The American loss at Camden made Colonel Thomas Sumter’s partisans at Carey’s Fort the largest Patriot force in South Carolina. After his victory, Lord Cornwallis advanced to the old American camp at Rugeley’s Mills, which fortunately for Sumter took the British away from hi, for the time being. Nonetheless, when Sumter was informed of Gates’ defeat, he knew he was in danger of being isolated and destroyed. He couldn’t let the British and Loyalists get between him and the nearest rebel base at Charlotte, or from the overmountain men mustering camps across the Blue Ridge Mountains. On 17 August 1780, Sumter’s men departed Carey’s Fort laden with 250 prisoners, 300 head of cattle, a flock of sheep, and 70 much needed wagons filled with supplies.
Moving slowly up the west bank of the Wateree River, Sumter was not counting on Cornwallis wanting those wagons back so badly. (Legend has it one of them contained his dogs and papers.) Cornwallis dispatched most of his cavalry and loyalist commanders to chase down Sumter and specifically retrieve those wagons. In his characteristic aggressive manner, Lt Col Banastre Tarelton’s British Legion made a 30 mile mostly night road march from Rugeley’s Mills to Camden in an attempt to cut off Sumter. Finding Sumter gone, Tarleton planned to cross the Wateree north of Carey’s Fort at Rocky Mount. However, when he arrived, Sumter was camped on the east bank. With the ford guarded, Tarleton waited for the rest of his command to catch up.
Sumter knew about orders to Ferguson to cut him off, but was neither aware of any to Tarleton, the speed of Tarleton’s advance, nor the fact he was just across the river from Rocky Mount. Sumter pushed his convoy as fast as they could go, but they needed a rest. On 18 August, Sumter’s column marched just eight miles to a camp on Fishing Creek.
Tarleton wasn’t going to let Sumter escape. Most of his light infantry and supporting loyalist militia was still strung out on the road behind, but he decided to attack anyway. He had 100 dragoons and sixty light infantry which he doubled up on the dragoon’s horses for the approach march. He crossed at Rocky Mount after Sumter departed. With just 160 men, Tarleton attacked Sumter’s nearly 800 strong camp on Fishing Creek on the afternoon of 18 August 1780.
The surprise was complete. Most of Sumter’s men were swimming in the Catawba River (The Catawba River turns into the Wateree River as it flows south) or were drinking around campfires after a tasty supper courtesy of the captured British provisions. Most of the muskets were stacked neatly near the river, and Tarleton ordered a charge to seize the muskets before the Americans could organize.
The “Battle” of Fishing Creek wasn’t a battle at all. The Americans had no chance to organize a defense. 150 Americans were immediately cut down by dragoon sabers, and over 300 surrendered. Sumter’s force was scattered. A dozing and half-dressed Sumter had just enough time to swing into the saddle and escape. The British prisoners were released and everything Taylor captured at Carey’s Fort was recovered. Taylor himself was captured, but he was so muddy and dirty the British didn’t recognize him. He and another Patriot officer cunningly escaped two days later.
Coming so close on the heels of the British victory of Camden, the news of Tarleton’s victory at Fishing Creek was lost in the mix. Nonetheless, the Americans partisans in the South suffered a major defeat, which would be tough to recover from.