Lindley’s Mill, North Carolina
13 September 1781
Before the war General John Butler had been the sheriff of Orange County and during the war he had led the North Carolina militia at the Battles of Stono Ferry, Camden and Guilford Courthouse. After Greene left the Carolinas Butler attempted to rid central Carolina of the Loyalist partisans.
When Fanning had raided Hillsborough General Butler was camped on the south bank of Haw River at Ramsey’s. Alexander Mebane had escaped through the Loyalists in the town and had spread the word throughout the countryside. Butler knew that Colonel Fanning would be heading for Wilmington with his prisoners, so he raced to Thomas Lindley’s Mill on Cane Creek. This was an obvious fording place in the area. Butler set up an ambush on the high ground near the ford that overlooked the route to the creek.
On September 13th Fanning’s Loyalists broke camp and headed towards their base at Cox’s Mill. They crossed Woody’s Ford on the Haw River without incident. Fanning was relieved because he knew that the fords along his route were obvious ambush positions.
At 9:30 Captain "Sober John" McLean told Fanning that Colonel McNeil had failed to put out any scouts in the front of the column. Fanning rode forward to find McNeil and discover why there was a lapse in security. He discovered McNeil at Stafford’s Branch on Cane Creek, and asked him why he had not placed any scouts out to the front. McNeil began to answer, but it was interrupted by gunfire at the ford.
The Loyalists had been totally unaware of the presence of their enemies at Cane Creek until a volley was fired into their ranks. Several Loyalists fell and the rest took shelter under the creek bank. Attempts were made to dislodge Butler’s men, but they were not successful. McNeil ordered his men to fall back beyond the range of the Patriot’s weapons.
Colonel Archibald McDugald was outraged by the order to retreat and questioned McNeil’s courage. McNeil changed his mind and led his men on a charge against Butler’s men on top of the hill. His decision made his premonition come true. McNeil was hit by eight musket balls and fell from his horse, which had also been hit five times. His men yelled out that their colonel was dead, but McDugald told them it was a lie. He knew that the death of their commander would break the Loyalists spirit. The Loyalists did an orderly retreat back up the road to where McNeil had wanted to go in the first place.
Fanning discovered that the ambush at Stafford’s Branch was only a diversion. General Butler was moving with the rest of his army upon the rear of Fanning’s column. The Loyalist’s prisoners jumped to their feet, expecting to be rescued, but "Sober John" McLean told them to sit down and be quiet or he would kill them all. McLean moved the prisoners into the Spring Friend’s Meeting House allowing some of the guards to go fight.
Fanning ordered all his men to fall back to the Meeting House, anticipating that Butler’s goal would be to liberate the prisoners. Colonel McDugald swore that if the Whigs did flank the church he would kill all the prisoners. Butler learned of McDugald’s threat and had his men return to their position on the hill beside Stafford Branch.
Fanning told McDugald to attack the position at Stafford Branch, while he moved across the creek to hit Butler’s men from the rear. Fanning circled behind Butler’s men and fought with them for four hours. Butler eventually gave the order to withdraw, leaving his dead and wounded.
Ignoring the order to withdraw, Colonel Robert Mebane rallied as many men as he could and conducted a delaying action so that Fanning’s men couldn’t pursue. When his men were running low on powder Mebane carried powder in his hat and distributed it to the men, telling them to take what they needed. When he wiped his face it became black as the powder.
Mebane’s force looked like it would be overwhelmed, but Fanning became wounded in the arm. The bullet broke the bone and severed an artery. Fanning was taken from his horse and his men hid him in the forest. Fanning’s command fell to Captain John Rains, but the loss of their colonel broke the spirit of the Loyalists. Both sides disengaged during the next lull in fire. The Patriots moved to Alamance Creek and the Loyalists continued onto Wilmington with their prisoners.
This violent struggle left over 200 men killed and wounded on the battlefield. One of the first people to reach the battlefield was Doctor John Pyle who had commanded the Tories in the Haw River massacre. Pyle selflessly ministered to Whigs and Tories alike. In doing so he received a pardon for his past "transgressions."
After the battle Colonel Archibald McDugald commanded the remnants of Fanning’s army. The army moved slowly since they now had wounded along with their prisoners. Many of the mounted militia was also without horses. McDugald decided not to go to Cox’s Mill, but instead travel through the Sandhills by way of McPhaul’s Mill. They stopped on the night of September 13th at Hickory Mountain in Chatham County.
Early on the 14th McDugald broke camp and continued his march. At the ford on Rocky River between twelve and twenty Whigs fired upon the large column. The Patriot militiamen were not much of a threat and were quickly chased away. At McPhaul’s Mill Colonel Duncan Ray and his Anson County Militia met McDugald. Ray’s men were not weary from the battle and the marching, so they took the prisoners off McDugald’s hands. Colonel McDugald and Captain Stephen Holloway of Fanning’s regiment accompanied them on their way to Wilmington.