Biography of Colonel Charles McDowell

Colonel Charles McDowell and his brothers, Joseph and William, were sons of Joseph McDowell and Margaret O’Neal, who emigrated from Ireland and settled in Winchester, Va. Here, Charles and Joseph were born, the former in 1743. Soon afterward, Joseph McDowell, Sr., moved to Burke county, N.C.

In June, 1780, Colonel Charles McDowell being joined by Colonels Isaac Shelby and John Sevier from Tennessee, and by Colonel Clarke, of Georgia, near the Cherokee Ford on Broad river, in South Carolina, he determined to attack a post held by the enemy on Pacolet river, in Spartanburg county. The position was strongly fortified under the command of Captain Patrick Moore, a distinguished loyalist. On being surrounded, the enemy, after some parley as to terms, surrendered as prisoners of war. One British Sergeant Major, ninety-three loyalists, two hundred and fifty fire-arms and other munitions of war were the fruits of this victory. Soon afterward Col. McDowell detached Shelby to watch the movements of Ferguson, and attack him. On the 1st of August, 1780, Shelby met the advance guard of Ferguson at Cedar Spring, about six hundred strong, when a spirited contest commenced; but on the enemy being reinforced, Shelby made good his retreat, carrying off from the field twenty prisoners, including two British officers.

On learning that a body of five hundred Tories had assembled on the south side of Enoree river, near Musgrove’s Mill, Colonel McDowell detached Colonels Shelby, Williams and Clarke to attack them. Colonel Ferguson, with his whole force, lay encamped between them. They left the camp on the 18th of August at Smith’s Ford on Broad river, and taking a circuitous route through the woods, avoided Ferguson’s forces. They rode hard all night, and at daybreak encountered a strong patrol party of the enemy. A skirmish immediately ensued and the Tories retreated. They then advanced on the main body of the Tories. At this juncture a countryman living near, a friend of liberty, came to Shelby and informed him that the enemy had been reinforced the evening before, by six hundred regular troops, and the Queen’s American regiment from New York, commanded by Colonel Innis, marching to join Ferguson. Here was a position that would have tried the talent and nerve of the most skillful and brave officer. Advance was hopeless, and retreat impossible. But Shelby was equal to the emergency. He immediately commenced forming a breast-work of brush and old logs, while he detailed twenty-five tried men to reconnoiter and skirmish with the enemy as soon as they crossed the Enoree river. The drums and bugles of the enemy were soon heard marching upon this devoted band. Captain Inman had been ordered to fire and retreat. This stratagem, suggested by Captain Inman himself, was successful in its object. The enemy advanced in rapid pursuit and in great confusion, believing that the whole American force was routed. When they approached the rude breast-work of Shelby, they received from his riflemen a most destructive fire, which carried great slaughter among them. This was gallantly kept up; all the British officers were killed or wounded, and Hawsey, the Tory leader, shot down. The enemy then began a disorderly retreat. The Americans now in turn pursued, and in this pursuit the brave Captain Inman was killed, fighting hand to hand with the enemy. Colonel Shelby commanded the right wing, Colonel Clarke the left, and Colonel Williams the center.

The British loss in this brilliant and well-planned battle, was sixty-three killed and one hundred wounded and prisoners; the American loss was only four killed, including Captain Inman, and Captain Clarke wounded.

The triumphant victors were about to remount and advance on the British post at Ninety Six, when an express arrived from Colonel McDowell, with a letter from Governor Caswell, informing them of the defeat of General Gates at Camden on the 16th of August, and advising the retreat of our troops, as the British, flushed with victory, would advance in strong force and cut off all detachments of our people. With Ferguson near him, Colonel Shelby, encumbered with more than two hundred prisoners, acted with energy and promptness. He distributed the prisoners among the companies, each behind a private, and without stopping day or night, retreated over the mountains to a place of safety.

This rapid movement saved his men and himself. On the next day Major DePeyster, of Ferguson’s forces, with a strong body of men, made an active but fruitless search.

In consequence of the panic after Gates’ defeat on the 16th of August, 1780, and the surprise and dispersion of Sumter’s forces at Fishing creek by Tarleton’s cavalry on the 18th following, Colonel McDowell disbanded, for a time, his little army, and he himself retreated over the mountains.

This was a dark and doleful period of American history. The British flag floated in triumph over Charleston and Savannah. The troops of Lord Cornwallis, with all the pomp and circumstance of glory, advanced from the battle-field of Camden to Charlotte, with the fond expectation of soon placing North Carolina under his subjection. Many of the brave had despaired of final success, and the timid, and some of the wealthy, to save their property, had taken “protection” under the enemy. Colonel Ferguson, with chosen troops, was ravaging the whole western portion of upper South Carolina, subduing in his progress to western North Carolina, all opponents of English power, and encouraging, by bribes and artifice, others to join the royal standard.

Under all these discouraging circumstances the brave “Mountain Boys,” and other kindred spirits of the west never despaired. On the mountain heights of North Carolina, and in her secure retreats, like Warsaw’s “last champion,” stood the stalwart soldiers of that day:

“Oh Heaven! they said, our bleeding country save! Is there no hand on high to shield the brave? What though destruction sweep these lovely plains!–Rise, fellow-men! our country yet remains; By that dread name, we wave the sword on high, And swear for her to live! for her to die!”

If the sky was then gloomy, a storm was gathering in these mountain retreats which was soon to descend in all its fury on the heads of the enemies of our country. In a short time afterward the battle of King’s Mountain was fought and won by the patriots, which spread a thrill of joy throughout the land.

Colonel Charles McDowell was elected the first Senator to the State Legislature from Burke county in 1778, and successively from 1782 to 1790. From 1791 to 1795, he was succeeded in the same position by his brother, Major Joseph McDowell. About this period, at three or four different times, all three of the members of the Assembly to which the county was entitled were of this family, which proved their great popularity and worth. Major Joseph McDowell also served as a member of Congress from 1793 to 1795, and from 1797 to 1799. He lived on John’s river, and died there. His family returned to Virginia, where some of his descendants may still be found. One of his sons, Hugh Harvey, settled in Missouri, and Joseph J. McDowell, in Ohio, who was a member of Congress from that State from 1843 to 1847.

General Charles McDowell married Grace Greenlee, the widow of Captain John Bowman, who fell at the battle of Ramsour’s Mill. By this union he had several children, one of whom was the late Captain Charles McDowell, who resided on the Catawba river, near Morganton.

General Charles McDowell died on the 31st of March, 1815, aged about seventy-two years.



Burke County NC,

Hunter, C. L. Sketches of Western North Carolina, Historical and Biographical. 1877.

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