We last left the war in the Carolinas in Episode 287. General Nathanael Greene, along with support from militia leaders Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion, had forced the British out of all of South Carolina except a small area around Charleston.
Greene and his Continentals were exhausted. They had been on the move almost continuously since March. By July of 1781, the summer heat was becoming oppressive. With the British bottled up in Charleston, Greene gave his men a rest in the High Hills of Santee. The weather there was a little more bearable, and local fields provided a food source for the army.
As the Continentals recuperated, militia General Thomas Sumter continued in the field, in what would later be called the Dog Days Campaign - taking place in the dog days of summer. Sumter worked with Colonel Francis Marion as well as Continental Colonel Light Horse Harry Lee on this campaign. Although Sumter was in command, these three officers did not really get along, so coordinating strategy was difficult.
On July 16th patriot militia moved on Moncks Corner. The British commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Coates, moved the bulk of his forces into a prepared defensive position at Biggin Church, reportedly a fortified brick building that was impervious to small arms fire.
Sumter deployed his forces around Biggin Church. Later that afternoon the loyalist South Carolina Rangers under Major Thomas Frasier charged at part of Marion’s militia under the command of Colonel Peter Horry. The patriots withdrew to the covering fire of their comrades. This forced the loyalists to end their pursuit and fall back to the main British force at Biggins Church.
Sumter’s larger force could surround the Church, but could not charge the fort across an open field without taking substantial casualties. A few units did advance on the church but were driven back. Sumter also ordered the destruction of nearby Wadboo Bridge to prevent the enemy from having a path of retreat.
After nightfall, Colonel Coates realized his British forces were outnumbered, and resulted to slip away in the night. His men were able to repair Wadboo Bridge and move across. As they did, they set fire to the church, burning all their equipment as well since they could not move quickly with it.
At around 3:00 AM on the 17th, Sumter saw the church was on fire. He roused his militia and set off in pursuit of the fleeing British. In his haste to catch the retreating enemy, Sumter left behind his one field canon, opting instead for speed, and knowing the cannon would just slow his movements.
Coates marched his men through a nearby swamp, then sent his loyalist horsemen in one direction and marched the regulars in another. The loyalists, able to ride at full speed, were able to cross the Cooper River at a local ferry, and remove all the boats to the far side, thus preventing the patriots from following them.
The regulars marched toward Quinby Bridge. After crossing, they planned to tear up the bridge to prevent the Americans from pursuing them. Lee’s cavalry caught up to the British rearguard before they could reach the bridge.
The 19th regiment was a newly-recruited regiment with little experience. The regulars formed a line of defense. Lee’s cavalry charged at them. The British dropped their muskets without firing and called for quarter, which was granted. The Americans captured about 100 British soldiers.
A short distance away, at Quinby Bridge, Colonel Coates was unaware that his rearguard had been taken prisoner. He marched the rest of his regiment across the bridge, and began to loosen the planks. He hoped to allow his rearguard to cross before tearing up the bridge completely.
Lee and Marion’s cavalry came on the scene and charged the bridge while the British were not prepared to receive the attack. Coates desperately tried to form a defensive line at the bridge. If the Americans had continued their charge across the bridge, they probably would have forced the British to flee or surrender. Instead, Captain James Armstrong, leading the charge, halted at the near side of the bridge and sent a messenger back to Lee for instructions. His hesitation was probably after seeing a British howitzer at the other end of the bridge.
Colonel Lee’s angry reply was that Captain needed to charge across the bridge, now! After receiving Lee’s reply, Armstrong charged across the bridge, and managed to take the howitzer before it could be fired. His charge, however, had knocked the loosened planks off the bridge, making it difficult for others to follow. The momentary delay had also given the British time to form lines and begin a defensive fire against the attackers. The British Colonel Coates drew his sword and began fighting for his life against the attackers. Two Continental horsemen were killed and several more wounded in the fighting.
By this time, Lee reached the bridge and had his men begin restoring the planks under enemy fire. The advance force that had crossed the bridge, found itself cut off from support and withdrew into the nearby tree line. This gave the British time to rally his men, grab the howitzer and continue the retreat. Coates pulled back to the nearby Quinby plantation, also called the Shubrick plantation.
Lee, frustrated that he could not cross the bridge, found a place to ford the river further upstream. Joined by Marion’s militia infantry, they pursued the enemy. Finding the British position at the plantation too well defended, Lee and Marion had to wait for more reinforcements from Sumter.
Once Sumter’s main force arrived, the combined force was about three times the size of the enemy’s. Sumter had about 1100 men facing about 350 British. But because the British held a strong defensive position, it would still be a difficult fight. Sumter ordered Marion, on the American line’s left to advance. Enemy fire resulted in five attackers killed and ten wounded before they were forced to pull back.
On his right flank, Sumter ordered Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Horry to advance. Horry’s advance went about the same as Marion’s losing four killed and six wounded before they were also forced to pull back.
Sumter then ordered his main center line to advance. Although the brigade got within 40 yards of the enemy, they lost seven killed and twenty wounded before also pulling back. What Sumter really needed was his cannon. But since he had left that behind in order to have the speed to chase the enemy, he found himself without it at this important time.
By dusk, the militia had to withdraw from the plantation altogether. Since they were out of ammunition, they could not risk a nighttime counterattack on their lines. While the British had bayonets, the militia did not. So a night attack would have spelled disaster. Sumter tried to find more ammunition for his army, and to get the cannon in place by the following morning, so they could resume the attack.
Following the failed attack, many officers criticized Sumter’s orders to attack the entrenched position. Marion’s men left that night, and Marion vowed never to fight under Sumter ever again. Colonel Lee, whose Continental cavalry had been held in reserve, also left and was disgusted with Sumter’s attack. Colonel Thomas Taylor, who had been part of Sumter’s center line advance, confronted the general after the battle, outraged that his men had been advanced into enemy fire without promised support. Taylor told Sumter directly that he would never serve a single hour under Sumter ever again.
With the loss of much of his force, and after receiving word that a British relief force from Orangeburg was nearby, Sumter called off his planned attack for the following day and withdrew his own forces.
Even though they failed to capture the full regiment of regulars, the attack was a partial success. The action forced the British to pull closer to Charleston. They managed to capture the British regiment’s baggage, including the regimental payroll of 720 guineas. Sumter divided that money among his South Carolina militia who had remained with him. This became another point of anger at the other units who fought in the battle but did not receive a share of the captured property. It also set off a demand by other South Carolina militia for their long overdue back pay.
General Greene received various reports on the battle. Although he publicly praised Sumter’s efforts, later confidential correspondence with those he trusted indicated that Greene believed that Sumter’s weak command prevented what could have been a decisive victory.
Following the battle, General Sumter decided it was time that he take a break as well. He tried to do what he could to pay off his army. He sent Captain William Ransome Davis with a cavalry detachment to raid the loyalist stronghold at Georgetown, with orders to plunder as much loyalist property as possible in order to have something to pay his men. This not only annoyed Greene, who was doing his best to limit civilian plundering, it also further distanced Marion from Sumter, since Georgetown was in Marion’s area of control
After settling accounts as best he could, Sumter retired to his North Carolina plantation. Although he did not disband his army, when Colonel William Henderson came to take command, he found that its numbers had fallen to less than 200 men. He then received written orders from Sumter, who was already gone, that Henderson should furlough the rest of the army until October.
When General Greene heard about this, he was apoplectic when he heard what Sumter had done. With the British finally hemmed in around Charleston, Sumter was essentially disbanding his army. With Sumter's South Carolina soldiers going home, only the out of state troops in the Continental army were the only large presence to oppose the British. Their numbers and condition were nothing close to what was needed.
Fortunately, Marion remained in the field. Greene requested that Marion join with what remained of Sumter’s brigade and ride south of Charleston. He had received intelligence that the British were collecting rice from coastal fields there to feed the Charleston garrison, and that they planned to burn whatever crops they could not carry back with them.
Marion took about two hundred men on horseback, where he met up with a group of local militia under Colonel William Harden. He was soon joined by another local militia under Colonel William Stafford, bringing the total force to around 400.
On August 27, Marion attempted to set up an ambush at a place called Godfrey’s Savannah. The enemy consisted of a regiment of Hessians under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ernst Leopold von Bork, loyalists under Major Thomas Frasier, a detachment of Queen’s Rangers, and another group of loyalists under Major William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham. In total, the enemy had about 660 men. Although patriots were outnumbered, Marion believed a surprise ambush would give him the advantage. Unfortunately, the patriot militia was not as experienced as hoped. The attack on the 27th did not happen, as they did not get into position in time.
Even so, Marion was determined to organize another ambush. After a few days, he was able to get his men in position along a wooded area of the road near Parker’s Ferry, about 25 miles west of Charleston. Marion knew the enemy would be passing this way shortly.
Late in the afternoon of August 30, a party of about 100 loyalist militia came down the road. Marion hoped to let this group pass, so that he could attack the larger force behind them. However, one of the loyalists spotted one of the enemy in the bushes. The loyalists opened fire, and the patriots returned fire.
The loyalists rushed back toward the ferry, as British cavalry, some distance away charged toward the sound of the gunfire. As the patriots fired on the enemy, they suddenly got spooked that they were being flanked. They rushed back into the woods. This gave the British time to recover their equipment and wounded from the initial ambush and withdraw. The Hessian regiment arrived at the battle just as it was getting dark.
The ambushed worked. The patriots had the clear advantage, but with night having arrived and running out of ammunition, Marion ordered the patriots to withdraw.
The result of the battle was extremely one sided. The British lost about 125 killed and another 80 wounded. The loyalist horsemen also lost most of their horses, as they were shot out from under them. The patriots lost one killed and three wounded.
Georgia Reestablishes a Government
While all this was happening, Greene was also trying to reestablish a civilian government in Georgia. As always, he had to deal with interference that made his job more difficult.
Earlier in 1781, Greene had sent Nathan Brownson to Philadelphia. Brownson was a Connecticut physician who had moved to Georgia in 1774 and quickly became a leader in the patriot movement. He had served as a local delegate in Georgia, and also spent some time representing Georgia in the Continental Congress.
Given his medical and administrative skills, Greene wanted Brownson to serve as the purveyor for the hospital department in the south. Greene gave him the job provisionally, but sent him to Philadelphia to get approval from Congress.
Brownson made his way to Philadelphia, where he found Congress receptive to his appointment. In fact, many delegates quite liked the physician/politician, who also used his time in Philadelphia to update the delegates about the war in the south, and to share his own opinions on strategy.
The Georgia delegates to the Continental Congress thought so highly of him, that they appointed him to be a general in the Georgia militia. General Brownson returned to South Carolina in July to announce to Greene his new appointment as general.
Greene was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic. While Brownson was a fine politician and no doubt a good physician, he had almost no military experience. Meanwhile, other Georgia militia colonels such as Elijah Clarke, John Twiggs, and James Jackson all had considerable command combat experience and a following of soldiers and found themselves passed over by this guy who just went to Philadelphia and obtained a political appointment.
It’s unclear why Georgia delegates to the Continental Congress believed they had authority to appoint militia generals. I guess that, since the Georgia government was essentially not functioning at the time, they could do whatever they wanted.
The President of Georgia in 1781 was apparently a matter of dispute. Steven Heard had been appointed President in 1780. Heard had been a strong patriot during the early part of the war. He had been captured while leading a militia regiment at Kettle Creek in 1779. After his capture, he had been taken to Augusta, where he was sentenced to hang for treason.
He only survived thanks to one of his slaves, who we only know by the name "Mammy Kate." She visited him in prison, with the purpose of bringing him new clothes. Apparently, Mammy Kate was a large woman and Heard was rather small. She managed to fit him inside a laundry basket, which she put on her head, and then walked out of the prison. After this, Heard received his appointment as President of Georgia. Perhaps his brush with death took away some of his nerve because at some point, Heard simply fled to the Carolinas and did not return to Georgia. So another leader, Myrick Davies ended up as acting governor.
I could find almost nothing on Davies, so I have to assume that he was not doing much governing. This is understandable since much of Georgia was under British control - and to the extent Americans had control, it was primarily military.
General Greene had no contact with Georgia’s Governor Heard, nor acting Governor Davies. Greene had gotten in trouble in the past with questioning civilian control of the military, so he really wasn’t sure what to do about the decision by the Georgia delegation to the Continental Congress to appoint Brownson as general of Georgia militia.
Greene had a candid conversation with Brownson when the two men met at Greene’s camp in South Carolina. The details of the conversation are not recorded but Greene must have discussed his concerns about Brownson being given command over officers who had fought bravely in the field for years and how this appointment might be a problem.
Publicly, Greene wrote to the other militia leaders from Georgia, passing along that the Congressional delegation had made this appointment, and withholding any opinion on that fact, for or against. He sent his letter with Brownson himself, to go speak with the other Georgia militia officers and make his case.
As expected, the other military leaders were not happy about this situation. Brownson’s lack of any real military command experience was glaring. They viewed him (correctly) as a political appointment.
While the leaders tried to sort out this problem, an opening occurred when acting President Davies was captured and executed by loyalists. With President Heard still missing from the state, leaders decided to make Brownson the new President of Georgia and have him give up his militia commission. Colonel John Twiggs became the new militia brigadier, and was accepted as a much better choice by the other leading officers.
With Georgia patriots finally restoring civilian control of the government, and South Carolina militia slowly tightening the noose on the British in Charleston, the British occupation in the south was looking increasingly desperate.
Next week: We’ll take a look at the British leadership in Charleston as they deal with the controversial matter of Isaac Hayne.
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Waters, Andrews “Thomas Sumter’s Dog Days Expedition” Journal of the American Revolution, June 28, 2018: https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/06/thomas-sumters-dog-days-expedition
Skirmishes at Quinby Bridge & Shubrick's Plantation https://www.myrevolutionarywar.com/battles/810717-quinby-bridge
Battle of Parker’s Ferry: https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/parkers-ferry-battle-of
(from archive.org unless noted)
Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978.
Greene, George Washington The Life of Nathanael Greene, Vol. 1, Vol. 2, & Vol. 3, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press 1867-1871.
Hartley, Cecil B. Life of Major General Henry Lee & The Life of General Thomas Sumter, New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859.
Lee, Henry Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, Washington: Peter Force, 1827.
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.
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 (borrow on Archive.org)
Buchanan, John The Road to Charleston, Univ. of Va Press, 2019.
Carbone, Gerald Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010 (borrow on Archive.org).
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 Archive.org)
Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on archive.org).
Oller, John The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, Da Capo Press, 2016 (borrow on archive.org).
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.