The Battle of Hanging Rock

Like Isaac Shelby’s assault on Thicketty Fort on 30 July 1780, Colonel Thomas Sumter sought to strike the British and Loyalist outpost on the Catawba River at Rocky Mount, South Carolina. Rocky Mount was a sub camp of the main British and Loyalist training camp at Hanging Rock about 15 miles to the east. Garrisoned by New York volunteers, Sumter thought the camp was ripe for the taking. Unfortunately a loyalist spy informed the garrison, and Sumter didn’t collect the men that Shelby did (They went with Shelby). Sumter’s 300 South Carolina militia and Catawba Indians did not surprise the 600 man garrison, though they did manage to set several buildings on fire, but a thunderstorm promptly put them out.

Much more success was had by Sumter’s subordinate, Major William Davie. With a company of dragoons and some smaller militia companies, Davie launched a diversionary attack on Hanging Rock, to prevent its 1600 loyalists and regulars from coming to the aid of Rocky Mount. During his leader’s reconnaissance, Davie found three loyalist companies bivouacked around a house outside the camp. His 40 dragoons approached them as if they were loyalists, and when at the house, opened fire. Cutting off their escape route back to the main camp, Davie chopped them up, looted the house, stole 60 horses and all of their arms, powder, and equipment. Davie and his men got away before anyone in the main Hanging Rock camp reacted.

Sumter, frustrated with the failed attack on Rocky Mount, decided to capitalize on Davie’s success and attack Hanging Rock, especially after he learned they sent reinforcements to Rocky Mount. Himself reinforced by militia who heard about Davie’s successful raid, Sumter set off to surprise Hanging Rock. Based on Davie’s information, Sumter divided his 800 men into three mounted columns to strike the left, center, and right simultaneously. On the morning of 6 August 1780, about two miles from Hanging Rock, Sumter’s army split and the three columns set off on their own.

The British and Loyalists were ready. Their 1400 men were formed up outside their camps waiting. On the British left were the loyalist recruits from the South. In the center, the loyalist provincial militias mostly from the north were formed. Onn the right were the Loyalist and British regulars: detachments from the 63rd and 71st Regiments, part of Tarleton’s British Legion, and the loyalist regulars of the Prince of Wales American Volunteer Regiment. Made up of Connecticut loyalists, the PoWAVR was arguably one of the finest loyalist regiments in North America. In addition to the powerful positions, the British had pickets out further than they had the week before.

In trying to avoid the pickets, all three American columns attacked the North Carolinian loyalists on the left, who were promptly overrun and destroyed. Unengaged on the right, the Prince of Wales Regiment brought the Americans under a wicked crossfire when the Americans advanced to engage the center. However, American marksmen dismounted, and quickly killed almost all of its officers, except for the commander, Major John Carden. Nearly leaderless, the rank and file of the PoWAVR withdrew into the British right. The British right was not engaged and formed a square to protect itself from the rampaging horsemen that seemed to be everywhere. In the confusion they couldn’t tell that many of Sumter’s men stopped fighting and began looting the British camp.

Command paralysis wracked the British square. Carden was the senior officer in the square but didn’t take charge. In fact he lost his nerve, and resigned his commission on the spot. Furthermore, the square was a great target for Sumter’s sharpshooters. While the British and loyalist officers dithered in the center, many of their men fell with alarming regularity, particularly those manning the two three pound cannon. Several attacks by American dragoons on the square were beaten back, and the sharpshooters and militia firing from the trees were deemed much more effective. A pulse charge led by a British Legion captain gave some reprieve, but the British and Loyalists were stuck in the open field, unable to obtain the will to move. Only a lack of water among the Americans on the stifling hot day, and their limited ammunition, prevented the garrison’s complete destruction.

While the British and Loyalists remained in the square, immobilized by command issues and American sharpshooters, the rest of Sumter’s men looted the camp and set it afire. Some of the American militia found the rum ration and got roaringly drunk in the three hours it took to the strip the camps’ buildings bare. In that time, Sumter heard that loyalist dragoons from Rocky Mount were enroute to reinforce Hanging Rock. Laden with loot and supplies, low on ammunition, and more than a few men drunk and unwilling or unable to fight, with more British on the way, Sumter decided to get away while he could. He chose not to continue fighting and his men casually withdrew from the battlefield in full view of the loyalists in the square.

Sumter had about 50 casualties in the Battle of Hanging Rock. Most of the American casualties were in Davies’ dragoons, who were the first to engage the British left, and took the brunt of the Prince of Wales Regiment’s counterattack. Also, Davies dragoons were some of the only Americans to actually attack the square. Davies blamed Sumter for the poor coordination, and the poor discipline among the militia that had looted and drank rather than fight. Davies never forgave Sumter and vowed never to work for him again.

The Battle of Hanging Rock saw about 330 British and loyalists dead, wounded, and captured. Most of the surviving Carolinian and Georgian loyalist militia deserted. The Prince of Wales Regiment was all but wiped out.

When Lord Cornwallis heard of the Battle of Hanging Rock he was furious and then downtrodden. He said later that no battle in the American Revolution was worse for British morale than Hanging Rock, with the exception of Bunker Hill. The British tried to spin the battle as a tactical victory since they still held the field, but no amount of spin could hide the charred and looted camp nor the gross difference in casualties. The British permanently withdrew from the camp at Hanging Rock, which was the largest and most northerly loyalist outpost in South Carolina. It was supposed to be one of the staging points for the campaign against the fiercely patriotic overmountain men.

The Battle of Hanging Rock further emboldened the Americans in the South. It was also the first military action for one of William Davies’ young messengers, 13 year old Andrew Jackson.

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