Battle of Elizabethtown


The River in War




One of the most important landmarks in Elizabethtown is Tory Hole, the crossing of the Cape Fear River where Patriots drove off Tories in 1781 during the Revolutionary War. The following account came from a letter published in HISTORICAL SKETCHES OF NORTH CAROLINA by John H. Wheeler.


“Mr. A.A. Brown, Esq.: BladenCounty, February 21, 1844. 

Dear Sir - - Yours of the 3d inst. was received, soliciting such information as I possessed, or may be able to collect respecting the battle fought at Elizabethtown, during our revolutionary struggle between the Whigs and Tories.  I have often regretted that the actions and skirmishes which occurred in this and New Hanover County, should have been overlooked by historians.  The Battle of Elizabethtown deserves a place in history, and ought to be recollected by every true-hearted North Carolinian with pride and pleasure.  Here sixty men, driven from their homes, their estates ravaged, and houses plundered, who had taken refuge with the Whigs of Duplin, without funds and bare of clothing, resolved to return, fight, conquer, or die. After collecting all the ammunition they could, they embodied and selected Col. Thomas Brown to command.  They marched fifty miles through almost a wilderness country before they reached the river subsisting on jerked beef and a scanty supply of bread.  The Tories had assembled, three hundred or more, at Elizabethtown, and were commanded by Slingsby and Godden; the former was a talented man and well fitted for his station; the latter, bold, daring and reckless, ready to risk everything to put down the Whigs.  Every precautionary measure was adopted to prevent surprise and to render this the stronghold of Toryism.  Not a boat was suffered to remain on the east side of the river.  Guards and sentries were regularly detached and posted.  When the little band of Whig heroes, after nightfall, reached the river, not a boat was to be found; but it must be crossed, and that speedily; its depth was ascertained by some who were tall and expert swimmers; they to a man cried out, “it is fordable, we can, we will cross it.” Not a murmur was heard and without a moment’s delay, they all undressed, tied their clothing and ammunition on their heads (baggage they had none), each man grasping the barrel of his gun, raised the breech so as to keep the lock above water, descended the banks, and entered the river.  The taller men found less difficulty; those of lower stature, were scarcely able to keep their mouths and noses above water; but all safely reached the opposite shore, resumed their dress, fixed their arms for action, made their way through the low grounds, then thickly set with cane, ascended the hills, which were high and precipitous, crossed the King’s road leading through the town and took a position in its rear.  Here they formed, and in about two hours after crossing a mile below, commenced a furious attack, driving the Tory sentries and guards; they continued rapidly to advance, keeping up a brisk and well directed fire, and were soon in the midst of the foe, mostly Highland Scotchmen, as brave, as loyal, and highminded as any of his Majesty’s subjects; so sudden and violent an onset for a moment produced disorder, but they were rallied by their gallant leader, and made for a while the most determined resistance.  Slingsby fell mortally wounded, and Godden was killed, with most of the officers of inferior grade.  They retreated, some taking refuge in houses, others, the largest portion, leaping pell-mell into a deep ravine, since called the Tory Hole. As the tories had unlimited away from the river to Little Pee Dee, the Whigs re-crossed, taking with them their wounded.  Such was the general panic produced by this action, the Tories became dispirited, and never after were so troublesome.  The Whigs soon returned to their homes in safety.  In the death of Slingsby, the Tories were deprived of an officer whose place it was difficult to fill; but few were equal to Godden in partisan warfare.


This battle was fought mostly by river planters, men who had sacrificed much for their country.  To judge of it correctly, it would not be forgotten that the country from Little Pee Dee to the Catawba, was overrun by the Tories, Wilmington was in possession of the British, and Cross Creek of the Tories.  Thus situated, the attack made on them at Elizabethtown assumed much of the character of a forlorn hope; had the Whigs not succeeded, they must have been cut off to a man. If they had fled to the South, thousands would have arisen to destroy them; if to the Eastward, the Tories in that case, flushed with victory, would have intercepted their retreat, and they would have sought in vain their former asylum.  This action produced in this part of North Carolina, as sudden and as happy results as the battles of Trenton and Princeton, in New Jersey.  The contest was unequal, but valor supplied the place of numbers.  It is due to Colonel Brown, who when a youth, marched with General Waddell from Bladen, and fought under Governor Tryon at the Battle of Alamance, and was afterwards wounded at the Great Bridge, under General Howe, near Norfolk, Virginia, to say he fully realized the expectations of his friends, and the wishes, of those who selected him to command; and when the history of our State shall be written this action alone, apart from his chivalric conduct at the Great Bridge, will place him by the side of his compatriots, Horry, Marion, and Sumpter, of the South.  It must, it will form an interesting page in our history, on which the young men of North Carolina will delight to dwell.  It is an achievement which bespeaks not only the most determined bravery, but great military skill.  The most of these men, like the Ten thousand Greeks, were fitted to command, Owen had fought at Camden, Morehead commanded the nine-months’ men sent to the South; Robeson and Ervine were the Percy’s of the Whigs, and might justly be called the Hotspurs of Cape Fear.


The foregoing narrative was detailed to me by two of the respectable combatants, who now sleep with their fathers; the substance of which I endeavored to preserve with all the accuracy a memory not very retentive will permit.


A Respectable resident of Elizabeth Town has recently informed me that he was a small boy at the time of the battle, and lived with his mother in one of the houses to which the Tories repaired for safety; that he has a distinct recollection of the fire of the Whigs, which appeared like one continued stream.  Documentary evidence I have none.


With great respect,&c…..”