Last week I took a look into the early years of this Revolutionary War hero. I discovered that not every Patriot was honorable or moral, even though I had always seen them that way. This week I will cover his military career up to his participation in the Battle of Kings Mountain: the good, the bad, and the ugly!
Before the Revolutionary War Benjamin Cleveland fought off and on in the French and Indian War. During the seven years, he would join a skirmish for a while then return home. It was here that he learned the brutal way the French fought. As the area where Benjamin lived was prospering there were mounting troubles with the British. By 1774 he was becoming excessively outspoken in his criticisms of British policies concerning the colonies. When news of colonial taxation by King George and the Parliament reached the Yadkin Valley, Benjamin was among the first to resent the threatened tyranny. He joined the Regiment of Militia for Surry County on June 28, 1774. Those listed in this unit were Jesse Walton as captain, Benjamin Cleveland as a lieutenant, and William Jerrell as ensign along with three sergeants, three corporals, one drummer, and eighty privates who were not listed by name.
By 1775 local tempers were running high when neighbors and friends of the Upper Yadkin Valley traveled to Cross Creek to sell their surplus products and to purchase supplies. Before they were permitted to make these transactions the colonists were compelled to make an oath of allegiance to the king. When Benjamin heard of this blatant act of tyranny, he swore he would crush the scoundrels. He then raised a select party of riflemen to march upon the Loyalists and scatter them.
Benjamin hunted the countryside and captured several Loyalist outlaws, one of whom he executed. He was a man named Jackson, who had set fire to the home and fully-stocked storehouse of Ransom Sunderland, one of the many Surry County residents who were friends of American liberty. On September 1, 1775, Benjamin was offered the position of the ensign of the North Carolina Line under the command of Colonel Robert Howe, but he turned down the honor, to serve with the militia in his own locality.
By the summer of 1776, the British had enticed the Cherokees into open hostilities with the colonists. Fighting had begun in various locations as some British agents tried to divert the patriots’ mental focus. Working as a colonial scout on the western frontier, Benjamin took his men to Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River. From there they covered the frontier in a display of force for the Cherokees. His activities caused the Indians to change their thoughts about being associated with the British, and the tribes smoked the long pipe of peace with Benjamin and his friends.
The peace was only temporary and by autumn the Indians were once again agitated into ravaging the frontier by the British. This time General Griffith Rutherford led a strong force against the Cherokees, and Benjamin and his men joined the campaign in the Surry Regiment under Colonel Joseph Williams and Major Joseph Winston. During the campaign, the troops suffered hardships and need in this service. There were never enough provisions and the company had just a few blankets and no tents. The men were dressed in mended clothing made of a crude material gathered from the field and forest. They were often harassed on their march by ambush parties, and all of the men participated in the skirmishes of the campaign because there was no official general engagement. General Rutherford had begun with two thousand men before Benjamin and his volunteers added to their strength.
He was promoted to captain on November 23, 1776. While securing the country around Cape Fear, Benjamin and his men engaged in the Battle of Moore’s Creek and captured and executed several outlaws while burning many Loyalist towns. “Cleveland’s Bulldogs” were earning him a reputation for brutality in partisan warfare characterized by inhumanity, summary hangings, and mutilation. On some occasions, he would hang Tories by their thumbs until they confessed to British movements–thus creating a local expression “being hung by your thumbs.”
The fiercely loyal mountain men were untrained but they were hardy and accurate with their guns. Admirers and countrymen called them “Cleveland’s Heroes” or “Cleveland’s Bulldogs,” but to the British and the Tories they were the “Cleveland’s Devils.” In 1778 Benjamin was made colonel of the militia. Despite his reputation for brutal justice or it could have been because of it, he was appointed justice of the Wilkes County court and placed at the head of the Commission of Justices. Regarded as one of the most popular leaders of the mountain section of the state, he was easily elected to the state’s House of Commons during this year.
His strong patriotic nature saved the western Carolinas from the British and Tory taking over. In 1779 his abrupt justice was further demonstrated by his handling of two hoodlums, James Coyle and John Brown, who had terrorized the entire country between Wilkes County, North Carolina, and Ninety-Six, South Carolina. After their spree of rape, murder, robbery, and plundering, they were eventually caught and brought before Benjamin, who was so incensed he wanted to kill them himself. He thrust his sword at Coyle, but a counterblow broke the blade. Now even more enraged, Benjamin had them seized by his men and hanged from the nearest tree. James Harwell, who had housed and protected these hoodlums, were severely beaten by Benjamin’s men. Cleveland and Benjamin Herndon, who was also involved in this justice, were subsequently indicted for murder in the Superior Court of the District of Salisbury, but on November 6, 1779, the North Carolina House of Commons offered a resolution to the governor, who signed it, and the two men were pardoned for their actions.
Benjamin was the leader of more than a hundred fights with the Tories. He was considered the perfect athlete with a large frame and an iron constitution. Since he was accustomed to the forest and climbing mountains, he was able to endure fatigue and hardships in his pursuit of Tory rebels. According to Governor Perry, Benjamin was “bold, fearless, and self-willed, full of hope and buoyancy of spirits…..He was a stern man and loved justice more than he did mercy. He knew that very often mercy to a criminal was death to an innocent man.”
Next week will be part 3 of the series on Benjamin Cleveland. This one will cover his greatest victory, the Battle of Kings Mountain.
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