After the Loyalist defeat at King’s Mountain in October of 1780, Lord Cornwallis attempted to salvage the situation in South Carolina by quickly defeating its two most prominent militia leaders, Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter. He dispatched his most trusted subordinate Banastre Tarleton to kill or capture Marion and Sumter. Tarleton could only go after one at a time and chose Marion. Marion operated in a much smaller area, and routed some Loyalists at Tearcoat Swamp at the end of October. This left Major James Wemyss and his 63rd Regiment of British regulars to parry Sumter in the backcountry. Wemyss, with loyalist militia, his regulars, and some of the dragoons of the British Legion, was tasked with guarding the mills along the Broad River upon which Cornwallis relied upon to feed his army.
Major James Wemyss was the second most hated man in South Carolina in 1780. Though Tarleton is remembered for his ruthlessness and brutality in the Southern Theater of the American Revolution, Wemyss was no less so. In September of 1780, when Cornwallis and Tarelton were in Charlotte and Ferguson was unsuccessfully attempting to secure the Carolina back country, Wemyss was securing Cornwallis’ lines of communication back to Charleston on the coast. Wemyss did so by torching a 75 mile long by 15 mile wide swath along the Peedee, He fired 80 houses and plantations, including a church, imprisoned the families of patriot soldiers and militiamen, threatened the children of known patriot commanders, and he “gifted” captured slaves to Loyalists. In early November 1780, a patrol reported Sumter’s camp at Fishdam Ford on the Broad River, named for a prehistoric Indian fish weir. On the 8th Wemyss moved out to attack. About midnight on the 9th Wemyss arrived outside Fishdam Ford, and his scouts reported the Patriots’ fires high and bedded down for the night. Wemyss decided to immediately attack despite Cornwallis specifically ordering him not to conduct operations at night.
Wemyss would have been completely surprised had newly promoted Brigadier General Thomas Sumter’s subordinates listened to him. Sumter was convinced the British and Loyalists would not conduct a night attack, probably because he knew of Cornwallis’ order forbidding it. Colonels Thomas Taylor and Richard Winn weren’t so sure. While Sumter lounged in his tent that evening and eventually turned in for the night, Taylor and Winn pushed out extra pickets, rehearsed alerts where their men moved from their bed rolls to formation, and even had their men sleep next to their loaded muskets and rifles. Taylor specifically built up his campfires, then deliberately had his men sleep away from them in the woods. The men grumbled, but the preparations paid off.
When the first picket fired at the approaching British and Loyalists, the only Patriot who acted surprised was Sumter. Half-dressed and barely awake, Sumter took off for the riverbank, assuming he had been surprised and defeated just as he had at Fishing Creek in August, where only his quick escape and nimbleness in the saddle prevented his capture. Sumter’s men, however, were prepared.
Winn and Taylor’s men formed up along a fence at the edge of the wood line just outside of the firelight. Upon receiving fire from the pickets, Wemyss immediately charged with his dragoons and ordered the infantry to follow up as fast as they could. As soon as the horsemen entered the circle of firelight, the Patriots unleashed a devastating volley which brought down at least twenty dragoons, including Wemyss. Command of the British and Loyalists fell to a lieutenant in the 63rd who ordered a bayonet assault with the remaining dismounted dragoons and the regular infantry. But they too met the same fate as the previous charge as soon as they entered the fire light. (As anyone who has been to CTC can tell you: never follow the blinking yellow lights.) Nevertheless, the 63rd decided to make a fight of it. With the bayonet assault stymied by the fence, the 63rd reformed and traded volleys with the Patriots in the woods. The British seemed to have the upper hand until the patriot companies from Col. Edward Lacey’s outlying camp converged on the fire fight and began firing into the flank of British formation. The Battle of Fishdam Ford lasted only twenty minutes before the British and Loyalists broke.
The Patriots, satisfied in a job well done, went back to sleep.
About two hours after sun rise, Sumter returned to find the captured British and loyalist wounded around the camp fires, guarded only by one of his sergeants major. Sumter paroled the prisoners, including Wemyss, and told them to spread the tale of the British defeat. Despite fleeing at first contact and not participating in the Battle of Fishdam Ford in any capacity whatsoever, Sumter declared he had won a great victory over not just Loyalists, but British regulars. Sumter’s command swelled to over a thousand once the news of the victory spread through the countryside.
Though Sumter had a slightly toxic and abrasive leadership style, his subordinates for the most part didn’t seem to mind, or didn’t mind enough to not fight for him. Some of his subordinate regimental commanders came and went when they wanted, but Sumter stalwarts such as Taylor and Winn stayed with him throughout the war. They managed and mitigated Sumter’s peculiar leadership style, and recognized that despite his flaws, Sumter’s charisma and energy were necessary to continue the fight for South Carolina. Lacey, Taylor, and Winn fully credited Sumter with the victory at Fishdam Ford, even though the victory was through their and their men’s efforts alone.
Cornwallis was furious with Wemyss’ loss at Fishdam Ford. First Ferguson and now Wemyss – Cornwallis was running out of trusted and competent subordinates. He recalled Banastre Tarleton from his hunt for Francis Marion in the swamps along the Santee River to defeat Sumter. Cornwallis feared Sumter would seize Ninety Six, one of the few remaining loyalist strongholds in the south. Cornwallis would never be able to subdue the South without Ninety Six. Finally, the Battle of Fishdam Ford and the unsuccessful attempts to capture Marion forced Cornwallis to withdraw his main army from North Carolina back into South Carolina to secure enough supplies to feed his men through the winter. The sodden British camp at Winnsborough during the winter of 1780 has been compared in misery to Washington’s camp at Valley Forge three years earlier in 1777.