Sunday, August 13, 2017

Mary Ramage Dillard - wife, mother and soldier in the Revolution


1757 - 1795

Granddaughter of Joseph Adair, Sr. (featured in earlier post), daughter of Jean Adair Ramage, wife of James Dillard
"Sarah Dillard's Ride: A Story of the Carolinas in 1780" by James Otis
     According to stories passed from generation to generation,  Mary Ramage Dillard was petite, beautiful - and very brave.  Not only did she live up to everything expected of a woman of that time (i.e. raising her children and tending the home), but she could well have won an award for persistence and bravery even today.  

     By the time she reached the age of 23 in 1780, she had been married for six years to James Dillard, a captain in the Little River Militia Regiment, whose duties often took him away from home, and was the mother of two toddlers (the oldest of whom was 4 year old John who usually accompanied his mother wherever she went).  Her answer to dealing with her husband's frequent absences was to join him on almost every campaign, bivouac, drill and battle including King's Mountain, Cowpens and the Siege of Ninety Six.
     Despite their travels, James and Mary somehow managed to find time to  build a large home, across the Enoree River from the Musgrove Mill Plantation where British troops under the command of General Banastre Tarleton were bivouacked and preparing for war. 

       Little did she know that on November 18, 1780,  her life would change forever, thanks to being unable to accompany James on his mission for some reason. 

Colonel Elijah Clark
      Early that day, Colonel Elijah Clark and his troops had stopped by the Dillard's home on their way to Blackstock's Plantation.  It wasn't a social call!  His troops had left their homes before dawn and badly needed something to eat and a little rest before continuing on their way Mary welcomed them but explained she could only feed them milk and potatoes, which they gladly accepted.  A short time later they were on their way again.
     But her day had only just begun!  Before she could clean up the dregs of the previous meal, General Tarleton, the dreaded commander of the British Light Cavalry, and his officers, Commanders Ferguson and Dunlop, spotted the large house with its expansive grounds and thought it would be an ideal place for their troops to take a break before attacking General Thomas Sumter at Blackstock's. 

   As they barged into the house, they couldn't help but notice the telltale signs of recent guests and demanded that she tell them exactly how many she had fed, who they were, when they had left and where they were going. 

     Understanding that she could easily get caught out in a lie if she denied having had visitors, she explained that she had indeed fed some folks who had stopped by the house earlier.  However, they hadn't stayed very long and she had been too busy cooking and taking care of her children to listen to their talk.

     She must have been a good actress because, after hearing her report, the British commanders decided it would be safe to stop off there for a brief rest and a meal.  During the next few hours, the officers made themselves comfortable in the house and ate whatever food she had left, even giving the remaining slabs of bacon she had been saving for her family to their soldiers.

      While discussing their plans, they didn't worry about being overheard.  After all, Mary was “just a woman” who, they were sure, wouldn't understand anything they were discussing.  And even if she did, what difference would it make since they "knew" that a mother would never leave her children  at home alone, and even if she did, she wouldn't be able to handle a fast moving horse on rough roads in the dead of night.  
     They couldn't have been more wrong!   Mary might have been
physically small, but nobody had ever said she was dumb or cowardly!  While moving among the diners, she had been absorbing everything being said,  and had come to the reluctant realization that she was probably the only American who could stop the massacre scheduled to take place before dawn the next day.  But she had to act quickly!

     One of her biggest challenges was figuring out what to do with her children. She was pretty sure that the worse thing that could happen to the baby would be a nasty diaper, but her little boy, John, was a whole different story since she knew she could neither take him with her nor trust that he would be OK alone in the house.   

Her remedy was creative, to say the least. After placing the sleeping child on the floor, she managed somehow to lift up her bed and then lowered one of the heavy bedposts onto  her son's nightgown, thus guaranteeing that even if he awoke, he wouldn't be able to get hurt or into mischief while she was gone.

     With night rapidly approaching, her uninvited guests finally left the house – taking their plans and secrets with them. Now that she knew what devastation was awaiting the patriots who were planning for the upcoming battle to be waged at the wrong time, she slipped into the stable, bridled a young horse (but was in too much of a hurry to lift and strap a saddle onto his back) and managed to mount up.
     After checking to make sure the road was clear, Mary and her steed raced the 20 miles to Blackstock's Plantation without being spotted. Her arrival must have shocked General Thomas Sumter and his aide, Colonel Clark, who had been preparing for the battle they erroneously believed wouldn't begin until the next day.

It wasn't until after the war ended that Mary admitted that despite the

action she took that night, she had been very sure that the
enemy would be too strong for her friends and they would lose badly.  She had simply hoped that her warning would give enough time to General Sumter and Colonel Clark to get their soldiers into hiding  before the enemy struck. 
      You can imagine how she must have felt when she saw 200 mounted English soldiers approaching the plantation under cover of darkness that night.  Thankfully she had already informed General Sumter of the British plans she had overheard, one of which was to use mounted soldiers as decoys in order to keep the Americans distracted until the rest of Tarleton's troops arrived by foot. 
     Early in the battle, General Sumter had been badly injured by a musket ball which passed through his right shoulder and into his backbone. 

     But instead of giving up after their commander was injured, his troops seemed to gain new life and energy.  As a result, the English troops not only suffered serious physical injuries but their morale was severely wounded as well, since they could no longer justify their belief that the British army had a firm hold on South Carolina.

      Interestingly, not long after the battle ended, previously unbeaten General Tarleton was heard to comment  that he had seen "a woman on horseback riding among the trees bordering his march and he believed she had reported him to Sumter." Perhaps the most bitter pill Tarleton was forced to swallow was that he wasn't omnipotent after all.

       Ironically, General Sumter was given the title "Carolina Gamecock" because of his fierce fighting tactics which weren't affected by his injuries.  As a matter of fact, even General Tarleton was heard to comment that Sumter "fought like a gamecock" and, years later, General Cornwallis commented that the "Gamecock was his greatest plague". 

     But Mary Dillard's bravery didn't end with her long ride that night. As the battle heated up, the British were forced to concentrate their efforts on fighting and beating the Americans - not on the young woman who was calming down their horses which  had been tethered to a long rope strung between two tall trees.  

     They certainly didn't notice until it was too late that she had somehow managed to slice the rope and was boldly leading her charges across the river and into the eager hands of a Virginia militia unit, most of whom - until then - had to fight the enemy on foot. As a result, after the British soldiers lost both the battle and most of their horses, they were forced to retreat on foot, leaving behind their canons, supply and munitions wagons, tents, etc. - all of which proved to be treasures for the previously under-equipped Americans.   

   Mary's family also had to pay a price for her actions. Before she had returned home, the retreating angry soldiers broke into her house and - after freeing screaming little John from under the bedpost - took the children to the neighbors and then set fire to the house. One can only imagine the horror Mary felt when she first saw that her lovely home was no more. But - even worse - until she was assured that they were safe, believed that she had also lost her children. 

      But the story of Mary's bravery didn't end there. A few months later, after having settled into their second home, the young wife and mother couldn't help but notice all the British activity taking place on the road running in front of her house. So, being Mary, she immediately started counting how many units of soldiers were passing and then figured how many soldiers there were in each unit. Not surprisingly the troops didn't pay much attention to the little woman who was perhaps even waving at them as they passed by.
      As soon as she had all the information she needed,  she managed to get it to James, who immediately took it to the commander of his local militia.  Thanks to learning exactly how many enemy soldiers were heading his way, the commander was then able to plan his counter-attack much more accurately. 

  The only "reward" the Dillards received for that action was having their second home burned to the ground by the angry, frustrated Tories!  (But her efforts did earn her a special place in history.  In fact, she is listed in the South Carolina Archives as having received seven pay stubs which verified that she had earned a private's salary during the war.)

      Mary Ramage Dillard was only 38 years old in 1795 when - after giving birth to her 7th child - a daughter - she died shortly thereafter.  Three years later, her widower, who had been promoted to a major in his militia, married another Mary, with whom he had seven more children.

     Documentation of Mary's adventures even after death has been both interesting and confusing.  First, the date of death carved on her headstone is 1797, but should have been 1795.  However, that pales when compared to the fact that her headstone was placed in the Pleasant Hill Baptist Cemetery in Pickens County, SC over the grave of James' second wife, Mary Puckett Dillard, who had died 45 years later in 1842.

    Possibly the confusion arose because James did not differentiate between the two Marys when telling stories.  Or perhaps few people even realized  he had been married before, and assumed that the Mary they knew was the woman who  had fought beside him during the Revolution.


    And there is the possibility that Mary Ramage Dillard's headstone memorializing her service wasn't engraved until long after the war ended because there were so many that had to be carved and placed. More troubling was the fact that after the discovery was made of the mix-up, the hero soldier's casket was never found.

          After discovering the mix-up,  James' children (including the ones raised by Mary Puckett after their mother died) agreed to have Mary Ramage Dillard's headstone moved to its proper place in the Duncan Creek Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Laurens County, SC.  It was there where she was finally honored for her service to her country as she joined her fellow Revolutionary soldiers (and many relatives named Copeland, Blakely,Adair and Ramage).   
James and Mary Puckett Dillard graves
     At the same time, the correct tombstones for Mary Puckett Dillard and James Dillard and Mary Puckett were placed next to each other in the Pleasant Hill Cemetery where - altough somewhat tilted - they remain to this day.

       Although Mary Ramage's  coffin has never been discovered, her  monument honoring her life and service to her country still stand with the inscription reading: 

"Mary Ramage D'illard hero of  Blackstock's Plantation 
and a lady of grace from a grateful nation."

   Duncan Creek Presbyterian 
Cemetery,  Clinton, SC

For more information on this fascinating woman be sure to check out:

"Genealogy of Mary Ramage Dillard's Family (Life Story)"  https//"
"Honoring a Revolutionary War Heroine", Stanley A. Evans, Sr., Former Vice President General, South Atlantic District (1996-97) SAR Magazine Magazine
 "Adair: History and Genealogy, Chapter XVI, page 267, American Adairs, Mrs. Adair",

If you'd like to know more about the fascinating Adair family, you might enjoy reading the Family Legends featuring Joseph Alexander Adair, Sr. and Patrick Adair