heat was oppressive. Fortunately there was some relief in the shade.
Tourists gathered down the slope in front of the house waiting for the skirmish to begin. The announcer gave a warm welcome and began to narrate the scene. Colonel Alston and his men were encamped on his farmstead in the middle of the summer of 1781. The villain of this story was David Fanning, a colonel for the local Tory militia. A wily Tory fighter, Fanning fought the Whigs all over the south. Today his wrath was set upon the House in the Horseshoe. Tory militiamen squared off against the men holed up in Alston’s farmhouse. Shots volleyed back and forth and remain untouched in the wooden slats today. Inside the house Mrs. Alston, afraid for her children, tried to protect them from the skirmish by tucking them in the fireplace and blocking it with a table. The fighting continued until the Tories attempted to burn down the house with a burning hay wagon until a brave Mrs. Alston waived her white kerchief in surrender. Pleading for the lives of her young children, Mrs. Alston negotiated the terms of her husband’s surrender and ended the conflict that day.
Many of the re-enactors, of all ages young and old, remained in character and milled about the encampment. Some tended the fires, others engaged in conversation, a few tried to catch a few winks, but all were friendly and willing to talk about their craft or history. It was fascinating!
Just before leaving for the day (the midday heat was still intense and I was melting to death, how in the world did those women wear all those layers and not have heatstroke?!?) there was a cannon demonstration. I didn’t realize it took a team of 5 men to fire this heavy gun. It was hard to hear everything that was being said because I chose the spot on the side in an attempt to get a photo of the shot. While we were standing there watching the demonstration I was in awe at how precise this exercise was. The men were so methodical that it took what I thought was a rather long time to fire off a shot. But fire it they did, and with a resounding boom the cannonball shot out across the field (or at least we’re pretending it did).
There was a good crowd gathered at the Alston house on this day, which is a great thing! It is a wonderful farm and the house is quite a beautiful specimen of the time. There is also a museum display depicting the homestead and local history in a nearby building on-site. The re-enactment is a great weekend trip, especially if you have kids! It teaches them history and gets them away from their phones and video games. Located in Moore County, North Carolina, the Alston House is a well worth the drive.
House in the Horseshoe, 288 Alston House Rd., Sanford, N.C. 27330