Robert and Eleanor Carruthers Wilson
Written by the Rev. T.W. Haynes, of Charleston, South Carolina
The wives and mothers of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, were called upon to bear more than their share of the toils and dangers of the Revolution. Among these was Eleanor Carruthers, wife of Robert Wilson, of Steel Creek -- a woman of singular energy of mind and devoted to the American cause. Her husband with three brothers, and other kinsmen, settled in Mecklenburg about 1760, having removed from the Colony of Pennsylvania. These brothers were Scotch Presbyterians, arrayed by religious and natural prejudice, as well as early education, against tyranny in every form. At the time of the Declaration of Mecklenburg, May 20th, 1775, one of them, Zaccheus Wilson, representing all his kinsmen, signed that declaration, pledging himself and his extensive family connections to its maintenance. This bold act of a county meeting was immediately published in the royal journals in Charleston, and copies were sent to the King of Great Britain by his Colonial governors, with letters representing the movement of Charlottetown as a dangerous one, to be immediately suppressed.
In this crisis there were not wanting citizens who shook their heads, and curling their lips in scorn, characterized the actors in this opening scene of the bloody drama of the Revolution as madmen, rebels and traitors, who were kindly admonished to look out for their necks. From the first to the last, Mrs. Eleanor Carruthers Wilson espoused the cause of liberty, exulting whenever its defenders gained any triumph. Animated by her enthusiasm, her husband and sons entered warmly into the contest. Her sons Robert and Joseph, in service under Col. Lytle with Lincoln at Charleston, were taken prisoners at the surrender of that city, but having given their parole, were allowed to return home. On the way one of their companions became so weak as to be unable to travel. Determined not to desert him, they carried him on their shoulders alternately, till he was able to go on as before. They had scarcely reached home when the British General issued his proclamation declaring the country subdued. He withdrew the paroles and required every able-bodied militiaman to join his standard. Refusing to fight against their country and being no longer, as they believed, bound by their paroles, they immediately repaired to the standard of Sumter, and were with him in several battles.
In the Battle of Hanging Rock, Capt. David Reid, one of their kinsmen, was mortally wounded, and in great agony called for water, which young Robert brought in his hat. In the same action, Joseph, a little in advance, was suddenly assaulted by a tory - a powerful man - whom he knew, but killed him after a severe struggle, carrying off his rifle, which was handed down to his son, David Wilson, of Maine (sic) county, Tennessee.
The elder Robert Wilson and his son John, having collected a supply of provisions and forage for Sumter's corps from the neighborhood of Steel Creek, were hastening to meet them at Fishing Creek, and arrived a short time after the surprise. The consequences was the capture of the two Wilsons, and the seizure of the supplies. The prisoners were hurried to the rear, after having been brutally threatened with hanging on the nearest tree, and by a forced march reached Camden next day, where they were added to a crowd of honorable captives, such as Andrew Jackson, Col. Isaacs, Gen. Rutherford and others, more than a hundred of whom were crowded into one jail.
Meanwhile Cornwallis, leaving Rawdon at Camden, advanced his army to rebellious Charlotte, to forage upon its farms and plantations, and to punish its inhabitants. Many scenes of rapine, house burnings and plunderings might be detailed in connection with his five weeks stay hereabouts. The whig inhabitants of Mecklenburg, Rowan and Iredell came up manfully to sustain their country in this crisis. Although a few of the wealthier ones hastened to Charlotte, and claimed and obtained the protection of the British General, these were in a proportion of scarcely one in a hundred.
Unable to keep the open field, the republicans under Davie, Sumter, Davidson, Dickey, Brevard, Hall and Irwin, scattered through the forests and swamps, constantly falling in small parties upon the insolent dragoons of Tarleton and other troops sent out as scouts and on foraging excursions. It was a kind of guerrilla warfare, boldly waged by the patriots of Mecklenburg, and feared by the British soldier, who always hated to be shot at from the thickets while he was quietly getting forage for his horse. Having already been rendered uneasy by the bold manner in which the rebels pounced upon his regulars, occasionally driving them within sight of his camp, Cornwallis, when he heard of the defeat of Ferguson at King's Mountain by a formidable body of patriots, fearing that so bold a party might attack his rear at Camden, concentrated his army, drew in his foraging parties, and on the 14th of October began his retrograde march towards Winnsboro. During this march the British army halted for the night at Wilson's plantation near Steel Creek. The British General, with his staff, and the redoubtable Tarleton occupied the house of Mrs. Wilson, requiring her to provide for them as though they had been her friends.
Although the soldiers were seizing every article in the way of provision on the place, Mrs. Wilson acted her part so well that the General decided in his own mind that she at least was not unfriendly to the Royal cause. Having drawn out in the conversation the principal items of her family history, and finding that he was occupying the house of a noted whig leader, the brother and father of more than a dozen active soldiers, who was, moreover, his prisoner in Camden jail, Lord Cornwallis artfully attempted to enlist her in the King's cause. He began by observing that he deeply regretted being compelled to wage a war in which many of it worst calamities fell upon woman. He was constrained to believe that in this instance, as well as many others, many worthy men who were at heart good subjects, had been seduced from their duty by the delusive promises of aspiring and unprincipled leaders. "Madam" he continued, "your husband and your son are my prisoners; the fortune of war may soon place others of your sons-perhaps all your kinsmen, in my power. Your sons are young, aspiring and brave. In a good cause, fighting for a generous and powerful king, such as George III, they might hope for rank, honor and wealth. If you could but induce your husband and sons to leave the rebels, and take up arms for their lawful sovereign, I would almost pledge myself that they shall have rank and consideration in the British army. If you, madam, will pledge yourself to induce them to do so, I will immediately order their discharge."
To this artful appeal Mrs. Wilson replied, that her husband and children were indeed dear to her, and that she had felt, as a woman must, the trials and troubles which the war had brought upon her. She felt proud of her sons, and would do anything she thought right to advance their real and permanent interest; but in this instance they had embarked in the holy cause of liberty-had fought and struggled for it five years, never faltering for a moment, while others had fled from the contest and yielded up their hopes at the first obstacle. "I have seven sons who are now, or have been, bearing arms," she continued, "indeed my seventh son, Zaccheus, who is only fifteen years old, I yesterday assisted to get ready to go and join his brothers in Sumter's army. Now, sooner than see one of my family turn back from the glorious enterprise, I would take these boys, (pointing to three or four small sons) and with them would myself enlist under Sumter's standard, and show my husband and sons how to fight, and if necessary, to die for their country!"
"Ah! General!" interrupted the cold-hearted Tarleton "I think you've gotten into a hornet's nest! Never mind, when we get to Camden, I'll take good care that old Robin Wilson never comes back again!"
On the next day's march a party of scouts captured Zaccheus Wilson, who was found on the flank of the British army with his gun, endeavoring to diminish the number of His Majesty's forces. He was immediately taken to the head of the column, and catechized by Cornwallis, who took the boy along with him on the march, telling him he must act as his guide to the Catawba, and show him the best ford. Arriving at the river, the head of the army entered at the point designated by the lad, but the soldiers had scarcely gone half across before they found themselves in deep water, drawn by a rapid current down the stream. Believing that his boy, on whom he had relied to show him the best ford, had purposely brought him to a deep one in order to embarrass his march, the General drew his sword, and flourishing it over him, swore he would cut his head off for his treachery. Zaccheus replied that he had the power to do so, as he had no arms, and was his prisoner; "but, sir," said he, "don't you think it would be a cowardly act for you to strike an unarmed boy with your sword? If I had but the half of your weapon, it would not be so cowardly; but then you know it would not be so safe!"
Struck by the lad's cool courage, the General became calmer, told him he was a fine fellow, and that he would not hurt a hair of his head. Having discovered that the ford was shallow enough by bearing up stream, the British army crossed over it safely and proceeded towards Winnsboro.
On this march Cornwallis dismissed Zaccheus, telling him to go home and take care of his mother, and to tell her to keep her boys at home. After he reached Winnsboro, Cornwallis dispatched an order to Rawdon, to send Robin Wilson and his son John, with several others, to Charleston, carefully guarded. Accordingly in November, about the 20th, Wilson, his son and ten others set off under the escort of an officer and fifteen or twenty men. Below Camden, on the Charleston route, parties of British soldiers and trains of wagons were continually passing so that the officer had no fear of the Americans, and never dreamed of the prisoners attempting an escape. Wilson formed plans and arranged everything several times, but owing to the presence of large parties of the enemy they could not be executed. At length, being near Fort Watson, they encamped before night, the prisoners being placed in the yard, and the guard in the portico and house. A sentinel was posted in the portico over the stacks of arms, and all hands went to providing for their evening repast.
Having bribed a soldier to buy some whiskey, for it had been a rainy day, the prisoners pretended to drink freely, and some of them seemingly more intoxicated than the rest, insisted upon treating the sentinel. Wilson followed him as if to prevent him from giving him the whiskey, it being a breach of military order. Watching a favorable opportunity he seized the sentinel's musket, and the drunken man, suddenly become sober, seized the sentinel. At this signal the prisoners rushed to the guns in the portico, while the guard, taking the alarm, rushed out of the house. In the scramble for arms the prisoners succeeded-drove the soldiers into the house at the point of the bayonet and the whole guard surrendered at direction. Unable to take off their prisoners, Wilson made them all hold up their right hands and swear never again to bear arms against the cause of "liberty and the Continental Congress," and then told them that they might go to Charleston on parole; but if he ever found a single mother's son of them in arms again, he would "hang them up to a tree like a dog!"
Scarcely were they rid of their prisoners before a party of British dragoons came in sight. As the only means of escape, they separated by twos and took to the woods. Some of them reached Marion's camp at Snow Island, and Wilson, with two or three others, arrived safely at Mecklenburg, a distance of over two hundred miles, through a country overrun by British troops.
The term of the services and imprisonment of the family, was not less than two years each, being in all near sixteen years. Several of the sons were officers; Aaron was a lieutenant at the battle of Stono, in June, 1779, and Robert was a captain in the Indian war towards the close of the Revolution.
Eleanor Carruthers Wilson was the mother of eleven sons. She and her husband lived to a good old age at Steele Creek. Robert Wilson died in 1794. Eleanor died about 1802. About 1792, or in the two years following, Joseph, John, James, Aaron, Robert, Samuel, Zaccheus, Josiah, Moses and Thomas Wilson, removed with their families to the Cumberland Valley, near Bledsoe's Lick, and not long afterwards located themselves near Harpeth Lick, in the southeast corner of Williamson County. They were generally inflexible Presbyterians, stern republicans and great haters of tories.
Robert, the first man who crossed the Cumberland mountains with a wagon, married Jane, the daughter of William and Ellen McDowell, York District, South Carolina. The McDowells were of a brave family. Charles, Joseph and William were in the battle of King's Mountain; Ellen and her daughter Jane heard the firing from their house, and the mother immediately went to the scene of strife, where she remained several days, nursing and attending to the wounded soldiers. She was a woman of remarkable courage and energy. A part of marauders having taken some of her property during the absence of her husband, she followed them, assembling her friends on the way, and soon recovered the booty. Her husband had manufactured powder in a cave near his dwelling; but as he could not burn the charcoal there without detection, she burnt it by small quantities in her fire-place, and carried it to him. In this way part of the powder used at King's Mountain was procured. Young Robert Wilson was with McDowell at Hanging Rock, and it was in reward for his gallant conduct that he gave him his daughter Jane. In 1832, the mother, then near ninety years of age, removed to Clay County, Missouri. One of their descendants was the Rev. T.W. Haynes of Charleston, S.C. the writer of this notice.