Life of Major General Thomas Sumter
Cecil B. Hartley




Birth of General Sumter—Services in the old French War—Distinguished by Lord Dunmore—At the defeat of General Braddock—Services in the Cherokee war—Goes to England with Occonostotah —Returns to the Indian country—Arrests a French Emissary—Takes an active part in opposing the oppression of Great Britain —Appointed Lieutenant Colonel—Stationed in the interior—Battle of Fort Moultrie—Second Cherokee War—Fall of Charleston—Flight of patriots—Burning of Sumter’s house—Sumter raises recruits—Origin of his soubriquet of the “Game Cock”—Recruits—Arms.

GENERAL SUMTER was born in Virginia in 1734. Of his education and early life we have no record. It is known, however, that he served as a volunteer against the French and Indians in the Seven Years’ War, commonly called by the soldiers, the Old French War, to distinguish it from the war of the Revolution. In this war his courage, activity, and intelligence, attracted the notice of Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of the colony of Virginia. In consequence of this, he was employed in important and hazardous enterprises by the governor.

In the famous expedition of Braddock, Sumter served as one of the Virginia Rangers, who were instrumental, under the guidance of Washington, in saving the remnant of Braddock’s army at the disastrous battle of the Monongahela.

After the fall of Fort Duquesne, the Cherokees became, by French influence, involved in a war with the Carolinians, and in 1760, and 1761, several expeditions were sent into the country of that tribe under the British officers Grant, Middleton, and Montgomery.

In this service he rose by promotion in military rank; and when peace was concluded he was appointed to accompany the Indian Chief Occonostotah, or the “Emperor,” to England; it being common at that time to induce Indian Chiefs to visit the mother country for the purpose of confirming their friendship to the colonists.

On returning with Occonostotah to his home, in 1763, Sumter found among the Indians, one Baron des Johnes, a French Canadian, who spoke seven of the Indian languages. This man he suspected on very sufficient grounds to be a French emissary, whose business among the Indians was to stir them up to renewed hostilities against the people of South Carolina. Being well satisfied on this point, he determined to take the responsibility of arresting him, and carrying him off a prisoner. It was an enterprise of no small hazard and personal risk; but Sumter was a man of the most daring courage and determination; and in spite of the opposition of the Indians, he accomplished his purpose. His noble presence and air of command, as well as his high reputation as a military commander, no doubt, stood him in good stead on this occasion. He safely conducted his prisoner to Fort George on the Kehowee. Des Johnes was afterwards sent to Charleston where he was examined, and though his guilt was not positively proved, it was deemed expedient to send him to England.

During the excitement which preceded the outbreak of the Revolution, Sumter was in Charleston, and in 1774, and 1775, he took an active part among the opposers of the British government in their assumption of arbitrary power. The provisional congress of South Carolina, when organizing an army, did not lose sight of this patriotic soldier, and in March 1776, they appointed him lieutenant colonel of the second regiment of riflemen.

This regiment was stationed in the interior, where it served to keep in awe the tories and Indians, who were ever ready to commence hostilities against the patriots. Sumter, consequently, was not present at the battle of Fort Moultrie, (June 1776).

Two days after this battle a new Cherokee war broke out, and was terminated by destroying the Indian towns as in the previous war of 1760–61. Sumter’s regiment was probably engaged in this war, but we find no record of the fact.

In May 1780, Charleston was taken by the British army under the Commander-in-chief Sir Henry Clinton; and as nearly the whole disposable force of the colony had been engaged in its defence, they became prisoners of war. The whole state was treated as a conquered country, and all who would not submit to British authority were compelled to seek safety in concealment or flight.

Sumter was one of the fugitives.[note 1] He retired to the swamps of the Santee, from the shelter of which he beheld his wife driven from her dwelling, as the wife of an outlawed rebel, and the torch of the incendiary applied to his habitation. The sense of personal wrong added fuel to the flames of patriotism. He emerged from his hiding-place, and gathered his friends about him. Too few for such enterprises as his eager courage demanded, he made his way into North Carolina seeking recruits. One of the traditions by which his course along the frontiers of this state was marked, is here in place, as equally illustrative of his progress and his character. He found himself one day at a place known as the “Gillespie settlement.” Of the Gillespie family there were numerous brothers, who were all famous cock-fighters. They were content with the conflicts of the barn-yard, having in their possession, among other famous fighting-birds, a blue hen of the game species, whose progeny were particularly distinguished for their martial qualities. Of one of these chickens, called Tuck, there is quite a biography. His reputation was extended far and wide, from mountain to mountain. He was never known to refuse a fight, or to lose a battle. Sumter suddenly appeared at the cockpit, and surprised the Gillespies at their usual occupation. They looked up, and were struck with the bold and military aspect of the stranger. His well-made person, muscular without bulk, impressed them with respect. His eye had in it that fiery courage which they were accustomed to admire; and they were not offended, when, with something contemptuous in his voice and manner, as he referred to their amusement, which was at once child-like and cruel, he called upon them, in abrupt and energetic language, to leave the cockpit, and “go with him where he should teach them how to fight with men!” They took him at his word. “Tuck, for ever!” was the cry of the Giilespies; “he is one of the Blue Hen’s chickens!” The sobriquet stuck to him always after; and the eagerness with which he sought his enemy on all occasions, and frequently without duly measuring the inequalities of the parties, amply justified, in the opinion of his followers, the nom de guerre of the “Game Cock,” which they always coupled with his name.[note 2]

Sumter was comparatively successful in procuring recruits. He obtained a greater number than he could arm. He was reduced to great straits for weapons. Old millsaws were converted by rude blacksmiths into broad swords. Knives, fastened to the ends of poles, made tolerable lances. The pewter of ancient housekeepers was run into bullets, and supplied the few fowling-pieces which he could procure with a few rounds of missiles; but, with all these rude helps and appliances, it was still the case that a portion of his men had to keep aloof in the action, waiting till the fall of the enemy, or of their comrades, should yield them an opportunity of obtaining weapons. But these deficiencies offered no discouragement to Sumter. He very quickly proceeded to give the Gillespies the amusements which he had promised them. The British and their tory allies soon offered him a proper opportunity.