RALEIGH — The John Locke Foundation hosts a weekly discussion club at our Raleigh office every Monday at noon. We offer a meal, a speaker, and an hour or so of networking, information, and conversation. The program is called the Shaftesbury Society, named after Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, who served as Lord Chancellor of England during the 1670s and was the patron of John Locke.
I happen to be giving the Shaftesbury talk this coming Monday, on the topic of North Carolina’s role in the Revolutionary War. I’ve been researching the topic for several months, as part of a book project, and have come across a number of fascinating historical figures who deserve to be better known to North Carolinians.
One of them is Alexander Erwin, a planter and politician from Burke County who rose to the rank of colonel during the Revolution. The Scotch-Irish son of a part-time Presbyterian minister, Erwin was described by contemporaries as “a wit and a dandy” in his youth who was “devoted to books and a thorough knowledge of the current literature of the age.”
When Burke County was created out of Rowan in 1777, Alexander Erwin served as its first clerk of court. When Lord Cornwallis’s invasion brought the Carolina backcountry back into a wartime footing in 1780, Alexander Erwin became a militia captain of a Burke County company of light horse. He fought in Patriot Col. Charles McDowell’s regiment against Major Patrick Ferguson’s Tory force at the small Burke County battle of Cane Creek on September 12, 1780. The battle forced Col. McDowell to retreat into the mountains. That led Major Ferguson to the incorrect assumption that the Carolina militia posed no threat to him. That was one of the reasons why he blundered into the subsequent battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, where Ferguson lost his life and his entire Tory command was either killed or captured. Captain Alexander Erwin fought at Kings Mountain, too, serving under Major Joseph McDowell’s Burke County regiment.
After Kings Mountain, Captain Erwin fought at Cowpens in January 1781, at Cowan’s Ford and Tarrant’s Tavern in February, and in an expedition against British-allied Cherokees in 1782. Unfortunately, while Alexander Erwin was away fighting in these campaigns, the war came straight to his home in Burke County – and to his wife Sarah. As former UNC-Chapel Hill professor William Powell, the dean of North Carolina historians, wrote in his biographical sketch of Alexander Erwin:
Having been severely wounded in the service of his country, Samuel Alexander, a neighbor and friend, came to Erwin’s home for shelter and care. Sarah Erwin put him in an outhouse near the dwelling, hoping to conceal him from the Tories until his wounds healed. A marauding band of Tories came to the Erwin dwelling in quest of Whigs and searched it over Sarah’s protests. After plundering the house, the Tories approached the outhouse where Samuel Alexander lay helpless. Sarah placed herself at the outhouse door and denied them admittance. Thrusting her aside, they entered the structure and discovered the wounded Whig. As one of the men was in the act of striking Alexander with his sword, Sarah Erwin threw herself between the Tory and Alexander with her right arm over the injured man’s head. From the descending blade she received a dreadful wound that maimed her for life.
Unfortunately, Sarah Erwin didn’t have much life left to live. Whether the sword blow cut off her arm entirely, or just mangled it, her health never fully recovered. She died in the Erwin family home in 1785, at the age of 34.
This is probably why Alexander Erwin remained so hostile to Tories long after the Revolutionary War was over. Powell reports the local legend that for years after the war, Morganton leaders permitted known Tories to come to town only during the weeks that court would be in session. Col. Erwin was known to stand on the courthouse steps every morning during court-session week and proclaim that every Tory would be required to depart the town by sunset – or he would see that they were forcibly removed. According to the story, Erwin’s proclamation “was always obeyed.”
After the war, Alexander Erwin resumed his duties as clerk of court, which involved both judicial and lawmaking responsibilities. He held the post until 1793, and was succeeded by his son and then his grandson. The Erwins ran the Morganton courthouse, in other words, well into the 1840s. Alexander Erwin also acted as a postwar auditor, settling claims for veterans benefits and wartime debts, and as one of the founding trustees of Morgan Academy, the county’s first school. In 1784, Erwin was one of the commissioners who laid out the new county seat of Morganton, originally named Morgansborough after the Revolutionary War hero Daniel Morgan. From 1793 to 1797, and again in 1804, Erwin represent Burke County in the North Carolina legislature.
Alexander Erwin’s home in Burke County, Bellevue, became one of the region’s most-famous homes. It was far from his only legacy, however. One of his daughters, Hannah Erwin, married a Revolutionary War veteran named Major Zebulon Baird. Their grandson, Zebulon Baird Vance, was the governor of North Carolina during most of the Civil War and later represented the state in the U.S. Senate. Another U.S. senator from North Carolina, Sam J. Ervin, was also descended from Col. Alexander Erwin, on his mother’s side.
Same here. Alexander Erwin was my mother’s 4th-great grandfather. Learning more about him has helped me better understand the depth of hatred that some Patriots felt towards the Tories in their midst – and vice versa.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.