Alumnus Reclaims College Namesake's Revolutionary War "Wallet" for USA
June 27, 2001
A lost relic of the Revolutionary War will come home on Tuesday, July 3, following more than 220 years in British hands.
At 5 p.m. the Rev. Jeff Lowrance of Hopewell Presbyterian Church and a courier from London will arrive at the Davidson Town Hall bearing a "wallet" that belonged to patriot leader Gen. William Lee Davidson, for whom Davidson College was named when it was founded in 1837. The four-inch by ten-inch leather wallet served as Gen. Davidson's briefcase, and was taken from him by the British troops who killed him at age 34 at the Battle of Cowans Ford on Feb. 1, 1781. It contained 28 documents relating details of military campaigns, supplies and prisoners, a transcribed letter from George Washington, and a letter from Gen. Nathaniel Greene requesting public support of Gen. Davidson's militia recruitment. It has been held in the Public Records Office in London since the Revolution.
Following a public ceremony at the Davidson Town Hall, the wallet will be transported to the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro to become part of a year-long display chronicling the war's southern campaign. That exhibit opens on Wednesday, July 4.
According to Russell Snapp, an associate professor of history at Davidson College who teaches about the Revolution, Gen. Davidson was a well-known patriot leader in the southern Piedmont area. He served as an officer in George Washington's Continental Army at Valley Forge, then led militia forces in his home state. After British General Charles Cornwallis captured Charleston in early 1780, he marched toward North Carolina and attacked Charlotte in September.
Gen. Davidson rallied several hundred patriots to battle them at Cowans Ford, slowing the British retreat while American forces retreated to Guilford Courthouse. The battle that the Americans and British fought there a month later weakened the Redcoats and hastened their surrender.
At the conclusion of the battle of Cowans Ford, searchers found Gen. Davidson's body stripped naked by the British. His friends and wife buried him hastily by torchlight five miles away at Hopewell Presbyterian Church on Beatties Ford Road, intending to hide the body from British troops who may have sought it for further desecration at his home church, Centre Presbyterian Church.
Professor Snapp said, "General Davidson is one of those figures who's larger than life today because of his 100 percent commitment to the patriotic cause. It was Gen. Cornwallis who nicknamed this area 'The Hornet's Nest' because of the fierce resistance of the local partisans. Though General Davidson and others didn't stop the British advance, they stung the British repeatedly, and the small engagements had a significant cumulative effect."
The late Chalmers Davidson, a former history professor, library director, and archivist at Davidson College, wrote a biography of Gen. Davidson in 1951 entitled Piedmont Partisan. Doing further research in 1964, Chalmers Davidson contacted the London Public Record Office and learned of the existence of the wallet. He received an inventory of the papers in it at that time, but he never inspected it personally.
The wallet is finally coming back to America through the efforts of Rev. Jeff Lowrance, a 1973 Davidson graduate and pastor of Hopewell Presbyterian Church. Rev. Lowrance has studied Gen. Davidson through the years in connection with an annual commemoration of the Cowan's Ford Battle held at the church. Last year when Rev. Lowrance was preparing for a trip to England for a pastoral exchange, he attended a fundraising showing of the movie, The Patriot. His friend and sponsor of the event, Gary Knox, challenged him at that time to bring the wallet back home.
"It became a quest," Rev. Lowrance explained. He met with Davidson College archivist Jan Blodgett prior to his trip, and made contact through her with John Durham, the historian at Guilford Battlefield National Park.
Durham encouraged the reclamation effort, and during his time in England Rev. Lowrance was able to facilitate the wallet's loan between officials on both sides of the Atlantic. He also had a chance, with his family, to physically inspect the wallet in the Public Records Office. "I thought it would be decomposed, but it hardly had any wear," Rev. Lowrance said. "It was an ingenious thing with all kinds of compartments."
He also described it as a highly emotional moment for them all. "I never understood the Christian tradition of reliquary items before then. But after holding that in my own hands, now I do."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson is currently engaged in "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.