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Col. Thomas Robeson

Courageous colonel is County’s Namesake


By Nell Skinner Lyon

In the fall of 1943, I first became aware of Col. Thomas Robeson Jr., Bladen County patriot of the Revolutionary War, for whom Robeson County was named. I wanted to know more about the man for whom my county was named, the major brains and brawn behind the Whigs’ defeat of the Tories, or Loyalists who were faithful to King George in the Battle of Elizabethtown, a decisive battle of the Revolutionary War.

Family background

Andrew Robeson Jr., Col. Robeson’s grandfather, was born in Scotland around 1654. Andrew, who was educated at Oxford, immigrated to Philadelphia at age 36. He quickly became active in business affairs and involved in colonial government.

Their fourth son, the first Thomas Robeson, father of Robeson County’s namesake, came to North Carolina after the death of Andrew in 1719 or 1720. He located on the northwest branch of the Cape Fear River, about 70 miles from Wilmington. This site is in the present Bladen County town of Tar Heel, about 19 miles northeast of Lumberton.

The new Carolinian married a local girl named Sarah Singletary, daughter of Richard Singletary, and they built a home on his property named Walnut Grove. It was on this original Robeson plantation that Thomas Jr., as well as his brother Peter and sister Mary, were born and raised.

Eminent legislator

Thomas Robeson Jr. represented Bladen County at the Provincial Convention, which met at Hillsboro, Aug. 21, 1775, to discuss the plight of the colonies. He also was a member of the Provincial Congress that met at Halifax, April 4, 1776, to declare independence from Britain and a member of the Provincial Congress, which met in Halifax, Nov. 12, 1776, to frame the Bill of Rights and the North Carolina Constitution. According to the February 1951 Historical Edition of The Robesonian, he distinguished himself for six terms in the legislature prior to the Declaration of Independence and the formation of the 13 original colonies into states.

Whigs vs. Tories

It was at the first 1776 meeting of the Provincial Congress at Halifax that Thomas Robeson Jr. was appointed a committee member to consider ways and means of bringing justice to the Tories of Bladen County, where they were “more numerous and more insolent” than in any other county.

In fact, the Tory situation in Bladen County was extremely grave. By their sheer numbers, they had gained control and, to make matters worse, they were goaded on by British troops in Wilmington to declare guerrilla warfare on the Whigs throughout the region. The Tories plundered and burned homes and beheaded and hanged men — wholesale slaughter.

The situation was compounded by the large number of Highland Scots who were Tories because they had taken an oath of allegiance to King George as a condition of immigration to America after Prince Charles Edward Stuart was defeated at Culloden in 1746. Even though they deplored the treatment of the earlier Scottish settlers who were Whigs, they were helpless to support them.

Many homeless, hungry Whigs fled to Duplin County, where there was less danger. But a stalwart number of them “continued the contest against fearful odds” by forming small Whig bands to combat the relentless Tory attacks. There were many fierce encounters between the warring forces, but the decisive battle took place in Elizabethtown on Sept. 29, 1781.

Command confusion

The record states that Col. Brown commanded the Whigs during the Battle of Elizabethtown. Nevertheless, family notes and reminiscences support the claim that, at the last minute, he asked Col. Robeson to take his place because of wounds he suffered earlier in a skirmish near Wilmington. A second supporting factor is the close family relationship between the two commanders, who married sisters, Mary and Sarah Bartram, daughters of Elizabeth Lock and Col. William Bartram, the half brother of John Bartram, who was the king’s botanist.

The battle

In the summer of 1781, 400 Tories under Col. Slingsby occupied Elizabethtown. Four miles above town, at Brompton, one of the homes of Colonial Gov. Gabriel Johnston, David Fanning commanded 500 more Tory troops. The 180 Whigs commanded by Col. Robeson felt too weak to mount a frontal attack on the Tories. Using an evasive strategy, they hid in the swamps for three weeks, searching unsuccessfully for new recruits and trying to cut off detached parties of Tories.

With little hope of reinforcements in Bladen County, the Whigs marched through Duplin, Johnston, Wake, Chatham and upper Cumberland counties, looking for fellow Whigs to join them. But, instead of increasing, their number dwindled to 71. After six weeks, they returned to Duplin County, ragged, hungry, worn-out, dejected and dispirited.

On half-starved horses, they reached the home of a firm patriot, Gabriel Holmes. There Col. Robeson announced his last-ditch decision: He would return home and “scatter the Tories or die in the attempt.” He challenged his men to go with him and all but one stepped forward.

Goaded on by despair and new reports of fresh outrages against their families, 70 worn, weary but motivated men set out to conquer or die. They vowed to no longer live under the Tory savagery. After marching 10 days with no regular meals and only grazing for their horses, the tattered troops reached the banks of the Cape Fear River at dusk on Sept. 28, 1781. Just before dawn, they attacked.

Battle strategy

Using information about layout and location from Sallie Salter, disguised as an egg seller, Col. Robeson divided his troops into three companies of 23 men each. The one remaining soldier was assigned to take care of the horses. Silently, with their clothing balanced on their heads and their guns held just above the chilly water, the soldiers carefully forded the moving current at Elizabethtown.

The attack was made from three sides at the first shot fired by a Tory sentinel. The Whigs rushed furiously upon the sleeping Tories shouting, “Washington! Washington! Washington!” and pouring an unexpected volley into the panic stricken Tories. The Whigs’ determined commander gave cadenced, sequential orders to an infinite number of fictitious companies of Whigs to advance!

Thinking Washington’s entire army was attacking them, the surprised Tories scattered in wild disarray. Most of them fell into a deep gorge, which is known today as “The Tory Hole.” Day was dawning when the conflict ended. Only four Whigs were wounded and none were killed. Bartram B. Robeson, 17, serving as a soldier under his father, was unharmed. Many Tories were killed or wounded. The Battle of Elizabethtown put an end to Tory atrocities in Bladen County and was regarded as a milestone in the successful settlement of the region.

Compensation

Because of the depleted condition of the government’s treasury, Col. Robeson paid the men under his command from his own funds. He did, however, take notes (estimates from $47,000 to $80,000) that promised repayment should the government ever reward their services.

Col. Robeson, the hero of the Revolution, died soon after the peace on May 2, 1785 at age 45. No steps were taken to refund the salaries he paid his soldiers. Prior to his death, he extracted a promise from his five children, Bartram B., Jonathan, William, Elizabeth and Sarah, that no claim should ever be brought against the government. His wishes to this date have been carried out.

Why ‘Robeson’?

L.R. Varser in his “History of Robeson County,” published in The Robesonian in April 1939, refers to the fact that Col. Robeson used his legislative influence to get a new county formed. Thus proponents of the formation of a new county in 1787 offered to name it “Robeson” for him.

Others thought his extraordinary performance in the Revolutionary War was reason enough to give him this honor. Perhaps his military heroism inspired the offer to Robeson, the legislator who had the influence and know-how to get the goal accomplished.

Note: Writer is married to the great-great-great grandson of Col Robeson.

 

Sources:

Andrew Robeson Genealogy 1635-1916 — Stroud

The American’s Creed — William Tyler Page

Personal Family Papers — Bessie Robeson Lyon, May

14, 1953, continuing

Interviews — Emily Myers Averitte 1996-2000

The “Impetuous Hotspur of ‘The Cape Fear’,” The

Robesonian, November 28, 1985

“Robeson County Was Formed From Bladen in 1787,”

The Robesonian, Historical Edition, February, 1951

Billy Bartram and His Green World — Marjory

Bartlett Sange, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York,

1972

Walnut