The Battle of Blackstocks

After the failure to capture Colonel Francis Marion in Ox Swamp the week before, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his Loyalists of the British Legion, reinforced by the 1st battalion of the 71st Regiment of Foot (Fraser’s Highlanders), headed into the South Carolina backcountry to find and defeat Brigadier General Thomas Sumter. Sumter’s large force of Patriots threatened the loyalist stronghold at Ninety Six. Sumter’s men had recently defeated Major James Wemyss and his 63rd Regiment of British regulars at the Battle of Fishdam Ford, and Tarleton mounted them and incorporated the remnants into his British Legion to ride with the dragoons. Tarleton attempted to surprise Sumter, who was on his way to Ninety Six, and got within a day’s march undetected. However a deserter from the 63rd, who had probably never ridden a horse before, informed Sumter of the imminent danger about midnight on 20 November 1780.

In the predawn hours, Sumter moved to Blackstock’s Plantation on the Tyger River. The plantation’s buildings were on a sharp hill above a pasture over which any attack must come. Sumter placed his barely trained militia, most of whom had just recently joined him, among the buildings and fences. Blackstock was a strong position that gave Sumter’s raw militia confidence against the coming attack by the Legion’s dragoons, the Highlanders of the 71st, and the 63rd’s regulars.

About 4 pm, Tarleton was informed that Sumter was at Blackstock’s Farm, and immediately set off with all of his mounted troops to surprise Sumter. It probably would have worked because even though Sumter’s men were assigned positions that morning, by late afternoon the untrained militia were scattered about the farm buildings, many not within easy reach of their positions. Sumter’s officers would have had a hard time reorganizing the men if 350 British horsemen charged down the lane while they were lounging about. Fortunately, a small patrol spotted Tarleton’s imminent approach and fired a shot which warned Sumter’s main position. When Tarleton arrived at the edge of the pasture, he saw that surprise was lost and dismounted the regulars.

Sumter was concerned that Tarleton was waiting for artillery, which would play havoc with his militia, so he decided to force the battle. He sent forward a strong skirmish line of Georgia riflemen and South Carolina volunteers to harass Tarleton as he formed, with orders to gradually withdraw in the face of any advance. The 63rd took up Sumter’s challenge and pushed the riflemen and volunteers back at bayonet point. As the dragoons of the British Legion watched the regulars advance as if they were at a show, 100 South Carolina mounted riflemen under Col. Edward Lacey snuck on the 63rd rapt audience and launched a volley from the woods into their flank. Though the Legion chased them away, they took casualties they could ill afford. About that same time, the 63rd’s sweep of the skirmishers approached too closely to the hill and Carolina riflemen checked their advance with witheringly accurate fire from the barn. The sharpshooters killed or wounded most of the 63rd’s remaining officers, including its commander Major John Money. Despite the fire, Tarleton rode in to save Money and barely escaped with Money’s body draped over his saddle. With his friend dying, Tarleton desperately charged Sumter’s position with every mounted man remaining under his command in a last attempt to salvage the battle. Tarleton’s charge barely made it up the lane before he was attacked by militiamen from the reverse slope screaming Indian war whoops. With his horse shot out from under him, Tarleton withdrew from the battlefield when his men could no longer charge because the lane was blocked by dead and dying men and horses felled by the deadly fire from the top of the hill. Tarleton fell back about two miles to reorganize and attack again in the morning with his Highlanders and Legion light infantry.

The Battle of Blackstocks was a great patriot victory against one of the most dreaded loyalist commanders of the American Revolution. However, Sumter was one of the very few casualties the Americans suffered. Sumter was shot in the chest with five balls of buckshot, and a sixth lodged next to his spine. Sumter turned command over to Georgia militia Col. John Twiggs. That night after policing the battlefield of anything useful the British left behind, Twiggs, in the fashion of Washington, kept the campfires burning and slipped across the Tyger River. When Tarleton returned in the morning, he found the farm abandoned. Unfortunately for the Patriots, what Tarleton couldn’t do on the 20th, Twiggs did on the 21st. Without Sumter, the militia disbanded, just as it did after the victory at King’s Mountain. Sumter spent the winter recovering from his wounds. Any attempt to capture Ninety Six would have to wait until spring.

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