Sunday, October 30, 2022

ARP258 Gates Takes Command

In the spring of 1780 the revolution in the south seemed to be unraveling.  The British capture of Savannah in late 1778 with a relatively small force, and made manifest the vulnerability of the southern colonies.  Both sides had largely ignored the southern theater, deploying few soldiers and a “b” team of commanding officers.  Southern politicians typically refused to cooperate with the Continental commanders.  

Horatio Gates

Generals Lachlan McIntosh and Robert Howe, both southerners themselves, had been transferred north because of their inability to work well with the southern governors and other civilian leaders.  Washington had eventually sent General Benjamin Lincoln of Massachusetts, to command the southern army, in hopes of creating a credible army to secure the region and retake Georgia.  Instead the British captured Lincoln and his entire army at Charleston, South Carolina, after a short siege led by British General Henry Clinton.  Following that, both sides predicted that North Carolina and perhaps even Virginia might soon fall under British control.

Baron De Kalb

With the fall of Charleston and the surrender of Lincoln’s army, the highest ranking officer in the south was Major General Johan De Kalb, the German-born officer who had served a lifetime in the French Army, before coming to America with the Marquis de Lafayette.

Up until this time, De Kalb’s vast military experience in Europe had not really been put to the test in America.  He did not receive his commission until after the Philadelphia Campaign had ended in late 1777.  He was in Philadelphia during the Battle of Monmouth.  Although he suffered through the winter encampments at Valley Forge and Morristown, serving as a division commander, he had not had any opportunity to prove himself as a battlefield commander.

In April of 1780, De Kalb was still commanding a division near Morristown when Washington directed him to take a division of soldiers from Delaware and Maryland south to support General Lincoln at Charleston.  De Kalb was still in Philadelphia, trying to prepare for his march to the south by the time Charleston fell.  He finally left Philadelphia on May 13, the day after Charleston had fallen, but before word of Lincoln’s surrender had reached Philadelphia.  It was nearly a month later, by which time De Kalb had made it as far as Richmond when he learned that the British had occupied Charleston.

Johann de Kalb

De Kalb had hoped that his force of about 1000 Continental soldiers would be supplemented by thousands of Maryland and Virginia militia once word of Charleston’s fall motivated the states to turn out in force.  Like most Continental generals, De Kalb would be frustrated by the failure of state leaders to provide him with the men or supplies to mount any credible defense against the British army that was by this time subduing South Carolina and clearly aiming at moving into North Carolina.  Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson provided the army with almost no supplies, and only a few hundred militia.

On June 20, de Kalb’s Continentals crossed from Virginia into North Carolina.  The army reached Hillsboro two days later and remained in camp there until the end of the month.  The promises of supplies and militia reinforcements never materialized.  De Kalb had to put the army on reduced rations.  North Carolina officials seemed focused on feeding the militia that had been called out. The militia leaders did not bother to link up with the Continentals and no one was providing food to de Kalb’s men.  Decades of experience in Europe had convinced General De Kalb that supply lines were critical to any army’s success.  He was hesitant to move anywhere without knowing how he would feed and supply his men.  In July, de Kalb tentatively began to move south from Hillsborough.  He met with a few militia leaders, including Francis Marion, who had brought his militia from South Carolina.  

De Kalb was trying to link up with the North Carolina militia under General Richard Caswell.  North Carolina had called up an army of several thousand militia.  Caswell was a political leader who had been Governor of North Carolina until April.  Despite his minimal military experience, he received an appointment from the state as major general.

Despite the impending crisis of a British invasion from the south, Caswell made no effort to link up with, or even communicate with the Continental Army in his state.  Following what seems to have become an inexplicable pattern among southern leaders, Caswell simply ignored the Continental army there to assist in the defense of his state.  He collected supplies to feed his militia army but showed no interest in providing any of his supplies with the Continentals who were on starvation rations or doing anything about attacking the growing British and loyalist threat building just across the border in South Carolina.

A frustrated de Kalb continued to write letters to Washington and officials in Philadelphia that he was receiving no support and had no supplies for his army.  This was de Kalb’s first independent command and he indicated he could not succeed with the limited resources at his disposal.

Horatio Gates

The Continental Congress seemed to agree with de Kalb that he was not up to the job.  Although experienced, this foreign general had become the southern commander only by the accident that General Benjamin Lincoln had been taken prisoner at Charleston before de Kalb could join up with him.

Before de Kalb had even entered North Carolina, Congress acted to appoint a new southern commander.  General Washington strongly recommended that Congress give the command of the new southern army to General Nathanael Greene. By this time, Greene had become Washington’s top general.  He was the man that Washington recommended to replace himself as the commander-in-chief should he ever die or be captured.  

On receiving Washington’s recommendation, Congress voted on June 13 to commission Major General Horatio Gates to take command of the southern army.  Although most of Congress had come to respect Washington’s military leadership, many delegates still believed that they knew better than he did.  Besides, Greene had insulted Congress a few months earlier in his letter resigning as Quartermaster General.  Many in Congress had wanted to dismiss him from the army entirely.  They certainly were not about to give this guy an important independent command.

When the time came for Congress to pick a new commander for the south, General Gates had positioned himself where he was always most effective, in Philadelphia lobbying on behalf of himself.  I know I’ve talked about Gates extensively in the past, but perhaps this is a good time for a refresher.

Gates had been a British officer in the regular army for decades before the war.  His family did not have wealth or position, but was pretty well connected with those who did.  He had managed to scrape together enough money to buy a commission as a lieutenant in 1745, in time to fight at the battle of Culloden, crushing the Scottish rebellion there.  When the war of Austrian Succession ended, Gates found his regiment dissolved.  

General Gates, 1780
He decided to head to America, serving as aide to Colonel Edward Cornwallis, the uncle of future General Charles Cornwallis.  In Halifax, Gates assisted with the removal of the French Acadians and the Mi'kmaq Indians.  He returned to London to lobby for a promotion and ended up purchasing a captaincy on credit.  In 1755, Gates joined up with a great number of other future leaders, including George Washington, Charles Lee, and Daniel Morgan on General Edward Braddock’s assault on Fort Duquesne in what would become western Pennsylvania.  Gates was wounded in the ensuing massacre that killed Braddock.

Later in the French and Indian War, Gates served as an aide to General John Stanwix at Fort Pitt.  Later, he participated in the British assault on the island of Martinique under General Robert Monkton, and was given the honor of reporting the British victory to London.  By tradition, messengers of good news were granted a promotion as thanks.  Officers often chose messengers like Gates, who were deserving of promotion but could not afford to buy a higher commission.  As expected, Gates received a promotion to major.

But with the end of the Seven Years War, Gates found his military career stalled once again.  He returned to New York to work as a political aide for Robert Monckton, who had been appointed Royal Governor of New York.  After Monckton returned to England, Gates also returned and sold his commission.  With the money from that commission, Gates moved his family to Virginia on the recommendation of an old war buddy named George Washington.  

He purchased a large plantation in what is today West Virginia, and by his mid-40’s was ready to settle into the quiet life of a plantation owner.  He served as a lieutenant colonel in the local militia, but probably figured his military days were behind him.  Gates was not an active voice in the colonial protests of the early 1770’s but when the war began in 1775, he immediately offered his services to his old friend George Washington before Washington left for the Continental Congress.  

When Washington was appointed commander in chief of the new Continental Army, he requested that Gates be given a commision as brigadier general and made Gates the first Adjutant General of the Continental Army.

While Gates did have battlefield experience, his main experience had been serving as a staff aide to other officers and an expert in the necessary administrative duties that every army requires.  He had gained an expertise in seeking promotion through relationships with politically powerful men, and trying to be in the right place at the right time.

Gates was one of the first brigadier generals to be promoted to major general in early 1776, based primarily on his administrative skills in organizing the Continental Army. But Gates knew that he needed a field command to establish himself as a leader.  He spent a great deal of time in Philadelphia, trying to develop friendly relationships with the delegates to the Continental Congress.  He succeeded in establishing a powerful fan base among many of the New England delegates.

Gates convinced Congress to appoint him to command the Army in Canada early in the war, replacing John Sullivan. But by the time Gates actually made it to Canada, the army had been pushed back into New York.  That started Gates’ feud with General Philip Schuyler, one of the few generals who was more senior to Gates. Schuyler had command of the army in New York.  Now that Gates’ Canadian army was in New York, he fell under Schuyler’s command.

Gates and Shuyler tried to work together for more than a year.  When Gates got frustrated, he would leave his command and personally return to Philadelphia to lobby Congress to replace Schuyler as the commander of the Northern Army.  At the end of 1776, Washington begged Gates to cross the Delaware with him and attack Trenton.  Gates refused, assuming that Washington’s attack would not succeed.  Instead, Gates rode to Baltimore to be ready to lobby Congress for command of the Continental Army once Washington had failed.  Of course, Washington’s victory upset those plans, and Gates moved back to Plan A: getting Congress to dump Schuyler and give Gates command of the Northern Army.

When news of Schuyler’s loss of Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, Gates was still in Philadelphia, ready to lobby Congress for his proposed change.  This time, his lobbying worked. Gates took over command of the Northern Army just before the battles that culminated in the surrender of General Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga.  I’ve argued that Gates was primarily the beneficiary of all the work that Schuyler and others had done to make that victory possible.  I’ve also argued in earlier episodes that the victory was due primarily to the efforts of General Benedict Arnold, who had to defy Gates’ orders in order to defeat the British.

Gates, ever the politician, had ended what had been a pretty good relationship with Arnold, because Arnold took on several of General Schuyler’s aides after Schuyler lost his command.  Gates saw that as a disloyal act that made Arnold a competitor for power.  Therefore, Gates did not want to give Arnold any position that might increase his stature and reputation.  After Saratoga, Gates went out of his way to ignore Arnold’s contributions to the victory.

Congress gave Gates full credit for the victory at Saratoga.  Many in Congress began discussing the possibility of Gates replacing Washington as military commander.  Gates’ victory at Saratoga was contrasted with Washington’s series of losses that had led to the British occupation of Philadelphia.  Although Washington remained military commander, Congress appointed Gates as Chairman of the Board of War, which could essentially give orders to Washington and tell him how to use his army.  Many in Congress thought this might end up convincing Washington to resign. Washington, however, fought back politically and shrewdly, eventually allowing events to show Congress that Gates really wasn’t that impressive.

Following this tussle with Washington, Gates’ star seemed to fall.  He remained head of the Board of War, but the Board essentially lost its authority.  Gates also continued in command of the Northern Department, but with the surrender of Burgoyne’s army, there was not much action in that region.  The main threat came from small raids by loyalists and Indians.  Washington had offered Gates command of the campaign to stamp out those raids, but Gates demurred, allowing General Sullivan to lead the campaign instead.  Washington then assigned Gates to command of the Eastern Department, New England, in 1779.  Again there was nothing really happening militarily in that region by this time, so Gates ended up just going home to his plantation in Virginia.

When the British threatened Charleston in early 1780, Gates headed back to Philadelphia to provide military advice, and once again lobby for a new command.  Congress obliged and appointed Gates the new commander of the Southern Army.  For Gates, this was a wonderful opportunity.  He once again had an independent command in an important theater.  A great victory would give him the opportunity to show up Washington once again, and prove that he was the greatest military leader in the Continental Army.

Gates attempted to convince Colonel Daniel Morgan to join him on this campaign. But Morgan had resigned his commission about a year earlier.  Despite being such a critical leader in so many battles, Morgan never played the political game to get ahead.  Congress had continually failed to promote Morgan to general.  Years in the field had left the aging colonel with so many aches and pains, that he decided to hang it up and retire.  When Gates tried to bring him out of retirement, he was having none of it.

Gates Takes Command

Gates was well aware of the challenges to victory in the south.  He knew about the lack of money, supplies and men, the lack of cooperation of the state governments, and the success the British had had in recruiting more loyalist regiments in the south.

Richard Caswell
Although Congress had granted command to Gates in mid-June, nobody bothered to inform General de Kalb, who was still making his way toward the South Carolina border.  When he finally received notice in the form of a letter from Gates on July 16, de Kalb actually seemed relieved that he would no longer be in command.  De Kalb was not confident of his situation, and was loath to try anything without having the proper resources available to him.  While he was more than happy to serve under General Gates, he did not want the responsibility of command under the conditions that he faced. De Kalb was probably further relieved by Gates’ reassuring letters that he had been in close contact with Congress and Governor Jefferson of Virginia and that they would provide the support that the army needed.  

Gates finally caught up with the army on July 25. The forces under his command were not promising.  With the arrival of the Virginia militia, Gates had less than 2000 soldiers.  Various units and individuals fleeing British-controlled Georgia and South Carolina had traveled north to join up with the army.  Still missing were the North Carolina militia under General Caswell.

Gates’ army was spread out, to make use of resources throughout the region, but were on starvation rations and had no sufficient ammunition or supplies for a military campaign.  The army also had only about 50 cavalrymen, which were often critical to southern campaigns outside of larger towns.

None of this seemed to phase General Gates.  After a peremptory review of his new army, Gates ordered his officers to prepare the men to march immediately into South Carolina.  Gates specifically wanted to hit the British outpost at Camden.  De Kalb and many local officers recommended marching to the west, through Salisbury and Charlotte.  The land in that area had much stronger patriot sentiment and had much more food and water available for an army on the march.  

Gates disagreed, and instead chose a more direct march toward Camden, one that would go through the heart of Tory strongholds, and where there would be very few resources for the army.  He told his officers not to worry about the lack of food, that wagons with food and rum would catch up with the army soon.  This was a lie, and Gates knew it, but used it to reassure his officers that his plan would work.

Even on the direct route, the march would take at least a couple of weeks. Over the objections of just about everyone, Gates began marching south, with an army still on half-rations through a region described by some as a desert, toward the British outpost at Camden.  

Next Time: The battle of Camden.

- - -

Next Episode 259 The Battle of Camden 

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Further Reading


Johann De Kalb:

Horatio Gates:

The Battle of Camden:


Battle of Camden:

Waters, Andrew “The Mysterious March of Horatio Gates” Journal of the American Revolution, September 24, 2020

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.

Moultrie, William, Memoirs of the American Revolution: so far as it related to the states of North and South Carolina, and Georgia, New York: D. Longworth, 1802. 

Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785.

Stevens, John A. “Gates at Camden”  Magazine of American History Vol. V, No. 4, October 1880. 

Tarleton, Banastre A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America, London: T. Cadell 1787. 

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 1970 (borrow only). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999. 

Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The southern conflict that turned the tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (borrow on

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Piecuch, Jim The Battle of Camden: A Documentary History, History Press Library, 2006. 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000 (borrow on

Smith, David Camden 1780: The Annihilation of Gates’ Grand Army, Osprey Publishing, 2016. 

Wickwire, Franklin B. Cornwallis and the War of Independence, Houghton Mifflin, 1971 (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

ARP257 French Army in America

Back in Episode 246 we discussed Lafayette’s return to America from France.  Lafayette arrived in Boston in late April 1780 and made it down to General Washington’s Headquarters in Morristown New Jersey by early May.  The young general from France was pleased to announce that a French Army would soon arrive to support the Continentals in a final push to defeat Britain.

Washington, of course, was elated with the news, but also concerned since his army had fallen to only a few thousand men.  The southern army had been captured at Charleston and the states seemed in no hurry to send new soldiers.  Further, the army did not have the food or supplies to take care of the few soldiers that they did have. 

Washington spent the next few months desperately trying to build up his army for a major campaign with French cooperation during the summer of 1780. But the men and resources simply were not there.  The news of the arrival of the French Army spurred him to do whatever he could to prepare, but there was not much he could do.

Comte de Rochambeau

Leading the French army was Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, better known as the comte de Rochambeau.  Lafayette had requested command of the army, but the Continental major general had left France as a captain in the French Army.  The King of France was not going to turn over an entire army to a kid still in his twenties, no matter how impressive an impact he had made in America.

General Rochambeau was an older, experienced officer.  Like most officers of the era, Rochambeau came from aristocracy.  He was the third son of the Marquis de Rochambeau, who came from a prominent military family that could trace its ancestry back to officers who had led in the crusades.  His mother came from an important naval family.  Although his father had some physical handicap that had prevented military service, he nevertheless served the King and was honored as a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, among his titles.

comte de Rochambeau
Both of Rochambeau’s older brothers died in childhood.  So, from a young age, he was destined to carry his family’s title.  Born in 1725, he attended Catholic boarding schools where he received educational and military training beginning at age five.  At 15, he received his first commission as a cornet of horse and began service in the Army of the Rhine during the War of Austrian Succession.  The young teenager learned the rigors of combat at an early age and managed to thrive and impress his superiors.  He was wounded in battle several times, and suffered the same deprivations that the rest of his men faced during the war.  

By 1747, the 22 year old found himself a colonel leading a regiment.  A couple of years later, the 25 year old Colonel Rochambeau accepted his mother’s arrangement for his marriage into another wealthy family. 

By the outbreak of the Seven Years War, Rochambeau had risen to brigadier general.  He distinguished himself at the battle of Minorca, and was wounded in battle in the German states during the war.  By the end of that war, Rochambeau found himself serving as inspector-general of infantry and mixing with the top ministers at the court of Versailles.

Since France had entered its latest war with Britain, much of Rochambeau’s time was spent planning for the invasion of England in 1779.  After that plan fell apart due to problems and delays by their Spanish allies and an unfortunate smallpox outbreak in the invasion fleet, Rochambeau was looking for something else to do.  In 1780 Rochambeau was a 55 year old military commander with nearly 40 years of military experience.  According to his writings, he was contemplating retirement.  The thought of another major military campaign far from home did not seem to be something that he particularly wanted.

Unlike many other officers, we don’t really know Rochambeau’s personal views on the American fight for liberty, or other political issues of the day.  He did not speak English, and knew rather little about America.  Rochambeau was a professional soldier, who followed orders and fought whatever battles his superiors thought appropriate.  The King’s decision to appoint him the head of an expeditionary force to America would be his first independent command.

French Expeditionary Force

The King's commission directed Rochambeau to command his army separately from the Continental Army. The French army in America would not serve as auxiliaries.  His orders directed him to work closely with General Washington and to coordinate military actions that would assist the success of the American cause.  At the same time he was to use his own military judgment in the use of his army.  Initially, the king had granted Rochambeau a force of only 4000 soldiers.  After some negotiation, the King increased the number to 7500, out of the 32,000 men who had been assembled for the aborted invasion of Britain.

French Regulars
Lafayette had advised Rochambeau to bring all the supplies that they would need while in the field in America.  He noted that the Americans had almost nothing and that the French could not really rely on local supplies while in the field.

By March of 1780, Rochambeau was ready to embark on his transatlantic voyage.  Unfortunately, the French Navy was not ready.  All the troop transport ships had been used to ship another army to the West Indies.  After a few weeks of scrambling, the ministry managed to find enough ships to cram about 5500 soldiers aboard.  They had to leave behind another nearly 2500 men who would have to join them on a second voyage later.  They also had to give up the transport of any horses.

The fleet set off for America at the beginning of May.  The winds and weather forced the fleet to take a longer route, so that they were still at sea after two months.  Along the way, the fleet encountered ships that brought the news that the Continental Army had fallen at Charleston and the entire southern army had been taken prisoner.  The Americans had lost almost as many soldiers in South Carolina as Rochambeau was bringing to America.  The French also learned that General Clinton had returned to New York and was preparing a greeting of his own when the French fleet arrived.  

While the officers knew of their destination, the French soldiers were not informed until about seven weeks into the voyage.  The men cheered when they heard the news.  In part this may have been because of the French feeling toward American liberty.  A fair amount of the celebration may have been because they were not headed to the West Indies, where tropical diseases were known to decimate European regiments.


On July 11, 1780, the French fleet arrived in Newport, Rhode Island.  The British did not contest the landing.  They had abandoned Newport in late 1779 in order to consolidate forces in New York ahead of the Charleston offensive.

The people of Newport at first greeted the French fleet a bit tentatively.  No one was really sure what an occupying army would bring, even if it was allied with the US.  Even Continental soldiers and militia were known for taking what they needed from the locals out of necessity.  Although the French were now allies, the people of New England had been fighting them as long-time enemies only twenty years prior.  Only two years before, in 1778, the French had abandoned the attempt to recapture Newport from the British.  This had threatened to create a deep hostility between the two armies, which Washington and Lafayette had to work overtime to patch up.

The locals also had little to offer their French guests.  The town population had been less than 10,000 before the war, and the years of British occupation had caused it to fall to less than 5000, hardly enough to support 5500 French soldiers and thousands more sailors.  The British had largely destroyed Newport on their way out in 1779, and the town had few resources to rebuild.  Many buildings were still burned-out shells. 

Many of Rochambeau’s soldiers were sick with scurvy from a difficult 70 day journey to America aboard overpacked cramped vessels.  Rochambeau received reports that 2300 of the French soldiers and sailors required hospital rest following the voyage.

French Map of Newport 1780
Rochambeau proved that he was not just a career military officer.  He also knew how to act as a politician.  He began meeting with local leaders and ensuring them that the French Army would not abandon them again, that they were ready to pay in specie (gold and silver) for whatever they needed, and that they would remain good guests while stationed in the city. The men set about repairing buildings for use.  They brought much-welcomed hard money to pay locals for what they needed.

Within days, local support began to show.  The Town Council called for a night of illumination of candles in all the houses to celebrate the arrival of their allies.  With local support, the French army of 5500 men settled in and around Newport.  General Rochambeau, however, still had to worry about a British attack.  The main British army at New York was only 150 miles away.  A short sail up the coast could have the enemy upon them in days.  Newport’s defenses were a mess and a large portion of the French army was in hospital following the difficult sea voyage.

Rochambeau began writing letters to Versailles noting the difficulties he encountered.  The American economy was in freefall, with the Continental dollar virtually worthless.  The Continental Army appeared to consist of only a few thousand men who were starving and in rags.  General Washington seemed unable to draw in new recruits, and part of the American army needed to move south in order to replace the army that had been captured at Charleston.

British forces were in control of Georgia and South Carolina, and seemed on the brink of taking North Carolina.  George Washington had not yet traveled to meet with Rochambeau.  Many historians have argued that this delay was because Washington was embarrassed that he had no army to fight alongside the French.  At this same time, Washington was writing letters to officials in Virginia saying that they need to be aware of the “totally deranged situation of our affairs—of our distresses—of the utter impracticability of availing ourselves of this generous aid [that is, the French support], unless the States would rouse from the Torpor that had siezed them.”

The New England militia turned out in force to supplement the French forces, commanded by General William Heath.  But Rochambeau saw them as an army of beggars. The militia needed guns, tents, clothing, provisions, etc. Everyone was looking to the French army to serve as quartermaster for all the Americans.

Rochambeau’s letters to French officials back home essentially said that they need to send more soldiers, ships, arms, and money to win this fight, and that the Americans could be counted on for almost no military support.  But those were longer term issues.  Right in front of him, was the danger of a British attack before the French were prepared to defend themselves.

Bull’s Ferry

To take some of the pressure off his new French allies, Washington was eager to engage in some activity to distract the British.  He did not have the resources for a full scale attack, but did order General Anthony Wayne to launch a raid on Bull’s Ferry in New Jersey

Wayne took two regiments of Continentals from the Pennsylvania Line, along with the 10th Regiment, as well as a company of dragoons and four pieces of field artillery.  Their goal was to capture a blockhouse at Bull’s Ferry, on the New Jersey coast, just across the Hudson River from New York City.  A small unit of 70 loyalists held the heavily-defended spot, which kept open a river passage into New Jersey from Manhattan.  The guard also protected an area to the south where the British grazed cattle and horses.  While Wayne’s force attacked the blockhouse, he sent Major Light Horse Harry Lee’s cavalry to round up the cattle and horses.

Bulls Ferry
Wayne’s force attacked the outpost on the morning of July 21.  The battle began with the Continentals using their artillery against defenders who had no canons to return fire.  The defenders did put up a defense with muskets.  After about an hour of no real progress. Wayne’s frustrated attackers wanted to storm the defenses.  Wayne and the officers saw that the defenders had built up considerable defenses, creating a tangle of abatis that would take considerable time to break through.  

Eventually, the soldiers charged despite efforts by the officers to hold them back.  As the officers feared, the attackers got caught up in the abatis and were forced to withdraw after taking heavy casualties.  With that, the Continentals gave up the fight and withdrew.  The 70 loyalist defenders suffered 5 dead and 16 wounded.  The Americans suffered 15 dead and 49 wounded.  British reports estimate the attacking force at over 2000 soldiers.  The American records don’t give a number, but if it really was just the two or three regiments, and the artillery, it was probably more like 700 to 900 attackers.  Even so, that should have been more than enough to overwhelm 70 defenders.  The Continentals did return with a herd of captured cattle, but failed to capture the block house.

That’s probably why the Americans wanted to forget about the failed attack.  Instead, we remember it because British Major John André wrote a poem called “The Cow Chace” making fun of the failed American attack, despite the lopsided numbers.

British Threat

Back in New York City, British General Clinton largely ignored the raid.  He was focused on launching an attack on the new French garrison at Newport.  Two days after the French landed at Newport, Admiral Samuel Graves arrived in New York with six more British ships of the line.  Combined with Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot’s existing fleet, the British had enough firepower to overwhelm the French naval fleet, which consisted of seven ships of the line and a few smaller ships.

Graves had hoped to intercept the French fleet at sea.  He had left port at Plymouth around the same time as the French fleet under Admiral Arsac de Ternay had left Brest.  But a storm had slowed up the fleet, and then Graves had gotten distracted trying to capture prizes along the way.  By contrast, French Admiral Ternay had passed up the opportunity to capture any British prizes that he had encountered, instead focusing on getting his troop transports to America.

In truth, the British probably could have taken Newport in the days or weeks following the French landing. The French had no time to construct defenses, and half their men were sick following the long voyage.

Adm. Samuel Graves

British General Clinton wanted to attack quickly, but Admiral Arbuthnot opposed it.  First, the fleet that had arrived under Admiral Graves was also sick from the long journey and either needed time to recuperate, or had to have much of its crew replaced with locals in New York.  This led to a delay of more than a week before the British fleet could leave for Newport.  

By the time the British fleet reached sight of Newport on July 22, the French fleet had had time to anchor into a defensive position in the harbor, where its cannons were supplemented by artillery batteries on land. Admirals Arbuthot and Graves discussed the matter, and decided they would not attack until Clinton had brought up his army to supplement that naval attack with a combined land assault.  Clinton had been ready to move, but the navy had not supplied him with the necessary troop transports to cross Long Island Sound into New England.

It would be another five days until General Clinton had his ships and was getting ready to embark an army of 6000 men at Throg’s Neck on July 27.  As Clinton prepared to load his army aboard the transports, he received word that the Continentals were massing an army of 15,000, presumably to attack Manhattan from the north.  It was the perfect time to attack, with the bulk of the British Navy up at Newport and with more than half the army prepared to join them. Clinton had to call off the troop transports and redeploy his soldiers to defend against the possible American attack.  

Of course, Washington had nowhere near 15,000 men at this time. Clinton’s intelligence about the American attack was a ruse.  The Culper Ring in New York had gotten word to Washington that Clinton was preparing to move on Newport.  

Washington made a pretense of massing a large force and moving it across the Hudson and into a position where it could attack the British in northern Manhattan.  He made sure word got back to Clinton of this new threat, while greatly exaggerating his numbers.  Members of the Culper ring helped to spread disinformation to British agents who informed Clinton of the imminent attack.  

By doing so, the Continentals bought more valuable time for the French at Newport to dig in, reinforce their defenses, and convalesce their soldiers and sailors.  Washington had also ordered General Heath to bring 5000 New England militia to Newport to support the French Army.  This militia army appeared quickly and was ready to assist within days. By the time the British were ready to attack, the French were ready to defend, meaning the British saw a pretty fair risk that they could be defeated.  

In letters back to London, Clinton blamed the failure to attack on the fact that Admiral Graves had arrived too late, that Admiral Arbuthnot had failed to get intelligence of the arrival of the French fleet, and that the navy had failed to provide timely access to the troop transports.

By mid-August, Rochambeau felt confident enough to send home the New England militia.  Although they had turned out quickly, the Americans did not have food or tents for a sustained presence.  Rochambeau decided these men would best serve the cause by returning home to bring in their harvests.

Instead of a decisive conflict, the British in New York had hunkered down into a defensive posture.  The French in Newport also began to settle in for what appeared to be a long term encampment.  As of the end of August, two months after the French arrived, Washington remained in New Jersey, with what little army he had, still not finding the time to meet his new ally in the war.  

Next time: we head south, as General Horatio Gates is tasked with building a new army in the south to confront General Cornwallis.

- - -

Next Episode 258 Gates Takes Command 

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Further Reading


JONES, T. COLE. “‘Displaying the Ensigns of Harmony’: The French Army in Newport, Rhode Island, 1780-1781.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 85, no. 3, 2012, pp. 430–67. JSTOR,

WHITRIDGE, ARNOLD. “TWO ARISTOCRATS IN ROCHAMBEAU’S ARMY.” The Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 40, no. 1, 1964, pp. 114–28. JSTOR,

French Encampment in Newport:

Why Newport Scorned the French in 1780:

Comte de Rochambeau:

Charles Henri d’Ternay

“From George Washington to Joseph Jones, 22 July 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Wayne Loses Battle of Bull’s Ferry:

Piecuch, Jim "Antony Wayne's Repulse at Bull's Ferry, July 21, 1780" Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 4, 2022.

Andre, John The Cow Chace

McBurney, Christian “The Culper Spy Ring Was Not the First to Warn the French at Newport” Journal of the American Revolution, Dec. 9, 2014.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Balch, Thomas The French in America During the War of Independence of the United States 1777-1783, Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1891. 

Lomask, Milton Rochambeau and Our French Allies, New York, P.J. Kenedy, 1965 (borrow only) 

Rice, Howard C. (ed) The American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Princeton University Press, 1972 (borrow only) 

Winfield, Charles “The Affair at Block House Point, 1780The Magazine of American History, Vol 5, pp. 161-186 (Google Books) 

Wright, M. W. E. “What France Did for America: Memoirs of Rochambeau” The North American Review

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Ferreiro, Larrie D. Brothers At Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016  (borrow on

Kennett, Lee The French Forces in America, 1780-1783, Praeger, 1977. 

Vail, Jini Jones Rochambeau: Washington’s Ideal Lieutenant, Word Association Publishers, 2020 

Weelen, Jean E. Rochambeau, Father and Son, H. Holt and Company, 1936 (reprint 2016).  (borrow on

Whitridge, Arnold Rochambeau: America’s Neglected Founding Father, Macmillan, 1965. (borrow on

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

ARP256 Hanging Rock

Last time, we went over several skirmishes in both North and South Carolina.  The British under General Cornwallis claimed to have taken all of South Carolina, and had demanded that all colonists, even patriot militia who had been released on parole, join loyalist militia forces or be treated as traitors.  Cornwallis had deployed Major Patrick Ferguson to the backcountry, where he was tasked with organizing regiments of patriot militia.  Ferguson used Fort Ninety-Six as his base of operations, and as a POW camp for patriots who refused to cooperate.  Further to the north, Colonel Banastre Tarleton used his loyalist cavalry, mostly raised among loyalists from New York and Philadelphia, to compel obedience to British edicts, and to punish anyone who refused to comply.

Thomas Sumter

Also a few episodes back, I gave some background on two local leaders who emerged at this time.  Colonel Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, was a Continental officer who was not in Charleston when it fell to the British.  General Thomas Sumter, the Gamecock, had given up participation in the war, only to be drawn back in after British forces targeted him and burned his plantation.

By July of 1780, Marion had brought his men into North Carolina to supplement the forces being organized by Continental General Johan DeKalb.  Sumter, however, remained in South Carolina, trying to avoid attacks on his small outfit, but striking at smaller encampments of British or loyalists when the opportunity presented itself.  

As I noted in an earlier episode, most of the skirmishing was relatively disorganized and involved only a few dozen men on each side.  The British were trying to cover the entire state with only a few thousand men, and the patriots had surrendered almost all organized forces in the state when Charleston had fallen in May.

Green Spring

One of the larger skirmishes in early August happened at Green Spring. There seems to be some dispute over the date of the attack, some saying August 1, others say August 8.  British Major Patrick Ferguson was out in the field commanding an army of hundreds of loyalists whom he had raised locally.  He received word that a regiment of rebel militia under the command of  Georgia Colonel Elijah Clarke was camped nearby. 

Elijah Clarke
Elijah Clarke lived on the Georgia frontier when the war began, but had grown up in North Carolina.  He had led soldiers against the loyalists at Kettle Creek in 1779, shortly after the British captured Savannah.  He had assumed command after loyalists attacked the home of his regimental commander and killed Colonel John Dooly.  Clarke had been upset that South Carolina militia had accepted parole and dropped out of the fight after the British captured Charleston.  He took his force of about 140 Georgia militia into South Carolina to continue the fight against the British.  After Clinton’s proclamation forced parolees to take up arms again, either as loyalists or patriots, Clarke found many in South Carolina willing to join up with his Georgians.

Ferguson deployed over two hundred loyalist militia to attack Clarke’s camp in a pre-dawn raid.  The loyalists had camped for the night on the plantation of patriot Captain James Dillard, who was with the patriot force at this time.  Dillard’s wife, Mary, served dinner to the British officers and overheard that they intended to attack her husband’s camp early the following morning. Mrs. Dillard managed to steal away on a horse and warn the patriot camp of the imminent attack.

The loyalists had about 210 men assigned to attack, while the patriot force was believed to be 196 men.  Although this was a pretty evenly-matched force, the loyalists hoped to catch their prey still asleep.  They did not necessarily need overwhelming numbers.  However, when they arrived at the camp, the enemy was lined up and ready for them, unleashing a volley on the surprised attackers.

The attack lasted about 15 minutes before the attackers realized this was not going to be the massacre they had hoped, and withdrew with heavy losses.  There is no record of exact casualty numbers, but the patriots considered it a success.

Hanging Rock & Rocky Mount

Colonel Sumter continued his organization efforts, while trying to undermine the enemy’s efforts to do the same.  In late July, Sumter wrote to Continental General Johann de Kalb in North Carolina, providing the general with the positions of the loyalist forces in South Carolina, totaling the enemy at about 3500 men.  He also warned de Kalb that Cornwallis was getting ready to concentrate his forces at Camden, and recommended that de Kalb strike first before the enemy could gather.  De Kalb, however, opted to wait as he had received word a few days prior that he was to turn over military command to the new commanding General Horatio Gates.

George Turnbull
In the meantime, Sumter was looking for outposts within South Carolina that he could target.  He found one at a place called Rocky Mount.  There, an outpost of about 300 loyalists commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Turnbull, were relatively isolated from any support..  The commander was a former British officer who had retired as a captain and moved to New York shortly before the war began.  In January of 1776, he raised a regiment of New York loyalists, and soon received a commission as a lieutenant colonel.  His men saw action in several campaigns in the north before sailing south to participate in the capture of Savannah in late 1778.  He spent over a year in Georgia, gaining experience in dealing with rebel guerilla units.  

After the British captured Charleston, Turnbull was deployed into the South Carolina backcountry to help subdue the rebel elements.  He had established his headquarters at Hanging Rock, near the North Carolina border, just south of Charlotte.  There, Turnbull had built a fort of sorts, mostly two cabins on the top of a hill, surrounded by abatis.

General Sumter had gathered a force of about between 500 and 600 militia, which he hoped would be enough to overrun the garrison.  Sumter deployed another force of dragoons to attack a nearby smaller outpost as a diversion, while he brought his larger militia army against Rocky Mount.

The diversionary force under Major William Davie attacked the larger enemy outpost about 15 miles from Rocky Mount, called Hanging Rock.  The larger loyalist outpost there consisted of about 500 men, being attacked by about 40 dragoons and riflemen.  The goal was not to take the position but to occupy the defenders in order to prevent them from coming to the aid of the smaller garrison at Rocky Mount

Once he arrived at Hanging Rock though, Davie noted that there was a smaller group of three companies of loyalists outside the main encampment.  Since both Davie’s patriot militia and the enemy  loyalist militia were both dressed in civilian clothes, Davie simply had his men ride into the camp, past the sentries, as if they belonged there, and then suddenly opened fire.  When the loyalists ran from the field, Davie had predicted where they would run and had sent another detachment to fire on the fleeing loyalists.

Before the main encampment could mount a counter attack, Davie’s patriot militia mounted their horses, along with taking another 60 horses of the enemy, and rode back to support Sumter in his attack on Rocky Mount the following day, July 31.

Sumter had no artillery, but thought that his rifles could penetrate the wooden walls of the buildings where the enemy was located.  The British commander, however, had reinforced the walls with clay to make them essentially bullet proof.  Sumter called on the enemy to surrender, but they refused.  

The patriots mounted three attacks to break through the abatis.  The defenders inflicted casualties and drove back the attackers each time.  Sumter then instructed a couple of volunteers to climb atop a large boulder near the houses, and throw firebrands onto the roofs to set them on fire.

The loyalist defenders sent out a company of men with bayonets to drive off these volunteers before they could set fire to the houses.  Sumter then tried to send the volunteers back, reinforced by a company of riflemen.  This time, the men finally managed to set the houses on fire.

As things were looking bleak for the defenders, a rainstorm suddenly opened up and doused the flames.  After eight hours of attempting to take the defenses, Sumter withdrew.  The defenders reported two officers and ten men killed or wounded.  Sumter reported only three killed, six wounded, and two captured.

On hearing that the outpost at Rocky Mount was under attack, the British deployed relief forces to assist them.  While none of the relief columns arrived in time for the battle, they did encounter Sumter’s retreating militia.  This resulted in more skirmishing, in which Sumter claimed to have lost 20 men, but killed 60 of the enemy.

Battle of Hanging Rock
A few days later, Sumter decided to try his luck directly against the larger outpost as Hanging Rock.  Davie had reported that the defenses there were not great, and that with surprise, they could overrun the enemy encampment. 

Sumter’s militia did just that.  On August 6, Sumter's militia surprised the British at Hanging Rock and captured the encampment.  The loyalists either fled into the woods or were captured trying to make a stand against overwhelming numbers.  The fighting was over rather quickly.  The victorious militia offered parole to the loyalist officers and removed the soldiers to Charlotte, North Carolina to be held as prisoners of war.  

The victorious militia then looted the camp. Finding a sizable stash of liquor, the men started drinking heavily.  In the meantime, a detachment of Tarleton’s cavalry came within sight of the camp.  They were only a small number, and their commander Colonel Tarleton was not with them, so they did not attack.  Sumter, however, decided it was time to go, and withdrew his men from the camp.

The result was about 25 loyalists killed, another 175 wounded, and 73 captured. The Americans lost 20 killed and 40 wounded. After the attack, the British did not try to re-occupy the camp, even after the Americans had abandoned it.

Wofford’s Iron Works

Sumter’s raids were taking a toll on the British efforts to pacify the region.  The success of the raids told South Carolinians that the British did not really control the region and that things were still in contention.  Those who favored the cause of independence but who had begun to feel like it had become inevitable that British colonial rule would be restored, could still hold out hope that the patriot militia would prevail.  This impacted British efforts to recruit more loyalist militia.

The British commander for the region, Major Patrick Ferguson, knew that he would have to crush this growing threat before it only grew larger.  Ferguson took his forces into the field, hoping to find and defeat the rebel militia once and for all.  Sumter’s militia was further north of Ferguson's headquarters near Fort Ninety-six.  His immediate problem was the growing force of militia under the joint command of Colonel Elijah Clarke of Georgia, and Colonel Isaac Shelby of North Carolina.  

In the last episode, I talked about a raid where Ferguson had attempted to capture some local militia at Cedar Spring and that the militia, tipped off to the raid, managed to defeat the attacking loyalists.  Such victories encourage more men to join Clarke.  After joining up with Shelby and continuing to take on more recruits, these officers had built a growing force of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina militia that had grown to over one thousand men by early August.  

This group began shadowing Ferguson’s loyalist army, both looking for opportunities to strike at the other.  On August 7, Ferguson’s loyalists were almost on top of Colonel Clarke’s patriots.  The loyalists attempted a pre-dawn raid, but Clarke received word and evacuated his camp before they arrived around 4:00 AM.  

One of Clarke’s officers, Captain Josiah Culbertson, had been out on a scouting mission.  He returned to camp, not realizing that the patriots had left and that the men milling around camp that morning were loyalists.  After realizing his situation, Culbertson simply rode through the camp.  The loyalists simply assumed he was one of them, and ignored him.  After gaining intelligence on the enemy numbers, Culbertson simply rode out of camp and went to find his own army near Wofford’s Iron Works.

While Culbertson was making his escape, Ferguson learned that the enemy supply wagons were only a few miles away.  He sent a division of 130 loyalists under Captain James Dunlap to capture them. Colonel Clarke personally led a patriot ambush which decimated the loyalists.  Clarke received two saber wounds and was captured by the loyalists, but then managed to knock down his captors and escape.  The patriots managed to capture about 50 loyalist prisoners during the encounter.

Dunlap managed to make it back to the main loyalist camp.  Ferguson then assembled a larger attack force to capture the enemy.  But by the time they arrived back at Wofford’s Iron Works, the patriots had withdrawn into the hills.  The patriots taunted the enemy, trying to get them to attack into the hills where the patriots held the high ground, but the loyalists did not attempt such a dangerous maneuver.

Wateree Ferry 

Just over a week later, Sumter’s militia struck again.  This time at Wateree Ferry.  The British had built a redoubt named Fort Cary near the ford.  Colonel Sumter got word that a British supply train was crossing the ferry and dispatched about three hundred militia to capture the wagons.  They were joined by about 100 Continentals.  The force of several hundred overwhelmed Fort Cary, capturing its commander, Colonel James Cary and his garrison of about thirty loyalists.

They also captured 36 wagons full of supplies.  As the patriots were still organizing their prizes, another British train of 56 wagons, with more supplies, and baggage, as well as seventy invalid British soldiers and a herd of cattle, attempted to cross the ferry.  The patriots captured the even larger prize as well.  Initially Sumter wanted to hold the ferry, but after hearing of the American loss at Camden, he moved his army and prisoners further north.

Merchant Fleet

Before we get to the Battle of Camden, which is a major battle for South Carolina, I want to touch on one other event that happened about this same time, thousands of miles away from the Carolinas.  

At the beginning of August, a large merchant fleet left Portsmouth, England, headed for the West Indies.  The fleet of 63 merchant vessels contained massive amounts of food, clothing, ammunition and even several regiments of infantry, being deployed to the West Indies.

The merchants were escorted out of the English Channel by the Channel Fleet.  Once they got out into the Atlantic though, the Channel Fleet allowed them to continue on their own, escorted only by a single ship of the line and two frigates.  Officials in London believed that sending their supply ships over in a large convoy protected by a ship of the line would protect them from the privateer ships that were becoming an ever-increasing problem for these supply ships.

 José de Mazarredo Salazar
There were more than just privateers lurking though.  The Spanish fleet was also in the Atlantic, looking to do battle.  On the evening of August 8, Spanish frigates spotted unknown sails.  The Spanish were not sure if they would encounter the British Channel fleet or a merchant convoy.  The Spanish commander, José de Mazarredo, believed it was the merchant fleets and threw everything he had at the target.

Captain John Moutray who commanded the Ramillies, the one ship of the line escorting the fleet, also saw enemy sails.  His ships could fight off a few privateers but were no match for an enemy fleet.  The British might be able to outrun their pursuers.  Moutray signaled all the ships to alter course and follow him into the wind in order to maximize speed.  The two navy frigates and eight of the merchant ships followed him.  Those ships were able to slip away from the Spanish.  Since the ships received the signal at night, though, many got confused. Moutray put out a signal lantern on his ships for the fleet to follow.

A Spanish frigates also heard the signal. Since it was still dark, it put out its own signal lantern and got the rest of the fleet to follow.  The Spanish frigate then led the British fleet back toward the Spanish ships of the line.  By morning, the British merchants found themselves intermingled with the Spanish Navy.  Almost all the British ships surrendered without a shot fired.  A few tried to make a run for it, but Spanish canons quickly convinced them to strike their colors and surrender.  The Spanish led 55 captured prizes back to Cadiz.

Not only did the Spanish manage to capture over 3000 soldiers and sailors, they converted many of the captured ships into Spanish naval vessels.  The captured supplies, which had been intended to supply the British forces in the West Indies for the rest of the year, were all lost to the enemy.

The loss felt in London was massive.  It was the largest single loss for the British East India Company in the entire history of its existence.  Many marine insurance companies went bankrupt as a result of the incident, and already high insurance rates for British merchant ships went through the roof.  It was a devastating blow for British logistics.

The capture of supply ships doesn't always make the history books, but the capture of this fleet had a devastating blow on British logistics and its ability to wage war in the Americas over the coming months.

Next time: the British suffer another less surprising blow when the French Army arrives in America.

- - -

Next Episode 257 French Army in America 

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Further Reading


Hanging Rock

Rocky Mount:

Green Spring:

Wofford’s Iron Works:

Battle of Wofford’s Iron Works:

Wateree Ferry:

Action of 9 August, 1780:

Hiscocks, Richard The Loss of Captain Moutray’s Convoy:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Holbrook, Stewart Hall The Swamp Fox of the Revolution, Random House 1959. (borrow only) 

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.

Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785.

Simms, William G. The Life of Francis Marion, New York, Derby, 1854. 

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 1970 (borrow only). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bass, Robert D. Gamecock: The Life And Campaigns Of General Thomas Sumter, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961 (Read on

Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999. 

Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The southern conflict that turned the tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (borrow on

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Oller, John The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, Da Capo Press, 2016 (borrow on 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000 (borrow on

Syrett, David The Royal Navy in European waters during the American Revolutionary War, Univ of SC Press, 1998.

(borrow on
Wickwire, Franklin B. Cornwallis and the War of Independence, Houghton Mifflin, 1971 (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.