Hillsborough, North Carolina
12 September 1781
In June Thomas Burke had been elected governor of North Carolina. He wanted to eliminate the Loyalist’s stronghold in between the Pee Dee and Cape Fear Rivers and had General John Butler raise a large army to undertake this mission.
Militiamen from Caswell, Randolph, Chatham, Wake and Orange Counties gathered at Ramsey’s Mills in the forks of the Deep and Haw Rivers to strike at the Loyalists. Burke did not think there was any danger of his capture and he left the safety of the town of Halifax.
He traveled to Hillsborough to direct the upcoming campaign, bringing his wife with him. He arrived on September 9th. Colonel David Fanning knew of the governor coming to Hillsborough before he arrived.
After the Battle of Little Raft Swamp volunteers had poured into Fanning’s camp. He now had the largest force of his career, 950 men. Unfortunately only 435 were equipped and armed. Fanning proposed a plan to Major Craig which would capture Governor Burke. Craig knew that this would be a major coup and approved the plan.
On September 9th Fanning was joined at Cox’s Mill by Colonel Hector McNeil and seventy men, and Colonel Archibald McDugald with 200 Highlanders from Cumberland County. Fanning had not worked with McDugald before, but knew of him from Hamilton’s Royal North Carolina Regiment.
On September 11th Fanning’s army of over 600 Loyalists marched towards Hillsborough to capture the governor. Fanning knew that General Butler was at Ramsey’s Mill, but he left the column and rode to a friend’s house on the way to make sure Butler’s army was still there. The Whigs were still to the southeast, but Fanning learned that a small force of twenty-five men was camped at New Hope River, between Fanning’s and Butler’s army.
When Fanning returned to his army he discovered that McNeil and McDugald had thought Butler’s army was the target of their attack, and had moved the Loyalists onto the road leading to the forks of the Deep and Haw Rivers. Fanning stopped the column and told the other commanders what the objective was. To silence the small force of Whigs located at New Hope River he sent Captain Richard Edwards and thirty men.
After having marched all day and night Fanning and his men arrived at Hillsborough in the early morning fog. He divided his army into three divisions and surrounded the town.
At 7:00 a.m. the Loyalists attacked. The surprise was so complete that a small force of Continentals in town didn’t have time to react. The only real resistance was some snipers who fired some shots out of the windows of houses. These men were quickly silenced.
Fanning pushed rushed to the governor’s house only to find that the Burke and his men were willing to fight to the death. Fanning rode up to the house and convinced Burke and his men that if they surrendered their lives would be spared. Burke knew of the attack at the House in the Horseshoe and knew that Fanning had kept his word there. The governor accepted the terms and handed over his sword.
Several Whigs in town tried to escape during the raid. Fanning saw one officer wearing a military helmet running to get away. He rode up to the officer and broke his sword on the metal in the officer’s hat. The officer was Colonel Archibald Lytle of the Continental army, who had taken parole at Charlestown.
Jacob Rich was a militiaman who was camped a mile from town with his company. In his pension he wrote "We marched hastily to the relief of the place and then became engaged with the enemy who had a superior force. Our Company was all killed or taken prisoners except five. I was wounded in the hip, having received two balls in the right hip, which greatly disabled me since, and from which I constantly ever since, and form which I constantly suffer pains, and also a severe wound in the right shoulder in the same action. I fortunately was able to get to my horse and was aided in making my escape by my friend and brother soldier Joseph M. Adams."
The final resistance in town was the group of North Carolina Continentals that had barricaded themselves inside the town’s church. They gave up after little resistance. Most of the men were new recruits headed for Greene’s army in South Carolina.
By 9:00 a.m. the Loyalists had captured the town, the governor, the city council, a number of Continental officers and seventy-one Continental soldiers. The town jail was broken open and thirty Loyalist prisoners who were to be hanged that day were released. Fanning’s men also took two swivel guns from the jail.
The Loyalists should have left at that point, but discipline broke down and a number of homes were plundered. Some of the Loyalists had found a supply of liquor and proceeded to get drunk. One of the few who did not drink was Captain John McLean and he was placed in charge of the prisoners. From that day he was known as "Sober John" McLean. Finally around two o’clock Fanning left with his prisoners and marched back towards Cox’s Mill.
Some of the Loyalists were so drunk that they could not keep up. They became prisoners themselves before the end of the day. Fanning halted his force eighteen miles away near Mitchell Mountain, and stopped for the night.
That night Colonel McNeil had a dream that he took to be a premonition of his own death. McNeil told some other officers, including McDugald, about the dream. They attempted to cheer him up, but the next morning McNeil wore a hunting shirt instead of his red regimental coat just in case.
The Loyalist partisans had marched forty miles in 48 hours and conducted Colonel Fanning’s most daring raid of the war. The mission was called "the most brilliant exploit of any group of Loyalists in any state throughout the Revolution."