House in the Horseshoe
30 July 1781
Many Whigs and all Tories considered Colonel Philip Alston a bully and tyrant. Some revolutionists demanded the governor relieve Alston of his command. But as a wealthy planter, he wielded much influence with the state’s leadership.
The son of a prominent Halifax County, Virginia, family, Alston married Temperance Smith who had inherited much of her father’s wealth and bullheadedness. After they had moved to North Carolina, he acquired nearly seven thousand acres of farmland and forests on both sides of Deep River where the river dips into Cumberland County, forming a large horseshoe bend. On a bluff overlooking the fertile river bottom on three sides, Alston built a two-story clapboard house in 1772. Over the years, he prospered, raising cattle, sheep, hogs, and crops, including corn, wheat, flax, and hemp.
Alston served as a justice of the peace and member of the North Carolina Congress before becoming a regimental commander for Cumberland County's Whig militia. In 1778, he was captured by the British in a battle at Briar Creek in Georgia but escaped shortly after being confined to a prison ship. His imprisonment created a burning hatred of the British. At age forty, his followers considered him extraordinarily brave and dedicated to the Liberty cause.
Alston’s oldest child was four years old when he and Temperance arrived in the area with another son, two years younger. During the next few years, Temperance gave birth to six more children. The youngest was only six months old on that warm Sunday morning when David arrived with twenty-six Loyalists bent on vengeance.
From Widow Black’s home, we rode through the night, crossing Dickson’s Ford upstream of Alston’s home at dawn. We rested for about an hour before making our way to a vast cornfield within sight of Alston’s house. After hobbling our horses, we walked quietly through the cornfield until stumbling upon two sleeping sentries who we quickly gagged and bound. The Whig captives revealed that besides Alston’s family, twenty-five militiamen were at the house.
Two shots rang out as we crossed the split-rail fence protecting the cornfield from roaming cattle. Every man immediately dropped to the ground. No one was hit. Looking toward the settlement, we saw the gunpowder smoke and two men running toward the house to warn Alston about our approach. David ordered us to move briskly to within fifty yards of the residence.
The revolutionaries camping around Alston’s house and on his porch were barely stirring when the two shots startled them to action. After seeing the Loyalist militia maneuvering toward the house, they grabbed their weapons, ran inside, and fortified it to repel the pending assault.
Alston was dressing in the bedroom he shared with his wife and baby when he heard the shots. Glancing out the window, he saw two red-coated soldiers leading skirmishers toward his home. Alarmed at the brazenness of the Loyalists, Alston shouted to his men to take defensive positions at all the windows and outside doors. He rushed Temperance up to the second floor where the children slept. While gathering spare muzzle loaders and ammunition, he instructed the children to get inside the chimneys for protection from flying lead.
His eleven-year-old daughter Elizabeth took little Drew, one and a half, into one of the fireplaces on the second level and crawled up on a small table. Three other children—Temperance, age six; Mary, four; and Philip Junior, two and a half—crowded on a small bench inside the fireplace on the opposite side of the house. The chimneys stank of burned creosote. The children could see nothing except the light under their feet and a patch of sky above. They could, however, hear the load roar of musketry.
The two oldest Alston offspring, James and John, moved heavy wooden trunks to each side of a bed where their mother and youngest sibling lay on the floor under a mattress. James, sixteen, then manned a window shooting position in his mother’s room while John, fourteen, helped reload flintlocks.
As Alston’s men busied themselves with moving furniture against the outside walls and fortifying Alston’s home, our company encircled the house and found shelter behind rocks, outbuildings, trees, and bushes. With everyone in a fighting position, David yelled, “Philip Alston! Come out now.”
Alston looked out an open window and replied, “What scoundrel dares bring armed men to attack my family—my little children? Who are you?”
“I’m David Fanning with the loyal militia of our rightful government. You come out this instant and answer to charges of murder and treason. Prove yourself a man. There’s no need to harm any of your people or children. It is you, and only you, we want.”
“Go to hell!” Alston replied as he raised his rifle and shot at David.
Alston missed his target but triggered fusillades from both sides. Within minutes, balls from the king’s men shattered every window and riddled the walls with half-inch holes. Men on both sides suffered wounds, some debilitating, some fatal. Blood soaked the floor in every room of the Alston house. Choking from the thick malodorous smoke that jammed their hideaways, the children’s screams went unheard in the din. Hiding under a mattress, Temperance held her baby close and prayed as she heard lead balls smack into the walls around her. Everyone sweated in the stifling heat that increased as the sun rose in the morning sky.
Quietness settled over the area after an hour of sporadic shooting. Some of the smoke drifted away, leaving the combatants staring at one another’s powder smeared faces. David used the lull to call out again to Alston. “Philip Alston, don’t make your family and friends suffer for your sins. Come out and face your judgment like a man.”
Alston shouted back, “Fanning, you are the damn criminal, and you will die for defying the cause of liberty. Tell your people to back off. We got children in this house,”
“Only a coward hides behind his wife and children, Alston. If any harm comes to them, their blood will be on your hands.”
Shifting his tone, David called out to the Whigs fighting with Alston. “You rebels in the house! You are surrounded. You have no place to go. Walk out, and you can go home. It is the murderer Alston we want. He ain’t worth you dying for.”
A chorus of jeers and a renewed barrage of musket fire answered David’s plea. No Whig offered to surrender. When one of the Whigs fell mortally wounded next to James Alston, his younger brother took the dead man’s musket and shooting position. John was no stranger to the flintlock. Mimicking the other fighters, both brothers hurled insults at their adversaries while reloading their weapons.
After another half hour, we could see that many of Alston’s men were wounded or dead, but still, more than a dozen kept a slow but steady pace of fire from the house. It was accurate enough to force our heads low and restrict movement. Lieutenant McKay crept over to David. “Colonel, we aren’t getting anywhere this way. Let me show them rebels how the British army wins battles.”
“What’s your plan?”
“I’ll lead a charge on the house. They may knock down one or two of us, but our strength will overwhelm them. We can end this mess in a matter of minutes,” McKay argued.
Although dubious of McKay’s plan, David agreed. “Make it happen.”
McKay crawled back to an area hidden by thick bushes and picked eight men with muskets fitted for bayonets. None had ever used the favorite weapon of the British infantry. The lieutenant showed them how to fix the blade on their musket and said, “We’ll cross this little fence, fire a volley, then charge the house. We’ll finish off the rebels with the bayonet. Be bold and swift. Follow my lead.”
After they all had agreed, McKay lined them up as he would a squad of British regulars. “Follow me,” he yelled. He jumped over the fence, ran three yards, stopped, and fired his musket. As he raised his right arm to signal our boys forward, two balls knocked him backward. One hit his left chest, the other smashed through his teeth and into his brain.
When two others fell while crossing the fence, the remainder of the attackers crawled back to protective cover, the charge fizzling before it had a decent start. I jumped the fence with another man and pulled our two wounded Tories behind some bushes. Fortunately, no one shot us during the rescue.
Our powder and shot dwindled as the day progressed. Frustrated with the lack of success, David growled to those near him, “It’s time to burn the bastards out!”
George Rains ran over to one of Alston’s Negroes who was helping care for the wounded. “Thank you for your help,” George said. “Do you want to be a free man?”
“Can you carry a torch over to the house and throw it through a window?”
“Yas, suh. I do dat.”
He shook with fright, but the chance of getting his freedom papers made the risk worthwhile. A sergeant made a torch from dried flax pulled from the barn and tied it around an ax handle. The preparation was done out of the sight of the Whig gunmen. David pointed toward the house. “Run toward that corner, not in front of the house. They might see you, but it won’t be as easy for them to shoot at you.”
Striking a flint against his steel knife, George soon had the flax fibers burning. The Negro picked up the flaming torch as George slapped him on his shoulder. “Run, man, run! Burn those bastards out!”
Two defenders watched the torch bearer sprint toward the house. Both had to hang out the windows to get a good shot at the would-be arsonist. Their guns fired as the flame neared throwing range. Two balls slammed into the Negro, one in the leg, and the other in his shoulder. As he fell, he threw the flambeau at a window, but it fell far short. He crumbled to the ground in agony, too far away from the protection of the Tory line. The black man grimaced as cheers erupted within the house. However, one of the shooters was not among those cheering. Before he could duck back inside, a Loyalist ball hit him in the head, killing him instantly.
After a few more minutes of exchanging gunfire, David called his officers together to reassess their situation. “We are getting short of cartridges and have few loose balls and powder. What suggestions do you fellows have of ending this standoff?”
George Rains responded, “The lads are plumb tuckered out. They ain’t eaten since leaving Widow Black’s house. Some only got three or four shots each. And with children in that house, we ain’t got the heart to keep this going.”
I added my thoughts. “David, two of our men are dead, not counting that black fellow who is all but gone. Four others have been shot and no good for fighting. It’s already hot as blazes and ain’t even noon yet. Thee can’t continue much longer.”
“They have to be in worse shape than us. Boys, we can’t walk away from this murdering scoundrel. If we don’t take him today, he might have a bigger army the next time we meet. I know it’s hard, but we’ve got to do something before we run out of powder and have to go home,” David said.
Lieutenant Ebenezer Wollaston, who had scouted around Alston’s place, interrupted, “We can still burn them out.”
“How?” asked George. “It’s suicide to have someone run through that open ground with another torch.”
“I saw a cart full of hay back of the barn. Three or four of us could push it from behind and light it just before we get to the house. The cart will protect us from their ball. The rest of you keep shooting and force the rebels to keep their heads down.”
“Brilliant idea!” David said. “Eb, get some men and get that cart up by the cookhouse. George, you get your best shooters to bunch up near the path of the firewagon and give Eb and his boys covering fire.
“But the children!” I interjected. “Thee can’t burn the children, can thee?”
“I know, but once the house catches fire, there will be time for them to get out,” David answered. “Spread the word not to shoot at the children when they come out.”
James Alston was the first to spot the cart rolling toward the house. He tried to shoot the men pushing it, but they were hidden most of the time. As he watched a torch being lit, he screamed, “They’re gonna burn us out!”
After laying her baby safely between a fortress of trunks, Temperance crawled around upstairs bandaging wounded defenders. Alarmed by James’s scream, she rushed to the window to see for herself. John pushed her aside to shoot. Just as he aimed, a ball whizzed through the flesh of his right ear, causing blood to spew over his mother. She pulled her son to the floor, quickly saw the wound was not life-threatening, and gave him a rag to staunch the bleeding.
Temperance rushed down the narrow staircase, yelling for her husband. “Philip! Where are you? They are pushing a fire wagon toward the house!”
Colonel Alston was exhausted. Blood trickled from a where a ball had brushed through his hair and barely creased his skull. Four of his Whigs were dead, all but three suffered wounds, most of them severe. He just stared blankly at Temperance and said, “It’s me they want to hang. I can no longer jeopardize our children’s lives. I will give them a flag so they can have their way with me.”
“No, husband,” she cried, “I don’t want you dead. The children need a father. There’s been enough of this fighting!”
Headstrong and determined, she quickly took off her blood-smeared apron, opened the door a crack, and waved the apron as a signal for a truce. She yelled, “Stop shooting! Stop that shooting, please!”
David saw the waving cloth and bellowed, “Hold your fire! Keep your place. They are offering a flag.”
Holding the apron over her head, Temperance walked out on the porch and down the stairs into the yard. David yelled at her, “Where’s Philip Alston?”
“I’m his wife…Temperance Alston. I speak for all inside the house. Please, let’s end this.”
David motioned me to walk with him toward Temperance, who looked older than her thirty-five years. Standing straight with splotches of blood on her dress, face, and arms, her blue eyes focused on David. “I beg you, don’t burn our house. I have eight children inside. Most of the men are hurt, some of them dying.”
“Well, Mistress Alston, tell that husband of yours to come out now with no weapon in his hand.”
“Are you going to kill him?”
“He must pay for at least two murders and other crimes, including treason.”
“If you are going to hang him, then he chooses to die fighting,” she said defiantly.
“Well, send your children out. No harm will come to them or you. We’ll give safe passage to the other rebels who surrender but not to Philip Alston. You have five minutes before the fire wagon starts rolling again.”
Temperance’s face became hard as she bitterly snapped, “Sir, my young’uns and I will suffer the same fate as my husband. We stand by his cause. We will not betray him. My children will not live as orphans.”
We admired her spunk, but her adamant response appalled us. I whispered in David’s ear, “If thee burn those children, thee will lose the support of many friends. Remember, we need allies for the government. If thee hurt the children, people will turn against us. You will be viewed worse than Alston if you burn the family.”
David nodded in agreement and turned to Temperance, who was fighting to maintain her resolve and keep tears from flowing. “Madam, if your husband will give himself up to me now, and he and his men take parole to remain out of fighting for the duration of this war, I will end our attack. We will not burn your house. I will not hang him.”
“I will tell Colonel Alston,” she said. “Please give me a few minutes.”
“You have five minutes, Mistress Alston. If your husband does not come out with his arms free and his men surrendering their weapons, then we will resume hostilities.” David’s voice turned cold and hard. “And as distasteful as it is, I will burn you out.”
Temperance ran back into the house as we scurried back to safety. Two minutes later, the door opened again. Alston and his wife came out, she still holding her bloodied apron as a flag of surrender. Ten rebels who could still walk followed, although most wore bloody bandages.
Our boys quickly collected the Whig guns and knives as the Alston children came outside. Their sooty clothes reeked with the smells of burned powder and creosote. The younger ones clung to their mother’s and oldest sister’s legs. Some cried. Elizabeth held the baby, content in the big sister’s arms. Alston’s two sulking teenage sons shuffled with the Whig combatants, John still holding a red-soaked rag over his ear. They were a pitiful sight.
While David and Alston discussed the terms of parole, three uninjured Tories with three unhurt Whigs went into a field near the house and dug graves for the dead. Other Loyalists scoured the house for anything of value they could take. Temperance helped me and a few others tend to the more serious wounded from both sides. Some of the black women who had cowered in the slave quarters came to help.
David noticed Jacob Duckworth among the Whig wounded and walked over to him. “Aren’t you the scoundrel who stole my horses last March?” he demanded.
Although suffering from shoulder and hand wounds, Duckworth looked up at David with a slight smile. “Yes, Colonel Fanning. We had a jolly good time at your expense. I just wish they had got you, too.”
“Well, you taught me to a lesson—never take one’s enemy for granted,” David said without emotion. “I ought to hang you here and now for horse stealing, Mister Duckworth. But I promised a parole if you accepted the terms.”
Each belligerent, including the Alston teenagers, signed a parole acknowledging he was a prisoner of war. They promised not to travel beyond five miles from their home and not cause anything to be done prejudicial to His Majesty’s government or have correspondence with any of the king’s enemies. Late in the midafternoon, we took our leave from Alston and returned to Cox's Mill.
Alston and his friends began the formidable task of repairing the home left in shambles by the day’s battle. It would be two years before the broken glass windows could be replaced. Most of the Whigs who fought with Alston honored their parole until the war’s end.
© 2016 Joe Epley