The war for the Carolina backcountry intensified after the successful capture of Thicketty Fort, as patriot commanders raided Major Patrick Ferguson’s loyalist outposts. Ferguson, with a smattering of British regulars and provincial loyalists from up North, was desperately trying to recruit and train Carolinian and Georgian loyalist militia to defeat the overmountain men gathering in large numbers over the Blue Ridge. An American army led by Horatio Gates had just entered South Carolina and threatened Camden, an important depot town and loyalist mustering center, one of the few that was far too large for patriot partisans to attack. After the victory at Hanging Rock, Patriot Colonel Thomas Sumter’s next targets were the vulnerable fords and ferries on the Wateree River. Sumter wanted to strike them before the inevitable clash between Gates and Cornwallis. Sumter dispatched Col Thomas Taylor to scout one of Camden’s satellite training camps, Carey’s Fort, which also guarded the ferry over the Wateree River about a mile south of Camden behind Cornwallis’ main body.
On the morning of 15 August 1780, Taylor with about two hundred cavalry and militia, found the small British garrison of Carey’s Fort under its namesake, prominent local Loyalist Lt-Col James Carey, fast asleep. Seizing the moment, Taylor’s men quickly stormed the fort, and took the entire 37 man garrison prisoner without firing a shot. Taylor captured about thirty wagons full of supplies, which were supposed to be ferried across the river and sent to Camden that morning. Cornwallis’ army, across the river a mile away, had no idea that anything was amiss. After a quick interrogation, Taylor learned that a supply convoy from another large Loyalist outpost at Ninety Six was also scheduled to arrive that day.
Dressed the same as the loyalists they captured, Taylor’s men posed as the garrison, even waving to curious loyalists on the other side of the river who were sent to find out why the wagons had not crossed yet. Later that morning, the convoy from Ninety Six arrived. The convoy’s thirty wagons were escorted by 70 Highlanders of the British 71st Regiment. By the time the Highlanders figured out the ruse, they were in no position to fight, and were all captured. Upon learning the news of Carey Fort’s capture, Sumter brought his whole command down from his own raid to reinforce Taylor.
The loss of Carey’s Fort, and more importantly, the ferry over the Wateree River, effectively severed Cornwallis’ lines of communication from Camden to Ninety Six and Charleston. And there was nothing the British could do about it: The fort and ferry boats were secure on the west side of the fast and deep Wateree River, and the British were on the east side, impotent and helpless as the Americans taunted them. Furthermore, if the much ballyhooed Gates, with his “Grand Army” defeated Cornwallis in battle north of Camden, Cornwallis would be forced to retreat away from Charleston into the wilderness and swamps of north east South Carolina. The defeated remnants of Cornwallis’ army would then be at the mercy of American partisans. With the fall of Carey’s Fort, the war in the South, and possibly the entire American Revolution, could be won by the Patriots in the next few days.
Gates just had to defeat Cornwallis at Camden; and the Victor of Saratoga outnumbered Cornwallis nearly two to one.