The wives and mothers of Mecklenburg county bore a large share of the trials and dangers of the Revolution. Among these, and as a fair type of many others that might be mentioned, was Eleanor, wife of Robert Wilson, of Steele Creek–a woman of singular energy of mind, and warmly devoted to the American cause. Her husband, with three brothers and other kinsmen, settled in Mecklenburg about 1760, having moved from the colony of Pennsylvania. These brothers were Scotch Presbyterians, and arrayed by early religious education against tyranny in every form. At the Convention in Charlotte on the 20th of May, 1775, Zaccheus Wilson, representing all his kinsmen, signed that declaration, pledging himself, and his extensive connections, to its support and maintenance. At this crisis of our history there were a considerable number of timid persons, who shook their heads and characterized the actors in this opening scene of the bloody drama of the Revolution, as “madmen, rebels and traitors”. From the first to the last, Mrs. Wilson espoused the cause of liberty, and exulted in every patriotic success.
Animated by her enthusiasm, her husband and sons entered warmly into the contest. At the surrender of Charleston, her sons, Robert and Joseph, were made prisoners, but having given their parols, were allowed to return home. But they had scarcely reached their home in Mecklenburg when the British general issued his proclamation declaring the country subdued, and requiring every able-bodied militiaman to join the royal standard. Refusing to fight against their country, and being no longer bound as they believed, by their parols, they immediately repaired to the standard of General Sumter, and were with him in several battles. In the battle of the Hanging Rock, Captain David Reid, one of their kinsmen, was mortally wounded, and being in great agony, called for water, when Robert Wilson brought him some in his hat. In the same action, Joseph, a little in advance, was assaulted by a Tory, a powerful man, whom he knew; after a severe struggle, he killed him, and bore off his sword, now in possession of his son, David Wilson, of Maine county, Tennessee.
The elder Robert Wilson and his son John, having collected a supply of provisions and forage for General Sumter’s corps, from the neighborhood of Steele Creek, were hastening to meet them at Fishing Creek, and reached that vicinity a short time after the surprise. While engaged in this employment, the two Wilsons and the supplies were captured. The prisoners were hurried to the rear, after having been brutally threatened with hanging on the nearest tree, and by a forced march reached Camden next day, where they were added to a crowd of honorable captives, such as Andrew Jackson, Colonel Isaacs, General Rutherford and others.
In the meantime, Cornwallis, leaving Rawdon at Camden, marched with the larger portion of his army to “rebellious” Charlotte, to forage upon its farms, and to punish its inhabitants for their well-known resistance to royal authority. He reached Charlotte on the 26th of September, 1780, and during his stay of eighteen days, many scenes of rapine, house burnings and plunderings took place in and around that place. But the bold Whigs of Mecklenburg–the “hornets” of that section–although unable to keep the open field, were vigilant and at work, constantly popping the sentinels, and insolent dragoons of Tarleton, sent out as scouts and on foraging excursions. Becoming uneasy by these bold attacks of the rebels, frequently driving his foraging parties within sight of his camp, Cornwallis, when he heard of the defeat of Ferguson at King’s Mountain, concentrated his army, and, on the 14th of October, commenced his retrograde march towards Winnsboro, S.C. During this march, the British army halted for the night at Wilson’s plantation, near Steele Creek. Cornwallis and Tarleton occupied the house of Mrs. Wilson, requiring her to prepare a meal for them as though they had been her friends. Cornwallis, in the meantime, finding out that her husband and one of her sons were his prisoners in the Camden jail, artfully attempted to enlist her in the King’s cause.
“Madam, said he, your husband and son, are my prisoners; the fortune of war may soon place others of your sons–perhaps all your kinsmen, in my power. Your sons are young, aspiring, and brave. In a good cause, fighting for a generous and powerful king, such as George III., they might hope for rank, honor and wealth. If you could but induce your husband and sons to leave the rebels, and take up arms for their lawful sovereign, I would almost pledge myself that they shall have rank and consideration in the British army. If you, madam, will pledge yourself to induce them to do so, I will immediately order their discharge.”
To this artful appeal, Mrs. Wilson replied that “her husband and children were indeed dear to her, and that she was willing to do anything she thought right to promote their real and permanent welfare; but, in this instance, they had embarked in the holy cause of liberty; had fought and struggled for it during five years, never faltering for a moment, while others had fled from the contest, and yielded up their hopes at the first obstacle. I have,” she continued, “seven sons who are now, or have been, bearing arms–indeed, my seventh son, Zaccheus, who is only fifteen years old, I yesterday assisted to get ready to go and join his brothers in Sumter’s army. Now, sooner than see one of my family turn back from the glorious enterprise, I would take these boys (pointing to three or four small sons) and would myself enlist under Sumter’s standard, and show my husband and sons how to fight, and, if necessary, to die for their country.”
“Ah General,” interrupted the cold-hearted Tarleton, “I think you’ve got into a hornet’s nest! Never mind, when we get to Camden, I’ll take good care that old Robin Wilson never comes back.”
On the next day’s march, a party of scouts captured Zaccheus, who was found on the flank of the British army with his gun, endeavoring to diminish the number of His Majesty’s forces. He was immediately conducted to Cornwallis, who, finding out his name, took him along as a guide to the best ford on the Catawba. Arriving at the river, the head of the army entered at the point designated by the lad, but the soldiers soon found themselves in deep water, and drawn by a rapid current down the stream. Cornwallis, believing that the boy had purposely led him into deep water in order to embarrass his march, drew his sword, and swore he would cut off his head for his treachery. Zaccheus replied that he had the power to do so, as he had no arms, and was his prisoner; “but, sir,” said this resolute boy, “don’t you think it would be a cowardly act for you to strike an unarmed boy with your sword. If I had but the half of your weapon, it would not be so cowardly, but then you know, it would not be so safe.”
Cornwallis, struck by the boy’s cool courage, calmed down, told him he was a fine fellow, and that he would not hurt a hair of his head. Having discovered that the ford was shallow enough by bearing up the stream, the British army crossed over it safely, and proceeded to Winnsboro.
On this march, Cornwallis dismissed Zaccheus, telling him to go home and take care of his mother, and to tell her to keep her boys at home. After he reached Winnsboro, he dispatched an order to Rawdon, at Camden, to send Robin Wilson and his son John, with several others, to Charleston, carefully guarded. Accordingly, about the 20th of November, Wilson, his son, and ten others, set off under the escort of an officer and fifteen or twenty men. Wilson formed several plans of making his escape, but owing to the presence of large parties of the enemy, they could not be executed. At length, being near Fort Watson, they encamped before night, the prisoners being placed in the yard, and the guard in the house and in the portico. In a short time the arms of the guard were ordered to be stacked in the portico, a sentinel placed over them, and all others were soon busily engaged in preparing their evening meal. The prisoners, in the meantime, having bribed a soldier to buy some whiskey, as it was a rainy day, “pretended” to drink freely of it themselves, and one of them seemingly more intoxicated than the rest, insisted upon treating the sentinel. Wilson followed him, as if to prevent him from treating the sentinel, it being a breach of military order. Watching a favorable opportunity, he seized the sentinel’s musket, and the drunken man suddenly becoming sober, seized the sentinel. At this signal, the prisoners–like vigilant hornets, rushed to the stacked arms in the portico, when the guard, taking the alarm, rushed out of the house. But it was too late; the prisoners secured the arms, drove the soldiers into the house at the point of the bayonet, and the whole guard surrendered at discretion. Unable to take off their prisoners, Wilson made them all hold up their right hands and swear never again to bear arms against the “cause of liberty, and the Continental Congress,” and then told them they might go to Charleston on parole; but if he ever found “a single mother’s son of them in arms again, he would hang him up to a tree like a dog.”
Wilson had scarcely disposed of his prisoners before a party of British dragoons came in sight. As the only means of escape, they separated into several small companies, and took to the woods. Some of them reached Marion’s camp at Snow Island, and Wilson, with two or three others, arrived safely in Mecklenburg, over two hundred miles distant, and through a country overrun with British troops.
Mrs. Wilson was the mother of eleven sons. She and her husband lived to a good old age, were worthy and consistent members of the Presbyterian Church, died near the same time, in 1810, and are buried in Steele Creek graveyard.
About 1792, all the sons moved to Tennessee, where at the present time, and in other portions of the West, their descendants may be counted by the hundreds. Robert Wilson, who was said to be the first man that crossed the Cumberland mountains with a wagon, married Jane, a daughter of William and Ellen McDowell, of York county, S.C. Both Jane and her mother went to King’s Mountain after the battle, and remained several days in ministering to the wants of the wounded soldiers. It was mainly on the account of Robert Wilson’s distinguished bravery at King’s Mountain that William McDowell gave him his daughter Jane in marriage–a worthy gift, and worthily bestowed on a gallant soldier.