The weathered stone monument on North Tryon Street is hidden in plain sight, next to the Interstate 85 connector ramp. It is easy to drive right by without seeing it.
The 8-foot-tall cairn of brown fieldstone sits beside a tiny, unlit parking lot, the ideal place to pull over to send a text or to have a good cry after life gets rough or love goes bad.
The monument, more than 100 years old, commemorates a day long ago when the fate of the new American nation hung in the balance, and open battle raged in the heart of Charlotte at the corner of Tryon and Trade. The marble slab reads:
“Lieut. Col. George Locke killed by Tarleton’s Dragoons, Sept 26, 1780”
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George Locke is University City’s own Revolutionary hero. Tarleton – British officer Banastre Tarleton – was the most hated man in Revolutionary America.
It is easy to assume that July 4 celebrates the United States’ victory in its War for Independence. But 1776 marked the beginning, not the end, of a grueling struggle.
1780 began as a very dark year for American patriots in the Carolinas. Believing the South was filled with loyal supporters of the King, the English decided to shift to a “Southern strategy.” Early in 1780, the English defeated patriot forces at the key port of Charleston, S.C., and decimated an American army at Camden, S.C. English Gen. Lord Cornwallis and his army then pursued fleeing American forces north through the Carolinas.
At the battle of Waxhaws, Tarleton and his “Green Dragoons,” a company of light cavalry made up largely of colonials loyal to King George III, reportedly slaughtered an American force in cold blood after they had surrendered. Tarleton was labeled “Ban the Butcher,” and “Tarleton’s quarter” became a rallying war cry for American forces, meaning “have no mercy.”
In later life, Tarleton become a British member of Parliament and a notorious apologist for the English slave trade. He served as the model for the cruel English officer in the movie “The Patriot.”
Back to 1780: Facing overwhelming odds, Americans shifted their strategy to guerrilla warfare as Cornwallis’s army approached Charlotte, then a sleepy hamlet of 20 houses clustered around a makeshift stone courthouse at Tryon and Trade.
Even in the 1700s, Charlotte leaders were into naming rights. Charlotte (sometimes “Charlottetowne”) was christened in honor of King George’s queen, Charlotte, and the county name, Mecklenburg, came from her home region of Germany.
But Charlotte proved a hotbed of resistance to King George’s invading army. In fact, it was Cornwallis who first labeled us “a hornets’ nest.”
Mecklenburg may even have declared virtual independence from the crown in the “Mecklenburg Declaration” of 1775, a year before the national Declaration of Independence. Historians don’t agree on this point of local pride, but Mecklenburg did issue a list of “Resolves” calling for greater autonomy, as did many other American cities and towns.
With the English army only a few miles away, a small force of mostly local fighters in Charlotte, under William Davie, prepared to confront and delay the King’s forces. Slowing their advance would give the main Colonial Army invaluable time to escape and regroup.
Tarleton was ill on the day of the battle, so at Cornwallis’s side was a different, less experienced officer. Under his command, the English arrogantly rode straight into Charlotte’s crossroads, where they were repulsed by volleys from American marksmen hidden behind the courthouse’s stone pillars and nearby rock walls.
For a time, the Patriots held their own, but inevitably the full English army of more than 1,000 well-armed soldiers overwhelmed the Americans, who retreated north along what is now Tryon Street.
At Sugaw Creek Presbyterian Church, an American contingent led by Capt. Joseph Graham fought the English forces hand to hand. Graham was horribly wounded and left for dead, and the Americans fled for their lives. Graham managed to survive, hidden in a farmhouse. Graham Street is named in his honor.
Across from where the stone monument stands today, Tarleton’s Dragoons caught up with 16-year-old George Locke. In a horrifying scene worthy of a slasher movie, they hacked him to pieces with sabers. He left a wife and small daughter behind.
After his death, Locke became first a “lieutenant,” and then, on the plaque, a “Lieutenant Colonel.” In truth, rank is not important here. George Locke was a soldier and a hero, a young father who paid the ultimate price defending his home.
The American “defeat” in Charlotte may have marked a tipping point in the war. Cornwallis decided to occupy Charlotte, but he found that the patriots made his stay less than comfortable, and he and his army left town after a few days, in the dead of night.
American forces were victorious at Kings Mountain and at Cowpens, nearby in South Carolina, where Daniel Morgan defeated Tarleton using the most brilliant military strategy of the Revolutionary War. A little more than a year later, Cornwallis’s army surrendered at Yorktown, Va., and America was effectively born as a sovereign nation.
Today, a small, very worn and tattered American flag is stuck in the hard soil beside the stone monument to George Locke, and a few dried up flowers are scattered in front of it.