Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume One
Henry Lee


WHEN prepared to advance to Salisbury, the British general received the unwelcome news of the battle of King’s Mountain. Disappointed in his expectation of important benefit from the exertions of colonel Ferguson among the loyalists of Tryon county; deprived of that officer and his corps, which constituted more than a fourth of the army; lord Cornwallis abandoned his project of advancing, and began a retreat to Cambden. The security of South Carolina, then threatened by the sudden incursions of the mountain warriors, and endangered by the undismayed activity of Sumpter, Marion and Pickens; and the necessity of procuring additional force before his preconcerted conquest could be pursued, required his lordship’s return. On the 14th of October, the British army commenced its retreat from a country, which it had entered a few weeks before, with a confident expectation of reannexing it to the British empire.

As soon as sir Henry Clinton was informed of the defeat of Gates and dispersion of the force under Sumpter, in order to promote the operations of his general in the South, he detached three thousand men from New York to Virginia under the orders of major general Leslie. About the time Cornwallis retired from Charlotte, Leslie arrived in the Chesapeak, and commenced his operations on the south side of James river, making Portsmouth his principal position. The annihilation of Ferguson’s force, having changed lord Cornvvallis’s plan, Leslie’s continuance in Virginia became unnecessary; and he was directed by his lordship to embark without delay, and proceed to Charleston.

The preparations for resisting this officer were hardly begun, when the commonwealth was relieved from an invasion which it had deemed fixed; in as much as no doubt could exist, Leslie was intended to cooperate with lord Cornwallis, who, after the reduction of North Carolina, would advance upon Virginia. Soon after his lordship left Charleston the rainy season set in, which rendered his march very inconvenient and harassing. The ground being saturated with incessant rain, the troops were exposed to its chill exhalations, and became sickly. The general himself was seized with a bilious fever, and was so much indisposed as to resign the army to the direction of lord Rawdon.

This young nobleman had difficulties to encounter, in addition to those springing from the humidity of the air and ground. The swell of water courses presented new obstacles, not only to his progress, but to the procurement of forage and provisions for daily subsistence; which were before very difficult to obtain. The royal militia became now peculiarly useful. Enured to the climate, they escaped the prevailing sickness; and being mounted on horses, were employed unceasingly in hunting, collecting, and driving cattle from the woods to the army.[note 77] This meager supply was the only meat procurable; and young corn, gathered from the field, and boiled, or grated into meal, was the substitute for bread.[note 78] The British troops complained grievously of their sufferings on this march; which, in comparison with those endured by our army, were nothing. They were comfortably supplied with clothes, shoes and blankets; and a short interruption of regular meals, although not agreeable, was certainly not oppressive. Had they been in rags, without shoes, with one blanket only for three men, and pursued by a superior foe; patience and alacrity under the hardships of retreat would have entitled them to the praise which was lavished on their loyalty and fortitude.

After a fatiguing march of two weeks, through deep wet roads, and full water courses, all of which were necessarily forded, the enemy reached the country lying between Cambden and Ninety-six, on the 29th of October. To support these two stations, and to shield the intermediate space from American incursions, Cornwallis established himself at Winnsborough, a position very convenient for the purposes contemplated. Here he desired to repose in quiet until the junction of the detachment from Virginia, under Leslie, should enable him to resume his operations in North Carolina. But Marion and Sumpter, continuing unchanged amid the despondency which the disasters of August had produced, boldly pushed their disturbing inroads into the enemy’s territory. With a force fluctuating from fifty to two hundred and fifty men, Marion held himself in his recesses on the Pedee and Black rivers; whence he darted upon the enemy whenever an opportunity presented. He not only kept in check all the small parties of the enemy, whom the want of forage and provisions, or the desire of plunder, occasionally urged into the region east and south of Cambden; but he often passed the Santee, interrupting the communication with Charleston, and sometimes alarming the small posts in its vicinity. To such a height had his interruption reached, that Cornwallis turned his attention to the subject. Lieutenant colonel Tarleton was despatched with his legion and the light infantry, with orders to find out Marion’s haunts, and to destroy him. Having passed the Santee and approached the Black river, this officer exerted himself to bring Marion to action; but the American partizan, having ascertained the very superior force of his adversary, acted so as to elude all the attempts made to entrap him. At length Tarleton contrived, by his maneuvers, to circulate an opinion that, by detachments from his corps, he had very much reduced its force. This rumor, as was intended, soon reached Marion; who was always willing to seize every opportunity of striking at his antagonist. Presuming that Tarleton was reduced to an equality with himself, he cheerfully relinquished his occult asylum, wishing to give battle to his adversary. His caution and vigilance were not intermitted; and discovering that he was proceeding upon erroneous intelligence, he skilfully withdrew to his unassailable position, leaving Tarleton to deplore the inefficacy of his wiles and toils.

While Marion engaged the attention of Cornwallis, whose cavalry and artillery were drawn to the east of the Santee, Sumpter hovered on the west of that river, searching for some vulnerable point to assail. This officer, equally enterprising and indefatigable with his compeer, had the mountainous country of the Carolinas to draw upon for assistance. He had, therefore, the advantage of Marion in numbers; sometimes commanding five hundred, and at others eight hundred, men. When lord Cornwallis became acquainted with the approach of Sumpter, major Wemyss was detached in pursuit of him, with the sixty-third regiment, and the remains, about forty in number, of the legion cavalry. The American general having displayed, on past occasions, a character of more boldness than vigilance, the British officer was inspired with a hope of surprising him; and directed his march, with great secrecy, to Broad river, where Sumpter was encamped. The silent celerity with which Wemyss advanced, brought him, sooner than he intended, to the vicinity of his enemy; and, apprehending that Sumpter might be apprised, before morning, of his proximity, he determined on a nocturnal attack. His corps was immediately formed for battle, and advanced on Sumpter’s camp. Anxious to observe the condition of his foe, major Wemyss placed himself with the van officer, who soon fell on our piquet and threw them back on the main body, after a feeble resistance. Only five muskets were discharged; and, happily for us, two balls pierced the major, and disabled him from further exertion. The command devolved upon a subaltern, who, although unacquainted with the ground, and uninformed as to the plan, determined to press the attack. He found Sumpter prepared to receive him; and very soon the contest terminated in the repulse of the British, who retired, leaving their commandant and twenty men on the ground.[note 79]

The American officer, satisfied with his success, did not pursue it; but crossed the Broad river, for the purpose of proceeding to the chief object of his expedition. He had concerted, with colonels Clarke and Banner, who commanded bands of mountaineers, measures for surprising Ninety-six. To cover that enterprise, he menaced Cambden; intending, by a forced march, to join Clarke and Banner on the west side of the Broad river. On the day following a junction was effected; and Sumpter, at the head of the combined forces, proceeded to the execution of his design. These occurrences excited in lord Cornwallis apprehensions for the safety of Ninety-six. Orders were instandy despatched, recalling Tarleton from his expedition against Marion, and directing him to proceed without delay against Sumpter. The sixty-third regiment, which had not yet returned from its unsuccessful enterprise, was ordered to join Tarleton as he advanced. As soon as that officer received the order of Cornwallis, he left his position in the vicinity of Black river, and hastened towards Ninety-six. Accustomed to quick movements, he arrived in the neighborhood of Sumpter before the latter had even heard of his advance. Pushing up the Ennoree river, Tarleton hoped to place himself in his enemy’s rear; but, very luckily, a deserter from the British infantry had apprised the American general of his adversary’s movement. Sumpter immediately drew off and passed the Ennoree, where the British van overtook a part of our rear guard, and handled it roughly. Sumpter continued to retreat, having the Tyger, one of the most rapid and obstructive rivers of that country, in his front. Tarleton, foreseeing that should his adversary pass the Tyger, there would be little prospect of bringing him to action, redoubled his exertions to overtake him. Well knowing the character of his foe, he had preserved his force in a compact order; but his apprehension that Sumpter might escape, his ardor in pursuit, and desire to continue the success with which his zeal had been generally crowned, impelled him to deviate from that prudent course. In the evening of the 20th of November, at the head of his cavalry, about one hundred and seventy in number, and eighty mounted infantry, of the sixty-third regiment, he dashed forward to bring Sumpter to battle, before the latter had passed the Tyger; and soon came in sight of his enemy, who had selected a strong position on Blackstock hill, on the eastern banks of the river. Here prudence would have dictated to colonel Tarleton a pause. The residue of the sixty-third regiment, the legion and light infantry, were following with all possible despatch; and in one hour might have joined him. There was no possibility of his enemy’s escape without battle; and the cooperation of his infantry was indispensable to secure victory. But delay did not comport with the ardent zeal or experience of Tarleton; and he boldly advanced to the assault. “That part of the hill,” says M’Kenzie, in his Strictures on the Campaigns of Tarleton, “to which the attack was directed was nearly perpendicular, with a small rivulet, brush wood, and a rail fence in front. The rear of the Americans, and part of their right flank, was secured by the river Tyger; and their left was covered by a large log barn, into which a considerable division of their force had been thrown, and from which, as the apertures between the logs served them for loop holes, they fired with security. British valor was conspicuous in this action; but no valor could surmount the obstacles that here stood in its way. Of the sixty-third regiment, the commanding officer, two others, and one third of the privates, fell.[note 80] Lieutenant colonel Tarleton, observing their situation, charged with his cavalry; but, unable to dislodge the enemy, either from the log barn on his right, or the height on his left, he was obliged to fall back. Lieutenant Skinner, with a presence of mind ever useful on such emergencies, covered the retreat of the sixty-third; and in this manner did the whole party continue to retire, till they formed a junction with their infantry, who were advancing to support them, leaving Sumpter in quiet possession of the field. This officer occupied the ground for several hours; but having received a severe wound, and knowing that the British would be reinforced before next morning, he thought it hazardous to wait. He accordingly retired, and taking his wounded men along with him, crossed the rapid river Tyger. The wounded of the British detachment were left to the mercy of their enemy; and it is doing but bare justice to general Sumpter to declare that the strictest humanity took place upon the present occasion: they were supplied with every comfort in his power.” This faithful and plain relation was made from the representations of officers in the action. Lieutenant colonel Tarleton, however, viewed his own conduct in the most favorable light; and not only considered the assault warrantable, but even claimed the victory. If the principle, on which his pretension is founded, be correct, nothing short of exterminating success can give title to victory. What more could the assailed party have done than to fight, to retain his ground, bury the dead, and take care of the enemy’s wounded? Of his own wounded, general Sumpter had but four to take care of, and of his own dead, but three to bury. But he did not wait until colonel Tarleton might return with a superior force; and as Tarleton did return and occupy the field of battle on the day following, therefore Tarleton was the victor. Such logic does not merit refutation. But, however interested military disputants may contest the point, impartial posterity will concur in the conclusion of common sense, that Sumpter gained a decisive victory. A grievous wound suspended his personal exertions, and probably prevented him from improving his success. After performing the funeral rites of the dead, and placing the wounded of the enemy in the most comfortable condition in his power, he continued his retreat. His faithful associates, agreeably to usage, separated as soon as they reached their point of safety.

Sumpter’s wound, unfortunately for his country, long detained him from the field; but useful consequences continued to result from the deep impression of his example, from the spirit he had infused, and the experience gained under his guidance. Pickens, Harden, Clarke, and others, persevered in their arduous exertions. Frequently interrupting the communication between the different posts of the enemy, they obliged the British general to strengthen his stations, spread throughout the country, and thereby weaken his operative force.

Tarleton was no sooner recalled from the east of the Santee, than Marion emerged from his concealed retreat, traversed the country from Georgetown to Cambden, and endangered the communication between them. Frequently crossing the Santee, he interrupted the intercourse between Charleston and Cambden; to secure which, an intermediate post had been established at Matte’s hill, on the south side of the Congaree.

Thus, in this gloomy period, was resistance in the South continued; as embarrassing to the enemy, as exhilarating to the scattered refugees from South Carolina and Georgia. It produced in congress and the nation a solacing conviction, that the spirit of the people was not subdued; and promised, if seconded with vigor, and directed with wisdom, to restore the two lost states to the Union.

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