In December 1780, the Southern Department’s new commander, Major General Nathaniel Greene, split the remains of the Continental Army in the Carolinas with the recently promoted Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. Though unconventional, splitting the army allowed Greene the most foraging, resupply, and recruiting area to rebuild the remnant of the Continental Army he inherited after its destruction at Camden in August. While rebuilding his army in his new basecamp at Cheraw South Carolina, Greene would keep an eye on Cornwallis at Winnsboro, and operate against the British and Loyalists on the east side of the Broad River. Morgan would operate on the west side of the Broad River, resupply and rebuild his force with what little that remained of the militia that won the Battle of King’s Mountain, and to “give protection . . . and spirit up the people” in the midst of the vicious Patriot and Loyalist civil war being waged in the Carolinas and Georgia.
From his camp at Grindal Shoals on the Pacelot River, Morgan received word that a raiding party of 250 Georgian loyalists was about 20 miles away at Fair Forest destroying Patriot settlements and farms between the Loyalist stronghold at Ninety-Six and Winnsboro. On 27 December 1780, Morgan dispatched Lieutenant Colonel William Washington (a distant cousin of George Washington) and 85 Continental Dragoons with 200 Carolina and Georgia mounted militia to attack the Loyalists. The Loyalists quickly learned of the Washington’s mission and fled back towards Ninety-Six. Washington caught up to the Loyalists at Hammond’s Old Store on the Bush River on 30 December after a hard 40 mile ride.
Washington’s mounted force crested a hill and unexpectedly saw the Loyalists formed up on the top of the hill opposite them. The dragoons wasted no time and “gave a shout, drew swords, and charged like mad” across the saddle between the hills. The militia followed. The Loyalists immediately broke, and mounted Continentals and Patriots cut them down. Morgan later reported 100 Loyalists killed, fifty wounded, and forty captured without a single Patriot casualty, making the “Battle” of Hammond’s Store one of the costliest Loyalist defeats in the South to date in the war.
Most of the Loyalists who survived the Patriot onslaught fled towards “William’s Fort”, a Loyalist stockade about seven miles to the south, just outside Ninety-Six. Washington sent Colonel Joseph Hayes’ Little River Regiment of Militia with ten dragoons under Cornet James Simon to pursue and take the fort. When Simon arrived at William’s Fort, he gave the Loyalist commander, Brigadier General Robert Cunningham thirty minutes to surrender before he attacked. Cunningham was a popular and charismatic loyalist leader and was recently promoted to brigadier general by Cornwallis. Cunningham was so popular and prominent a local leader that in 1778 he was elected to South Carolina’s pro-Patriot Provincial Congress. Cornwallis entrusted to him command of all Loyalists in the region around Ninety-Six and expected him to clear the Carolina backcountry after Ferguson’s failure at King’s Mountain. But when confronted by the fiery young Continental officer, possibly with fresh tales of massacre at Hammond’s Store still echoing in his ears (there were a disproportionate number of dead to wounded and captured at the earlier battle), Cunningham abandoned William’s Fort after most of his men deserted. Hayes and Simon attacked when they recognized what was happening, and inflicted five more dead and thirty more wounded and captured on the Loyalists. The Patriots then gathered what stores they could, and not wishing to run afoul of any relief force from Ninety Six, returned to Washington at Hammond’s Store, and then back to Morgan at Grindal Shoals.
The Burning of William’s Fort and especially the Battle of Hammond’s Store shocked Cornwallis. Cornwallis’ first report was that Morgan had an army of 3000 that was marching on Ninety-Six to finally clear that thorn in the Patriots’ side, and Hammond’s Store was just the beginning. Cornwallis quickly found out that Morgan had less than 2000, but he could no longer ignore Morgan and concentrate on re-invading North Carolina. The Patriot capture of Ninety-Six, a post “of so much consequence” to the Loyalist cause, or even worse, Augusta, would unravel his campaign in the Southern Colonies and give Greene even more much needed time to rebuild at Cheraw.
On New Year’s Day, 1781, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton received a dispatch from Lord Cornwallis to move toward Ninety-Six and with his British Legion and 71st Regiment, defend against any attack by Morgan. The next day, Tarleton learned Washington withdrew and that Ninety-Six was in no immediate danger. The impetuous Tarleton decided to attack. Following Cornwallis’ intent, Tarleton proposed pushing Morgan towards King’s Mountain where he, and if they were lucky Greene, could be trapped and destroyed by the combined weight of Tarleton’s and Cornwallis’ commands.
Of course that plan didn’t come to fruition, but what did happen was the Patriot victory at Hammond’s Store set in motion a chain of events which led directly to the Battle of Cowpens two weeks later on 17 January 1781.