Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1505
First published: 1835
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of work: 1780
Locale: The Carolinas
Sergeant Horse-shoe Robinson, a colonial patriot
Major Arthur Butler, his friend
Mr. Lindsay, a Loyalist
Mildred, Lindsay's daughter
Henry, Lindsay's son
Wat Adair, a Tory
Tyrrel, a British officer
Mary Musgrove, a patriot
John Ramsay, Mary's sweetheart
In the secluded back country of South Carolina, two men in the service of the revolutionary colonial forces were traveling together. They were Major Arthur Butler and his shrewd sergeant, a man known throughout the region as Horse-shoe Robinson, because of his former occupation as a blacksmith. Although they passed as chance travelers, they were on a secret mission to trace the movements of the enemy and to enlist aid for the cause of colonial independence.
Before setting out on their dangerous journey, Arthur Butler was moved to stop near Dove-Cote, the residence of Mr. Lindsay, a Loyalist gentleman who had come to the territory to live because he wished to avoid the conflict between the colonists and the British government. He was loyal to the crown because of financial interests in England, but his son Henry was sympathetic to the American cause. Mildred, Lindsay's daughter, was in love with Arthur Butler, but because of the Major's connections with the Colonial Army, Mr. Lindsay had forbidden her to see Butler. For this reason, they met secretly in a grove not far from Dove-Cote. After the meeting, she returned unseen to Mr. Lindsay's house, and Butler and Horse-shoe Robinson went to the inn of Mistress Dimock, not far away.
That night at the inn, Horse-shoe encountered a Tory spy named James Curry, a stealthy rascal who was passing as the servant of Mr. Tyrrel, a guest at Dove-Cote. Tyrrel, a disguised British officer, was often at Mr. Lindsay's home, ostensibly to secure that gentleman's aid for the Loyalists but, in reality, to court Mildred, who despised him and everything for which he stood. Seeing Curry at the inn, Horse-shoe knew that Tyrrel was again visiting Dove-Cote. Although he let the fellow escape, he was afraid that Tyrrel and Curry might cause trouble for Butler and himself on their trip through South Carolina.
Major Butler had been sent by General Gates on a mission to another rebel general in Georgia. With Horse-shoe as a companion, the Major felt certain that he could complete his undertaking. On their first night in the forest, Horse-shoe led Butler to the home of Wat Adair, an old friend whom he thought loyal to the rebel cause. Wat, however, was not a true friend. Having been bought off by the Tories, he planned that night to direct Butler and Horse-shoe into an ambush in the forest. A relative of Wat, Mary Musgrove, overheard Wat plotting with another Tory, and being loyal to the rebels, she whispered to Butler the plans she had learned.
Through her warning, Horse-shoe and Butler avoided one trap, only to fall into an ambush of some rough Tories, among them Curry. Fearing that the drunken crew planned to murder Butler and himself, Horse-shoe escaped, hoping to rescue Butler later.
The family of Mary Musgrove was a rebel family, and Horse-shoe proceeded to their home to get help in his plan. In addition, the family of Mary's sweetheart, John Ramsay, was a rebel family. With the Ramsays and the Musgroves, Horse-shoe planned to engage the enemy and bring Butler to safety. Mary, pretending to be a vendor of fruit, was to enter the Tory camp where Butler was being held. There she was to communicate with the Major and give him word of his rescuers' plans.
James Curry had charged Butler with conspiring to murder Mr. Lindsay, a loyal subject of the king. In order to disprove this charge, Horse-shoe returned to Dove-Cote. Mildred's distress at the news of her lover's arrest had caused her father great grief, and he relented his stern stand against Butler and assured Mildred that he would not punish her for her concern over the Major. When Horse-shoe found Mildred and her brother Henry at Dove-Cote, Mr. Lindsay had gone off with Tyrrel to a meeting of Loyalists in a nearby town. Having heard Horse-shoe's account of the charges against Butler, Mildred resolved to go to Cornwallis, the English general, and plead with him for Butler's life. Mildred was confident she could prove that Butler could never have had designs on the father of the girl he loved. Accompanied by Henry Lindsay and Horse-shoe Robinson, she set out for Cornwallis' headquarters.
John Ramsay and Mary were able to effect Butler's escape from the camp where he was held prisoner, but John was killed before they reached a place of safety. Grief-stricken by the loss of her sweetheart, Mary attended the funeral services, which were conducted by her father, Allen Musgrove. While the services were going on, they were interrupted by some British troops, and Butler was once again taken prisoner.
When Mildred and her two companions succeeded in getting an interview with Cornwallis, the courtly general gave Mildred his promise that no harm would befall Butler. While the general was speaking with Mildred, he received a message that Butler had escaped. Mildred set out for Dove-Cote with Horse-shoe and her brother. On their way, they met Mary Musgrove, her family, and the Ramsays, who told them of Butler's second capture by British troops from a nearby camp. Again, Mildred resolved to intercede on behalf of her lover, and Henry and Horse-shoe agreed to accompany her.
While Mildred awaited an opportunity to seek Butler, the forces of the Loyalists and the rebels were engaging in the battle of King's Mountain. During the fighting, Horse-shoe rescued Butler and brought him safely back to Mildred. Then the two lovers revealed that they had been married for more than a year, in a secret ceremony witnessed by Mistress Dimock and Henry Lindsay.
Wat Adair was captured, and Horse-shoe saw to it that he received just punishment for betraying his American friends. Wat told Horse-shoe that Tyrrel was really an English general who had bribed Wat to lead Butler and Horse-shoe into a trap. Henry, who had participated in the battle, found Tyrrel's body lying among the dead and wounded. James Curry was captured by rebel forces. It seemed certain that the Tory ascendency in South Carolina was at an end.
Yet the happy reunion of the lovers was clouded by the death of Mr. Lindsay. When he learned that Mildred had gone to see Cornwallis, he set out to find her before the battle began. Following Tyrrel toward the scene of the fighting, Mr. Lindsay was fatally wounded and Tyrrel killed. Mildred and Henry were able to speak with their father before he died, however, and he lived long enough to take the hands of Mildred and Butler and forgive them for having disobeyed him. He died shortly afterward in a delirium brought on by his fever.
Mildred and Butler returned to Dove-Cote to live a long and prosperous life together.
John Pendleton Kennedy is principally remembered as a patron of Edgar Allan Poe and for two of his own books—SWALLOW BARN (1832), a loosely linked series of sketches of plantation life in Virginia written in the manner of Washington Irving's BRACEBRIDGE HALL; and Horse-shoe ROBINSON: A TALE OF THE TORY ASCENDENCY, with a plot reminiscent of James Fenimore Cooper's THE SPY and a hero who resembles Cooper's Leatherstocking.
Just as Cooper had built THE SPY upon the theme of divided loyalties of the Tories and the American rebels in New York during the Revolution, so Kennedy pictures a division of loyalties in the Carolinas at a time when any stranger one met might be either a friend or an enemy. Kennedy is unoriginal in his plot development, using both characters and incidents that seem to have been borrowed from Cooper. Major Butler and Mildred Lindsay are conventional romantic lovers such as may be found in many earlier English and American novels. Also as in Cooper's frontier romances, the lower-class characters are more appealing than the genteel upper-class ones.
Horse-shoe ROBINSON has survived mainly because of Horse-shoe himself—Kennedy said he modeled him upon a real Galbraith Robinson—and though the modern reader may object to the slow pace and the contrived plot of the novel, he can still enjoy, as did Kennedy's contemporaries, the character of the stalwart soldier whose good heart and stout body were dedicated to the service of the Revolution and the safety of his friends. In addition, the novel offers, to some readers at least, the pleasure of relishing Kennedy's polished narrative and descriptive style marked by touches of genial humor, directed sometimes at Horse-shoe himself. William Gilmore Simms, a South Carolina author of later historical romances, complained in 1852 about faults in Kennedy's dialect, history, and geography; but Kennedy has otherwise been praised for the accuracy of his period detail in this, the first novel to deal with the Revolution in the South.