Elizabeth Steele Biography | Women of the Revolution


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created AmericanRevolution.org in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      The long, arduous, and eventful retreat of General Greene through the Carolinas, after the battle of the Cowpens, that retreat on whose issue hung the fate of the South – with the eager pursuit of Cornwallis, who well knew that the destruction of that army would secure his conquests – is a twice-told tale to every reader. The line of march lay through Salisbury, North Carolina; and while the British commander was crossing the Catawba, Greene was approaching this village. With the American army were conveyed the prisoners taken by Morgan in the late bloody and brilliant action, the intention being to convey them to Virginia. Several of these were sick and wounded, and among them were some British officers, unable, from loss of strength, to proceed further on the route.

      General Greene, aware of the objects of Cornwallis, knew his design, by a hurried march to the ford, to cross the Catawba before opposition could be made; and had stationed a body of militia there to dispute the passage. Most anxiously did the General await their arrival, before he pursued his route. The day gradually wore away, and still no signs appeared of the militia; and it was not till after midnight that the news reached him of their defeat and dispersion by the British troops, and the death of General Davidson, who had commanded them. His aids having been despatched to different parts of the retreating army, he rode on with a heavy heart to Salisbury. It had been raining during the day, and his soaked and soiled garments and appearance of exhaustion as he wearily dismounted from his jaded horse at the door of the principal hotel, showed that he had suffered much from exposure to the storm, sleepless fatigue, and harassing anxiety of mind. Dr. Reed, who had charge of the sick and wounded prisoners, while he waited for the General’s arrival, was engaged in writing the paroles with which it was necessary to furnish such officers as could not go on. From his apartment overlooking the main street, he saw his friend, unaccompanied by his aids, ride up and alight; and hastened to receive him as he entered the house. Seeing him without a companion, and startled by his dispirited looks, the doctor could not refrain from noticing them with anxious inquiries; to which the wearied soldier replied: “Yes – fatigued – hungry – alone, and penniless! ”

      The melancholy reply was heard by one determined to prove, by the generous assistance proffered in a time of need, that no reverse could dim the pure flame of disinterested patriotism. General Greene had hardly taken his seat at the well-spread table, when Mrs. Steele, the landlady of the hotel, entered the room, and carefully closed the door behind her. Approaching her distinguished guest, she reminded him of the despondent words he had uttered in her hearing, implying, as she thought, a distrust of the devotion of his friends, through every calamity, to the cause. Money, too, she declared he should have; and drew from under her apron two small bags full of specie, probably the earnings of years. “Take these,” said she, “for you will want them, and I can do without them.”

      Words of kindness and encouragement accompanied this offering of a benevolent heart, which General Greene accepted with thankfulness. “Never,” says his biographer, “did relief come at a more propitious moment; nor would it be straining conjecture to suppose that he resumed his journey with his spirits cheered and lightened by this touching proof of woman’s devotion to the cause of her country.”

      General Greene did not remain long in Salisbury; but before his departure from the house of Mrs. Steele, he left a memorial of his visit. He took from the wall of one of the apartments a portrait of George Ill, which had come from England as a present from a person at court to one of Mrs. Steele’s connections attached to an embassy, wrote with chalk on the back, “O, George, hide thy face and mourn;” and replaced it with the face to the wall. The picture, with the writing uneffaced, is still in possession of a granddaughter of Mrs. Steele, a daughter of Dr. McCorkle, and may be seen in Charlotte.

      Elizabeth Steele was distinguished not only for attachment to the American cause during the war, but for the piety that shone brightly in her useful life. Among her papers was found after her death a written dedication of herself to her Creator, and a prayer for support in the practice of Christian duty; with a letter, left as a legacy to her children, enjoining it upon them to make religion the great work of life. She was a tender mother, and beloved for her constant exercise of the virtues of kindness and charity. She was twice married, and died in Salisbury, in 1791. Her son, the Hon. John Steele, conspicuous in the councils of the State and Nation , was one whose public services offer materials for an interesting biography. A collection of his correspondence has lately been added to the treasures of the Historical Society of the University of North Carolina; and it is to be hoped that under its auspices, justice will be done to his memory at no distant period. Margaret, Mrs. Steele’s daughter, was the wife of the Rev. Samuel E. McCorkle.

      It was in the same pursuit, of Greene and Morgan by Cornwallis, that the British destroyed the property of the Widow Brevard, in Centre congregation. “She has seven sons in the rebel army,” was the reason given by the officer for permitting her house to be burned and her farm plundered. One of her sons, Captain Alexander Brevard, took part in nine battles, and the youngest was at seventeen first lieutenant of a company of horse. Ephraim Brevard, another son, having graduated at Princeton College, and completed a course of medical studies, fixed his residence at Charlotte. Mr. Foote says, “His talents, patriotism, and education, united with his prudence and practical sense, marked him as a leader in the councils that preceded the convention held in Queen’s Museum; and on the day of meeting designated him as secretary and draughtsman of that singular and unrivalled DECLARATION, which alone is a passport to the memory of posterity through all time.” I

      It will be borne in mind that it was in Charlotte, the county town of Mecklenburg County, that the bold idea of National Independence was first proclaimed to the world. On the 19th May, 1775, an immense concourse of people was assembled in this frontier settlement, all agitated with the excitement which had plunged the whole land into commotion; on that day came the first intelligence of the commencement of hostilities at Lexington; and when the convention and the people were addressed,, the universal cry was, “Let us be independent! Let us declare our independence, and defend it with our lives and fortunes !” The resolutions drawn up by Dr. Brevard were discussed; and by their unanimous adoption, the day following, by the convention and the approving multitude, the citizens of Mecklenburg County declared themselves a free and independent people. Due honor is awarded to him who took so active a part in that memorable transaction; but where is the tribute that should be paid to the widowed mother who sowed the seeds which on that day yielded fruit – who implanted in her son’s mind those sterling principles, the guidance of which rendered his life one of eminent usefulness?

      When the southern States became the arena of war, Dr. Brevard entered the army as surgeon, and was taken prisoner at the surrender of Charleston. In that city he was seized with a fatal disease, to which he fell a victim after being set at liberty, and permitted to place himself under the care of friends.

      The deplorable sufferings of the unfortunate prisoners in Charleston moved the sympathy of the inhabitants of Western Carolina; for news came that many were perishing in captivity of want and disease. The men could not go thither to visit their friends and relatives, without insuring their own destruction; but the women gathered clothing, medicines, and provisions, and travelled long journeys, encountering danger as well as hardship, to minister in person to those who so sorely needed their succor. Much relief was brought to the sufferers by these visits of mercy; although the lives preserved were sometimes saved at the sacrifice of the noble benefactors. The mother of Andrew Jackson, returning to the Waxhaw, after a journey to Charleston to carry clothing and other necessaries to some friends on board the prison ship, was seized with the prison-fever, and died in a tent, in the midst of the wide, sandy wilderness of pines. Her lonely grave by the roadside, were the spot known, would speak mournfully of woman’s self-immolating heroism. Mrs. Jackson, with her children, had quitted their home on the Waxhaw, where she had buried her husband, after the rout and slaughter of Buford’s regiment by the forces of Tarleton, when the women and children fled from the ravages of the merciless enemy. They had found a place of refuge in Sugar Creek congregation, where they remained during part of the summer. Part of the foundations of the log meeting-house where the congregation met for worship may still be seen.

      Other widowed mothers were there in North Carolina, who trained their sons to become zealous patriots and efficient statesmen. The names of Mrs. Flinn, Mrs. Sharpe, Mrs. Graham, and Mrs. Hunter, are worthy of remembrance. The great principles proclaimed at the Mecklenburg Convention were acted out in the noblest efforts of patriotism by their sons.

      Mr. Caruthers, the biographer of the Rev. David Caldwell, states, that while all the active men in his congregations were engaged with the army at the battle of Guilford Court-house, there were two collections of females, one in Buffalo, and the other in Alamance, engaged in earnest prayer for their families and their country; and that many others sought the divine aid in solitary places. One pious woman sent her son frequently during the afternoon, to the summit of a little hill near which she spent much time in prayer, to listen and bring her word which way the firing came – from the southward or the northward. When he returned and said it was going northward, “Then,” exclaimed she, “all is lost! Greene is defeated.” But all was not lost; the God who hears prayer remembered his people.

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