A Party No One Showed Up To: Cornwallis' Loyalist Recruitment at Hillsborough

As part four in our series on the Brigade of Guards' 1781 "Road to Yorktown", this article continues the narrative of their Spring 1781 North Carolina campaign with the Guards' actions immediately following their loss in the "Race to the Dan". As in previous entries, it is adapted heavily from research by Linnea M. Bass and William M. Burke available on the 4th Company's website as well as the excellent book Long Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse by Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard.

Having narrowly missed several opportunities to catch and potentially destroy Nathaniel Greene's rearguard before their crossing of the Dan River on February 14, 1783, Lord Cornwallis retired his army to Hillsborough, North Carolina for much needed provisioning.

The town of Hillsborough, North Carolina as it appeared in 1768.

British forces arrived in town on February 20, and shortly thereafter Cornwallis issued a proclamation for loyal subjects to take up arms for the Crown, stating that:
Whereas it has pleased the Divine Providence to prosper the Operations of His Majesty's Arms, in driving the Rebel Army out of this Province, and Whereas it is His Majestys most gracious Wish, to rescue His faithfull & loyal Subjects from the cruel Tyranny under which they have groaned for several Years. I have thought proper to issue this Proclamation to invite all such loyal & faithfull Subjects to repair without loss of time with their Arms & ten days Provisions to the Royal [illegible] now erected at Hillsborough, where they will meet with the most friendly reception, and I do hereby assure them that i am ready to concur with them in effectual Measures for suppressing the Remains of Rebellion in this Province & for the reestablishment of good Order & constitutional Government...
The actual Royal Standard was raised by Lieutenant John Mcleod, the Commanding Officer of the Royal Artillery with Cornwallis. The flank companies of the Brigade of Guards (the grenadiers and light infantry, with the 4th Company having been re-organized as the latter by this period in the war) cleaned up and served as the honor guard.

Note: Cornwallis' handwritten proclamation is dated February 20, 1781, although research by Linnea Bass and William Burke dates the actual raising of the royal standard to February 22, 1781.

Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, 2nd Earl Cornwallis as painted in 1783 by Thomas Gainsborough. Copyright The National Portrait Gallery, London.

This proclamation was directly in line with a major raison d'etre for the Southern Campaign - namely, the assumption by British leadership that the recruitment of a assumed-to-be large Loyalist population in the South was key to breaking the war's stalemate. Now, of course, the problem that is so obvious to us all with the benefit of hindsight is that few loyalists turned out in support.

Brigadier General Charles O'Hara, the commanding officer of the Brigade of Guards during the Southern Campaign, offered perhaps the most unintentionally comedic narrative of the event when he wrote to the Duke of Grafton that:
Lord Cornwallis with the usual formalitie, erected the Kings Standard at Hillborough, and invited all. His Majesty's loving Subjects, to take up Arms and join his Forces, in defence of their Civil Libertys, the reestablishing Peace and good order, upon Constitutional principles and for many other good purposes that I have forgot: The novelty of a Camp in the back Woods of America, more than any other cause, brought several People to stare at us, their curiosity once satisfied, they returned to their Homes.
O'Hara goes one to offer a dejected summary of the British efforts to rouse Loyalist sympathies throughout the entire length of the Southern Campaign to that date:
 I am certain that in our March of near a Thousand Miles, almost in as many directions, thro' every part of North Carolina, tho every means possible was taken to persuade our Friends as they are called, and indeed as they call themselves, to join us, we never had with us at any one time One Hundred Men in Arms, without the experiment had been made, it would have been impossible to conceive, that Government could in so important a matter, have been so grosely deceived. Total infatuation - when will Government see these People thro' the proper medium? I am persuaded never.
Indeed, it is not hard to sympathize with O'Hara's frustration, for we know now that the scale of enthusiastic southern Loyalist support that the Crown was looking for simply was not there. It may have been previously, but Tory raiding in 1780 was largely responsible for provoking an equal or greater Whig response as the region took on more and more of a bitter civil war character. (Babits and Howard, p. 10).

And by Winter 1781, Cornwallis' regular forces simply did not have the numbers to protect Loyalist population from reprisals by vengeful Whigs or to offer much-needed military support to Loyalist militia units. The latter is specifically cited as a requirement in several instructional letters regarding the recruitment of Tory units, where they are urged to be secretive until they could join up with the Royal Army. (Babits and Howard, pp. 4-5) To that end, "Pyle's Massacre" (or the Battle of Haw River) on February 25 is frequently cited as the final "nail in the coffin" for a large-scale Tory recruitment effort; there, a Loyalist militia unit mistook "Light Horse Harry" Lee's Legion's green uniforms for Banastre Tarleton's friendly British Legion, and were promptly surprised and routed with nearly 100% casualties.

In the end, Cornwallis and his army left Hillsborough that same day with few, if any, additional Loyalists in tow. They had, according to Babits and Howard, "consumed all Hillsborough could produce" and were in need of further provisions.

But most importantly, and if it were possible to have a worse omen than the poor Loyalist turnout to the Royal Standard, the British had run desperately out of alcohol...to the extent that Cornwallis became concerned on February 22 of "every day reports of Soldiers being taken by the Enemy, in consequence of their straggling out of camp in search of whiskey". (Babits and Howard, p. 42)

Dark times for the British Army in North Carolina, indeed....


Babits, Lawrence Edward and Joshua B. Howard (2009), Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press)

Rogers, George C., Jr. and Charles O'Hara (1964), "Letters of Charles O'Hara to the Duke of Grafton", The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 65, No. 3, pp. 158-180