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General Joseph Graham was born in Pennsylvania on the 13th of October, 1759. His mother being left a widow with five small children, and slender means of support, removed to North Carolina when he was about seven years of age, and settled in the neighborhood of Charlotte. He received the principal part of his education at “Queen’s Museum” in Charlotte, (afterward called “Liberty Hall Academy,”) and was distinguished for his talents, industry and manly deportment. His thirst for knowledge led him at an early period to become well acquainted with all those interesting and exciting events which preceded our Revolutionary struggle. He was present in Charlotte on the 20th of May, 1775, when the first Declaration of Independence was formally and publicly made. The deep impression made upon his mind by the solemn and illustrious decisions of that day gave good evidence that he was then preparing for the noble stand which he took during the war.
He enlisted in the army of the United States in May, 1778, at the age of nineteen years. He served in the Fourth Regiment of North Carolina regular troops, under Col. Archibald Lytle, acting as an officer in Captain Gooden’s company. The troops to which he was attached were ordered to rendezvous at Bladensburg, Md. Having marched as far as Caswell county they received intelligence of the battle of Monmouth, when he returned home on a furlough.
He again entered the service on the 5th of November, 1778, and marched under General Rutherford to Purysburg, on the Savannah river, soon after the defeat of Gen. Ashe at Brier Creek. He was with the troops under Gen. Lincoln, and fought in the battle of Stono, against Gen. Prevost, on the 20th of June, 1779, which lasted one hour and twenty minutes. During nearly the whole of this campaign he acted as quartermaster. In July, 1779, he was taken with the fever, and after two months’ severe illness was discharged near Dorchester, and returned home.
After the surrender of Charleston, and defeat of Col. Bufort at the Waxhaw, he again entered the service as adjutant of the Mecklenburg Regiment, and spent the summer in opposing the advance of Lord Rawdon into North Carolina, and assailing his troops, then within forty miles of Charlotte.
When it was understood that the British were marching to Charlotte he was ordered by General Davidson to repair to that place, and take command of such a force as he could readily collect, and join Col. Davie. “About midnight” of the 25th of September, 1780, Col. Davie reached Charlotte. On the next day the British army entered Charlotte, and received such a “stinging” reception as to cause Lord Cornwallis to designate the place as the “Hornets’ Nest of America.” After a well-directed fire upon the British from the Court House to the gum tree, Gen. Graham, with the troops assigned to his command, retreated, opposing Tarleton’s cavalry and a regiment of infantry for four miles on the Salisbury road. On the plantation formerly owned by Joseph McConnaughey, he again formed his men, and attacked the advancing British infantry. After again retreating, he formed on the hill above where Sugar Creek Church now stands. There, owing to the imprudent but honest zeal of Major White, they were detained too long, for by the time they had reached the crossroads a party of British dragoons were in sight, and, after close pursuit for nearly two miles, overtook them. It was at this time that Lieut. George Locke, a brother of Col. Francis Locke, of Rowan county, was killed at the margin of a small pond, now to be seen at the end of Alexander Kennedy’s lane. Between that spot and where James A. Houston now lives, Gen. Graham was cut down and severely wounded. He received nine wounds, six with the saber and three from musket balls. His life was narrowly and mercifully preserved by a large stock buckle which broke the violence of the stroke. He received four deep gashes of the saber over his head and one in his side; and three balls were afterward removed from his body. After being much exhausted by loss of blood, he reached the house of the late Mrs. Susannah Alexander, where he was kindly nursed and watched during the night, and his wounds dressed as well as circumstances would permit. On the next day he reached his mother’s residence, where the late Major Bostwick resided, and from that place transferred to the hospital in Charlotte.
Thus, at the tender age of twenty-one years, we see this gallant young officer leading a band of as brave men as ever faced a foe, to guard the ground first consecrated by the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, leaving his blood as the best memorial of a righteous cause, and of true heroism in its defence.
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As soon as he recovered from his wounds, he again entered the service of his country. Gen. Davidson, who had command of all the militia in the western counties of the State, applied to him to raise one or more companies, promising him such rank as the number of men raised would justify. Through his great energy, perseverance and influence he succeeded in raising a company of fifty-five men in two weeks. These were mounted riflemen, armed also with swords, and some with pistols.
They supplied themselves with their own horses and necessary equipments, and entered the field without commissary or quartermaster, and with every prospect of hard fighting, and little compensation. After Tarleton’s signal defeat at the Cowpens, Cornwallis resolved to pursue Gen. Morgan, encumbered with upwards of five hundred prisoners. At that time Gen. Greene had assumed command of the southern army, and stationed himself with a portion of it at Hicks’ Creek, near to Cheraw. After Gen. Morgan’s successful retreat, Gen. Greene left his main army with Gen. Huger, and rode one hundred and fifty miles to join Gen. Morgan’s detachment near the Catawba river. The plan of opposing Lord Cornwallis in crossing the Catawba was arranged by Gen. Greene, and its execution assigned to Gen. Davidson. Lieutenant Col. Webster moved forward and crossed the Catawba in advance with a detachment of cavalry co create the impression that the whole British army would cross there, but the real intention of Cornwallis was to make the attempt at Cowan’s Ford. Soon after the action commenced, Gen. Davidson was killed, greatly lamented by all who knew him as a brave and generous officer. The company commanded by Gen. Graham commenced the attack upon the British as they advanced through the river, and resolutely kept it up until they ascended the bank. The British then poured in a heavy fire upon Graham’s men, two of whom were killed. Col. William Polk and Rev. T.H. McCaule were near Gen. Davidson when he fell. Col. Hall and three or four of the British were killed and upwards of thirty wounded. The British were detained here about three hours in burying their dead and then resumed their march in pursuit of Gen. Morgan.
The body of General Davidson was secured by David Wilson and Richard Barry, conveyed to the house of Samuel Wilson, Sen., there dressed for burial, and interred that night in the graveyard of Hopewell Church.
The North Carolina militia were then placed under the command of General Pickens, of South Carolina, and continued to harass the British as they advanced toward Virginia. General Graham with his company, and some troops from Rowan county, surprised and captured a guard at Hart’s Mill, one mile and a-half from Hillsboro, where the British army then lay, and the same day joined Colonel Lee’s forces. On the next day, under General Pickens, he was in the action against Colonel Pyles, who commanded about three hundred and fifty Tories on their way to join Tarleton. These Tories supposed the Whigs to be a company of British troops sent for their protection, and commenced crying, “God save the King.” Tarleton was about a mile from this place, and retreated to Hillsboro. Shortly afterward General Graham was in an engagement under Colonel Lee, at Clapp’s Mill, on the Alamance, and had two of his company killed, three wounded and two made prisoners. Again, a few days afterward, he was in the action at Whitsell’s Mill, under Colonel Washington. As the term of service of his men had expired, and the country was annoyed with Tories, General Greene directed him to return with his company and keep them in a compact body until they crossed the Yadkin, which they did on the 14th of March, 1781.
After the battle of Guilford the British retired to Wilmington, and but little military service was performed in North Carolina during the summer of 1781. About the 1st of September Fannin surprised Hillsboro and took Governor Burke prisoner. General Rutherford, who had been taken prisoner at Gates’ defeat, was set at liberty, and returned home about this time. He immediately gave orders to General Graham, in whose military prowess and influence he placed great confidence, to raise a troop of cavalry in Mecklenburg county. These troops of dragoons, and about two hundred mounted infantry, were raised and formed into a legion, over which Robert Smith was made Colonel and General Graham Major. They immediately commenced their march toward Wilmington. South of Fayetteville, with ninety-six dragoons and forty mounted infantry, made a gallant and successful attack against a body of Tories commanded by the noted Tory Colonels, McNeil, Ray, Graham and McDougal. This action took place near McFalls’ Mill, on the Raft swamp, in which the Tories were signally defeated, their leaders dispersed, and their cause greatly damaged. In this spirited engagement one hundred and thirty-six Whigs opposed and vanquished six hundred Tories, reflecting great credit upon the bravery and military sagacity of General Graham.
A short time afterward he commanded one troop of dragoons and two of mounted infantry, and defeated a band of Tories on Alfred Moore’s plantation, opposite Wilmington. On the next day he led the troops in person, and attacked the British garrison near the same place. Shortly afterward he commanded three companies in defeating Colonel Gagny, near Waccamaw lake. This campaign closed General Graham’s services in the Revolutionary war, having commanded in fifteen engagements with a degree of courage, wisdom, calmness and success, surpassed, perhaps, by no officer of the same rank.
Hundreds who served under him have delighted in testifying to the upright, faithful, and undaunted manner in which he discharged the duties of his trying and responsible station. Never was he known to shrink from any toil, however painful, or quail before any danger, however threatening, or stand back from any privations or sacrifices which might serve his country. After the close of the war he was elected the first Sheriff of Mecklenburg county, and gave great satisfaction by the faithful performance of the duties of that office. From 1788 to 1794 he was elected to the Senate from the same county. About the year 1787 he was married to Isabella, the second daughter of Major John Davidson. By this marriage he had twelve children. Not long after his marriage he removed to Lincoln county and engaged in the manufacture of iron. For more than forty years before his death he conducted a large establishment of iron works with great energy and success.
In 1814 General Graham commanded a Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers against the Creek Indians, and arrived about the time the last stroke of punishment was inflicted upon this hostile tribe by General Jackson, at the battle of the Horse Shoe. For many years after the war he was Major General of the 5th Division of the North Carolina Militia. By a life of temperance and regular exercise, with the blessing of God, he enjoyed remarkable health and vigor of constitution.
On the 13th of October, 1836, he made the following minute in his day-book: “This day I am seventy-seven years of age, “Dei Gratia”.” He rode from Lincolnton on the 10th of November, soon thereafter was struck with apoplexy, and on the evening of the 12th closed his eyes upon the cares and trials of a long, useful and honorable life.
General Joseph Graham was the father of the late Ex-Governor William A. Graham, one of North Carolina’s most worthy, honorable, and illustrious sons.