Gary Strader/gStrader Photography

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

After The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Chapter Two

So Then Cornwallis having made his way south down into the newly formed county of Randolph, having sent his baggage wagons ahead, arrives at Bell's Mill. 
Taken from: Revolutionary incidents and sketches of
character chiefly in the "Old North State" : volumes 1 and
2  Stmnt.Resp.:  by E. W. Caruthers ; typed and indexed
by Ruth F. Thompson.  Authors:  Caruthers, Eli W ,
1799-1865 (Main Author)  Thompson, Ruth F (Added
General Gray, of the NC Militia writs in a letter to Caruthers about most of what was known of the Whigs of Randolph County, and of the Bells, and most of the information in which I am giving you. He was quite old at the time that he wrote the letter, but he was personally acquainted  with the Bells, and with the Whigs of Randolph having fought along side of them in the war.

General Gray writes: 

“I removed to
Randolph Court House in the Spring of 1792, in the
immediate vicinity of which Mrs. Bell, and the most of the
Whigs of that county who had taken part in the war,
resided; and from them I re­ceived all the information I
am able to give you. Those who lived in the south and
eastern parts of the county were mostly Tories, under the
control of Colonel Fanning, or remained neutral from fear
of him. Mr. Bell and his lady were both true friends to the
cause of their country, and treated those who were
en­gaged in its defense with the greatest kindness,
friendship and hospitality."

So then, you get a sense of the divisions of the people who lived here at the time of the battle. You had the Whigs, who were for Independence from England, patriots all who fought as citizen soldiers. You had religious groups who were opposed to war, like the Quakers, among others. You had the Tories, (loyalists), who were as opposed to Independence, as the Whigs were to British rule.

After the Guilford battle, when the British army was on its
way to Wilmington, it encamped, for about two days, at
and near her house. Her house stood on the north side of
the river, and the van of the army arrived there, it is said,
about the middle of the afternoon, the main body remaining
at John Clarke’s, who lived on the adjoining plantation

Lord Cornwallis, according to his custom, took
possession of her house, but he had been well informed in
regard to her character, and treated her with much

During this time, as might be expected, a number
of little incidents occurred, which are perhaps worth
re­cording; and we cannot do otherwise than feel some
curiosity to know how his lordship would treat a lady of her
standing, of whose house he had taken possession, without
leave or license, and whose courage and firmness were at
least equal to his own; but only a few items, of a reliable
kind, have been preserved.

Here we will take General
Gray’s account of the manner in which Cornwallis introduced
himself; and for this purpose, we give from the letter
already quoted, the following extract, which accords
substantially with the statements of others in that
The remains of this historic area is now under the waters of the Randleman Dam. This was the road that passed by the old mill, and the home of Martha and Capt William Bell.

“A few days after the battle of Guilford Court House, Cornwallis and his army arrived at Bell’s mill, where his lordship called upon the old lady, and inquired of her where her husband was, to which she re­plied, ‘In Greene's camp.’“‘Is he an officer or a soldier in the army?’“

‘He is not; but thought it better to go to his friends, than to stay and fall into the hands of his enemies.’
“‘Madam, I must make your house my headquarters, and have the use of your mill for a few days, to grind for my army while I remain here.

“Sir, you posses the power, and, of course, will do as you please without my consent; but, after using our mill, do you intend to burn it before you leave?"
‘Madam, why do you ask that question?
“‘Sir, answer my question first, and then I will answer yours in a short time.’
‘His lordship then assured her that the mill should not be burnt or injured; but that he must use it to prepare provisions for his army, and further added, “that by making her house his head-quarters, he would be a protection to herself, her house, and every thing that was in or about it; for,’ said he, ‘no soldier of mine will dare to plunder, or commit depredations near my quarters.’

“To which she replied: ‘Now, sir, you have done me a favor by giving me a satisfactory answer to my question, and I will answer yours. Had your lordship said that you intended to burn our mill, I had in­tended to save you the trouble by burning it myself before you derived much benefit from it; but as you as­sure me that the mill shall not be burned, and that you will be a protection to me, and to the property about the house, I will make no further objections to your using our mill, and making my house your head­quarters while you stay, which, I think you said, would be only for a few days.’’
These preliminaries being settled and strictly adhered to, by both parties, occasioned his lordship and Mrs. Bell to part on better terms than they met.
Lord Cornwallis could not be more zealous in the service of King George and his monarchical government, than Mrs. Bell was in the cause of freedom and Independence; nor could he remain there for two days, with his army, without occasioning a number of sad or amusing incidents. 

A few years ago, two or three aged men, who still recollected the scenes of the revolution, and who, from having lived all the time in her neighbor­hood, had been well acquainted with Mrs. Bell from the time she took that name until her death, related to me several additional facts, all of which were about as illustrative of her character as the above,and some of which were, on other accounts, even more interesting and important to the patriot or the historian.
Soon after entering the house, he told Mrs. Bell that he had annihilated Greene’s army, and he could never do him any more harm, but this was mere bravado, as he virtually admitted in the course of a few min­utes. It was about the vernal equinox, and the day being cold and blustering, the back or north door, which opened on the road leading from Martinsville to Fayetteville, was kept shut on account of the wind.

His lordship soon opened the back door and stood in it for some minutes, looking up the road, and then re­turned to his seat leaving it open. She went and shut it, but, after a few minutes, he opened it again and did as before.

He was evidently in trouble and restless, for he could not remain, for five minutes at a time, in the same position;for he was sometimes sitting, sometimes walking across the floor, and appeared to be in a deep study. 

After shutting the door again he told her that he wanted that door to stand open, and, when she asked him for the reason, he said he didn’t know but General Greene might be coming down the road. Why, sir,’ said she, “I thought you told me a little while ago that you had annihilated his army, and that he could do you no more harm.’

On this, his lordship heaved a sigh and replied: “Well, madam, to tell you the truth, I never saw such fighting since God made me, and another such victory would annihilate me.” If a few hundred Whigs, at that juncture, had promptly and resolutely offered their services to Gener­al Greene, as would be done now in a similar case, so that he could have attacked the enemy again with suf­ficient numbers, there can be no doubt that the whole army would have surrendered with very little resist­ance, and an almost bloodless victory would have been gained.For it is well known, or has been all along believed, that their ammunition was becoming scarce,that their money chest was getting low, and they were encumbered with a great many wounded officers and men.
It was very annoying to Mrs. Bell to have such haughty and profane men in her house and such a rude soldiery round about it; but the presence of Lord Cornwallis protected her from any gross insult, and, in fact, none of them seemed disposed to treat her with as much rudeness even as they had treated Mrs. Caldwell and some others only a week before; for they were much mortified by the results of the last conflict and were more occupied with thoughts about their own safety than any thing else.

They took her grain,cat­tle, provisions, and whatever else they wanted, so far as I have learned, without compensation, and without any care for the distress it might occasion her family.

Cornwallis treated her with courtesy and, no doubt, tried to prevent any unnecessary depredations on her property; but he could not be everywhere, and soldiers are not apt to inform on each other. She could sometimes hear the soldiers and subaltern officers at a distance cursing her for a rebel and uttering their denunciations; but all this she could bear in view of the certain and glorious triumph which she anticipa­ted. 

Confident of ultimate success, she could neither be bribed nor frightened into an abandonment of her principles; and if her life had been at stake, she would have maintained her dignity and her firmness to the last.

As one of the men was riding, at a rapid gait by the door in which she was standing for the purpose of watering his horse in the river, he uttered some profane or insulting language; and she said she did wish the horse would throw him and break his neck. In two or three minutes she had her wish, for as he was reck­lessly dashing down the hill to the river, the horse stumbled and fell, which threw the rider over his neck, head foremost on some rocks, and he was killed on the spot.

The pipe protrudes from what was the root cellar of the plantation home of Martha and Capt. Bell.

This is the rock outcropping where the British Redcoat fell to his death from his horse, right below the front of the Bell house that faced Muddy Creek.
Having been duly apprised of their coming, and being well aware of their rapacity and recklessness, she had taken what measures she could to secure such articles as she deemed of most value and could not remove to any great distance, particularly her cash and her bacon. 

The latter of which articles she had taken over the river and hid among some rocks where it was supposed no body would ever think of looking, or could find it without a guide. The money she hid under a large rock about the house. 

This was all in specie—mostly In guineas and half Jos, and this being of more value than any thing else that they would be likely to get, was the object of her greatest solicitude. This she had hid under a large rock which formed the bottom step to the door. 

The rock was so large that she could just pry up one side of it; and, having made a small hole in the ground in which she deposited her treasure, she let the rock down again in its former position. Then she did not expect that the army or any portion of it would be so near to the house; but to her great sur­prise they were all the time passing over it.

It had been for some time a common expedient with the people over the country, especially with the Whigs, to hide their treasure under rocks or to bury it in the ground, and, as she was well aware the British had not only learned this fact from the Tories, but how to search for it. By some means or other, accident or design,the rock would probably be removed; and then all her cash, the earnings of a laborious practice for years, would not only be lost to her, but would go to feed and clothe her mortal enemies.

By a woman of her spirit, this could not be borne with patience; and she was resolved that it should not be lost without an effort to place it out of danger. For this purpose, she went deliberately into the camp, under the pretext of making some request, or of lodging a complaint for misdemeanors on the part of the soldiers; and, having transacted that matter, whatever it was, she walked about in a careless manner, as if to gratify an idle curiosity, in looking at the tents, until they all became engaged in some other way, and their attention was turned to something else. Then, going up to the place, she raised a side of the rock, took out her money, and returned into the house, without attracting their notice, or exciting the least suspicion.
The above was from General Gray's letter describing in detail the visit of Cornwallis to Bell's Mill, and about the manner and character of Martha Mcfarlane McGee Bell. General Gray had much more to say about the Bells, and about events of the Revolution as it applied on a local level. These will be discussed in the next Blog entry. For now, I think I should mention that reading of this account only made mr hungry for more about this event.
I found it curious that such an important encounter should be marked somewhere on the landscape. There should be a state historic marker, or something marking where this happened. To my surprise there was no such marker, or nothing really around that showed the location where it happened. I spent over ten years talking to old timers and inquiring if they knew where this might have happened, and where was Bells Mill. I got at best only very sketchy possible locations, but usually they would say, only that it happened down on the river.
It was later in my research that I read some old pension statements from soldiers from the war that gave very detailed accounts of their actions in the war to collect their pension. Often in the accounts they gave names of who they were with and where they were, and what they did. One such account gave me a location. 
I should go there and search, about a mile from what was the first county seat. That place was called Johnstonville, and it was a town that was  no longer a real town, but just a empty pasture, with a TV station tower located on the property of WGHP Television. I went there and followed the modern road right by the location. I was in luck for that road must have been only a paved over wagon road from Revolutionary war times. The distance given in the account led me right to where Bells Mill, and Plantation was.
I had been on this road many times, and I always has my suspicions that it was indeed the place. I found an odd old white country store building so old in fact it was fallen in. In those earlier days it sit right on top of the road, only perhaps a foot or two off the roadway proper. I thought it strange that a building would be allowed to be so close to the road. It turns out that it was an old store that at one time was actually a part of the operation of the mill, and set on part of the old foundation of the mill.
Many years went by from the first time that I happened to suspect that this was the location of Bells Mill. I never investigated the location because the land was clearly marked "Posted" "No Trespassing"  signs abound everywhere. I waited until the Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority  began to clear the land for the lake that would one day be here.
There it was, just off the road, just as I suspected, the remains of Bells Mill.
North Wall of Bells Mill.



  1. Thank you for posting this article and sharing these pictures. I descend through Mrs. Martha Bell through her daughter Martha Jane McGee who married John Welborn. I assume all these places are covered by the Randleman Dam now? Such a shame.

    1. All are but the site of her Grave, and the site where Bells Church was- that is today a Methodist Church founded by Martha Bells Grandson.