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.

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