Sunday, October 29, 2023

ARP286 Sumter's Law

Last week we covered a number of skirmishes throughout South Carolina in early 1781.  The battle of Guilford Courthouse had left the British army under General Cornwallis decimated.  He retreated to Hillsborough, North Carolina to claim British control of that colony, but really just needed to recuperate and regroup.

General Greene moved his Continentals into South Carolina where he attacked several British outposts, forcing the British to abandon Camden and withdraw the bulk of their forces in the state back to the area around Charleston.  Greene made great use of Colonel Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion during this time, as well as Light Horse Harry Lee and William Washington.

Sumter Returns

One key officer I’ve not mentioned in a while was South Carolina General Thomas Sumter, who had been injured in late 1780 at the Battle of Blackstock’s Plantation.  It was at that battle that Sumter got the nickname “The Gamecock” after British Colonel Banastre Tarleton noted that Sumter had fought like a Gamecock.

Thomas Sumter

Due to his injuries, Sumter spent a few months recuperating at a friend’s plantation.  The British still had a price on his head, so he had to lay low while he recovered.  Sumter had managed to avoid most of the major battles in the Carolina.  He had been retired when the British captured Charleston.  He was detached from the main army under Horatio Gates when they attacked Camden.  He missed the Battle of King’s Mountain because he was away trying to find Governor Rutherford to confirm that he had the authority to command South Carolina’s army.  He was recovering from his wounds during the Race to the Dan and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.

This is not to say he was not active.  He had fought a bunch of smaller battles and skirmishes during a time when the Continental army had largely abandoned the Carolinas.  His reputation had only grown during this time as the commander of a guerilla army that prevented the British from restoring the King’s peace to the Carolinas.

Sumter’s injury at Blackrock had occurred only days before General Greene had taken command of the army.  So, while the two men had corresponded, they never met in person or fought in battle together.  

Sumter had been upset when Greene gave General Daniel Morgan the command of an army that was fighting along the Carolina frontier.  Morgan was executing a strategy that Sumter had recommended. Even if Sumter was not well enough to take command, Sumter felt slighted that Greene had given the command to Morgan without consulting him.

For a time, Sumter caused problems by ordering South Carolina militia not to obey any order that did not come from him.  The power politics between the militia in the southern states and the Continental army had been a problem since the beginning of the war.  Sumter continued this problem.

Greene learned of this division and wrote to Sumter, trying to sooth over the general’s ruffled pride.  Sumter eventually made nice with Morgan and did what he could.  From his sick bed, however, Sumter coordinated intelligence and logistical support for the Continentals.  

The war moved into North Carolina for a time, and Morgan eventually had to return home to Virginia.  Following Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, Greene returned to South Carolina.   With Sumter still out of the saddle due to his injuries, Greene relied primarily on Colonel Marion for local leadership.  But Greene assured that he would respect Sumter’s command of all South Carolina forces.

By this time, Sumter had recovered sufficiently to ride and was back in the field.  He had begun skirmishing with British outposts and supply trains in South Carolina again, even while the main Continental Army was still in North Carolina.  I mentioned last week that Sumter had attacked Fort Watson weeks before Marion and Lee took the fort.

Sumter’s Law

As the spring fighting season began, however, Sumter found most of his army disappearing.  Militia enlistments had expired, and men needed to return home for their spring planting.  He needed his own army of South Carolina regulars.  

While regulars usually made better and more reliable soldiers, the problem was that you had to pay them. Civil government in South Carolina did not really exist after the fall of Charleston, so Sumter took it upon himself to come up with a scheme of payment for his new army.  The pay deal for the new army became known as “Sumter’s law”.

He offered recruits new uniforms and supplies, which he had from raids on enemy supply depots.  He also offered his soldiers the right to ⅔ of most plunder they took from the enemy, with the remaining third becoming army property.  The main exception was military supplies, which would remain army property. 

Even so, this was not enough to encourage many men to leave their farms and sign up for long term enlistments. So Sumter resorted to some of the most valuable property in the state: slaves.

Every recruit who signed up for a ten month stint would get his own slave at the end of his enlistment.  Officers, of course, got more.  A colonel would get three and a half slaves for a year of service (a slave over 40 or under 10 years would be considered “half”). The army would capture slaves from loyalist plantations for this purpose.  Recruiters received on slave for every 25 soldiers that they enlisted.

The decision to pay for an army with captured slaves was a controversial one.  Colonel Marion refused to participate in the recruitment of soldiers under these terms.  This is not to say that here were abolitionists in South Carolina. There really weren’t any.  But many saw that systematically stripping property from civilians as a bad precedent.  This practice might encourage more loyalists to enlist with the enemy to protect their property. There were also those who saw the inevitable separation of slave families as inhumane.  

Despite objections, the policy went into effect.  Governor Rutledge gave the plan his tacit approval.  Colonel Andrew Pickens raised his quota under Sumter’s law.  General Greene expressed concerns to Sumter about plunder generally, but ignored weighing in on the slaves-for-service policy.

Fort Granby

With his recruiting drive in place, Sumter expected to have a much larger army by April.  In the meantime, Sumter set his sights on Fort Granby, a British outpost near a ferry on the Congaree River.  The fort’s commander was Major Andrew Maxwell, who commanded a garrison of about 300 loyalists.

In February 1782, Sumter learned that the fort was running low on stores.  His small army at the time consisted of 280 men.  He hoped he might capture the fort with just them.  Sumter’s first effort was to paint some logs black to appear as if they were cannons.  He called on the fort to surrender.  The enemy commander, however, at least suspected this was a bluff and refused to surrender.  Sumter then ordered his men to charge the fort walls, but were easily repulsed. 

With that, Sumter settled in to besiege the fort, using rifle fire to harass the enemy garrison.  He called on Colonel Marion to bring reinforcements to take the fort.  Marion never made it there.  The siege began in February, before Lord Rawdon was forced to abandon nearby Camden.  Rawdon dispatched 600 infantry, 200 cavalry, and two field artillery pieces as a relief force to break the siege.

When Sumter learned the relief force was on its way, he lifted the siege and moved down river to attack a loyalist plantation instead.

In early May, Sumter had raised a larger army.  He thought this would be a good time to renew his effort to take Fort Granby.  He brought an army of between 400 and 500 men to renew the siege.  Inside the fort, Major Maxwell had increased his garrison to about 340 loyalists and had five or six cannons.

Sumter sent a request to Greene for artillery.  Greene sent one cannon.  Realizing that the siege was mostly going to involve a lot of waiting until the garrison go hungry, Sumter left a small portion of his army to continue the siege, while he took the cannon and the bulk of his force to attack the town of Orangeburg, more than a day’s march to the south.

Sumter’s army arrived at Orangeburg on the night of May 10.  The following morning, the loyalist garrison at Orangeburg under Colonel John Fish surrendered.  This was a much smaller force of six officers and 83 men.  Sumter also captured a valuable cache of supplies.

Sumter sent the prisoners to General Greene, although the guards taking them apparently murdered some of the prisoners during the march.  Sumter took the remainder of his army to Fort Motte, where he thought Light Horse Harry Lee and Francis Marion were still holding the fort under siege.  On his arrival, he learned that the Americans had already taken the fort and moved on.  Sumter then returned to Orangeburg for a few days.

While Sumter was away at Orangeburg, Light Horse Harry Lee rode to Granby with about 400 or 500 infantry as well as a cannon of his own.  He had just succeeded in taking Fort Motte and was aware that Lord Rawdon was in the process of returning to Charleston.

Lee fired on the fort that evening with his cannon and infantry.  The next morning, May 15, Lee called on the garrison to surrender.  Maxwell agreed to surrender on two conditions: his men could keep the plunder they had in the fort, and that they could withdraw to Charleston on parole and wait there to be exchanged. The rest of the fort’s stores would be turned over to the Americans.

Lee agreed to the terms and permitted the enemy to depart with their horses and wagons.  The Americans took command of the fort as well as nearly 200 muskets and 9000 cartridges, along with powder, lead, and flints.

Sumter soon learned that Lee had ended the siege at Fort Granby.  He was upset at the terms given to the garrison and that he had, once again, been absent for the battle and missed out on the plunder.  Sumter tried to submit his resignation, citing trouble with his wounds.  

A few weeks earlier, Greene had considered putting Sumter under arrest for his failure to come to Greene’s support at Hobkirk Hill.  But Greene thought better of it and realized the war effort would be best served by keeping Sumter in the field. To help mollify Sumter’s hard feelings over missing the fall of Fort Granby, Greene turned over to Sumter many of the slaves that had been captured in order to pay his army.


With the success in South Carolina, patriots began to maneuver into a position that would allow them to recover most of Georgia as well.  Savannah was too well garrisoned and with naval support, meaning it would be too difficult to recapture.  But retaking the back country and forcing the British to crouch defensively around Savannah did seem possible.  The key to the Georgia backcountry was taking Augusta.

The patriots had threatened Augusta the previous fall, when Georgia Colonel Elijah Clarke launched an assault in September of 1780 before withdrawing after a few days.  But by the spring of 1781, with the British army mostly having left the south, patriot leaders thought they could try again.  

By mid-April several patriot companies had established a fortified camp near Augusta.  This small group primarily acquired intelligence about the town’s defenses and harassed communications and supply lines.  

The Americans found that the loyalists had constructed a pretty impressive defensive system.  Fort Cornwallis became the primary defensive fort, about 200 yards northwest of town.  The garrison had cleared fields of fire around the fort.  Its walls, canons, and other barriers would require an overwhelming force to capture it.  

Two smaller forts, Grierson and Galphin, also helped to secure the town. These smaller forts were more fortified houses.  They could withstand a small raid, but not a full on attack with hundreds of soldiers.  Fort Grierson was only about a half mile from Fort Cornwallis.  Galphin was an isolated outpost about 12 miles away.

In total, the British had 236 provincial regulars and 131 militia.  There were also about 300 Native Americans with them.  Some warriors, but many of those were women and children.  There were also about 200 slaves supporting the forts.

The British commander was Thomas “Burnfoot” Brown.  I’ve discussed Colonel Brown before. He had built a plantation near Augusta before the war.  He got his nickname when patriots literally burned the bottoms of his feet in an attempt to get him to go against the King and swear allegiance to the patriot cause.  Brown had to flee to Florida, where he formed a legion that maintained attacks on Georgia in the early part of the war.  He returned to Georgia with the British Army in 1779 and was one of the most stalwart loyalist leaders in the region.  Like many loyalist leaders, he had ordered the hanging of rebels and knew that he was literally fighting for his life.  He would not surrender easily.

Over the next few weeks, Elijah Clarke brought more patriot reinforcements to threaten loyalist supply lines.  General Andrew Pickens moved a force of 400 militia in between Augusta and Fort Ninety Six so that the fort garrison could not come to the relief of any attack on Augusta.

General Greene deployed Light Horse Harry Lee to join the militia gathering around Augusta.  Lee had a force of several hundred that had just taken Fort Granby.  His men were a mix of mounted and foot soldiers.  Lee’s fear was that the garrison at Fort Ninety-Six would attack and disperse the militia around Augusta before his forces could get there.    As a result, he rushed to the area, having his mounted forces ride ahead, then walk for a time, leaving their horses for the foot soldiers to catch up. Those soldiers would then ride ahead of those walking, leave the horses and walk themselves.  This process of sharing the horses allowed his army to cover 75 miles of back country in only three days.

With Lee’s arrival, along with the forces already there, The patriots had about 1500 soldiers, about a third of whom were Continentals, the rest were militia.

The first target for the patriots was the isolated outpost at Fort Galphin.  It was named for its owner, George Galphin, who was an Indian agent.  As I said, it was just a reinforced house, but it had over 100 defenders.  

A combined force under Clarke and Lee attacked Galphin on May 21.  The attackers used an old but effective trick. They made a weak attack on the fort then retreated. The garrison sent out a patrol to ride down the attackers and kill them.  Once they rode out, A force of Continentals hiding nearby rushed into the fort and took possession rather quickly.

About ten attackers were wounded in the battle.  The only fatal casualty on the American side was a man who died of a heat stroke.  After three or four defenders were killed, the garrison surrendered.  The primary object of taking Galphin was to capture a large cache of supplies there, which were intended as gifts for local tribes.

The larger forces at Forts Grierson and Cornwallis knew they were next.  The commander at Grierson sent out a patrol the following day, managing to surprise a group of patriot militia and capturing about 400 horses.

The day after that, General Pickens and Colonel Lee brought up a larger force to surround Grierson.  Like Galphin, Fort Grierson was named after the commander and property owner, loyalist Colonel James Grierson.

On May 24, patriot forces opened up on Grierson with field cannon and a militia charge.  Back at Fort Cornwallis, Colonel Brown attempted to send a relief force but was driven back inside his fort by enemy fire.

The garrison at Fort Grierson had only a little over one hundred defenders, and quickly recognized that they were outnumbered.  Colonel Grierson and his men decided to flee the fort and tried to break through the enemy lines in an attempt to reach Fort Cornwallis, about a half mile away.  A few dozen men managed to make it.  The patriots engaged with the fleeing garrison.  They killed about thirty of them.  According to battle accounts, many of those killed were trying to surrender, but killed anyway.  The patriots did capture another 45 or so.  They also captured the fort’s two cannons, which would soon be used against Fort Cornwallis.

Even isolated, Fort Cornwallis was much more defensible and had a larger garrison.  The patriots opted not to try to storm the fort, but settled in for siege.  As the siege began, the patriots began building a tower near the fort in order to be able to fire over its walls.  

Brown sent one of his men to pose as a deserter, in an effort to burn the tower.  Colonel Lee, however, did not believe the man’s story and had him arrested.  There was also a small abandoned house near the tower.  Brown had filled in with gunpowder, in homes of blowing it up when the Americans surrounded it, but the patriots managed to take the house, and the powder, without it blowing up.

The patriots spent a week digging trenches closer to the walls of Fort Cornwallis.  Brown refused several calls to surrender.  By June 2, the attackers had managed to take out the defenders two cannons.  Two days later, June 4, Lee prepared for his final assault on the fort.  Before launching his attack, Lee gave the defenders one final chance to surrender.  Brown knew the end was near and only asked to surrender the following day since the 4th was the king’s birthday.  Lee permitted the surrender to take place on the 5th.

The terms of surrender allowed Brown and his King’s rangers to be released on parole and return to Savannah. The militia in the fort, however, would be held as prisoners of war.  Brown was so hated that he had to be escorted to Lee’s tent under a guard of Continentals, for fear that one of the patriot soldiers would try to kill him during the surrender.

The following day, Lee rode north with his Continentals, to assist with the Siege of Fort Ninety-six.  The militia escorted Brown and his men back to Savannah, although several patriot militia followed in an attempt to assassinate Brown.

Brown made it back to Savannah, but others were not as lucky.  Loyalist Colonel Grierson and his second in command Major Henry Williams were confined with their men and were to be given parole.  Instead, several militia shot them, wounding Williams and killing Grierson.  Afterward the term “Georgia parole” was used as a colloquialism for murder.

Next week: we follow Light Horse Harry back to South Carolina where he contends with the final British outpost in the back-country: Fort Ninety-Six.

- - -

Next Episode 287 Fort Ninety-Six

Previous Episode 285 Hobkirk Hill

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Further Reading


Waters, Andrew “Sumter's Rounds: The Ill-Fated Campaign of Thomas Sumter February-March 1781” Journal of the American Revolution, May 23, 2018

Robertson, Heard. “The Second British Occupation of Augusta, 1780-1781.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 4, 1974, pp. 422–46. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978.

Greene, George Washington The Life of Nathanael GreeneVol. 1Vol. 2, & Vol. 3, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press 1867-1871. 

Gregorie, Anne King Thomas Sumter, Sumter County Genealogical Society, 2000 (borrow only).

Hartley, Cecil B. Life of Major General Henry Lee & The Life of General Thomas Sumter, New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859. 

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 unless otherwise noted)*

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

Berlin, Ira (ed) Slavery and freedom in the age of the American Revolution, Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Va. 1983 (borrow on

Carbone, Gerald Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010 (borrow on 

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

Golway, Terry Washington's General : Nathanael Greene and the triumph of the American Revolution, H. Holt, 2006. (borrow on

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

Tonsetic, Robert L. 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, Casemate, 2011 (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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