After Lord Cornwallis’ captured Charleston in May 1780, the Patriot defense of the Carolinas and Georgia fell to partisans and militia until the new commander of the Southern Department, Major General Horatio Gates, arrived with an army from the main encampment in New Jersey. The massacre of Americans after the Battle of Waxhaws turned much of the countryside against the British, but not all. Loyalists recognized that the American Revolution was now a full blown civil war in the south, and everyone needed to pick a side. Emblematic of the situation was the Battle of Ramseur’s Mill in June, where dozens of North Carolinian families had members who fought on both sides.
British Major Patrick Ferguson was tasked by Cornwallis to organize loyalist militia and prevent the fiercely patriotic American “overmountain men” i.e. those frontiersmen from west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, from moving east. One of the loyalist training camps Ferguson established was at Fort Anderson at the rocky ford over Groucher Creek, in upper South Carolina.
Fort Anderson, better known as “Thicketty Fort” for the ever present thickets that dominated the area, was built in the 1760s during the Cherokee War. Thicketty Fort was under loyalist militia Captain Patrick Moore, a Scot-Irish mountain of a man with a fierce loyalty to the Crown. Along with a British regular sergeant major, Moore was training 93 Carolina loyalists to take part in Ferguson’s plan to break up the overmountain men’s mustering camps, such as those at Abingdon, Virginia and Sycamore Shoals, now in Tennessee.
Because of the Battle of Waxhaws, volunteers flooded into American patriots’ camps, not just those from “over the mountains”. In July, North Carolina Colonel Joseph McDowell saw a chance to strike at Ferguson’s camps before he could mass their troops. Col Isaac Shelby, the future first governor of Kentucky, was dispatched with a few hundred militia to take Thicketty Fort. The fort was stout, well maintained, and well supplied. It had to be taken by surprise or subterfuge: any siege would just invite Ferguson’s main body and Chickamauga Cherokee war chief Dragging Canoe’s warriors to smash the besiegers.
Fortunately for Shelby, word got out that he was on his way to whack some loyalists, and every militiaman in the area wanted to get in on the action. Shelby’s force gathered men along the way and was nearly 600 strong by the time he arrived outside the fort on 30 July 1780. It still wasn’t enough though, six hundred regulars might have been able to take Thicketty Fort by storm with heavy casualties, but six hundred militia could not. And surprise was lost, the same word that substantially increased Shelby’s force, also alerted Moore to the danger.
When called upon to surrender, the fierce and intimidatingly massive 6’ 7” tall Moore confidently stated he’d fight to the death before surrendering, especially so with the British sergeant major hurling insults from the second floor of the blockhouse.
Out of sight of the fort, Shelby spent the next hour or so organizing his men. In a grand show of force, Shelby marched his men out of the woods and they formed up in battle lines just outside musket range, shouting Indian war cries from their ranks at the fort. The militia marched as if they were regulars, mostly due to the fact that the 18 separate militia companies were quite small, and officer and NCO heavy due to the circumstances of the force’s creation. The demonstration made an impression.
Against this intimidating backdrop, Shelby again demanded Moore’s surrender, and if he didn’t, the result would be Tarleton’s Quarter when the patriots inevitably overwhelmed the fort. If he surrendered, they’d be protected. This was no idle threat: the aftermath of Ramseur’s Mill saw blood raged patriots tomahawk and scalp their own wounded brothers and cousins. The powerful display and the threat of massacre broke Moore, whose great frame no longer seemed so intimidating.
Despite the protestations of the British sergeant major, Moore surrendered the fort. Shelby captured all 93 of the garrison, and another 250 loaded muskets, most stacked by the loop holes of the blockhouse ready to fire. Had Shelby attacked, his men would have assaulted into a meat grinder, and his militia would have melted away. This is no doubt something the British sergeant major would have surely pointed out. Furthermore, they had ample ammunition to defeat a force twice Shelby’s size. If blood would have been shed at any point, there was no way Shelby could have won the battle. But, none was. Shelby took his prisoners and captured provisions, and triumphantly marched backed to McDowell’s Camp at Cherokee Ford.
The bloodless victory was celebrated by the Americans throughout the South. Like Doolittle’s Raid 162 years later, the capture of Thicketty Fort had effect completely out of proportion to the numbers involved. The victory convinced McDowell, Shelby and other patriot leaders, such as Thomas Sumter, to begin a campaign focusing on the vulnerable loyalist training camps and isolated outposts that dotted the South, further separating the population from the British. The fall of Thicketty Fort shocked Ferguson and Cornwallis and confirmed that the patriots would overwhelm the loyalists unless Ferguson secured the back country soon. Rumor had an American army heading south under Horatio Gates. Cornwallis needed his flank secure from the pesky American partisans if he was going to defeat the victor of Saratoga. They accelerated Ferguson’s timeline against the overmountain men and the southern patriot militia massing in the mountains.