David Fanning was captured fourteen times by the Patriot forces in the upper Cape Fear valley of North Carolina. He escaped nearly every time, twice while chained and once while chained and naked. He was feared and hated by the Patriot leaders, and tales of his cruelty can still be found in popular accounts of the Revolution.
Some of his Patriot prisoners saw it differently. On one of his lightning raids, he marched his men seventeen miles overnight, surrounded the Chatham courthouse, and captured all but two of the militia officers of the county plus three Assembly delegates. Several of these prisoners subsequently wrote to Governor Burke, praising Fanning and denouncing the abuses committed by their own comrades against the local inhabitants.
The prisoners reported that Fanning’s troops consisted primarily of “persons who complained of the greatest cruelties, either to their persons or property. Some had been unlawfully Drafted, Others had been whipped and ill-treated, without tryal; Others had their houses burned, and all their property plundered, and Barbarous and cruel Murders had been committed in their Neighborhoods.” The writers went on to say that “…notwithstanding the Cruel treatment these people have received, We have been treated with the greatest Civility and with the utmost respect and politeness by our Commanding Officer, Col. Fanning, to whom we are under the greatest Obligations.”
Among the Patriot officers singled out for special condemnation was Col. Phil Alston. According to Fanning’s own account, most of his raids were undertaken in a spirit of outraged decency, in retaliation for a specific Patriot abuse, and that would certainly apply to his battle with Alston. Alston was the owner of the “House in the Horseshoe” on the Deep River, still a local historical monument. Following another of his all-night marches, Fanning and his men surrounded the house, “determined to make an example” of Alston for his brutal and tyrannical behavior. Three hours later, the men in the house surrendered, on discovering that Fanning’s men were preparing to set in on fire. The bullet holes made by Fanning’s men are still pointed out to visitors.
A few months later, Fanning attacked the town of Hillsboro. His 200 prisoners in that raid included Governor Burke, his entire Council, and numerous officers of the Continental Army. Even after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Fanning went on fighting. Finally he tired of the fight, got married, danced all night, and followed his fellow Loyalists into exile.
And for the family historian, the question is this: which side was my ancestor on?Share