Sunday, July 24, 2022

ARP251 Waxhaws Massacre

We last left South Carolina in Episode 248 where the greatest American loss of the war led to the capture of the entire southern army under General Benjamin Lincoln at Charleston.  British General Henry Clinton had assembled one of the largest British armies of the war and used a cautious siege strategy to capture the entire American army inside the city.

Following that victory, General Clinton prepared to return to New York City with roughly one-third of his army, leaving the remainder under General Cornwallis to control the southern colonies now under British authority: South Carolina, Georgia, and East and West Florida.  Cornwallis also had authority to take North Carolina on his own initiative if the opportunity presented itself.

Clinton Plan for Peace

Clinton issued two decrees before leaving South Carolina. One threatened the seizure of the property of any person who continued in rebellion against the King. The other granted a full pardon to anyone who peaceably returned to the King’s rule, despite whatever past acts of rebellion he might have committed.  Although he had imprisoned the Continental Army officers and solders who were captured at Charleston, Clinton permitted the South Carolina militia to return home on parole, with only the promise that they never again take up arms against the King.

Battle of Waxhaws
Clinton had requested Charleston loyalist James Simpson determine the leanings of South Carolinians, particularly in the backcountry, following the fall of Charleston.  Simpson divided his fellow colonists into four groups.  The first, were the rather wealthy who had seen the problems living under independence and were more than happy to return to royal rule.  The second group were people who had no particularly strong political views, who had also become disenchanted by patriot rule and were perfectly willing to support the king. The third group were rebels who had become convinced the cause was lost and would now submit to the reality of British rule.  The fourth and final group consisted of unrepentant rebels who would continue the fight.  Simpson made these groups, but did not seem to guess at how large any of these groups were and admitted that he had no real direct communication with any of the third or fourth groups.  

Simpson’s conclusion though was that peace and order would continue to grow if, and only if, the British continued to provide support and protection via the regular army.  Failure to maintain a strong presence in the colony would only embolden the rebels and allow more to return to a state of rebellion.

Clinton sent three expeditions inland to secure pledges of allegiance and issue pardons.  His reports back to London indicate great success from the response of the locals.

Waxhaws Massacre

Clinton’s strategy of pardons for past wrongdoing, and threats of punishment for future wrongdoing seemed to be working well.  Most South Carolinians were either retiring to their homes, or outright joining the British in loyalist regiments.

There were still a few pockets of resistance. Governor John Rutledge and several other top rebel officials had slipped out of Charleston a few weeks before the city’s surrender.  They had met up with a small detachment of Continental soldiers under Colonel Abraham Buford who had been on their way to Charleston, but had not arrived by the time it fell. Buford commanded a little less than 400 men and two small field cannons.  The men at this point were fleeing the state, headed for North Carolina.

Even so, capturing the rebel president would be good public relations, and would remove another possible rallying point for the rebels.  The escaping rebels already had a week’s head start.  Cornwallis deployed his most aggressive field commander, Colonel Banastre Tarleton to capture the party.  With his typical enthusiasm, Tarleton pushed his cavalry, riding more than 100 miles in about two days, through the summer heat, in an attempt to capture the governor.

Tarleton's attack at Waxhaws
On the afternoon of May 29, Tarleton’s force of about 150 cavalry men caught up with Buford near the North Carolina border.  Tarleton’s cavalry were less than half the size of Buford’s force.  With customary bluster, Tarleton demanded Buford’s immediate surrender and claimed to have the Americans surrounded with a superior force.  Buford rejected the offer and put his men into a line of battle.  

Tarleton quickly formed three columns and charged the American lines.  The Continentals held their fire until the cavalry was only ten yards away.  They let loose a devastating volley, but it failed to break the charge.  Tarleton’s cavalry swept over the Continental lines.

During the melee, Tarleton had his horse shot out from under him, but his cavalry continued the attack.  Colonel Buford managed to flee the battlefield on his horse, leaving his men to their fates. The hand-to-hand combat quickly turned into a massacre. The stunned Continentals attempted to surrender, but were shot down anyway.  British soldiers used swords and bayonets to finish off the wounded who lay on the ground.

When the fighting stopped, the British had suffered only five killed and fourteen wounded. The Continentals suffered 113 men killed and 203 wounded, a roughly 80% casualty rate.  The battle of Waxhaws, also known as Buford’s massacre, became a rallying point for the patriots.  It also sealed Tarleton’s reputation as a butcher.  Tarleton later claimed that the men went on a killing spree after he fell, because they assumed he had been killed and wanted to avenge his death. While that excuse may have been accepted by his superiors, it certainly did not fly with the patriots.  The term “Tarleton’s Quarter” became a call for no surrender - kill or be killed in battle.

Governor Rutledge managed to escape before the battle began and found refuge in North Carolina.  From there, he began lobbying the Continental Congress to send a new army to recapture South Carolina, and assisted with efforts to raise resources for resistance within the state.

Clinton’s Proclamation

Several days after the Waxhaws Massacre, General Clinton issued one last proclamation before leaving for New York.  In a prior declaration, Clinton had permitted all rebel militia to return to their homes on parole and receive pardon.  By custom, this meant that parolees were out of the war and could not fight for either side.

Clinton’s June 2 proclamation changed all that.  With the return of the King’s rule, all South Carolinians, including parolees, must swear allegiance to the King and rejoin the fight in the loyalist militias.  In hindsight, this decree has been heavily criticized.  But I can see why it made sense to Clinton.  

Gen. Henry Clinton

Several years earlier, when General Howe captured Philadelphia, he respected the neutrality of most of the local population.  The result was that many patriots simply laid low and remained in the area, meaning the British were never really able to secure the land more than a few miles from their garrisons.

By requiring the locals in South Carolina to pick a side, Clinton could be assured exactly who was with him and who was against him.  He would not have to tolerate thousands of patriots simply biding their time to strike in a moment of weakness.  Most locals would submit to British authority.  Those who did not would be dealt with right away.

But the impact of the proclamation was that many men who had returned home on parole now had a decision to make.  Prior to the proclamation, most of these men seemed to be of the opinion that the war was over for them.  They could return to their plantations and simply focus on rebuilding their lives.  They had a perfect excuse for not joining another patriot army since they had taken an oath not to do so while they remained on parole.

With Clinton’s new proclamation, toiling away on one’s farm under a quiet neutrality was no longer an option. These men had to decide whether they were willing to join a loyalist militia, and go to war against their friends and neighbors, or whether they were going to continue to resist British rule.  There was no in-between.  The result was that many paroled patriot militia returned to the field and became partisans.  

Clinton’s proclamation coming at the same time most South Carolinians received word of the Waxhaws massacre, stirred up war sentiment that had seemed extinct a week earlier.  Irregular partisan groups took to the swamps where they would resist British control of the area and continue the struggle.

Thomas Sumter

One new leader that emerged was Thomas Sumter.  Later known as the Gamecock, Sumter had been an old Indian fighter, before the war.  He was born and raised in Virginia.  Along with George Washington, and many other future leaders, Sumter served in the militia under General Braddock at the beginning of the French and Indian War.  Sumter also served under then-Colonel Adam Stephen in the Anglo-Cherokee war in the 1760s.  Following the war, Sumter accompanied several Cherokee leaders to London.

Thomas Sumter
Debts resulted in the young Virginian serving time in debtor’s prison.  He later settled in South Carolina.  There, he became a justice of the peace and ran a country store.  Soon after, he married into a local planter family allowing him to become a plantation owner.

Sumter was an early supporter of the patriot cause.  He helped raise a militia in early 1776, becoming the lieutenant colonel of the regiment, and later the colonel.  Sumter was leading a regiment of riflemen in Charleston during Clinton’s first attempt to take the city in 1776.  At that time, Sumter played no active role.  As the war raged in New England and then the middle colonies, there really was not much to do for a militia officer in South Carolina.  Sumter had participated in the efforts to invade Florida, which never really amounted to anything.  Sumter only managed to catch a bad case of malaria during the efforts.  In 1778, Sumter resigned his commission and returned home to his plantation.

When the British invaded Georgia and began sending soldiers into South Carolina in early 1779, Sumter remained at home, instead focusing on raising crops and farm animals to sell to the army.  He felt no obligation to return to military command.  Even after the British army began its full-scale siege of Charleston, Sumter remained on his plantation.  During William Washington’s escape from the battle at Monck’s Corner, his troops marched past Sumter’s plantation.  Sumter provided the soldiers with food and even a horse for Colonel Washington, but did so only because the army paid top dollar for the supplies.

It was only in late May of 1780, after learning that Banastre Tarleton was planning to arrest him that Sumter put on his uniform and left his plantation.  Tarleton’s men, frustrated at not finding Sumter at home, looted and burned his plantation.

To do anything, Sumter first had to raise an army.  He stayed ahead of British patrols, riding to find other men, many of whom had served under him in the militia regiment that had been disbanded a few years earlier.  General Clinton’s proclamation that required the men of South Carolina either to join Tory regiments being raised or be branded traitors, forced many men to join guerrilla units like the one Sumter was raising.  Since men could not remain neutral, they would join the patriots.

Sumter began a guerrilla campaign.  His men would hide in swamps. They would attack isolated British units or outposts when the opportunity arose.  They would harass and attack any loyalist plantations that they could target.  Within weeks of fleeing his plantation, the men elected Sumter as their leader and declared him to be a brigadier general of the South Carolina militia.

Francis Marion

Another leader who rose to the occasion was Colonel Francis Marion, later known as the Swamp Fox.  Marion was born in South Carolina and lived on his family’s plantation.  The most interesting story from his youth was the time a 16 year-old Marion boarded a ship for the west Indies.  His ship crashed into a whale and sank.  Marion spent days in a lifeboat, where several members of the crew died for lack of water.  After about a week in the lifeboat, another ship rescued them and he returned home.  

Francis Marion
Since South Carolina did not really play much of a role in the French and Indian War, Marion lived the quiet life of a planter.  Like all white men in South Carolina, Marion served in the militia, but he did not see active duty.  When the Anglo-Cherokee war began, Lieutenant Marion, serving in Colonel William Moultrie’s regiment, saw some action.  He was a witness to some of the brutality that attended that war with the Cherokee, and apparently came away from it with a profound distaste for military service.

Marion returned to the life of a farmer, growing his small plantation over time, largely avoiding any active role in politics.  But in 1774, he was elected to attend South Carolina’s First Provincial Congress, which was a challenge to British colonial authority.  When South Carolina established its patriot militia in 1775, Marion received a commission as a captain, again serving in a regiment commanded by Colonel William Moultrie.

In September, Captain Marion was part of the force that captured Fort Johnson in Charleston Harbor.  A few months later, Marion was part of the 1776 defense of Fort Sullivan against the British attack led by General Clinton.  Marion’s conspicuous efforts that day in defense of the fort led to a commission as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army.  Marion commanded the second regiment, stationed in Charleston.  He got a reputation there as a no-nonsense officer who was quick to punish infractions.  More than ¼ of his regiment was subject to lashings for various violations during his leadership.  Colonel Marion was among the officers who argued with the civilian leadership who wanted to surrender Charleston to a British raiding party in 1779.

Colonel Marion led his regiment into combat at the failed siege of Savanna.  He led his men in a charge that saw a nearly 50% casualty rate.  After the battle, the Second Regiment was stationed about halfway between Charleston and Savannah.  It was not until January of 1780, after the British attack on Charleston became clear, that Marion returned to the city.

It is likely that Marion would have been taken prisoner, along with the rest of the Continental Army under General Lincoln, but for an accident.  Marion attended an officer’s party on March 19.  For some reason, he jumped out of a second story window and broke his ankle.  A few weeks later, as the British siege tightened, General Lincoln ordered all officers and men who were unfit for duty to leave the city, in order to conserve food and other resources.  Marion left for home only a few days before the British sealed off most of the escape routes around Charleston.

As a result, Marion was one of the few Continental officers in South Carolina who escaped capture at Charleston.  He could no longer recuperate from his injury at his plantation, as he became a wanted man under the new British authority.  He fled into the local swamps, avoiding capture by British patrols, and continued to wait for his ankle to heal.

Huck’s Defeat

Despite a few rebels hiding the swamps, from the British perspective, South Carolina had fallen.  Capturing the army under Lincoln in Charleston seemed to crush the resistance in the state.  The British set about the task of raising loyalist regiments to control the recaptured colony and crush any remaining signs of resistance.

Martha Bratton Threatened
Banastre Tarleton is often held up as an example of the brutality used to reassert British control.  But Tarleton was far from the only one who believed that harsh treatment was the only way to put down the rebellion.  Another such officer was Christian Huck.

Before the war Huck had immigrated to Philadelphia from a German state.  In his new home, he studied law and became an attorney.  When the war came, Huck was decidedly a loyalist, but like many loyalists in Philadelphia, kept quiet about it to avoid attack by patriot mobs.  When the British took control of the city in late 1777, Huck gladly assisted the army.  

After the British evacuation back to New York in 1778, Pennsylvania added Huck’s name to a list of traitors who had actively assisted the British during the occupation.  The state confiscated his property and threatened to punish him as a traitor if caught.  Huck had seen that his activities during the occupation would not sit well and had already left the city. In June 1778, he received a commission as a captain in a German-speaking loyalist regiment raised in New York.

Huck’s regiment came south with Clinton’s army to take Charleston.  His loyalist infantry fought under Colonel Tarleton at Waxhaws. Huck got a reputation as a tough fighter and a fervent loyalist who had no sympathy for traitors to the crown.  After Waxhaws, Captain Huck operated independently in the backcountry.   His orders were to recruit more loyalist soldiers. 

Huck developed a reputation for a foul mouth and a violent temper, one that did not tolerate anyone who refused to provide unequivocal support to British authority.  Several accounts have him threatening to kill uncooperative civilians as he attempted to capture fleeing rebels.  He and his soldiers burned numerous plantations and other property belonging to suspected patriots.  One account said that his men shot and killed a boy who was just sitting by the road, reading the bible.  I’m sure there is more to the story than that, but clearly these were soldiers who fought for keeps.

You can find several more paintings
related to Hucks Defeat at this link. 
They are modern works to which I
could not get copyright permission
to display here.
In July, Huck led a force of about 120 men, who encamped on the Williamson plantation in York County.  There, they captured five patriots hiding in the corn crib.  The loyalists camped around the plantation house for the night.

One of their targets was Colonel William Bratton, a local patriot militia officer.  Huck had personally threatened to kill Bratton’s wife Martha in an attempt to get her to give up her husband’s location.  Martha managed to get a slave to send a message to her husband, who was camped nearby.  

Bratton marched a force of about 200 South Carolina militia and attacked the loyalists at the Williamson plantation at dawn on July 12.  The battle was over in minutes as the surprised loyalists mostly fled into the woods.  The attackers shot Captain Huck in the head, killing him as he attempted to mount his horse.

The problem with the British treating the patriots so brutally, is that it often resulted in receiving similar treatment from the enemy when the tables were turned.  The militia chased down the loyalists and took out their wrath on those they found.  The loyalists under Huck suffered 85% casualties that day, while the Americans suffered only one killed and one wounded.

Huck’s defeat was one example of many that the British pacification of South Carolina was far from over.  That there were still men ready to fight, and that their numbers would seem to grow over time.

Next week: We head to London where the Yorkshire Association challenges the King’s rule, and the Gordon Riots burn London.

- - -

Next Episode 252 Gordon Riots

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Further Reading


Brown, Alan S. “James Simpson’s Reports on the Carolina Loyalists, 1779-1780.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 21, no. 4, 1955, pp. 513–19. JSTOR,


Battle of Waxhaws (Burford’s Massacre):


Huck’s Defeat:

Battle of Williamson’s Plantation (Huck’s Defeat):

Battle of Huck’s Defeat:

Brinkley, W. David Back to the Future: the British Southern Campaign, 1780-1781,  School of Advanced Military Studies, 1998.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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, 1749-1815, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785. 

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

Weems, M. L. Life of Gen'l Francis Marion, New York: J.W. Lovell Co. 1882 (originally published 1809). 

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. 

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

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

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. 

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan Company, 1952. 

Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General; Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, Knopf, 1964  (borrow from

Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia 1775-1780, Univ. of S.C. Press, 2005. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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