American troops, commanded by Lt. Col. "Lighthorse Harry " Henry Lee, surprised a strong Tory force under the command of Col. John Pyle on the old Alamance Road.
Dr. John Pyle, Sr., a native of Chatham County, had previously fought against the colonial government in the War of the Regulation but did not serve at the Battle of Alamance. After the battle, however, Pyle responded to General Charles Cornwallis' call for Loyalists in the Revolution, and he served in the militia against the American Patriots as a colonel. After being captured, Dr. Pyle took an oath of loyalty to the Provincial Congress. However, with General Cornwallis' army encamped at nearby Hillsborough, Dr. Pyle gathered between 300 and 400 troops and sent a request to Cornwallis for an escort. Cornwallis sent Banastre Tarleton with his cavalry and a small band of infantry to escort these men.
At the same time, Lieutenant Colonel Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee—father of Robert E. Lee—and Brigadier General Andrew Pickens were in the area with orders to harass the enemy. They had sent out scouts to locate Pyle's army. Upon learning of their location, they made plans to rendezvous with those forces with the objective of attacking Tarleton's dragoons and infantry, which would deal a major blow to Cornwallis.
At noon on February 24, Lee and Pickens captured 2 British staff officers and learned through interrogation that Tarleton was only a few miles ahead. In the waning hours of the day, Lee's Legion, who wore short green jackets and plumed helmets, encountered 2 of Pyle's men, who mistook them for Tarleton's dragoons who wore similar uniforms. Lee used this confusion to his advantage and learned that Pyle's army was located nearby. Lee's troops trotted into the camp in full salute. Lee exchanged customary civilities with Colonel Pyle and began shaking his hand when the sounds of battle commenced.
Gen. Charles Cornwallis, the British commander, marched into the village of Hillsboro in early February, and learned that the American army which he had pursued northward from South Carolina had retreated across the Dan River into Virginia. Grateful for a few days' rest, the British set up camp in the Orange County seat.
On February 18, Cornwallis ordered Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to take a troop of men west of Haw River to seek recruits for the army. "Before the arrival of Cornwallis at Hillsborough., says Rankin, “Col. David Fanning...published an advertisement offering an inducement to all those rallying to the British cause," with a generous offer of bounty money. This and Cornwallis’ call for volunteers brought out 400 loyalists to join Col. John Pyle, a local loyalist, near the Haw River. On the 24th, Pickens was joined by 100 N.C. militia under Col. William Moore. It was from Moore that he and Lee had learned of Pyle’s gathering.
Across the Dan, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene learned of Tarleton's mission, and at once ordered two of his men, Lee and Brig. Gen. Andrew Pickens, to stop the British force. The Americans crossed the Dan that same night and pushed on through straggly forest and over unploughed meadows toward the Haw River, where they hoped to cut off Tarleton's advance. Early next morning they arrived at the Salisbury Road, eight miles west of Hillsboro. Tarleton, they learned, had already passed this spot, and so the Americans turned westward to follow him.
Lee had marched for a short distance when he met two young farmers on horseback. Cornwallis had dispatched reinforcements that morning to Tarleton, and these youths were scouts who had been set ahead of the reinforcements to locate Tarleton's camp. The scouts immeditely mistook Lee's men for Tarleton's troop, since both Americans and Loyalists dressed in civilian clothes. Lee realized the advantage of this mistake. He thanked the scouts and told them to rejoin the reinforcements with "Colonel Tarleton's compliments," and to request that the British troops move off the road to let Tarleton's cavalry pass through.
As soon as the scouts had departed, Lee divided his men into several troops, placing one under the command of a Capt. ?? Eggleston and another under Capt. Joseph Graham, and he himself took command of the third. Eggleston's troops circled through the woods, and Graham's men followed a short distance behind those under Lee and Pickens.
Lee came in sight of the British a short time later. They had drawn up along the right side of the road in review formation, sitting stiffly in their saddles with their rifles or muskets slung over their shoulders, and their eyes straight ahead. At the far end of the line sat Pyle, their commander, unaware that the advancing troops were not Tarleton's men.
Riding slowly past the Tories, his own troops close behind him, Lee nodded approvingly and smiled at his enemies. He reined his horse up in front of Pyle and returned the latter's salute. Pyle stretched out his hand in welcome. Some of the British at the far end of the formation now spotted Eggleston's men in the woods behind them. Without command they began to fire. Lee instantly dropped Pyle's hand and drew his own sword. Eggleston swooped out of the woods with his men who began a hand-to-hand battle with the Tories, slashing at them with their swords and firing their muskets. "Stop! Stop!" screamed Pyle, "You are killing your own men!"
His cry ended abruptly as an American sword knocked him from his horse. The dying Loyalists were still ignorant of what was happening. As each Patriot wheeled his horse to face a new opponent, he called out, "Whose man are you?" "The King's! The King's!" screamed the British, and the Patriot sword cut them down.
Finally, the confusion and panic subsided. A ghastly scene surrounded the Patriots. Lee had intended to surround Pyle's men and force them to surrender, but the British themselves had begun the battle.
As soon as he could reassemble his troops, Lee sent for one of the Tory prisoners for questioning. A middle-aged man was brought forward, bleeding profusely from a head wound. He stared at Lee, still believing him to be Tarleton. "God bless your soul!" he exclaimed, "Mr. Tarleton, you've just killed as good a parcel of subjects as His Majesty ever had!" The mistake angered Lee, "You damned rascal!" he shouted. "We are Americans, not British. I am Lee of the American Legion!"
Meanwhile, several of the wounded Britishers had reached the O'Neal Plantation, some two miles away, where Tarleton was camped. Without reinforcements Tarleton realized that he had no chance against the Patriots, and so he ordered camp broken at once and fled toward Hillsboro again. The Patriots arrived the next morning to find his camp deserted.
On February 26, Cornwallis marched westward toward Haw River. He planned to gather volunteers in the Loyalists settlements and then attack the Patriot Army which was encamped at Guilford Court House.
On March 15, the British reached Guilford and the battle commenced shortly after noon. Although Greene's men outnumbered those of Cornwallis, Greene was forced to retreat to a better position, and the victory was won by the British. Cornwallis did not pursue Greene but decided instead to return to Hillsboro.
The loyalists lost 90 killed, while the rest were dispersed. Lee lost but a horse. Later in the day Pickens was joined by 300 mounted Virginia riflemen under Col. William Preston, bringing Pickens’ force, not counting Lee, to probably 800 to 900, many of the North Carolina militia having left him by this time. Preston’s men ended up doing such hard duty for the next 12 to 14 days that they afterward refused to continue with the army and demanded to return home. On the 26th, Pickens, at “Camp Rippey’s,” wrote to Greene: " We were joined by Colonel Preston about three hours previous to our march yesterday, with about three hundred. Major's [Joseph] Winston and [John] Armstrong have about one hundred each. Colonel [William] Moore from Caswell joined me on Saturday with one hundred more. I have ordered Colonel Preston and Colonel Paisly [John Peasly] of Guildford, who came with a few Men, on the south side of the river after another body of Tories, said to be forming themselves in Randolph. This affair [Pyle's defeat] however, has been of infinite Service. It has knocked up Toryism altogether in this part."
Lee's and Pickens' ultimate goal of encountering Tarleton was foiled when Tarleton received orders on the night of February 24 ordering him to return to rejoin the main army. Though pursued, he eventually got too close to the main British army for Pickens and Lee to attack safely.
The British were quick to denounce the massacre. Cornwallis, in a letter to Lord George Germain, reported that most of Pyle's force were "inhumanly butchered, when begging for quarters, without making the least resistance."
The battle occurred a few weeks before the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and was a contributing factor in weakening British troop numbers and morale as that battle approached.
As late as 1850, local residents could point out the location of the battle and of the mass graves of those killed during the skirmish; at least one alleged known mass grave has been recently relocated. The site is marked with periwinkle and cedar trees and at one time had a stone marker (placed in 1880), which has since been removed from the site; the marker's current location is unknown.
Tarleton: “Tarleton was told by the prisoners, that a continental force was expected in the neighbourhood, which intelligence induced him to send to the Pyles to join him without delay. In the course of the day particular and authentic information was obtained of Colonel Lee's cavalry having passed Haw river to meet a corps of mountaineers under Colonel Preston, for the purpose of intimidating or dispersing the King's friends. This report made Tarleton repeat his order to the Pyles for an instant junction of the numbers already assembled, that he might proceed against either Lee or Preston before they united. Spies were sent to gain intelligence of both, and some satisfactory accounts had arrived, when several wounded loyalists entered the British camp, and complained to Tarleton of the cruelty of his dragoons. Though the accusation was erroneous, their sufferings were evident, and the cause from whence they proceeded was soon afterwards discovered. Colonel Pyle, and two hundred of his followers, being all equally ignorant of the customs of war, had not complied with the orders they received, and though forewarned of their danger, thought fit to pay visits to their kindred and acquaintance before they repaired to the British camp: Inspired by whiskey and the novelty of their situation, they unfortunately prolonged their excursions, till, meeting a detachment of dragoons, whom they supposed to be British, they received a fierce and unexpected attack, in answer to their amicable salutation of "God save the King," and many of them experienced inhuman barbarity; when discovering their mistake, they supplicated for mercy. Patroles were sent out to learn the course the American dragoons had taken after this event, and assistance was dispatched to the wounded loyalists. After dark information was procured of the distance and position of the mountaineers; and when the British troops were under arms at midnight, to proceed towards their encampment, an express arrived from Earl Cornwallis with an order for Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton's return to Hillsborough."
Joseph Graham: “Lee states (page 311) that Pyle’s men, on seeing the militia in the rear of his cavalry, recognized and fired on them. The true statement is this: Major [Joseph] Dickson of Lincoln [County, N.C.], who then commanded the column on our right (when the disposition for attack had been made at the last farm), had been thrown out of his proper order of march by the fences and a branch, and when Pyle’s men were first seen by the militia, they were thought to be the party under Dickson, which they supposed had come round the plantation and gotten in the road before them, Captain [Joseph] Graham discovered the mistake; for he saw that these men had on cleaner clothes than Dickson’s party, and that each man had a strip of red cloth on his hat. Graham, riding alongside of Captain [Joseph] Eggleston, who commanded the rear of Lee’s horse, remarked to him, ‘That is a company of Tories; what is the reason they have their arms?’
Captain Eggleston, addressing a good looking man at the end of the line, supposed to be an officer, inquired, ‘To whom do you belong?’ The man promptly answered, ‘A friend of his Majesty.’ Thereupon Captain Eggleston struck him over the head. The militia, looking on, and waiting for orders, on this example being set, rushed on the Tories like lightening and cut away. The noise in the rear attracted the notice of Lee’s men, and they turned their horses short to the right about, and in less than a minute the attack was made along the whole line.
The same page stated that ninety loyalists were killed. The next day our militia counted ninety-three dead, and there was an appearance of many more having been carried off by their friends. There were certainly many more wounded. When Lee and Pickens retired, it appeared as though three hundred might be lying dead. Many, perhaps were only wounded, and lay quiet for security.
At the time the action commenced, Lee’s dragoons, in the open order of march, extended about the same distance of Pyle’s men, who were in close order, and on horse back. Most of them having come from home on that day, were clean like men who now turn out for review. Lee’s movement was as if he were going to pass them, five or six steps on the left of their line. When the alarm was given in the rear, as quickly as his men could turn their horses, they were engaged; and as the Tories were over two to one of our actual cavalry, by pressing forward they went through their line, leaving a number behind them. The continual cry by the Tories was, ‘You are killing your own men.’ ‘I am a friend to his Majesty.’ ‘Hurrah for King George.’….”
Graham in addition makes the remark (found in the Archibald Murphey Papers): “ Colonel Lee being in front, and at the other end of the line, say forty poles, from where the attack commenced, might have believed the Tories first attacked us. If, however, he had enquired of Capt. Eggleston, he [Eggleston] could have informed him otherwise.