The American defeats at Camden and Fishing Creek convinced Lord Cornwallis that the time was right to mass Major Patrick Ferguson’s Loyalists on the Overmountain Men west of the Blue Ridge, while he invaded North Carolina to destroy the remnants of the American southern army reorganizing at Hillsboro. Monitoring Cornwallis’ advance were about 80 dragoons and about 100 riflemen under Colonel William Richardson Davie.
After the Battle of Hanging Rock in July, Davie was disillusioned with Thomas Sumter and went to North Carolina where he thought his talents would be appreciated. In early September, the North Carolina General Assembly appointed him to commandant of all cavalry in the Western District, just in time for Cornwallis advance on Charlotte. Cornwalis’ army sacked and burned the American leaning countryside his army traversed through, with the 71st Regiment, Fraser’s Highlanders, particularly brutal. One of Davie’s subordinates, Captain James Wauchope (pronounced “Wahab”) family plantation was on the border between North and South Carolina. About 300 Loyalists were encamped on the plantation which was overlooked by the 71st’ camp about ½ mile away as part of Cornwallis’ rear guard. Davie, though desiring to teach the highlanders a lesson, decided to attack the loyalist camp when it was discovered a small 60 man detachment of Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion were there. Tarleton was sick with yellow fever and not in camp but his second, Major George Hanger was.
Guided by Wauchope around Cornwallis’ main body, Davie surrounded the loyalists at Wauchope Planation on the morning of 20 September 1780. His riflemen snuck through a cornfield to the back of the mansion and occupied it through the backdoor during a change in the guard. As the new guard approached, the patriots then fired on the surprised loyalists camped in front of the mansion. The loyalists were caught between deadly accurate rifle fire from the mansion, as they tried to form, and Davie with his dragoons charging down the manor’s entrance lane behind them. Hanger and the loyalists scattered with barely firing a shot. At the cost of one wounded, Davie inflicted 20 killed and twice as many wounded on the loyalists, most of whom never returned after the attack.
As the 71st beat to formation, Davie gathered up one hundred horses, 120 muskets, and all the powder his men could carry, and escaped. Davie’s men, now all mounted, force marched sixty miles that day back to Charlotte with the supplies. Charlotte was Cornwallis’ obvious next stop on the way to Hillsboro, and Davie was determined to make Cornwallis pay in blood before he set it to the torch.
Horatio Gates’ loss at Camden and Thomas Sumter’s defeat at Fishing Creek were body blows to the Patriot cause in the South in the late summer of 1780. Despite his victory at Musgrove’s Mill, Isaac Shelby was run out of South Carolina and sought refuge with the Overmountain Men beyond the Blue Ridge. To capitalize on the British momentum, Major Patrick Ferguson sought to mass his Loyalist militia, then training in disparate camps across Georgia and the Carolinas, and strike the Overmountain mustering camps ending their threat once and for all.
But Sumter, Shelby and Gates weren’t the last organized Patriots in the South. Southern partisans under Lt Col Francis Marion were dispatched by Gates just prior the Battle of Camden to seize and destroy bridges and ferries to prevent Cornwallis’ escape. Gates’ catastrophic loss left Marion and his 70 odd horsemen deep in the swampy wilderness northeast of the Santee River.
The diminutive Marion (he was only 5 ft tall) was one of America’s most talented and aggressive partisan leaders in the South during the American Revolution. In the beginning of September 1780, Marion’s men rescued 250 Maryland and Delaware Continentals taken prisoner at Camden. Believing the war lost most declined to join Marion, and went north. The rescue though got back to the loyalists then marching to join Ferguson.
On 4 September, Marion’s advanced guard met and charged a patrol of Loyalists on a road along the Little Pee Dee River. One of the captured Loyalists told Marion that Major Micajah Gainey’s force of 400 militia was camped three miles down the road. They were camped at a small loyalist settlement for the night.
Despite the overwhelming odds, Marion decided to attack. But the loyalist lied: Gainey’ men men weren’t camped, but on the march. Furthermore, Gainey was with the men the patriots just attacked, who were not a patrol, but the advanced guard; the advanced guard of a force dispatched specifically the recapture the prisoners and defeat Marion. Gainey had escaped the attack and warned his main body. When Marion charged down the road hoping to catch the Loyalists at breakfast, he ran straight into Gainey’s men in battle line blocking the road. Not wishing to push an attack against a far superior adversary prepared for him, Marion and his men fled back up the road.
Gainey could not pursue because he had few horses remaining after the loss of his advanced guard, but he took up the chase at the double. However, Marion did not flee far. He set up an ambush at Blue Savannah, a few miles down road. The open sandy fields punctuated by scrub pines and small lakes (made by meteor strikes in the distant past. These sandy depressions are filled with water and are known locally as “Savannahs”) meant little cover for the loyalists on the road. Gainey’s men, led by Captain Barefield, marched right into the ambush. Marion’s men let out a devastating volley then charged the confused loyalist mass. Barefield’s men got off one volley before they broke and ran into the swamp.
For just three men wounded, Marion inflicted 30 killed and twice as many wounded on a enemy almost five times his force’s size. The Battle of Blue Savannah was Francis Marion’s first battle, and first victory of many, in the American Revolution against the British and Loyalists in the South. Effectively alone, Marion carried the Patriot cause in South Carolina while other American forces reorganized or continued to muster. Dubbed the “Swamp Fox” by Banastre Tarelton, Marion roused the entire Pee Dee and Santee river basins against the British. More immediately, Marion prevented many loyalist bands from eastern South Carolina from joining Ferguson’s expedition against the Overmountain men.
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.
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.
On 25 July 1780, Major General Horatio Gates arrived at Southern Department’s main camp at Deep River, thirty miles south of Hillsboro, North Carolina, to take command of the Continental Army assembled to drive Lord Cornwallis out of South Carolina, recapture Charleston, and put down any Loyalist counterrevolutionaries. “Granny” Gates, as his men called him, was the “Victor of Saratoga” and it was thought he could do the same to Cornwallis as he did to Burgoyne.
Unfortunately, Gate’s reputation was almost exclusively the result of the actions of his subordinates, John Stark, Enoch Poor, Daniel Morgan, and Benedict Arnold mostly, which he, and his sycophants, took credit for. Left to his own devices, Gates would have almost certainly lost at Saratoga. The argument can be made that he stayed out of his subordinates’ way, but that’d be wrong: the battle was won for the most part because they ignored his orders, or disobeyed them outright. In the Southern Department, Gates had few subordinates of the caliber he had in New York, mostly because he refused their services. The exception, of course, was Major-General Baron Johann De Kalb.
De Kalb was a German officer from Franconia, who had served in the French Army, and traveled to America before the revolution. He and his protégé, Marquis de Lafayette, were offered commissions in the Continental Army, and De Kalb was instrumental training the Continental Army at Valley Forge, even though von Steuben got most of the credit. As commander of the Maryland and Delaware Line, some of the best troops in the Continental Army, whom he marched south with, the fiery De Kalb was furious when he learned Gates was given command of the Southern Department instead of him.
As soon as Gates arrived, he ordered DeKalb to march directly on Camden, a supply depot and loyalist mustering center held by Lord Rawdon in command of 1000 troops: Carolina loyalists, volunteers from Ireland, and Banastre Tarleton’s infamous British Legion. Against this force, Gates had DeKalb’s Continental Line and the dragoons of Armand’s Legion. On the way he expected to pick up North and South Carolina and Virginia militia. Gates had no plans to attack Camden, and only wanted to occupy a defensive position north of the town, which would force Rawdon to either evacuate Camden, or attack Gates’ superior force.
The road to Camden was through barren country and mosquito infested swamps which took a toll on the army, which was already low on food and wracked by dysentery. Taking the direct route to Camden was against the advice of all of his officers who knew the country. An alternate route to the west was recommended. It would have taken longer, but it would have been through Patriot friendly territory where they could have requisitioned food. Gates refused. However, by the time Gates reached Rugeley’s Mill, about 15 miles north of Camden, Gates’ “Grand Army” swelled by the addition of 2100 North Carolina militia, 700 Virginia militia, and several hundred more South Carolina militia and dragoons. With almost 5000 troops, he was sure to force the British out of Camden.
Gates’ had no faith in his militia, and still had no intention of attacking despite the odds. At Rugely’s Mill on the morning of 15 August, he found out Cornwallis had reinforced Rawdon with about 1000 additional troops. Cornwallis heard of Gates arrival on 9 August from loyalists along Gates’ route of march. Cornwallis immediately departed Charleston with its garrison, and arrived at Camden on the 13th bringing the British army strength up to 2100. Despite the increase, Gates felt little need to change his plans. Gates sent most of the South Carolina militia away, including a band led Francis Marion, to continuing raiding loyalist outposts, and capture and burn all the boats, bridges, and ferries on the Santee River, to prevent Cornwallis’ escape after the inevitable British defeat. Arrogantly, Gates refused the services of William Washington’s dragoons, who promptly went on to raid independently. Gates assumed he had more than enough troops to defeat Cornwallis.
With battle imminent, Gates wanted to fortify his sick, tired, and weary men with a bit of rum. However he didn’t have any, so he substituted molasses. The molasses just made the dysentery worse, and gave everyone else a severe case of diarrhea. Nonetheless, at 10 pm on the 15th, Gates ordered a night march to cover the 10 last miles, and planned on being in the defensive positions above Camden by dawn.
Unfortunately for Gates, Cornwallis also ordered a night march at 10 pm on the 15th. He planned a surprise dawn assault on the American army which he thought was still at Rugeley’s Mill. The two armies collided in the night about 2:30am north of Camden at Parker’s Old Field near Saunder’s Creek.
The dragoons and light infantry of Armand’s Legion and the British Legion clashed in the darkness, with Armand getting the better of Tarleton after receiving the British charge with pistol fire and counter charging. However, the Virginia militia sent to support Armand had never been in a battle, and, in a harbinger of things to come, withdrew in panic at the first shot. The Virginians sent Armand’s lines into chaos, and only a rear guard action by Armand’s light infantry, led by Lt Col Charles Porterfield, prevented Tarleton from scattering the American vanguard. Both sides withdrew as neither Cornwallis nor Gates wanted to fight a night battle.
At dawn, both armies were lined up against each other, Gates’ 4000 and Cornwallis’ 2100. Both commanders followed the standard 18th century tactic of placing their best units on the right. For the Americans it was the Delaware and Maryland Line under de Kalb, for the British it was the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the veteran 33rd Regiment of Foot. Opposite de Kalb was Rawdon in command of the Irish Volunteers and the loyalist militia, and across the field from the Welsh and the 33rd was the unreliable Virginia militia. The same who fled the night before. Gates ordered the entire American line to attack, while Cornwallis ordered just his veteran right to attack.
Gates should have guessed Cornwallis would have placed his best units on the right and not placed his least reliable troops opposite them, but he didn’t. Even worse he ordered the Virginians to attack. Gates hoped to take advantage of the British transitioning from column to line, but all he did was made the militia difficult to control by their officers. At the first sight of a British bayonet, the Virginians broke and ran. They didn’t engage or even get close to the British line. The Virginians didn’t even fire their weapons. They dropped their weapons a fled for their lives. Only three Virginians were even wounded in the battle. The rest ran. They took most of the North Carolina militia in the center of the American line with them. Tarleton and the British Legion gave chase. As the Virginians streamed past, Gates took off. Followed closely by his staff, General Horatio Gates, the Victor of Saratoga, didn’t stop running until he reached Charlotte, North Carolina, sixty miles away.
De Kalb had barely engaged Rawdon to his front before he was out flanked by the British. He took control of the battle and assaulted Rawdon, nearly breaking his lines. But in the process, his left was exposed as the British overwhelmed the only North Carolinian brigade not to run away. He ordered the American reserve, the 1st Maryland Brigade, to support his left, but they couldn’t reach it. The American line was split. Tarleton returned to the field, and charged into the rear of the Continentals which broke them. Several hundred escaped through the swamp to the west where the horsemen couldn’t follow.
In an attempt to rally his men, de Kalb was unhorsed and captured. He had ten wounds – seven from bayonet and three more from musket balls. Baron Johann de Kalb died two days later despite the best efforts of Cornwallis and his personal surgeon. Tarleton pursued the routed American for over 22 miles, ensuring “rout and slaughter ensued in every quarter.”
The Battle of Camden lasted just under an hour and the Americans suffered over 2000 casualties, the British a little over 300. 700 Continentals reformed in Hillsboro a few days later, but the equipment losses were devastating and the American army in the South would lack the essential tools of warfighting for months. Continental Congress called for an inquiry into Gates’ actions at Camden, but his political connections ensured it went nowhere. Nevertheless, Gates never had a command again. Subsequently, the Southern Department was given to Washington’s most trusted subordinate, Nathaniel Greene. But until he and Daniel Morgan could come south from New Jersey and take command, the defense of the American cause in the South fell to Patriot partisans and the overmountain men mustering over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The war for the Carolina backcountry intensified after the successful capture of Thicketty Fort, as patriot commanders raided Major Patrick Ferguson’s loyalist outposts. Ferguson, with a smattering of British regulars and provincial loyalists from up North, was desperately trying to recruit and train Carolinian and Georgian loyalist militia to defeat the overmountain men gathering in large numbers over the Blue Ridge. An American army led by Horatio Gates had just entered South Carolina and threatened Camden, an important depot town and loyalist mustering center, one of the few that was far too large for patriot partisans to attack. After the victory at Hanging Rock, Patriot Colonel Thomas Sumter’s next targets were the vulnerable fords and ferries on the Wateree River. Sumter wanted to strike them before the inevitable clash between Gates and Cornwallis. Sumter dispatched Col Thomas Taylor to scout one of Camden’s satellite training camps, Carey’s Fort, which also guarded the ferry over the Wateree River about a mile south of Camden behind Cornwallis’ main body.
On the morning of 15 August 1780, Taylor with about two hundred cavalry and militia, found the small British garrison of Carey’s Fort under its namesake, prominent local Loyalist Lt-Col James Carey, fast asleep. Seizing the moment, Taylor’s men quickly stormed the fort, and took the entire 37 man garrison prisoner without firing a shot. Taylor captured about thirty wagons full of supplies, which were supposed to be ferried across the river and sent to Camden that morning. Cornwallis’ army, across the river a mile away, had no idea that anything was amiss. After a quick interrogation, Taylor learned that a supply convoy from another large Loyalist outpost at Ninety Six was also scheduled to arrive that day.
Dressed the same as the loyalists they captured, Taylor’s men posed as the garrison, even waving to curious loyalists on the other side of the river who were sent to find out why the wagons had not crossed yet. Later that morning, the convoy from Ninety Six arrived. The convoy’s thirty wagons were escorted by 70 Highlanders of the British 71st Regiment. By the time the Highlanders figured out the ruse, they were in no position to fight, and were all captured. Upon learning the news of Carey Fort’s capture, Sumter brought his whole command down from his own raid to reinforce Taylor.
The loss of Carey’s Fort, and more importantly, the ferry over the Wateree River, effectively severed Cornwallis’ lines of communication from Camden to Ninety Six and Charleston. And there was nothing the British could do about it: The fort and ferry boats were secure on the west side of the fast and deep Wateree River, and the British were on the east side, impotent and helpless as the Americans taunted them. Furthermore, if the much ballyhooed Gates, with his “Grand Army” defeated Cornwallis in battle north of Camden, Cornwallis would be forced to retreat away from Charleston into the wilderness and swamps of north east South Carolina. The defeated remnants of Cornwallis’ army would then be at the mercy of American partisans. With the fall of Carey’s Fort, the war in the South, and possibly the entire American Revolution, could be won by the Patriots in the next few days.
Gates just had to defeat Cornwallis at Camden; and the Victor of Saratoga outnumbered Cornwallis nearly two to one.
Like Isaac Shelby’s assault on Thicketty Fort on 30 July 1780, Colonel Thomas Sumter sought to strike the British and Loyalist outpost on the Catawba River at Rocky Mount, South Carolina. Rocky Mount was a sub camp of the main British and Loyalist training camp at Hanging Rock about 15 miles to the east. Garrisoned by New York volunteers, Sumter thought the camp was ripe for the taking. Unfortunately a loyalist spy informed the garrison, and Sumter didn’t collect the men that Shelby did (They went with Shelby). Sumter’s 300 South Carolina militia and Catawba Indians did not surprise the 600 man garrison, though they did manage to set several buildings on fire, but a thunderstorm promptly put them out.
Much more success was had by Sumter’s subordinate, Major William Davie. With a company of dragoons and some smaller militia companies, Davie launched a diversionary attack on Hanging Rock, to prevent its 1600 loyalists and regulars from coming to the aid of Rocky Mount. During his leader’s reconnaissance, Davie found three loyalist companies bivouacked around a house outside the camp. His 40 dragoons approached them as if they were loyalists, and when at the house, opened fire. Cutting off their escape route back to the main camp, Davie chopped them up, looted the house, stole 60 horses and all of their arms, powder, and equipment. Davie and his men got away before anyone in the main Hanging Rock camp reacted.
Sumter, frustrated with the failed attack on Rocky Mount, decided to capitalize on Davie’s success and attack Hanging Rock, especially after he learned they sent reinforcements to Rocky Mount. Himself reinforced by militia who heard about Davie’s successful raid, Sumter set off to surprise Hanging Rock. Based on Davie’s information, Sumter divided his 800 men into three mounted columns to strike the left, center, and right simultaneously. On the morning of 6 August 1780, about two miles from Hanging Rock, Sumter’s army split and the three columns set off on their own.
The British and Loyalists were ready. Their 1400 men were formed up outside their camps waiting. On the British left were the loyalist recruits from the South. In the center, the loyalist provincial militias mostly from the north were formed. Onn the right were the Loyalist and British regulars: detachments from the 63rd and 71st Regiments, part of Tarleton’s British Legion, and the loyalist regulars of the Prince of Wales American Volunteer Regiment. Made up of Connecticut loyalists, the PoWAVR was arguably one of the finest loyalist regiments in North America. In addition to the powerful positions, the British had pickets out further than they had the week before.
In trying to avoid the pickets, all three American columns attacked the North Carolinian loyalists on the left, who were promptly overrun and destroyed. Unengaged on the right, the Prince of Wales Regiment brought the Americans under a wicked crossfire when the Americans advanced to engage the center. However, American marksmen dismounted, and quickly killed almost all of its officers, except for the commander, Major John Carden. Nearly leaderless, the rank and file of the PoWAVR withdrew into the British right. The British right was not engaged and formed a square to protect itself from the rampaging horsemen that seemed to be everywhere. In the confusion they couldn’t tell that many of Sumter’s men stopped fighting and began looting the British camp.
Command paralysis wracked the British square. Carden was the senior officer in the square but didn’t take charge. In fact he lost his nerve, and resigned his commission on the spot. Furthermore, the square was a great target for Sumter’s sharpshooters. While the British and loyalist officers dithered in the center, many of their men fell with alarming regularity, particularly those manning the two three pound cannon. Several attacks by American dragoons on the square were beaten back, and the sharpshooters and militia firing from the trees were deemed much more effective. A pulse charge led by a British Legion captain gave some reprieve, but the British and Loyalists were stuck in the open field, unable to obtain the will to move. Only a lack of water among the Americans on the stifling hot day, and their limited ammunition, prevented the garrison’s complete destruction.
While the British and Loyalists remained in the square, immobilized by command issues and American sharpshooters, the rest of Sumter’s men looted the camp and set it afire. Some of the American militia found the rum ration and got roaringly drunk in the three hours it took to the strip the camps’ buildings bare. In that time, Sumter heard that loyalist dragoons from Rocky Mount were enroute to reinforce Hanging Rock. Laden with loot and supplies, low on ammunition, and more than a few men drunk and unwilling or unable to fight, with more British on the way, Sumter decided to get away while he could. He chose not to continue fighting and his men casually withdrew from the battlefield in full view of the loyalists in the square.
Sumter had about 50 casualties in the Battle of Hanging Rock. Most of the American casualties were in Davies’ dragoons, who were the first to engage the British left, and took the brunt of the Prince of Wales Regiment’s counterattack. Also, Davies dragoons were some of the only Americans to actually attack the square. Davies blamed Sumter for the poor coordination, and the poor discipline among the militia that had looted and drank rather than fight. Davies never forgave Sumter and vowed never to work for him again.
The Battle of Hanging Rock saw about 330 British and loyalists dead, wounded, and captured. Most of the surviving Carolinian and Georgian loyalist militia deserted. The Prince of Wales Regiment was all but wiped out.
When Lord Cornwallis heard of the Battle of Hanging Rock he was furious and then downtrodden. He said later that no battle in the American Revolution was worse for British morale than Hanging Rock, with the exception of Bunker Hill. The British tried to spin the battle as a tactical victory since they still held the field, but no amount of spin could hide the charred and looted camp nor the gross difference in casualties. The British permanently withdrew from the camp at Hanging Rock, which was the largest and most northerly loyalist outpost in South Carolina. It was supposed to be one of the staging points for the campaign against the fiercely patriotic overmountain men.
The Battle of Hanging Rock further emboldened the Americans in the South. It was also the first military action for one of William Davies’ young messengers, 13 year old Andrew Jackson.
After Lord Cornwallis’ captured Charleston in May 1780, the Patriot defense of the Carolinas and Georgia fell to partisans and militia until the new commander of the Southern Department, Major General Horatio Gates, arrived with an army from the main encampment in New Jersey. The massacre of Americans after the Battle of Waxhaws turned much of the countryside against the British, but not all. Loyalists recognized that the American Revolution was now a full blown civil war in the south, and everyone needed to pick a side. Emblematic of the situation was the Battle of Ramseur’s Mill in June, where dozens of North Carolinian families had members who fought on both sides.
British Major Patrick Ferguson was tasked by Cornwallis to organize loyalist militia and prevent the fiercely patriotic American “overmountain men” i.e. those frontiersmen from west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, from moving east. One of the loyalist training camps Ferguson established was at Fort Anderson at the rocky ford over Groucher Creek, in upper South Carolina.
Fort Anderson, better known as “Thicketty Fort” for the ever present thickets that dominated the area, was built in the 1760s during the Cherokee War. Thicketty Fort was under loyalist militia Captain Patrick Moore, a Scot-Irish mountain of a man with a fierce loyalty to the Crown. Along with a British regular sergeant major, Moore was training 93 Carolina loyalists to take part in Ferguson’s plan to break up the overmountain men’s mustering camps, such as those at Abingdon, Virginia and Sycamore Shoals, now in Tennessee.
Because of the Battle of Waxhaws, volunteers flooded into American patriots’ camps, not just those from “over the mountains”. In July, North Carolina Colonel Joseph McDowell saw a chance to strike at Ferguson’s camps before he could mass their troops. Col Isaac Shelby, the future first governor of Kentucky, was dispatched with a few hundred militia to take Thicketty Fort. The fort was stout, well maintained, and well supplied. It had to be taken by surprise or subterfuge: any siege would just invite Ferguson’s main body and Chickamauga Cherokee war chief Dragging Canoe’s warriors to smash the besiegers.
Fortunately for Shelby, word got out that he was on his way to whack some loyalists, and every militiaman in the area wanted to get in on the action. Shelby’s force gathered men along the way and was nearly 600 strong by the time he arrived outside the fort on 30 July 1780. It still wasn’t enough though, six hundred regulars might have been able to take Thicketty Fort by storm with heavy casualties, but six hundred militia could not. And surprise was lost, the same word that substantially increased Shelby’s force, also alerted Moore to the danger.
When called upon to surrender, the fierce and intimidatingly massive 6’ 7” tall Moore confidently stated he’d fight to the death before surrendering, especially so with the British sergeant major hurling insults from the second floor of the blockhouse.
Out of sight of the fort, Shelby spent the next hour or so organizing his men. In a grand show of force, Shelby marched his men out of the woods and they formed up in battle lines just outside musket range, shouting Indian war cries from their ranks at the fort. The militia marched as if they were regulars, mostly due to the fact that the 18 separate militia companies were quite small, and officer and NCO heavy due to the circumstances of the force’s creation. The demonstration made an impression.
Against this intimidating backdrop, Shelby again demanded Moore’s surrender, and if he didn’t, the result would be Tarleton’s Quarter when the patriots inevitably overwhelmed the fort. If he surrendered, they’d be protected. This was no idle threat: the aftermath of Ramseur’s Mill saw blood raged patriots tomahawk and scalp their own wounded brothers and cousins. The powerful display and the threat of massacre broke Moore, whose great frame no longer seemed so intimidating.
Despite the protestations of the British sergeant major, Moore surrendered the fort. Shelby captured all 93 of the garrison, and another 250 loaded muskets, most stacked by the loop holes of the blockhouse ready to fire. Had Shelby attacked, his men would have assaulted into a meat grinder, and his militia would have melted away. This is no doubt something the British sergeant major would have surely pointed out. Furthermore, they had ample ammunition to defeat a force twice Shelby’s size. If blood would have been shed at any point, there was no way Shelby could have won the battle. But, none was. Shelby took his prisoners and captured provisions, and triumphantly marched backed to McDowell’s Camp at Cherokee Ford.
The bloodless victory was celebrated by the Americans throughout the South. Like Doolittle’s Raid 162 years later, the capture of Thicketty Fort had effect completely out of proportion to the numbers involved. The victory convinced McDowell, Shelby and other patriot leaders, such as Thomas Sumter, to begin a campaign focusing on the vulnerable loyalist training camps and isolated outposts that dotted the South, further separating the population from the British. The fall of Thicketty Fort shocked Ferguson and Cornwallis and confirmed that the patriots would overwhelm the loyalists unless Ferguson secured the back country soon. Rumor had an American army heading south under Horatio Gates. Cornwallis needed his flank secure from the pesky American partisans if he was going to defeat the victor of Saratoga. They accelerated Ferguson’s timeline against the overmountain men and the southern patriot militia massing in the mountains.
Washington described his time at the Continental Army’s encampment at Morristown, New Jersey from 1779 to 1780, as “The Hard Winter”. American logistics had broken down, so the Continental Congress abdicated their responsibility and told the states to supply their own troops. Many troops went weeks without seeing meat or bread, sometimes days without seeing anything at all. Washington resorted to foraging the countryside to prevent his army from starving to death. The weather was colder than the winter at Valley Forge, with 23 major snow storms, including one that dumped four feet of snow on the encampment. Of the 12,000 Continental soldiers that entered winter quarters at Morristown in December 1779, 4000 had deserted by June, and of the remainder, 1/3 were unfit for duty.
British General Henry Clinton, whose troops were snug in New York City for the harsh winter, sought to take advantage of the Continental Army’s weakness. With the focus of the war moving elsewhere, the Southern colonies and the Caribbean for instance, Clinton surmised that he had one last shot at Washington, before other theaters made demands on his resources in New York. Washington, however, did not choose Morristown for its amenities, but for its tactically and operationally favorable position.
The encampment at Morristown was close enough to bottle up the British in New York but far enough away to permit Washington some reaction time when Clinton sortied. Furthermore, the only approach was via Newark Bay, and Morristown was screened from any landing there by the Great Swamp and Watchung Mountains. Any British landing force would have to make an amphibious landing in marshland, then a long approach march through hostile New Jersey countryside only to force one of the passes through the mountains just to fight a battle on the other side in constricted terrain against a dug in enemy under proven leadership. Clinton sent the Hessians.
In early June, 1780, Hessian General Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen took the cream of Clinton’s army and crossed from Staten Island to bring Washington to battle. Knyphausen’s army consisted of the best of the Prussian regiments, the British Guards regiments, the Highlanders, the Royal Artillery, dragoons, the Queen’s Rangers, and two regiments of New Jersey Loyalists. Knyphausen’s 6000 men were thought to be more than enough to defeat Washington’s famished and mutiny wracked army.
On 7 June 1780, Knyphausen’s army landed at Elizabethtown Point in New Jersey. He planned on making the 11 mile march to Hobart Pass and be through the mountains before Washington could react. It was not to be. Knyphausen was spotted and the cry went up throughout New Jersey, not unlike Lexington and Concord five years before. A brigade of New Jersey militia formed at Springfield on the near side of Hobart Pass. Knyphausen met them at the small hamlet of Connecticut Farms just outside Springfield.
Stiffened by the presence of Washington and his personal guard, the militiamen made the British and Hessians pay for every foot they moved forward. They turned every house into a fortress, and every tree into a firing position. Nonetheless, Knyphausen took the village, but could see even more Americans forming in the pass. Disorganized, and bit surprised at the strength of the resistance thus far, Knyphausen impotently burned Connecticut Farms to the ground, and withdrew back to Elizabethport.
Two weeks later, Knyphausen tried again, however he knew he’d never be able to force the pass. Washington would know within minutes of his assembling to march. Clinton devised a trap. This attempt was a feint to draw Washington into a battle to the west of the mountains. Knyphausen would again march on the Hobart Pass, this time with a diminished force, and engage the militia around Springfield. He’d be the bait. Washington had spent the entire war trying to bring the British to decisive battle on his terms, and Clinton planned to give him one. As the battle against Knyphausen was fought at Springfield, Clinton expected Washington to march around the British flank and cross the mountains west of Newark. Clinton would then destroy him with a strong reserve as Knyphausen quickly disengaged from Springfield and turned on Washington. On 23 June 1780, Knyphausen marched on Hobart Pass. But this time, he met not only a horde of New Jersey militia, but also Continentals under Nathaniel Greene.
Greene had John Stark’s composite New England Brigade, “Light Horse” Harry Lee’s Legion, and William Maxwell’s New Jersey Brigade. Greene met Knyphausen at Elizebethtown, far forward of where the Hessian expected. Knyphausen attacked and Greene deftly withdrew fighting a running battle all the way back to Springfield. With Washington nowhere on the battlefield, Clinton and Knyphausen assumed their plan was working.
Washington knew of Clinton’s reserve, and had no intention of falling for the trap. The Continental Army was in no condition to attack in any case. The times were desperate, but not as desperate as they were when he pulled off the miracle at Trenton. The British were going to have to come to him. If Knyphausen wanted to make a fight of Springfield and Hobart Pass, Washington had Greene oblige.
Knyphausen fought up the Galloping Hill road toward Springfield, with Green fighting him every step of the way. The ruins of Connecticut Farms was an apt reminder to the New Jersey militia of what waited for their homes if the British won. At the bridge across the Rahway River, the Americans made a stand, and an artillery duel developed. When the Americans began to run out paper wadding, the Continental Army’s head chaplain, Reverend James Caldwell, who lost his wife in the Battle for Connecticut Farms, ran into Springfield and came back with box of hymnals. The hymnals were published by English clergyman Issac Watts. Caldwell and the gunners tore them up, and stuffed them in barrels with the cannon balls. The chaplain exclaimed, “Give’ em Watts, boys!”
The spirited defense of the Galloping Hills Bridge forced Knyphausen to send a column on the Vauxhall road to outflank the Americans. As the column got further away, it was threatened with being isolated and destroyed. The column eventually reconsolidated back on Galloping Hill road after its commander became concerned with the number of militia organizing on Newark Mountain and in the Short Hills, out in the open but just out of range. Fortunately for Knyphausen, the Queen’s Rangers found a ford and the British and Hessians crossed. Greene withdrew back into Springfield where again the Americans made the British, Hessians, and Loyalists fight for every building and street.
When Knyphausen was sufficiently bloodied, Greene pulled everyone back into the Hobart Pass, taunting his opponent to follow. But by late afternoon, it was obvious Clinton’s plan had failed and Washington wasn’t coming. Knyphausen called off the attack and declined to pursue. Clinton’s reserve was too far away to be of any use forcing the pass even if he wanted to, and there seemed to be thousands of additional American militia converging on the battlefield from all over northern New Jersey. Dead mercenaries can’t spend their pay.
In a last act of defiance, Knyphausen fired Springfield as he withdrew. He left only four buildings standing, because he was informed they belonged to Loyalists. All he did was signal to the Americans who the Loyalists were, so they just tore them down for building materials, completing the destruction of Springfield. Clinton withdrew his army back to Staten Island the next day.
The Battle of Springfield provided a significant boost to the flagging American morale after the disastrous winter. The destruction of Connecticut Farms and Springfield solidified American resolve against the British and proved an effective recruiting tool, not to mention increased the American population’s generosity towards supplying the Continental Army. The Battle of Springfield was the last major battle in the northern theater of the American Revolution. Greene’s experience in New Jersey — fighting, withdrawing, and fighting again, would come in useful when he was assigned to take command of the Southern Department later in the summer.
On 13 June 1775, Rebel spies learned of a British plan to sortie out of Boston and break the American siege. Newly named Continental Brigadier General William Prescott devised a plan to fortify the Charlestown peninsula, the only logical place that the British could land.
On the night 16 June, Prescott, and another newly minted brigadier general, Israel Putnam, along with Colonel John Stark, and Dr. Joseph Warren (who should have had command but fought as a private out of respect for the Continental Congress’ 14 June decision) led 1400 men to fortify Bunker Hill, just past the Charlestown Neck. Whether by design or error, the Patriots fortified Breed’s Hill further down the peninsula, and then did not inform anyone at the Cambridge camp of the change. The decision would have grave consequences on the future battle.
The British were surprised (and would continue to be throughout the war) at the American ability to heavily fortify a position overnight, but it didn’t matter. With the Americans on Breed’s Hill, all the British had to do was land near Bunker Hill to win the battle. If the British occupied Bunker Hill, they would cut off Prescott’s force from the American siege lines, and then all they had to do was wait for them to run out of food and water and the Americans would surrender. British Major general Henry Clinton, actually proposed this course of action but was overruled by his peers. Major general William Howe, the new British commander who had just recently replaced General Gage, wanted nothing to do with an American surrender: He wanted to use the might of the British Empire of the to crush the rebels. He didn’t just want to defeat the Americans, he wanted to send a message about the futility of resistance. Fear was to keep the rebels in line – fear of the British Army and Royal Navy.
On the morning of 17 June 1775, Howe landed 3,000 men on the peninsula while the Royal Navy bombarded the Americans. The British initially didn’t attack, they sat on the beach and drank tea waiting for reinforcements. This gave time for Prescott to notice another flaw in his defense, Breed’s Hill could be outflanked to the north, and the entire Rebel position turned. Fortunately, Howe’s dithering allowed John Stark and New Hampshiremen to quickly scrape out a trench along a rail fence which blocked any movement north of Breed’s Hill. When Howe finally did attack, he sent a feint against Breed’s Hill and his main effort slammed into Stark, and was promptly defeated. Howe’s attack would have been successful had it occurred an hour earlier during morning tea time. In any case, when the British advanced up the hill Israel Putnam gave the famous order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, a common order in the age of the musket, while John Stark used a more practical series of painted stakes in the ground 100 paces out.
The American’s inflicted heavy casualties on the initial British attack and they retreated back to landing area, much to the jubilation of the defending American militiamen. Howe tried again, this time reversing the attacks, with the main attack on Breed’s Hill and the feint against Stark, but with the same result. The defeated British streamed back to the landing area, leaving their dead and screaming wounded littering the hill. After the second attack, the Battle of Breed’s Hill was a resounding American victory. Had the battle not occurred on the Charlestown peninsula, the names “John Prescott”, “Israel Putnam” and “John Stark” would be household names in America.
The Battle of Bunker Hill occurred on the Charlestown peninsula, and that fact was the reason the British could reform for another attack. Howe refused to allow the boats to transport his defeated troops back to Boston. Stuck on the beach with nowhere to go, Howe and his staff and subordinate general officers rallied the British troops. They reorganized the formations, their staffs filled in for the fallen officer the Americans deliberately targeted, and Howe personally led the third attack.
As the situation stood the Americans couldn’t defeat a third attack. They impotently watched the British reform on the beach. Prescott couldn’t attack due to the untrained nature of his militia, but more importantly the American were running out of ammunition. The main army at Cambridge was continuously feeding troops and supplies onto the Charlestown peninsula, but the situation to the west of Breed’s Hill was chaotic, to say the least. Many American troops and most of the powder and shot stayed on Bunker Hill, and never made it to Prescott. When He departed the night before, Prescott said he was going to defend bunker Hill, so that’s where his supplies and reinforcements stayed. Few American officers marched their men to the sound of the guns, and only went where they were told. Furthermore, Prescott left no one on Bunker Hill to coordinate the reinforcements and desperately needed supplies. Finally, the Royal Navy was shelling the Charlestown Neck and Bunker Hill to isolate Breed’s Hill. Many American militiamen got their first taste of cannon fire there, and wanted no more of it. Hundreds turned around and went home.
The Americans had few casualties so far in the battle and if Prescott had the men, powder, and shot sitting on Bunker Hill, he could have defeated Howe’s third attack. But he didn’t, the Howe’s third assault carried the earthworks at bayonet point. The Americans just couldn’t stand against the British bayonet (…yet). They retreated off the peninsula. The retreat was disorganized, but several units surprised the British with their dogged and orderly fighting withdrawal, especially John Stark’s New Hampshire regiments. Many British officers were impressed with the fighting quality of the Americans when they were obviously properly trained. Nonetheless, most of the American casualties were during the retreat, including both William Prescott and Dr. Warren, whose deaths were a grievous blow to the American cause.
All was not lost though. Howe refused to follow up his victory, and continue the attack into the disorganized and defeated Americans. The newly coined Continental Army was shaken by the losses at Bunker Hill and its defeated defenders streaming back into camp. In any case, it did not have the powder for another battle. The vast majority of the Continental Army’s powder was used up or lost at the Battle for Bunker Hill. Had Howe pushed, the entire Continental Army may have broken up.
Fortunately for the Americans, Howe didn’t, and he settled the Pyrrhic victory at Breed’s and Bunker Hills. Howe had defeated the Americans, but he had so many casualties, Howe would not be able to lift the siege anytime soon. Clinton remarked in his diary, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” The Battle of Bunker Hill was a propaganda victory for the Americans. The amateur Americans had stood up to the mightiest army in the world and threw it back twice with horrendous casualties. The British recognized that Americans were serious, and capable. The defeat at Bunker Hill had far reaching repercussions on American operations. For the next three years, American planning would be dominated by “Trying to create another Bunker Hill.”