Tuesday, August 6, 2019

William Lee Davidson

Commander K. at Davidson College
Davidson, North Carolina

Last week I visited Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina (https://www.davidson.edu/).  Davidson is a prestigious liberal arts college that was founded in 1837.  It was named after General William Lee Davidson who served as a Brigadier General in the North Caroline Militia in the American Revolution.

I donated copies of my four books to the Davidson College Library.  Who was William Lee Davidson?  A Patriot?  A Hero?  A Scoundrel?


I asked if there were any representations of General Davidson on campus.  A statue?  A painting?  The answer was negative.  It is impossible to say what this hero of the American Revolution looked like (died before he could sit for a portrait).  Except, as you will read in this excerpt from our (Kelly / Laycock) forthcoming work 101 Fighting Celts: From Boudicca to MacArthur, he might have looked a bit like me...


"William Lee Davidson

At Cowen's Ford, no
coward you, the fatal shot
finally found you.

General William Lee Davidson was a Fighting Celt whose memory is particularly dear to me as he was my fifth great-grandfather.

Davidson was born around 1746 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His father, George Davidson, had emigrated earlier from County Derry in the north of Ireland. When Davidson was only two years of age, the family moved to the Piedmont region of the Carolinas. They settled on what is now known as Davidson’s Creek in Iredell County, North Carolina.  They worshipped at the Hopewell Presbyterian church where a modern visitor can find his gravesite (http://hopewellpresbyterian.com/).

In 1767, Davidson became engaged to Mary Brevard. Her family were Huguenots that had fled from France to Northern Ireland before emigrating to the New World. Although still a young man, that same year Davidson served as a lieutenant in the Rowan militia in an expedition into Cherokee territory on the frontier.

Davidson was evidently a keen soldier. His comrade in arms, Light Horse Harry Lee, described him as being “enamoured of the profession of arms.”

North Carolina Militia

In the spring of 1776, North Carolina mustered four regiments of Continental regular soldiers for the rebel army. Davidson served as a major in the 4th North Carolina regiment, which was initially sent to defend Wilmington, Delaware. In the fall of 1777, Davidson’s regiment marched north to join George Washington’s Army. He fought at the Battle of Germantown in Pennsylvania in October, where Lord Howe defeated a Continental Army under Washington.

Like Daniel Morgan, Davidson spent the freezing winter of 1777 at Valley Forge, learning the soldier’s trade from Baron von Steuben, who wrote the first drill book for the American Army.
After a brief furlough from the army in 1780, Davidson joined the North Carolina militia and was put in charge of defending the western half of the colony. Now Colonel Davidson, he led the Tar Heel militia to victory at the Battle of Colson’s Mill on July 21, 1780. As a former Continental officer leading militia forces, he was the only soldier in uniform and, hence, a conspicuous target for Tory marksmen. He was shot in the stomach.

After a brief convalescence, Davidson returned to action in 1781 for what proved to be his final battle.

Brigadier General Davidson was killed in action on February 1, 1781, at the Battle of Cowan’s Ford. He was leading his North Carolina militia against a force of Redcoats led by Lord Cornwallis that were crossing the Catawba River and outnumbered his by more than five to one (5,000 to about 900). He seems to have been shot through the heart while riding his horse near the front line. While Cowan’s Ford was a British victory, Davidson’s action slowed Cornwallis’s advance in the fateful Yorktown campaign that led to American victory in the Revolution.

Catawba River in 2019
Davidson was one of just a handful of American generals to be killed in action in the American Revolution. After the war, his widow moved with their family to what is now Tennessee.
Davidson County in Tennessee, the home to Nashville, was named after General Davidson, as was Davidson College in North Carolina.

Davidson was in his mid thirties when he died, and he left behind seven children. His youngest daughter, Margaret (Peggy) Davidson, later married Reverend Finis Ewing and was my great-great-great-grandmother."

Who might General Davidson have become had he not been killed at Cowan's Ford?  Governor of North Carolina?  Senator?  Perhaps even President?  Such was not his fate.  We do know that he was a hero of the American Revolution and a Fighting Celt.

We are currently seeking a publisher for 101 Fighting Celts: From Boudicca to MacArthur.  Stay tuned!

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