Other raids departed about the same time Sumter and Taylor struck the fords and ferries across the Wateree. One such was Colonel Isaac Shelby’s raid on the Loyalist outpost at Musgrove’s Mill near a ford on the Enoree River. Musgrove’s Mill contained large stores of the area’s grain supply. On 18 August 1780, at the head of about 300 Georgian, and North and South Carolinian partisans, Shelby, the victor at Thicketty Fort, planned to surprise the loyalist militia garrison there, and seize the grain and any other supplies. Shelby was blissfully ignorant of the two recent American defeats at Camden and Fishing Creek.
The element of surprise was lost when Shelby’s men skirmished with a loyalist patrol just as they were approaching Musgrove’s Mill. It was fortunate that they did. The firing from the skirmish alerted a nearby farmer who informed Shelby that the garrison at Musgrove’s Mill was reinforced with several hundred more Loyalist militia and even some British regulars. The reinforcements were on their way to join Major Patrick Ferguson’s future expedition. Shelby was outnumbered more than two to one with no element of surprise. Furthermore, his horses were exhausted, so there was no quick escape.
Shelby decided to force the garrison into attacking him. He withdrew to a nearby hill and threw up make shift breastworks. Shelby then sent Captain Shadrach Inman with 20 Overmountain men down to the ford. When Inman arrived, he engaged the Loyalists on the far bank, and then his men feigned confusion and fell back “in disarray.” The entire Loyalist garrison of Musgrove’s Mill under Lt. Col. Alexander Innis chased after them.
Innis’ regulars weren’t British regulars, but red coated New York and New Jersey provincial regulars. Innis pursued Inman all the way back to Shelby’s defensive position, but Innis’ men didn’t fall for the ambush. However, when they spotted the breastworks, most of the Loyalists ineffectually fired on them. Shelby’s men held their fire. Innis was committed; the momentum of Loyalist advance carried them up the hill. They didn’t, or couldn’t, stop to reload.
Shelby’s North Carolinians, Elijah Clarke’s Georgians, and James William’s South Carolinians unleashed a devastating point blank volley into the advancing Loyalists. Nonetheless, in the brawl that followed, the provincial regulars almost overwhelmed the Patriot right with fixed bayonets. Just as the Americans were on the point of withdrawing, Innis was struck and fell from his horse, which caused the assault to stall. Sensing the moment was right, Inman and his Overmountain men charged into the provincials’ flank. After their feigned retreat, Inman’s men formed Shelby’s reserve, and rested. Screaming Indian war cries and using their tomahawks to devastating effect, the charge of the Overmountain men threw the provincial lines into chaos, and the already bloodied Loyalist militia began to waver. Shelby immediately seized the initiative and ordered his whole command to attack. The charge broke the Loyalist militia, which streamed back to the ford. The regulars surrendered, though some fled. Shelby inflicted nearly 230 killed, wounded, and captured on the Loyalists for just four killed and 16 wounded Patriots.
Shelby couldn’t rest on his laurels long. Soon after the battle ended, he was informed of the losses at Camden and Fishing Creek. Though disconcerting, the more immediate problem was Ferguson was not far off and was on his way to Musgrove Mills. On captured horses, Shelby and his men fled over the mountains into the Watauga Association, where they were temporarily safe from Ferguson. The Watauga Association was a semi-autonomous region of Overmountain Men settlements who had banded together to petition incorporation into North Carolina. (The Watauga Association would be integral to the future defunct State of Franklin, and eventually form the far eastern part of Tennessee.) Ferguson arrived at Musgrove’s Mill 30 minutes after Shelby departed.
The Battle of Musgrove Mills was one of the only battles in the American Revolution where militia defeated regulars, albeit provincial instead British regulars, but regulars nonetheless, in a straight up battle. More importantly, the news of the American victory was received after the losses at Fishing Creek and Camden, and did not get lost in the mix. The victory at Musgrove’s Mill softened the devastating blows that were the previous days’ defeats, and gave hope to the population that there were Patriots still fighting and winning against the British in the South. The American cause was not lost at Camden.