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The Battle of ElizabethtownBack to Elizabethtown, NC History

The Battle of Elizabethtown August 29, 1781

In 1781, patriot forces in the Cape Fear area were in turmoil. The only regular military force for either side was Major James Craig's British garrison at Wilmington. Because of this, the only partisan force able to operate with a strong base of support were the Tories, colonists still loyal to King George and England. Unlike Cornwallis and other British generals, Major Craig knew perfectly well what value loyalist troops could have as guerrilla fighters. After Cornwallis marched north into Virginia, Craig set in motion a daring plan in which he utilized loyalist militia to wrest control of the colony form rebel forces. This move by the canny British commander resulted in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, with bloody atrocities committed by both sides in what was essentially a civil war. In Bladen County, Highland Scots and others loyal to the British made a concerted effort to turn the county in to a bastion of British strength, and all but destroyed the opposing rebel forces there. But the rebels were not out of the fight. Their determination to win their independence was much greater than anyone had suspected, and in the Battle of Elizabethtown, they won a victory that has for the most part escaped mention in histories of the coastal Carolinas. James Sprunt, in his Chronicles of the Cape Fear River: 1660 - 1916, published a letter written by A.A. Brown, Editor of the Wilmington Weekly Chronicle in 1844, that recounts the story of the battle:

"..The Battle of Elizabethtown deserves a place in history and ought to be recollected by every true-hearted North Carolinian with pride and pleasure. Here sixty men, driven from their homes, their estates ravaged and houses plundered, who had taken refuge with the Whigs (rebel forces) of Duplin, without funds and bare clothing, resolved to return, fight, conquer, or die. After collecting all the information they could, they embodied and selected Col. Thomas Brown in command. They marched fifty miles through almost a wilderness country before they reached the river, subsisting on jerked beef and a scanty supply of bread. The Tories had assembled, 300 or more, at Elizabethtown, and were commanded by Slingsby and Godden. The former was a talented man and well fitted to his station; the latter, bold, daring, and reckless, ready to risk everything to put down the Whigs. Every precautionary measure was adopted to prevent surprise and to render this the stronghold of Toryism. Nobody was suffered to remain on the east side of the river. Guards and sentries were regularly detached and posted. When this little band of Whig heroes after nightfall reached the river not a boat was to be found. But it must be crossed, and that speedily. Its depth was ascertained by some who were tall and expert swimmers. They, to a man, cried out, "It is fordable; we can, we will cross it" Not a murmur was heard, and without a moment's delay they all undressed, tied their clothing and ammunition on their heads (baggage they had none), each man, grasping the barrel of his gun, raised the bridge so as to keep the lock above water, descended the banks, and entered the river. The taller men found less difficulty; those of lower stature were scarcely able to keep their mouths and noses above water; but all safely reached the opposite shore, resumed their dresses, fixed their arms for action, made their way through the low ground then thickly settled with men, ascended the hills, which were high and precipitous, crossed King's Road leading through the town, and took position in its rear. Here they formed, and in about two hours after crossing a mile below, commenced a furious attack, driving in the Tory sentries and guards. They continued rapidly to advance, keeping up a brisk and well-directed fire, and were soon in the midst of the foe, mostly Highland Scotchmen, as brave, as high-minded as any of His Majesty's subjects. So sudden and violent an onset for the moment produced disorder; but they were rallied by their gallant leader and made for a while the most determined resistance. Slingsby fell mortally wounded and Godden was killed, with most of the officers of inferior grade. They retreated, some taking refuge in houses, the others, the larger portion, leaping pell-mell into a deep ravine, since called the Tory Hole. As the Tories had unlimited sway from the river to the Little Pee Dee, the Whigs recrossed, taking with them their wounded. Such was the general panic produced by this action the Tories became dispirited and never after were so troublesome. The Whigs returned to their homes in safety. In the death of Slingsby the Tories were deprived of an officer whose place it was difficult to fill; but few were equal to Godden in partisan warfare. This battle was mostly fought by river planters, men who had sacrificed much for their country.

According to Sprunt's book, the Battle of Elizabethtown took place on August 29, 1781. The effects of this battle were substantial. Slingsby held a great number of patriot prisoners at Elizabethtown, who regained their freedom after the battle. Perhaps more importantly, the guns, ammunition and provisions stockpiled by Slingsby's Tories became property of the rebels, materials desperately needed in the war effort at the time. After Elizabethtown, Tories were never again much problem in Bladen County.

From "The Coastal Chronicles", August 2000