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Friday, September 28, 2007

North Carolina Landmark: The Tory Oak — Hang'em High

Today prisoners of war are protected by the Geneva Conventions. During the Revolutionary War prisoners were not treated according to modern standards. One primary difference during the Revolution was that the care and supplies for captives were expected to be provided by their own army, their government, or private resources. Consequently many prisoners were mistreated and starved to death.

There were also prisoner exchanges, 'parole' and side changing. Parole would allow prisoners to be freed in exchange for a promise not to resume fighting. Prisoners in some cases were also allowed to change sides and enlist in the opposing army. A big difference from modern conventions.

However, one North Carolina Revolutionary War hero, Col. Benjamin Cleveland, treated his prisoners in a much more brutal way. He used a large oak tree behind the local courthouse to hang some of them. The tree became known as the famous Tory Oak in Wilkesboro, North Carolina:

Probably the most historic tree in North Carolina was the Tory Oak, which grew for possibly three centuries in what is now the town of Wilkesboro. It was a vivid reminder of the stirring days of the Revolutionary period. The exact age of this famous old tree will never be known.

The Tory Oak - Wilkesboro, NCThe Tory, occasionally referred to as the Cleveland Oak, assisted in the struggle for independence when Col. Ben Cleveland, a leader in the plight for freedom is western North Carolina, used its spreading limbs to hang at least five Tories.

In the fall of 1779, two marauding Tories plundered the Lincoln County home of George Wilfong, a Whig, and brazenly using the man's clothes line to lead off his horses. Wilfong and some others pursued the thieves and regained his horses, but the thieves escaped and headed south toward the British Lines. Before reaching safety, they were apprehended by Ben Cleveland's scouts and brought to the Wilkes County courthouse. Here, Cleveland summarily administered his justice, using Wilfong's clothes line to hang the loyalist from the limbs of the Tory Oak.

The enraged British forces sent a Captain Riddle and two men, named Reeves and Goss, to capture Cleveland. They nearly accomplished this aim, but instead found themselves taken prisoner, shortly after which they too were dangling from the beckoning branches of the Tory Oak. [...]

If this old tree had possessed the power of speech articulation, what thrilling stories it could have told - stories of a struggling people growing into their new-found freedom, of daring, of valor, and of devotion to a cause.
You can understand why Col. Ben Cleveland became known as the "Terror of the Tories."

So in North Carolina for hundreds of years they have celebrated the murder of prisoners of war and honored Col. Benjamin Cleveland as a hero. Unless the accounts are missing something, it all sounds a little cold blooded.

Not a tear for the three men who had the audacity to try and capture a man, who hung two of their comrades. But, ended up hanging from Tory Oak themselves.

Cleveland County, North Carolina is named in honor of Col. Benjamin "Terror of the Tories" Cleveland. Cleveland, Tennessee is also named after Col. Cleveland.

Let the victor write history and the vanquished be forgotten.
Statue of Benjamin Cleveland Benjamin Cleveland obelisk at Madison Community, South Carolina Benjamin Cleveland

Colonel Benjamin Cleveland monuments
Tennessee Society of the Sons of the American Revolution
Colonel Benjamin Cleveland Chapter

Saga of a Southern Loyalist: William Riddle

Wilkesboro Chamber of Commerce / wilkesnc.org:
The Tory Oak

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