The Charlotte History Field Trip

If you drive north on Beatties Ford Road headed towards Huntersvillle, you will eventually come to the intersection of Beatties Ford and McIntyre Avenue:

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If you look to your left, diagonally across the intersection, you’ll see a gravel parking lot, a lonely picnic table, and his only friend, a trash can:

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If you were to park your car in this lot… well, first you’d see this creepy sign warning you to “walk with a friend”, a polite way of saying “don’t come here alone”:

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But what you’d really see is a tiny park, not much larger than a typical residential lot. And the only amenity at this park, other than the picnic table and trash can, is a poorly-maintained path, which winds around the park:

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The whole park seems kind of pointless, as if the Mecklenburg County Parks & Recreation Department somehow ended up with this piece of land, and half-heartedly decided to turn it into a neighborhood park.

But something really, really important to Charlotte’s history happened here. If you take a few steps back, you’ll see something amazing:

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OK, so that was a bit of a let down. But don’t let that empty space fool you.

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In many ways, the American Revolutionary War was really two wars. There was one war in the northern colonies, where all the battles you read about in history class took place: Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Long Island, White Plains, Saratoga, Trenton, and Brandywine, just to name a few. But then there was the war in the southern colonies, which many aren’t as familiar with.

But British plans for both conflicts were remarkably similar: in the north, the British realized that they could not easily pacify rebel New England, so they sought to capture the New York colony to isolate the New England rebels from the rest of the colonies. In the south, the plan was to start with Loyalist areas – such as Savannah and Charleston, port cities with deep commercial ties to Britain – and head north, creating a massive army of Loyalist militiamen as they went.

It didn’t quite work out that way, though.

A large number of southern Loyalists had been displaced by early Patriot victories in the south, and many fled to London. There they became friends with George Germain, the first Viscount Sackville and Secretary of State for America. The Loyalists wanted their American lands and businesses back, so they tried to talk Germain into invading the south.

To that end, they exaggerated the amount of Loyalist support in the area. The more Germain listened, the more they exaggerated, and when Germain hinted that the Loyalists would be given titles and seized Patriot property… well, they said that thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, would rally in favor of the British… if only they would come help.

On December 29, 1778, the Loyalist prediction seemed to come true when the British captured lightly-defended Savannah without a fuss: 3,100 British troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell seized the city with a mere 17 troops killed or wounded, versus 547 patriots killed, wounded or captured. A few weeks later, Campbell took Augusta with ease, too, and hundreds of men started arriving to sign up for Loyalist militia. Perhaps the Loyalists back in London were right… maybe the south was full of Tories ready to take up arms for the crown?

On March 29, 1780, the British Army, now under the command of Sir Henry Clinton, began a siege of Charleston, which the British had unsuccessfully attacked in 1776. After six weeks, the American commander, Benjamin Lincoln, surrendered the city and around 5,500 troops to Clinton. It was a massive success for the British, and the largest surrender of an American army until the Civil War. For a time it seemed as if the war might be over. After all, the biggest and richest city in the southern colonies had been taken… what else was there left to fight for? The American army in the south – defeated and demoralized – virtually collapsed.

After the seizure of Charleston, the British replaced Clinton with Lord Cornwallis, and the Americans dismissed Lincoln and replaced him with General Horatio Gates, the hero of the Battle of Saratoga, where the British were decisively defeated, more or less ending the war in the north. Gates came to Charlotte to reorganize the Continental Army.

But then, on August 16, 1780, Gates engaged Cornwalis at the Battle of Camden (South Carolina) which would end up being one of the worst defeats in American military history. Although the Americans outnumbered the British – 3,700 to 2,100 – many of the American troops were new to the south and unaccustomed to the summer heat. Worse, Gates had authorized feeding his troops “green corn” the night before the battle, even though area farmers had warned him the young corn would give the troops intestinal problems. Gates lost 1,900 troops – 900 killed or wounded, 1,000 captured – as well as all his cannon and his entire baggage train. Gates was so overconfident in his abilities that even though he knew the British usually put their most experienced troops on their right flank (and thus, he should put his most experienced troops on his left flank), he nevertheless aped British tradition and put his best troops on his right flank!

During the entire southern campaign, it had been the Continental Congress, not George Washington, who had chosen the generals. They chose Robert Howe, who’d lost Savannah. They chose Benjamin Lincoln, who’d lost Charleston. They chose Horatio Gates, whose loss at Camden effectively destroyed the Continental Army in the south. Congress finally got the hint and allowed George Washington to choose the next commander in the south, and he chose his trusty subordinate Nathanael Greene.

Greene took command in Charlotte, and immediately appointed Isaac Huger, a brigadier general of the South Carolina Continentals, as his second in command. He also gave 1,000 troops to Daniel Morgan, splitting his army in two, which forced Cornwallis to do the same. Greene and Morgan began a series of “strategic retreats”, which forced Cornwallis to chase the two armies all over North and South Carolina. The rebels had a huge victory at King’s Mountain, about 30 miles west of Charlotte, then another at the Battle of Cowpens, about 55 miles southwest of the city. But even when the Americans lost, such as at the Battle of Guilford Court House, they actually won: Cornwallis was running out of troops, money and supplies.

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Shortly after the Battle of Camden, but before Greene arrived in Charlotte, Cornwallis and his army moved on the city. They entered Charlotte on September 26, 1780. Less than 500 souls lived in the city at the time, and Trade and Tryon streets really were the only major roads in town. That intersection was dominated by the Mecklenburg County Court House, the only sturdy building in town. A market had been constructed outside the courthouse: a series of tall rock pillars connected by a stone wall almost four feet high. It provided perfect cover for Patriot militia.

Normally, Cornwallis would have sent cavalry under Colonel Banastre Tarleton to scope out the city before sending in the army (if you saw the Mel Gibson film The Patriot, you might remember “Colonel Tavington”, played by Jason Isaacs; this character was based, in part, on Tarleton). But Tarleton was sick that day, so Cornwallis sent Major George Hanger in his stead with orders to carefully and quietly survey the city. Hanger, a young, eager aristocrat, instead had his men barrel into the city at a full gallop. Militia hiding behind the wall opened fire; Hanger continued to ride. When the first line of militia moved so that the second line could open fire, Hanger thought the first line was retreating and rode towards them. Cornwallis had to ride to Hanger’s rescue, and the Patriot militia quietly slipped into the countryside.

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Remember how I said Cornwallis was running low on supplies? On October 3, 1780, a few days after arriving in Charlotte, Cornwallis sent a group of soldiers out on a foraging mission. He ordered Captain John Doyle and a group of 200-600 Irish Volunteers (exactly how many depends on who you ask) to take forty (or sixty) wagons and hike six miles up Beatties Ford Road to a farm owned by the McIntyre family.

Word quickly leaked to the Patriot militia, specifically to Captain James Thompson. Thompson found his friend, Captain James Knox, and they were able to round up thirteen farmers. The group gathered muskets and rifles, hid in the woods by the farm, and waited for the British.

They soon arrived and began plundering the farm. Bags of oats and corn were loaded into British wagons, while livestock pens were emptied of pigs and goats. But then, the strangest thing happened: one of the British knocked over a giant beehive, and angry bees started swarming all over the troops.

Confusion and chaos reigned.

Thompson and his men had been waiting patiently for a good time to shoot, and this was it. They opened fire, killing one British officer instantly. The militiamen silently moved to new locations, reloaded, and opened fire again. This caused Captain Doyle to think they were under attack by a larger force, so he ordered a retreat.

Patriots shot the horses leading the train, causing even more confusion and blocking the path for other carts. Panicked, the British left with whatever they could carry. Other local farmers, hearing the commotion, hid along Beatties Ford Road and opened fire on the retreating solders, much like what happened at Lexington and Concord. According to some accounts, the British rode their horses back to Charlotte so hard that the poor animals collapsed and died in the city streets.

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If you’re not from Charlotte, you might not know the amount of affection people around here have for the hornet. A hornet’s nest is prominently featured in the official Mecklenburg County seal:

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Charlotte Mecklenburg police badges are shaped like hornet’s nests:

CMPD Officer Badge

Charlotte Mecklenburg police cars have a hornet’s nest on them, just behind the front wheel:

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The local historical society uses a hornet’s nest as their logo:

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And, of course, you have the sports teams. Everyone knows about the Charlotte Hornets basketball team… here’s the logo from the original NBA team:

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And here’s the updated logo for the “new” Hornets, which were originally called the “Charlotte Bobcats”, after Robert L. Johnson, who started the BET media empire and founded the team in 2002:

charlotte_hornets_new_logoWhat you might not know is that Charlotte had a football team, also called the Hornets, in the World Football League (WFL), an NFL competitor that existed from 1974 to 1975:

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And the NBA and WFL teams were inspired by the Charlotte Hornets minor league baseball team, which existed from 1901 until 1973… an astonishing 72 year run, amazing for a minor league team in any sport:

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There’s even a bar on Beatties Ford Road called “The Hornet’s Nest”:

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Here’s the interesting thing, though: history has given Cornwallis all the credit for the “hornet” name. It’s said that in 1781 he called the city either “a damned hornet’s nest of rebellion” or “a veritable hornet’s nest of rebellion” (the latter might be a edited version of the former). But for the life of me, I can’t seem to find where he said that. Was it in a letter to General Howe? A report to Lord North? A letter to his wife? Something said to a fellow officer? Something in his memoirs? No one seems to know.

Which brings me back to the sad park at Beatties Ford and McIntyre:

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This open space is likely where the McIntyre farmhouse once stood. I can’t be totally sure, but it’s the only flat, tree-less spot in the whole park. The farmhouse stood on the site – complete with holes from musket balls still in the walls! – until the 1940s, when it burned down. Here’s an undated picture of the house, probably from the 1930s:

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The historical marker still exists:

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But it’s literally UP AGAINST Beatties Ford Road: when I took the picture below, I was almost standing on the shoulder of the road; that little patch of dead grass in the lower right corner actually touches the road. It’s a wonder a drunk driver hasn’t taken it out yet:

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I wonder how many cars pass by it every day and don’t even notice. I also wonder to what extent Cornwallis’ opinion of Charlotte – which was, ironically, named after Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III and Queen Consort of the United Kingdom – was influenced by what would end up being called the “Battle of the Hornets’ Nest” or “Battle of the Bees”. It was a very minor skirmish in a very long war. But perhaps it was the only really memorable thing about his time here. I can somehow picture Cornwallis being asked about the city, and him thinking it was “that place where we sent those idiots to that farm, and that one moron knocked over the bee’s nest and got 8 people killed?” and him replying “Yeah, that place was… it was… well, it was kind of a hornet’s nest, to tell you the truth”.

Did Cornwallis coin the term “hornets’s nest” out of thin air? Or was he actively thinking about the Battle of the Bees when he came up with the phrase? Or was the battle just somewhere in his subconsciousness? I can’t help but think that the two are connected, and that a huge piece of Charlotte’s history is just sitting there, withering away in an unloved park on the edge of town.

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A brief postscript: the original historical marker, shown in photos above, was built in 1901. It was the only marker standing when the undated black & white photo was taken, which was probably some time in the 1930s. An additional marker was placed there some time later. The new marker contains much more detail about the battle. Here’s a photo of it:

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(click to enlarge)

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Photo credits:

All color pictures of the park by Jim Cofer
Mecklenburg County seal by cmbcc.org
CMPD badge photo by cedarposts.blogspot.com
CMPD police car photo by wn.com
Charlotte Hornets (basketball) logos by sportslogos.net
Charlotte Hornets (football) helmet by helmethunt, via eBay
Charlotte Hornets (baseball) patch via Pintrest
The Hornet’s Nest (bar) photo by Jim Cofer
B&W photo of McIntyre farm by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission

6 Replies to “The Charlotte History Field Trip”

  1. I dont know how old this post is, but I believe I found the location of the house, as the berm of the foundation is still there. It is not in the open area you suggested. It is to the immediate left of teh parking lot, and snuggled up against the woods.

  2. i went there today and based on this and other sites instruction did find the foundation of the house buried in bamboo trees just to the left of the parking lot as mentioned. Amazingly i found all those old gold mine trenches too,complete with the half buried boulders with all the quartz and gold? chipped out. In spite of where this “park’ is located and its lack of fanfare….it is positively oozing with history.

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