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What was the Rouse’s Tavern Massacre?

Ben Steelman

Sources are relatively few for this Revolutionary War skirmish. The primary sources are mainly pension applications from veterans who claim to have survived the incident, generally filed 50 years or more after the incident occurred.

We’re not even sure of the day it happened, and its precise location has been “lost to the mists of time,” in the words of Chris Fonvielle, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Nevertheless, the Rouse’s Tavern Massacre — sometimes called the Rouse House Massacre — apparently did take place, sometime in early March 1781. Its location was a tavern or public house on the “New Bern Road” (roughly, modern-day U.S. 17) about 8 miles north of Wilmington, which would put it in the Ogden community. (The tavern was sometimes referred to as “Eight Mile House.”)

On one side were about 60 to 70 British soldiers — regulars accompanied by an unknown number of Loyalist militia — under the command of Maj. James Craig, the commander of the British garrison. Craig and his men were after a party of Patriots, sometimes identified as light cavalry, who had been interfering with British cattle roundups in the surrounding countryside and occasionally shooting British sentinels around the town.

According to one account, the Patriots were at the tavern “drinking freely as men would do, who had lost their houses and are turned out on the bleak world.” They knew the British were in the vicinity but “forgot the flight of time and about half past 12 (at night) they all betook themselves to rest on the floor of the dwelling, their saddles for pillows.”

The British, some carrying torches, surrounded the tavern with orders to give no quarter. By some accounts, 11 Patriots were killed, including Capt. James Love (some sources identify him as a major), who tried to slash his way out, using his saddle as a shield. Robert Dunkerly of the National Park Service puts the toll at eight Patriots killed and two wounded. Most of them were bayoneted.

A half-dozen other Patriots were captured at a nearby house. The British apparently suffered no losses.

Some sources say only one Patriot escaped, although four pensioners claim to have survived the battle. Patriot militiamen, who rode to the scene shortly afterward, supposedly found the tavern floor “covered with dead bodies & almost swimming in blood.”

Two books describing the incident are “Nothing But Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas” by Patrick O’Kelley and “Redcoats on the River: Southeastern North Carolina in the Revolutionary War” by Robert M. Dunkerly.

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