The Women of the American Revolution/Jane Thomas, Isabella Sims, Mrs. Jolly, Mrs. Otterson, Nancy Jackson, Jane McJunkin
THE state of popular feeling after the occupation of Charleston by the British, and during the efforts made to establish an undisputed control over the State, might be in some measure illustrated by the life of Mrs. Thomas, were there materials for a full narrative of incidents in which she and her neighbors bore an active or passive part. It is in wild and stirring times that such spirits are nurtured, and arise in their strength. She was another of the patriotic females in whose breast glowed such ardent patriotism, that no personal hazard could deter from service, wherever service could be rendered. She was a native of Chester County, Pennsylvania, and the sister of the Reverend John Black, of Carlisle, the first president of Dickinson College. She was married about 1740, to John Thomas, supposed to be a native of Wales, who had been brought up in the same county. Some ten or fifteen years after his marriage, Mr. Thomas removed to South Carolina. His residence for some time was upon Fishing Creek in Chester District. About the year 1762, he removed to what is now called Spartanburg District, and settled upon Fairforest Creek, a few miles above the spot where the line dividing that district from Union crosses the stream. Mrs. Thomas was much beloved and respected in that neighborhood. She was one of the first members of the Presbyterian congregation organized about that time, and known as Fairforest church, of which she continued a zealous and efficient member as long as she resided within its bounds.
For many years previous to the commencement of the Revolutionary war, Mr. Thomas was a magistrate and a captain of militia. Before hostilities began, he resigned both these commissions. When Colonel Fletcher refused to accept a commission under the authority of the province of South Carolina, an election was held, and John Thomas was chosen Colonel of the Spartan regiment. The proximity of this regiment to the frontier imposed a large share of active service on the soldiers belonging to it, and devolved great responsibilities upon its commander. Colonel Thomas led out his quota of men to repel the Indians in 1776, and shared the privations and dangers connected with the expedition under General Williamson into the heart of the Indian territory, in the autumn of that year. When that campaign terminated, and the Indians sued for peace, the protection of a long line of the frontier was intrusted to him. With diligence, fidelity and zeal did he perform this duty; and retained his command till after the fall of Charleston.
As soon as the news of the surrender of that city reached the borders of the State, measures were concerted by Colonels Thomas, Brandon and Lysles, for the concentration of their forces with a view to protect the country. Their schemes were frustrated by the devices of Colonel Fletcher, who still remained in the neighborhood. Having discovered their intentions, he gave notice to some British troops recently marched into the vicinity, and to a body of tory cavalry thirty miles distant. These were brought together, and surprised the force collected by Brandon at the point designated, before the others had time to arrive. Within a short time after this event, almost every whig between the Broad and Saluda rivers was compelled to abandon the country or accept British protection. Numbers of them fled to North Carolina. Colonel Thomas, then advanced in life, with some others in like defenceless circumstances, took protection. By this course, they hoped to secure permission to remain unmolested with their families; but in this supposition they were lamentably mistaken. It was not long before Colonel Thomas was arrested, and sent to prison at Ninety-Six. Thence he was conveyed to Charleston, where he remained in durance till near the close of the war.
It was the policy of Cornwallis, whom Sir Henry Clinton, on his departure to New York, had left in command of the royal army, to compel submission by the severest measures. The bloody slaughter under Tarleton at Waxhaw Creek, was an earnest of what those who ventured resistance might expect. This course was pursued with unscrupulous cruelty, and the unfortunate patriots were made to feel the vengeance of exasperated tyranny. He hoped thus eventually to crush and extinguish the spirit still struggling and flashing forth, like hidden fire, among the people whom the arm of power had for a season brought under subjection. But the oppressor, though he might overawe, could not subdue the spirit of a gallant and outraged people. The murmur of suffering throughout the land rose ere long into a mighty cry for deliverance. The royal standard became an object of execration. And while brave leaders were at hand-while the fearless and determined Sumter could draw about him the hardy sons of the upper and middle country-while the patriotic Marion, ever fertile in resource, could harass the foe from his impenetrable retreat in the recesses of forests and swamps; while the resolute and daring Pickens could bring his bold associates to join in the noble determination to burst the chains riveted on a prostrate land-and others of the same mould, familiar with difficulties, accustomed to toil and danger, and devoted to the cause of their suffering country, were ready for prompt and energetic action-hope could be entertained that all was not yet lost. The outrages committed by the profligate and abandoned, whose loyalty was the cover for deeds of rapine and blood, served but to bind in closer union the patriots who watched their opportunity for annoying the enemy, and opening a way for successful resistance.
One of the congenial co-operators in these plans of the British commander, was Colonel Ferguson. He encouraged the loyalists to take arms, and led them to desolate the homes of their neighbors. About the last of June he came into that part of the country where the family of Colonel Thomas lived, and caused great distress by the pillage and devastation of the bands of tories who hung around his camp. The whigs were robbed of their negroes, horses, cattle, clothing, bedding, and every article of property of sufficient value to take away. These depredations were frequent, the expeditions for plunder being sometimes weekly; and were continued as long as the tories could venture to show their faces. In this state of things, while whole families suffered, female courage and fortitude were called into active exercise; and Mrs. Thomas showed herself a bright example of boldness, spirit and determination.
While her husband was a prisoner at Ninety-Six, she paid a visit to him and her two sons, who were his companions in rigorous captivity. By chance she overheard a conversation between some tory women, the purport of which deeply interested her. One said to the others: "To-morrow night the loyalists intend to surprise the rebels at Cedar Spring."
The heart of Mrs. Thomas was thrilled with alarm at this intelligence. The Cedar Spring was within a few miles of her house; the whigs were posted there, and among them were some of her own children.
Her resolution was taken at once; for there was no time to be lost. She determined to apprise them of the enemy's intention, before the blow could be struck. Bidding a hasty adieu to her husband and sons, she was upon the road as quickly as possible; rode the intervening distance of nearly sixty miles the next day, and arrived in time to bring information to her sons and friends of the impending danger. The moment they knew what was to be expected, a brief consultation was held; and measures were immediately taken for defence. The soldiers withdrew a short distance from their camp-fires, which were prepared to burn as brightly as possible. The men selected suitable positions in the surrounding woods.
Their preparations were just completed, when they heard in the distances amid the silence of night, the cautious advance of the foe. The scene was one which imagination, far better than the pen of the chronicler, can depict. Slowly and warily, and with tread as noiseless as possible, the enemy advanced; till they were already within the glare of the blazing fires, and safely, as it seemed, on the verge of their anticipated work of destruction. No sound betrayed alarm; they supposed the intended victims wrapped in heavy slumbers; they heard but the crackling of the flames, and the hoarse murmur of the wind as it swept through the pine trees. The assailants gave the signal for the onset, and rushed towards the fires-eager for indiscriminate slaughter. Suddenly the flashes and shrill reports of rifles revealed the hidden champions of liberty. The enemy, to their consternation, found themselves assailed in the rear by the party they had expected to strike unawares. Thrown into confusion by this unexpected reception, defeat, overwhelming defeat, was the consequence to the loyalists. They were about one hundred and fifty strong, while the whigs numbered only about sixty. The victory thus easily achieved they owed to the spirit and courage of a woman! Such were the matrons of that day.
Not merely upon this occasion was Mrs. Thomas active in conveying intelligence to her friends, and in arousing the spirit of Independence among its advocates. She did, as well as suffered much, during the period of devastation and lawless rapine. One instance of her firmness is well remembered. Early in the war Governor Rutledge sent a quantity of arms and ammunition to the house of Colonel Thomas, to be in readiness for any emergency that might arise on the frontier. These munitions were under a guard of twenty-five men; and the house was prepared to resist assault. Colonel Thomas received information that a large party of tories, under the command of Colonel More of North Carolina, was advancing to attack him. He and his guard deemed it inexpedient to risk an encounter with a force so much superior to their own; and they "therefore retired, carrying off as much ammunition as possible. Josiah Culbertson, a son-in-law of Colonel Thomas, who was with the little garrison, would not go with the others, but remained in the house. Besides him and a youth, the only inmates were women. The tories advanced, and took up their station; but the treasure was not to be yielded to their demand. Their call for admittance was answered by an order to leave the premises; and their fire was received without much injury by the logs of the house. The fire was quickly returned from the upper story, and proved much more effectual than that of the assailants. The old-fashioned "batten door," strongly barricaded, resisted their efforts to demolish it. Meanwhile Culbertson continued to fire, the guns being loaded as fast as he discharged them, by the ready hands of Mrs. Thomas and her daughters, aided by her son William; and this spirited resistance soon convinced the enemy that further effort was useless. Believing that many men were concealed in the house, and apprehending a sally, their retreat was made as rapidly as their wounds would permit. After waiting a prudent time, and reconnoitering as well as she could from her position above, Mrs. Thomas descended the stairs, and opened the doors. When her husband made his appearance, and knew how gallantly the plunderers had been repulsed, his joy was only equalled by admiration of his wife's heroism. The powder thus preserved constituted the principal supply for Sumter's army in the battles at Rocky Mount and Hanging Rock.
Mrs. Thomas was the mother of nine children; and her sons and sons-in-law were active in the American service. John, the eldest son, rose during the war from the rank of captain till he succeeded his father in the command of the Spartan regiment. This he commanded at the battle of the Cowpens, and elsewhere. He was with Sumter in several of hrs most important engagements. Robert, another son, was killed in Roebuck's defeat. Abram, who was wounded at Ninety-Six and taken prisoner, died in the enemy's hands. William, the youth who had assisted in defending his home on the occasion mentioned, took part in other actions. Thus Mrs. Thomas was liable to some share of the enmity exhibited by the royalists towards another matron, against whom the charge, «She has seven sons in the rebel army," was an excuse for depredations on her property. If she had but four sons, she had sons-in-law who were likewise brave and zealous in the cause. Martha, one of the daughters, married Josiah Culbertson, who was the most effective scout in the country. He fought the Indians single-handed and in the army; was in nearly every important battle; and killed a number of celebrated tories in casual encounter. He seems to have been a special favorite with Colonel Isaac Shelby, in whose regiment he served in the battle at Musgrove's Mill, King's Mountain, and elsewhere. To this officer his daring spirit and deadly aim .with the rifle, especially commended him; and he was employed by Shelby in the execution of some important trusts. He received a captain's commission towards the close of the war.
Ann was the wife of Joseph McJunkin, who entered the service of his country as a private, at the age of twenty, and rose to the rank of major before the close of 1780. He was in most of the battles before March, 1781, and contributed much to the success of those fought at Hanging Rock, Musgrove's Mill, Blackstock's Ford, and the Cowpens. This brave and faithful officer died in 1840. A sketch of his life, by the Rev. James H. Saye, of South Carolina, is in preparation, and has in part been published.
Jane, the third daughter, married Captain Joseph McCool; and Letitia was the wife of Major James Lusk. Both these were brave and efficient patriots; but the scenes of their exploits, and the success that attended them, are now remembered but in tradition. Of how many who deserve the tribute of their country's gratitude, is history silent! Every member of this family, it will thus be seen, had a personal interest in the cause of the country.
Not only was Mrs. Thomas distinguished for her indomitable perseverance where principle and right were concerned, and for her ardent spirit of patriotism, but for eminent piety, discretion, and industry. Her daughters exhibited the same loveliness of character, with the uncommon beauty of person which they inherited from her. All accounts represent Mrs. Culbertson as a woman of great beauty; and her sister Ann is said to have been little inferior to her in personal appearance. Mrs. Thomas herself was rather below the ordinary stature, with black eyes and hair, rounded and pleasing features, fair complexion, and countenance sprightly and expressive.
Soon after the close of the war, Colonel Thomas removed into Greenville district, where he and his wife resided till their death. But few of their descendants remain in the section of country where their parents lived, being scattered over the regions of the far West. To the gentleman already mentioned as the biographer of McJunkin, I am indebted for all these details, ascertained from authentic papers in his possession.
A FEW anecdotes of other women in the region where Mrs. Thomas lived during the war, are of interest as showing the state of the times. Isabella Sims, the wife of Captain Charles Sims, resided on Tyger River, six or seven miles below the scene of Brandon's defeat, above mentioned, on Fairforest Creek. When she heard of that disaster, she went up and devoted herself for several days to nursing the wounded soldiers. Daniel McJunkin shared her maternal care, and recovered to render substantial service afterwards.
On another occasion, having heard the noise of battle during the afternoon and night, she went up early in the morning to Leighton's. A scout consisting of eight whigs had been surrounded by a very large body of tories. Some of the scouts made their escape by charging through the line; four defended themselves in the house till after dark, when they surrendered. Mrs. Sims, on her arrival, found that John Jolly, a whig officer who belonged to the vicinity, had been shot in attempting to escape. She sent for his wife, and made the necessary arrangements for his decent burial. Sarah, his widow, was left with five children; and for a time had great difficulty in procuring a subsistence. Her house was visited almost weekly by plundering parties, and robbed of food and clothing. At one time one of the robbers remained after the others had gone; and to an order to depart returned a refusal, with abusive and profane language. The exasperated mother seized a stick, with which she broke his arm, and drove him from the premises.
Not long after the death of Jolly, the famous Cunningham, a tory colonel who acted a prominent part in the partisan warfare of Laurens, Newberry, and Edgefield districts, came with a squadron of cavalry to the house of Captain Sims, who was gone for safety to North Carolina. Calling Mrs. Sims to the door, Cunningham ordered her to quit the place in three days; saying if he found the family there on his' return, he would shut them in the house and burn it over them. Mrs. Sims fled with her family across the country to the house of a friendly old man; and remained there till her husband came and took them to York District, and thence to Virginia.
The wife of Major Samuel Otterson, a distinguished patriot, who lived also on Tyger River, chanced to know the place where a barrel of powder was concealed in the woods close at hand. She received intelligence one night that a party of tories would come for the treasure the next morning. Resolved that it should not fall into their hands, she prepared a train immediately, and blew up the powder. In the morning came the enemy, and on their demand for it, were told by Mrs. Otterson what she had done. They refused to believe her, but cut off her dress at the waist, and drove her before them to show the place of deposit. The evidence of its fate was conclusive, when they reached the spot.
Other instances of female intrepidity are rife in popular memory. Miss Nancy Jackson, who lived in the Irish settlement near Fairforest Creek, kicked a tory down the steps as he was descending loaded with plunder. In a great rage he threatened to send the Hessian troops there next day; which obliged her to take refuge with an acquaintance several miles distant. On one occasion the house of Samuel McJunkin, a stout patriot, but too old for the battle-field, was visited by a party under the noted Colonel Patrick Moore. They stayed all night; and when about to depart, stripped the house of bed-clothes and wearing apparel. The last article taken was a bed-quilt, which one Bill Haynesworth placed upon his horse. Jane, Mr. McJunkin's daughter, seized it, and a struggle ensued. The soldiers amused themselves by exclaiming, "Well done, woman !"--" Well done, Bill!" For once the colonel's feelings of gallantry predominated; and he swore if Jane could take the quilt from the man, she should have it. Presently in the contest, Bill's feet slipped from under him, and he lay panting on the ground. Jane placed one foot upon his breast and wrested the quilt from his grasp.