Orange County, North Carolina historic information cache - Cornwallis and the British Army in Hillsborough, February 1781
Cornwallis and the British Army in Hillsborough, February 1781
Charles Earl Cornwallis, painting by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783
Charles Earl Cornwallis, painting by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783
British General Charles Earl Cornwallis and his approximately 1,900-man British army occupied Hillsborough beginning February 19, 1781, after pursuing General Nathanael Greene into Virginia, and prior to the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (and after securing the nearby mill west of Hillsborough at Hartford/a.k.a. Hart's Mill, where Cornwallis temporarily occupied the mill owner/manager John Fraser's house). Cornwallis issued a proclamation the 20th, stating that he desired to "...rescue His faithfull & loyal Subjects from the cruel Tyranny under which they have groaned for several Years" and "to invite all such loyal & faithfull Subjects to repair without loss of time with their Arms & ten days Provisions to the Royal Standard 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."

Cornwallis's proclamation, February 20, 1781
Cornwallis's proclamation, February 20, 1781

On February 21, Cornwallis wrote a letter to Major James H. Craig in Wilmington that he was now at Hillsborough "where I shall be for some time busily employed in arming & modelling our Friends" and needed supplies. Also on February 21, General Andrew Pickens wrote General Greene that he was 18 miles from Hillsborough and understood there to be "only" 100 British dragoons occupying the town, and that he had sent a group of militia to attack them at Hillsborough; however, the group found themselves outnumbered and instead ended up attacking the enemy at Hart's Mill, where a small detachment of about 30 British soldiers were guarding the mill and grinding wheat and "Indian corn" for the use of the army encamped at Hillsborough. The same day, General Greene, in a letter to Colonel William Campbell, stated that the "enemy are at Hillsborough refreshing themselves," and wanted to attack them there but needed more troops.

So, where were the British troops initially encamped? People have been attempting to answer that question for many decades from what I understand. The likely candidates are:
1.) In the "Indian Bend" of the Eno River where the colonial "Race Ground" was; the problem with that site is that it is a "bit" wet during the winter, there's no readily-available water source besides the Eno River, and with so much archaeology having been conducted in/on that field, there's never been a single military-related artifact discovered.
2.) The old "town commons" area east of town, around where Cameron Park Elementary School is; it was easily accessible by road (the Road to Halifax at the time), and it was an open space ("common") at the time.
2.) Just to the east of town, but west of present-day Ayr Mount historic site, on the present-day Montrose property; there's water (a creek), it was easily accessible by road (the Road to Halifax at the time), and it's where William Tryon's militia troops encamped in 1771. Plus, several nineteenth century sources list it as the camp site.
4.) Just "here and there" throughout the town; well, sure... but I would think it would have come up in someone's letter or some official document, as soldiers can be rather annoying to live with and/or amongst.
5.) To the north-northwest of town, where there was apparently another "town common"; another good guess, as there's available water, and Cornwallis was expecting an attack from the north if one was to occur, so guarding "The Road to Virginia" (as shown on the 1768 Sauthier map of Hillsborough) would have been a wise bet.
6.) I'm sure there are other potential sites, and the approximately 2,000 troops were likely broken up into groups, but I am unaware of them (after all, they were only camped for three days at the initial site). We already know that Cornwallis and his troops moved to a more defensible position south of the Eno River the night of the 24th (see below), approximately where the intersection of present-day Business 70 and Churton intersect and to the west in the vicinity of Exchange Park Lane/Road.

On the 26th of February, while at Mitchell's Mill 16 miles from Hillsborough, Colonel Otho H. Williams assumed that the British had departed Hillsborough for Cross Creek, as Cornwallis had originally planned, but discovered that Cornwallis had moved south across the river and occupied the "Eminence South of the Town which commands it" (Cornwallis did leave pickets in town, however) the night of the 24th. General Greene also reported on the 26th that the British were still at Hillsborough, in "a position as if they expected a Visit from our Army." The same day, Lieutenant Colonel John E. Howard was going to enter Hillsborough with his troops, but when he was four miles from the town he discovered the British were still there and beat a hasty retreat, as he was greatly outnumbered.

Later that day, Colonel Williams received reports that the British had left their defensive position at Hillsborough and were marching west toward Hart's Mill. Cornwallis also later stated in a March 17 letter that he left Hillsborough February 26 and took a new position near Alamance Creek. And, General Greene was informed that Cornwallis's army had departed the Hillsborough area, and had divided into two columns: one to pursue Pickens (at High Rock ford) and one to pursue General Richard Butler. However, Cornwallis didn't divide his army, and arrived near Pickens' position at High Rock ford on the Haw River March 5th or 6th.

When Cornwallis departed Hillsborough, he took along with his army a number of prisoners (Hillsborough resident William Courtney was one of them). Cornwallis apparently unintentionally left several soldiers behind as well, however, as in his order book he mentioned soldiers of his being captured by the enemy when they straggled out of town looking for whiskey.
Nineteenth-century recollections of Cornwallis's stay:

What was known as Faddis's Tavern in the early nineteenth-century is also labeled �The Cornwallis House� on W.H. Bailey�s 1839 Map of Hillsborough, and in an 1847 article in The Southerner, the author stated that �Cornwallis� residence is now a tavern kept in good style by Mr. Morris.�

On January 1, 1849, New York artist and historian Benson Lossing visited Hillsborough, on a tour of Revolutionary War sites:

"I employed the first morning of the new year, in visiting places of interest at Hillsborough, in company with the Reverend Dr. Wilson. The first object to which my attention was called was a small wooden building, represented in the engraving on the next page [Cornwallis's office, see below], situated opposite the hotel where I was lodged. Cornwallis used it for an office, during his tarryings in Hillsborough, after driving General Greene out of the state... . We next visited the head-quarters of Cornwallis, a large frame building situated in the rear of Morris�s Hillsborough House, on King Street. Generals Gates and Greene also occupied it when they were in Hillsborough, and there a large number of the members of the Provincial Congress were generally lodged."
Cornwallis's headquarters, drawn in 1849 by Benson Lossing
Cornwallis's headquarters, drawn in 1849 by Benson Lossing
Cornwallis's office, drawn in 1849 by Benson Lossing
Cornwallis's office, drawn in 1849 by Benson Lossing.
It was located at the southeast corner of Churton Street and Margaret Lane.
In 1856, North Carolina author Henry Colton wrote a history of Hillsborough in the Virginia literary journal Southern Literary Messenger. In his article, he states:

"Cornwallis's camp, when he first arrived in Hillsborough, was where now stands the residence of Hn. Wm. A. Graham; but when he heard that Green was about to recross the Dan, he moved it to the place where the Hon. John L. Bailey now resides. This, as well as many other acts, shows the superior mind of Cornwallis as a general--for a better situation than this latter for his army to act on the defensive could not be found. On the top of the high hill, which it is almost impossible to ascend, at least on one side, lies a plain, which at that time must have been very beautiful; the great western road ran at the foot of this hill, and winding, crossed the plain in front; on one side flowed the little stream which time has dignified by the name of a river. Cornwallis himself was most of the time quartered in what is now the Hillsborough House... "

There are several rumors regarding Cornwallis's stay in Hillsborough. One is that he stayed in the Colonial Inn, but since it was built in 1838, this is highly unlikely; another is that his troops paved the intersection of Churton and King streets with flagstones, and while they may have done so, this more likely occured sometime during the 1800s.

Colton, Henry E. Towns of the Revolution--Hillsborough, N.C. Southern Literary Messenger. September 1856. Richmond.

Craig, D. I. A Historical Sketch of New Hope Church. 1891.

Engstrom, Mary C. The Hartford Mill Complex During the Revolution. The Eno Journal, Vol. 7, July 1978. Online.

Lossing, Benson J. Pictorial Fieldbook of the Revolution. Volume II, Chapter XIV, 1850. Online.

Public Records Office (London). Charles Cornwallis Papers. 30/11/76, 30/11/85.

David Southern, personal communication.

The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. Vol. VII, Dec 1780-Mar 1781. UNC Press, 1994.

Correspondence of the American Revolution; Being Letters of Eminent Men to George Washington, from the Time of His Taking Command of the Army to the End of His Presidency. Volume III. Jared Sparks, 1853. Online.
[Created: 09 January 2009; last updated: 18 January 2010]    

return to home page | return to 'people' page | contact me