In our last episode, the patriots suffered a severe blow in the south. Months after losing a large army of 5000 men under General Benjamin Lincoln in Charleston, they lost a second army, nearly as large, under the command of General Horatio Gates at Camden. British forces now seemed to be solidly in control of Georgia and South Carolina, and were preparing to move into North Carolina, with no army to challenge them.
Before moving into North Carolina though, Cornwallis still hoped to tie up a few loose ends in South Carolina. Before Camden, General Gates had deployed South Carolina militia General Thomas Sumter, along with several companies of Continentals, to disrupt the enemy. Back in Episode 256, I mentioned that Sumter had captured a wagon train of British supplies at Wateree Ferry. He had captured fifty British supply wagons, Three hundred head of cattle, and 250 British and loyalist prisoners.
Sumter had been eluding forces under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson and Colonel George Turnbull, and had managed to escape from them. He became aware that Tarleton’s force was shadowing him from the other side of the river, but was not nearly large enough to take on his 800 soldiers.
The two armies moved up the Catawba river to a point where Fishing Creek entered into the river. Marching the hot August sun of South Carolina took its toll on both armies. Tarleton’s infantry could not keep up. Tarleton took sixty of his infantry by doubling up on his horses, and left the rest behind.
Sumter, upon reaching Fishing Creek on August 17, gave his army some much needed rest. Thinking their position secure, the men stacked their arms and established a camp. The men fed and watered their horses, and did their best to get some rest in the shade. Many soldiers took the opportunity to bathe in the river. Many of the soldiers were refreshing themselves from the rum that they had captured from the wagon train. Sumter himself simply climbed under a wagon to get some sleep in the shade.
Sumter did send out sentries. A short time later, he heard gunshots, but was told his soldiers were firing at cattle. With that, he went back to sleep.
As it turned out, the firing was his sentries firing on Tarleton’s advance guard. The American sentries killed one of the dragoons. His comrades then rode down the two shooters and cut them to pieces with their sabers. Tarleton dismounted his 60 infantrymen and had them proceed forward along with his 100 men still on horseback.
They arrived in sight of the camp, finding the Americans completely unaware of their presence. Being outnumbered by about 5-1 did not discourage Tarleton from immediately organizing into a line of battle and charging the camp.
As Tarleton had experienced before, the element of surprise was more important than the relative size of the forces. Most of the patriots were not close enough to reach their guns. Most fled into the woods, or were cut down by Tarleton’s men who, according to their standard procedure, gave no quarter.
A few small units were able to reach their guns and fight back. One patriot cannon got off a single shot before being overrun. Those who stood and fought were quickly overwhelmed and killed.
Many of the continentals were caught skinny-dipping in the river. The loyalists promised them good treatment if they swam ashore and surrendered. The Continentals complied. As soon as the prisoners were back on land, the loyalists set upon the men, cutting them down with bayonets and sabers.
General Sumter, like the rest of his army, had almost no time to react. He had removed most of his clothes before lying down to rest in order to get some relief from the summer heat. When Tarleton’s loyalists attacked, he barely had time to run into the woods, barefoot and half naked.
He managed to find one of his captains, who was mounted. They then managed to catch another horse that had fled the battle. Sumter then rode the horse bareback all the way to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he arrived safely two days later.
Of the roughly 800 Americans present at the battle of Fishing Creek, 150 were killed and another 300 captured. The rest, like Sumter, scattered into the woods where they hid from the attackers. Tarleton’s loyalist recovered 250 of their comrades whom the Americans were taking to prison camps. They also captured back the wagon train that Sumter had seized several days early, along with two pieces of artillery, 800 horses, and over 1000 rifles and muskets. Of Tarleton’s attacking force of 160, he reported the loss of only nine men.
The loss of Sumter’s army only two days after the loss of the main Continental Army at Camden solidified even more British control of South Carolina.
As the patriot military in the eastern part of the state crumbled, the militia to the west was still active. I mentioned in earlier episodes that Elijah Clarke of Georgia had moved into South Carolina with his small band of militia after numerous fights with the British in Georgia. He had teamed up with Isaac Shelby who had moved down from North Carolina with his militia companies.
Both men here hardened warriors, with years of experience both fighting with Indian tribes on the frontier and with loyalist militia in the brutal irregular warfare that made up most of the fighting along the western frontier. I had briefly mentioned Shelby’s role in the Chickamauga campaign of 1779. At that time, he had been a captain of the Virginia militia. Shelby lived right on the Virginia - North Carolina border, where the state line was not entirely clear. Shelby was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1779 and took a commission as a major of militia from Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson. The following year, North Carolina Governor Richard Caswell granted him a position as magistrate and a commission as colonel of militia.
In early 1780, Shelby was in Kentucky surveying lands when he heard about the defeat at Charleston. He returned to North Carolina where he took command of a militia regiment of about 300 men and moved into British-occupied South Carolina. There, he met up with Elijah Clark, who had his Georgians, along with some local South Carolina militia.
In late July, the men had assembled a force of 600 men, who laid siege to a loyalist force at Thicketty Fort. Despite some impressive defenses, Shelby managed to convince the loyalist commander to surrender without a shot fired. The patriots captured 93 prisoners, along with 250 muskets and a large supply of ammunition.
Following that success, the men teamed up with more South Carolina Militia under the command of James Williams. Colonel Williams lived in South Carolina near Fort Ninety-Six, which had become the British base of operations under British Major Patrick Ferguson.
This informally assembled militia army set its sites on a Tory outpost of 200 loyalists, about thirty miles north of the main British outpost at Fort Ninety-Six. The enemy was about forty miles from their position and surrounded by locals who supported the loyalists. To keep the element of surprise, the patriots opted to take 200 mounted militia on an all-night ride in hopes of surprising the enemy. Such a ride would exhaust their horses, but would allow them to reach the enemy before the enemy knew they were in the area.
The force left just after dusk on August 17, the day after the battle of Camden. They had not yet received word of the American loss at Camden though. Despite a long, exhausting, and difficult night march, the force arrived within a half mile of the enemy camp by dawn on the 18th. The Americans sent out a patrol to reconnoiter the loyalist camp. The patrol ran into a loyalist patrol. The two parties exchanged fire. A couple of the loyalists escaped and returned to camp with news of the presence of the enemy.
Then, a local patriot arrived in camp with more information. The 200 local loyalist militia had received reinforcements the night before, including 200 battle-hardened loyalist provincials from New York and New Jersey, as well as another 100 mounted South Carolina militia.
The patriots had lost the element of surprise, and were outnumbered 500 to 200. They had just ridden their horses hard all night, making it practically impossible for them to retreat. An attack on a larger and entrenched force waiting for them also seemed foolhardy.
Instead, the commanders adopted a common frontier tactic used by both Indians and frontier settlers, one that I’ve discussed several times in earlier episodes.
Knowing that the larger Tory brigade was now aware of their presence and that it would likely attack in force, the patriots sent out a group of 25 men on horseback to make contact with the enemy. The men engaged from a distance, then retreated slowly, continuing to engage the much larger group of enemy pursuers. The loyalists followed the Americans across the Enoree River, at a ford near Musgrove Mill and into the nearby woods, there, the attackers found themselves facing a semi-circle of patriot rifles and muskets, behind hastily-erected breast high defenses made of brush and logs that obscured their numbers.
The patriots had drawn the loyalists into an ambush. Elijah Clarke’s Georgia militia held the left flank, James Williams’ South Carolina militia held the center, and Isaac Shelby’s North Carolina militia manned the right flank. Clarke also held about forty of his horsemen in reserve.
The patriots opened fire when the enemy was still seventy yards away. The volley startled the pursuers, but did not cause them to retreat. The loyalists still outnumbered the patriots, and were not easily discouraged.
Loyalist Colonel Alexander Innes led a bayonet charge into Shelby’s right flank. Most of Shelby’s men had rifles, without bayonets. While they held their lines, the patriots lines began to falter. Clarke then ordered in his reserves. Around this same time a rifleman managed to shoot Colonel Innes, who fell off his horse. The arrival of the reserves and the apparent death of the loyalist commander caused the attackers to falter. Shelby saw his moment. The experienced Indian fighter gave an Indian war cry and charged forward with his men.
The Tory’s began to fall back but did not panic and run. They began taking heavy casualties, especially among the officers, who were prime targets for the backwoods riflemen. Then Clarke’s left wing, who had only been firing from a distance, also joined the charge at the loyalists. Finally, the Tories fled the field.
The entire action lasted about an hour, with the hand to hand fighting only about fifteen minutes. The loyalists had taken terrible casualties, nearly half of the five hundred man force. Sixty-three killed, ninety wounded, and seventy taken prisoner. By comparison, the patriots suffered only four killed and seven wounded.
Aware that an even larger force might come after them, the Americans retreated with their prisoners back towards their main force. British Major Patrick Ferguson sent a cavalry in pursuit, but it was not able to catch up with them. In 48 hours, the American militia had engaged in a 40 mile night ride, then prepared for and fought a successful battle against a far superior force, then spent the rest of the day and all night riding back 60 miles while being pursued by cavalry.
On the return ride many men had to dismount and run alongside their horses in order to give the exhausted animals some relief. During the entire time, the men never stopped to rest or eat. They snacked on green corn, peaches, and whatever else they carried with them.
When they finally returned to camp on August 19, the exhausted men practically fell from their saddles. Shelby, who was no stranger to brutal Indian warfare called this fight “one of the hardest ever fought in the United States with small arms.”
The returning soldiers were greeted with the news of the loss at Camden. They knew that the British would focus on any remaining forces of any size in the region. The men opted to move further west over the mountains and to prepare for a likely attack from Ferguson’s loyalists.
Brutality of War
As the British army and the loyalists secured control of South Carolina, at least the inhabitants thought they could look forward to the return of some peace and order. Anyone who thought however, was in for a rude awakening.
Just after the British victory at Camden, General Cornwallis issued standing orders that any man who had accepted parole after the capture of Charleston, and then took up arms again with the patriot militia, would not be considered a prisoner of war, but instead would be hanged as a traitor. Not even a trial was needed. Cornwallis decreed “instant death.”
Many men who were determined not to take up arms again also found that they could not simply be left alone. Loyalist bands raided plantations, taking all the animals, crops, and anything of value. Often they burned what they could not carry, leaving people with nothing. Anyone who refused to join a loyalist militia was considered a traitor, and often treated as such.
Many accounts describe these Tory raiders as men of the lower sort, who took the current instability as a chance to go after their neighbors with more land and wealth, and perhaps settle some old scores. One early historian described them as “ignorant unprincipled banditti; to whom idleness, licentiousness, and deeds of violence were familiar. Horse thieves and others whose crimes had exiled them from society, attached themselves to the British.” Some of that may just be bias. We know there were men on both sides who came from higher and lower rungs of society. But the fears among the patriots of these raiders was a major factor in their decision to act.
I also don’t want to leave you with the impression that it was the loyalists who necessarily started the brutality. Many of the loyalist depredations were a response to even earlier depravities by the patriots. One of the more notorious loyalist leaders from this time was William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham. Much of his rage came from the fact that patriots partisans had murdered his crippled and epileptic brother several years earlier. Cunningham himself had to flee to Florida, and only came back for revenge after the British invasion of South Carolina.
General Sumter offered signing bounties to men who joined his regiment. Among the bounties was the promise of slaves - one slave for ten months’ service. He intended to make good on his promises by raiding the slaves on loyalist plantations and using his captured human plunder as payment. Similarly, British officers and loyalists often used slaves as currency to punish their enemies and reward their friends.
The cycle of violence only continued to grow after Camden. Patriots began executing men suspected of being loyalists. There is one account of patriots breaking into the home of a known loyalists and shooting his two brothers while they lay in their beds, sick with smallpox. After Tories captured Francis Marion’s nephew Gabriel, his captors unceremoniously punted a shotgun at the young man’s chest and pulled the trigger, killing him instantly. There are numerous stories on both sides of patriots or loyalist partisans chasing down smaller groups of the enemy and mercilessly hacking to death their former neighbors without mercy.
There are also many examples of an enemy being promised decent treatment if they surrendered, then once they laid down their arms, being executed. In some cases the captors saw fit to torture their prisoners before murdering them.
Cornwallis had directed Wemyss to visit devastation upon the South Carolina countryside, destroying the plantations of anyone who refused to serve in the loyalist militia, and executing any man who was believed to support the patriots.
During one of his raids, Wemyss was ambushed by Sumter’s partisans. He was wounded and left behind with several other wounded soldiers as the regiment retreated. After being his capture, Sumter personally interrogated the wounded officer, and found a list of all the plantations he had destroyed and all the patriots he had executed. In an amazing display of mercy, Sumter threw the list into a fire, saying that if any of his men had seen it, they would have executed the officer immediately. Sumter was probably unaware at the time that Wemyss previously had sent out several squads of men who had been directed to assassinate Sumter.
Later, Wemyss would try to hunt down a known patriot leader named James Frierson. After his wife refused to give up his location, Wemyss locked her and her four year old child in their home, then set it ablaze. Fortunately, the woman and child were able to escape. Wemyss also developed a penchant for burning churches.
Around this same time, Tarleton was trying to capture Francis Marion. After no success, Tarleton ordered all the plantations in the region to be burned to the ground. He even made a special visit to the plantation of General Richard Richardson, a militia officer who died in British custody after the surrender of Charleston. Richardson’s body had been returned to his plantation and buried in the family plot. Tarleton dug up the corpse and began abusing it in front of Richardson’s widow and her children. He then burned the plantation and all its buildings, after locking all the farm animals in the buildings to be consumed in the fire.
The brutality would only continue as both sides used whatever violence they could to achieve their goals.
Next time, we had even further south, as Cornwallis finds that even Georgia continues to suffer partisan attacks.
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(from archive.org unless noted)
Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785.
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 Amazon.com 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 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 The Battle of Camden: A Documentary History, History Press Library, 2006.
Swisher, James K., The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Country, Pelican Publishing, 2008 (borrow on archive.org).