Last week, we left the British Army in South Carolina. They had pulled back out of North Carolina after a hostile reception there, and the defeat at King’s Mountain. The British spent most of the fall battling malaria and dealing with small parties of partisans who continued to harass them.
I spent the last episode mostly recounting how Francis Marion had been causing trouble for the British. I wanted to mention Thomas Sumter’s actions as well. While Colonel Marion had led smaller groups, General Sumter had been able to raise larger armies to challenge British control of the Carolinas. Sumter had managed to miss the battle of King’s Mountain because he was away from his army meeting with South Carolina Governor John Rutledge to confirm that he had the right to command. Days before King’s Mountain, Rutledge had given a commission to a Virginia colonel named James Williams. This forced Sumter to visit Rutledge to confirm his right to command the army. Sumter did not actually have a formal commission. Rutledge granted him one, but it meant that Sumter was absent at King’s Mountain. It might have been just as well. His rival, James Williams was killed there.
Sumter caught up with the army shortly after the victory at King’s Mountain. Many men had begun to return home, but Sumter convinced many to stay. The victory also encouraged more men to join the fight. By November, 1780, Sumter had a command of over 500 militia.
The British became aware of Sumter’s position along the Broad River, at a place known as Moore’s Mill, about 25 miles from the main British camp at Winnsboro. Normally, this would be a mission for British Colonel Banastre Tarleton to take on, but in early November, Tarleton was chasing down Francis Marion. Instead, General Cornwallis assigned command of the attack to Major James Wemyss. I’ve mentioned Wemyss before. He was a Scottish officer in the regular army and had a long combat history by this time. He had a reputation similar to Tarleton's, as far as brutality. He believed in hard charging the enemy and treating the locals rather harshly. He had spent much of the fall burning plantations and hanging traitors.
Major Wemyss led about one hundred of his regulars from the 63rd Regiment, along with forty dragoons that Tarleton had left behind. The men rode out of Winnsboro on November 8, planning to attack Sumter’s camp the following morning at dawn. Wemyss had received intelligence about Sumter’s position and numbers from a local Tory who we only know by the last name of “Sealy.”
Sumter had captured this man and then paroled him after he convinced Sumter that he really believed in the patriot cause. Upon release, Sealy rushed to the British camp to give his intelligence. Sealy rode with Major Wemyss as a guide, but also had a special mission, to take a five-man team that would capture or kill General Sumter during the attack.
As the British patrol rode out on the night of November 8, they received new intelligence that Sumter had relocated his camp about five miles to a place known as Fishdam Ford. At around 1:00 AM on the ninth, Wemyss stumbled across some of Sumter’s pickets, who fired and knocked the major off of his horse. The second in command, a young lieutenant named John Stark, ordered the regiment to charge into the enemy camp. The alert patriots had fled into the woods and began firing on the British, who made themselves targets by passing by the enemy campfires.
The British withdrew after taking casualties. Lieutenant Stark then ordered the men to dismount and led them in a bayonet charge. The patriots received the charge by returning a devastating volley at short range, creating more British casualties.
While the battle raged, Sealy led his attack team to General Sumpter’s tent. Sumter, who had been asleep and was still not dressed, managed to slip out of the tent just ahead of the attack team. He ran through a briar patch and hid in the creek bed.
The fighting ended rather quickly as Lieutenant Stark withdrew his men. The British suffered four dead and about twenty wounded. The Americans similarly suffered four dead and ten wounded.
Among the twenty five captured British soldiers was the wounded Major Wemyss. When taken, he had a paper that recorded the men he had hanged and the plantation he had burned. General Sumter, having returned to camp, interrogated Wemyss and found the document. He threw it into a campfire, knowing that his men would probably hang the major if they saw it. As it was, Sumter later exchanged Wemyss for a captured American officer.
The defeat of British regulars at Fishdam Ford only enhanced Sumter’s reputation. It also caused Cornwallis to recall Colonel Tarleton from his fruitless attempts to capture Colonel Marion. Tarleton took command of the effort to defeat Sumter. After receiving his orders, Tarleton rode his legion back to the British camp in a hard three day ride. Without resting, he collected more of his legion and rode out in pursuit of Sumter with about 500 men on the same day he rode into camp.
Following his victory at Fishdam Ford, locals rushed to volunteer with Sumter. His ranks swelled to about 1000 men, many of these were overmountain men who were veterans of the King’s Mountain Battle.
Despite having a larger force than Tarleton, Sumter was reluctant to fight. Tarleton had a reputation for defeating larger numbers of militia with his well trained and ruthless legion. When a British deserter alerted Sumter about Tarleton’s numbers and presence, Sumter called a council of war to decide how to respond. No one seemed eager to fight Tarleton, but retreating would likely mean that they would be run down by the enemy at some point and forced to fight anyway. Also, the patriots did not want to cede the territory to the British. The council decided that they would find a good defensive position and fight Tareleton on ground of their choosing.
Sumter chose an area on a plantation owned by Captain William Blackstock. Sumter left Captain Patrick Carr between the main American force and the enemy in order to provide warning of the attack.
The British legion under Tarleton lived up to his reputation of hard riding and sniffing out the enemy. When a scouting party under Tarleton encountered Carr’s patriots, they immediately charged them causing the Americans to scatter and run. Five men remained and tried to surrender, but they were immediately cut down by Tarleton’s men. Later it was learned that the men trying to surrender had been loyalists, captured by Carr and were abandoned when the British attacked, but they were killed by their own side before they could make that fact known.
When Tarleton arrived at Blackstock’s farm, he had only about 270 men from his legion with him. The rest were out on extended scouting patrols. Despite being outnumbered and with the enemy on favorable ground, Tarleton opted to attack.
|Battle of Blackstock's Farm
As the British advanced toward the main buildings, South Carolina sharpshooters under Colonel Henry Hampton took their toll. About one-third of the advancing regulars fell, including Lieutenant Money. Despite the fire, the regulars held their ground and returned fire.
As all this was happening, General Sumter had ridden to the American right where he ordered Colonel Edward Lacey to advance on Tarleton and the rest of his legion, who were still mounted on high ground as Tarleton watched Money’s advance.
As Tarleton began taking fire on his left, and saw Money’s division being decimated on his right, he realized he was in trouble. Still, Tarleton charged his division across the field to support Money’s regulars. Under fire, Tarleton dismounted, picked up the wounded lieutenant and rode off the field with him. General Cornwallis was particularly close to Lieutenant Money and thought of him as a son. Despite Tarleton’s efforts to save him, Money died of his wounds shortly after the battle.
As the British legion withdrew, the apparent results were a lopsided American victory. The Americans lost three killed and four wounded. The British lost 92 killed and 76 wounded - about two-thirds of those engaged. Some accounts put British losses even higher.
One of the American wounded was General Sumter himself. The battle had raged for several hours before Sumter was the recipient of a British volley that hit him in the chest and shoulder. Despite his wound, Sumter remained mounted and continued to command forces still engaged in the battle.
After the British withdrew, Sumter returned to the main house and called for a doctor, his blood loss had greatly weakened him to the point where he was barely conscious. A doctor performed battlefield surgery, removing the balls without any anesthetic.
Meanwhile, Tarleton, despite his loss, withdrew only about two miles away and prepared for a second attack the following day. He soon discovered, however, that the Americans had withdrawn. In his reports to Cornwallis, Tarleton tried to cover the mistake he made by attacking a superior force on ground of their choosing by claiming the Americans had attacked first and that he had to defend himself. He also claimed to have taken only about fifty casualties.
Sumter, despite his injuries and the need to recuperate, called on General Gates to launch a final attack on Cornwallis at Winsboro.
Lynches Creek Massacre
Of course, Marion was also still actively fighting in December. Many incidents did not really rise to the level of a battle, but still showed the intense violence between Tories and patriots. Colonel Francis Marion noted that he had sent Lieutenant Roger Gordon and a few men on a scouting expedition. The party stopped at a local tavern along Lynches Creek when a larger group of loyalists under an officer named only as Captain Butler attacked them.
According to Marion’s report, the loyalists set fire to the tavern. Rather than be burned alive, the patriots agreed to quarter, exited the building and grounded their arms. Once disarmed, Butler’s loyalists cut the patriots to pieces, killing all of them. The event became known as the “Lynches Creek Massacre” and only fueled the burning hatred between the two sides.
Around this same time, the patriots discovered the two brothers of a loyalist officer Major John Harrison, both sick and in bed with smallpox. The patriots murdered the two loyalists in their sickbeds.
Gordon’s scouting mission that ended in his death had been to seek out the position of bands of loyalists who were in the area. The loyalists where trying to intercept patriot supply trains along Lynches Creek.
On December 4, the day after General Greene took command of the southern army, General Morgan deployed his cavalry under Colonel William Washington to take out a group of loyalists who were working out of a local mill owned by a loyalist Colonel Henry Rugeley. Washington arrived at the mill with 80 Continental cavalrymen. It appears Washington’s numbers were supplemented by several companies of local militia.
Inside the mill Colonel Rugeley had 112 loyalists. The loyalists had fortified the mill to face an attack and dug a ditch to prevent attackers from rushing the mill. The American cavalry opened fire on the mill, while the loyalists inside returned fire.
Washington really needed a cannon to take the mill. Since he did not have one, he had his men cut down a pine tree and posed it to look like a cannon. Then, under a flag of truce, he informed the loyalists that they could surrender or the American artillery would blow up the mill with them in it. Cologne Rugeley agreed to surrender and his loyalists were taken prisoner. Washington offered parole to the surrendering loyalists and burned down the mill.
Patriots, of course, were not the only ones who knew how to bluff in order to win a battle.
About a week later, Colonel Marion intercepted a group of loyalist recruits marching to Camden who were trying to cross at the Catawba River at a spot known as Halfway Swamp. The recruits were being taken by British Major Robert McLeroth and a detachment of regulars from the 64th regiment.
The American militia drove in the British pickets and began skirmishing with the main force. Most of the loyalist recruits were inexperienced, and likely not even armed.
Major McLeroth stalled for time by sending out a flag of truce. He complained that shooting at his pickets was contrary to the laws of war. Marion thought it crazy that someone would argue that shooting at the enemy violated the laws of war. That pretty much was the point of war.
McLeroth then offered to settle the dispute with a duel of sorts. He suggested that each side choose twenty sharpshooters to fire at each other and settle the matter. The two sides discussed the terms, such as the distance from which the two sides would fire and who would volunteer for the duel.
Of course, McLeroth did not believe the nonsense he was spouting. His complaints were designed to keep the Americans talking rather than attacking his force. As soon as he had become aware of the presence of Marion’s advance guard, he sent a messenger to a group of 140 loyalists on horseback who were nearby.
As McLeroth dragged out the discussions with the enemy. When the loyalist cavalry arrived, Marion’s militia beat a hasty retreat.
Marion, however, was not done. After Marion’s men retreated, the cavalry once again left McLeroth to march his men to Camden on their own. Marion set up another ambush down the road the following day.
McLeroth, fearing another attack, set up camp for the night. He built up his campfires and made lots of noise, but sometime after midnight, the British abandoned their camp and baggage and slipped away.
Marion then rushed some of his men on horseback to get in front of McLeroth’s retreating party. Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Horry took his men to Singleton Hill, where they set up defenses to fire on the approaching British column. The Americans began to fire, but then immediately stopped and ran away. It turned out that the Americans discovered that the home they were using to launch their attack was filled with a family recovering from smallpox. The patriots quickly departed.
McLeroth did finally reach Camden with his recruits. However, rather than being praised for his clever ruse, Lord Rawdon criticized him for his failure to engage with the patriot militia, and for his failure to burn down the plantations of patriots that he passed along the way. McLeroth decided he had enough of military life. He resigned his commission and left for Charleston.
Marion, of course, was one of several partisan bands causing trouble for the British. Another British outpost near Fort Ninety-Six in western South Carolina, near the Georgia border, also remained on alert.
On December, 12, about the same time Marion and McLeroth were dueling at Halfway Swamp, Colonel Elijah Clarke was causing problems for the British about a hundred miles to the west. Clarke had been active in the fall, fighting at Kings Mountain and Blackstocks, but afterwards returned home to Georgia. By December, he was back out on the march with a combined force of about 500 Georgia and South Carolina militia. Although they were near the British outpost of Fort Ninety-Six, their goal was to recruit more militia to continue the fight.
A loyalist officer in the region, General Robert Cunningham, became aware of Clarke’s recruiting efforts and requested that Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger send a force from fort Ninety-Six to disperse the rebels. Cruger deployed loyalist Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Allen at the head of 200 battle hardened New Jersey loyalists, another 200 local loyalist militia and 50 dragoons.
As the loyalists force set out after Clarke, the Americans planned an ambush. Clarke personally led an attack with about 100 patriot militia, forcing the loyalists to retreat despite having a larger force. Once Allen realized the size of the attacking force, he rallied his loyalists and turned the battle back against the patriots. The two sides clashed in a heated battle, during which Clarke was badly wounded. His men then retreated. During the battle and the loyalist pursuit, the Americans lost 14 killed, 7 sounded, and 9 captured. The loyalists took lighter casualties of two killed and nine wounded.
The wounded Colonel Clarke managed to escape, but it was feared his wounds would prove mortal. He would survive, but the popular militia colonel would be out of commission and recuperating for the next three months.
The skirmish did not end the fighting in the region. Two days later, on December 14, patriot Colonel Joseph Hayes clashed with loyalist major Moses Buffington. The loyalist force of about 25 men occupied a plantation along Indian Creek. Hayes’ patriots attacked the defenders with about 50 men. In the skirmish, Buffington and three other loyalists were wounded, and seven or eight of them were captured.
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Previous Episode 272 Chasing the Swamp Fox
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Blackstock’s Plantation: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/revolutionary-war/battles/blackstocks-plantation
Lynches Creek Massacre: https://carolana.com/SC/Revolution/revolution_lynches_creek_massacre.html
(from archive.org unless noted)
Coleraine, George (ed) The Life, Adventures, and Opinions of Col. George Hanger, Picadilly: J. Debrett, 1801.
Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978.
Gregorie, Anne King Thomas Sumter, Columbia, SC: E.L. Bryan Co. 1931 (borrow only)
Landrum, John Belton O'Neall Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina, Greenville, S.C., Shannon & Co., 1897.
McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: Macmillan Co. 1902.
Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: the South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Univ. of SC Press, 1970 (borrow only).
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Bass, Robert D. Gamecock: The Life And Campaigns Of General Thomas Sumter, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1961 (Read on Archive.org).
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 archive.org)
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 archive.org).
Piecuch, Jim South Carolina Provincials: Loyalists in British Service During the American Revolution, Westholme Publishing, 2023.
Swisher, James K., The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Bountry, Pelican Publishing, 2008 (borrow on Archive.org).
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.