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Considering the Hornets Nest

Popular myth in Charlotte holds that after being driven from the area in the autumn of 1780, General Charles Cornwallis remarked that Mecklenburg County was a “hornets nest” that could not be held by force. There is a great deal of local pride in this anecdote, and several organizations and landmarks have derived their names in whole or in part therefrom including parks and landmarks, a local Girl Scouts council, an elementary school, and the city’s NBA team (The Hornets). In addittion, a representation of a hornets nest is one of the official symbols of the city, and the Charlotte Police display a hornets nest on their badges.

The anecdote seems ubiquitous, but its foundations in historical fact are questionable. There are plenty of secondary sources dating back to the mid-19th century citing the “hornets nest” story in one form or another, but many of them disagree on the particulars. The modern version, that Cornwallis said it after losing control of the region, is joined by versions where Cornwallis’ shock collar Banistre “Bloody” Tarleton uttered the words after his soldiers lost to patriot forces at the Battle of McIntyre’s Farm, and even where the “hornets nest” has to do with Lincoln County in Georgia and not Charlotte Towne at all.

How can you tell the difference between historic fact and historic fiction in a case like this? A recently published six volume collection of letters and other writings by and to Cornwallis may hold insight into the accuracy of the tale. Yet even if no direct evidence that he ever wrote the words “hornets nest” can be found within the hundreds of his correspondences linked directly to the time he spent on campaign in the Southern Theatre, the absence of such evididence does not itself indicate evidence of absence. There might be evidence hidden away in the collected writings of Tarelton, or mentioned in one of the few remaing (poorly) preserved newspapers of the era. Or the mysterious primary source may just be lost to the decay of time.

Regardless, the story of how the patriots of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina bested the British Army has left an unquestionable impact on the people who have since lived in Charlotte. The “hornets nest” tale is part of the local culture’s oral history without a doubt. Just don’t ask about the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

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