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Biography of Mrs. Elizabeth Steele

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The long, arduous and eventful retreat of General Morgan through the Carolinas, after the battle of the Cowpens, and the eager pursuit of Cornwallis to overtake him, encumbered with more than five hundred prisoners, on his way to a place of safety in Virginia, affords many interesting incidents. General Greene having met Morgan on the eastern banks of the Catawba river, at Sherrill’s Ford, and directed his forward movements, proceeded to Salisbury, a little in advance of his forces. It had been slightly raining during the day, and his wet garments, appearance of exhaustion and dejection of spirits at the loss of General Davidson at Cowan’s Ford, as he dismounted at the door of the principal hotel in Salisbury, indicated too clearly that he was suffering under harassing anxiety of mind. Dr. Reed, who had charge of the sick and wounded prisoners, while he waited for the General’s arrival, was engaged in writing the necessary paroles for such officers as could not go on. General Greene’s aids having been dispatched to different parts of the retreating army, he was alone when he rode up to the hotel. Dr. Reed, noticing his dispirited looks, remarked that he appeared to be fatigued; to which the wearied officer replied: “Yes, fatigued, hungry, alone, and penniless!” General Greene had hardly taken his seat at the well-spread table, when Mrs. Steele, the landlady of the hotel, entered the room and carefully shut the door behind her. Approaching her distinguished guest, she reminded him of the despondent words he had uttered in her hearing, implying, as she thought, a distrust of the devotion of his friends to the cause of freedom. She declared money he should have, and immediately drew from under her apron two small bags full of specie, probably the earnings of several years, “Take these, General,” said she, “you need them and I can do without them.” This offering of a benevolent heart, accompanied with words of kindness and encouragement, General Greene accepted with thankfulness. “Never,” says his biographer, “did relief come at a more propitious moment; nor would it be straining conjecture to suppose that he resumed his journey with his spirits cheered and lightened by this touching proof of woman’s devotion to the cause of her country.”

General Greene did not remain long in Salisbury; but before his departure from the house of Mrs. Steele, he left a memorial of his visit. Seeing a picture of George III. hanging against the wall, sent as a present to a connection of Mrs. Steele from England, he took it down and wrote with chalk on the back, “O George, hide thy face, and mourn,” and replaced it with the face to the wall. The picture, with the writing uneffaced, is still in possession of a grand daughter. Mrs. Steele was twice married; her first husband was a Gillespie, by whom she had a daughter, Margaret, who married the Rev. Samuel E. McCorkle, a distinguished Presbyterian minister; and Richard Gillespie, who was a Captain in the Revolution, and died unmarried. By her second husband, William Steele, she had only one child, the Hon. John Steele, who died in Salisbury on the 14th of August, 1815. He was a conspicuous actor in the councils of the State and Nation, and one whose services offer materials for an interesting and instructive biography.

Mrs. Steele died in Salisbury on the 22d of November, 1790. She was distinguished not only for her strong attachment to the cause of freedom, but for the piety which shone forth brightly in her pilgrimage upon earth. Among her papers was found, after her death, a written dedication of herself to her Creator, and a prayer for support in the practice of christian duty; with a letter, left as a legacy to her children, enjoining it upon them to make religion the great work of life.


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