Life of Major General Thomas Sumter
Cecil B. Hartley


Condition of the Carolinas—Cornwallis and Rawdon’s position—Gates advancing—Marion, Sumter, Pickens—Movements of Rawdon Sumter assaults the British fort at Rocky Mount—Davie’s success at Hanging Rock—Sumter’s attempt on Rocky Mount foiled by the misconduct of his men—He retreats to his asylum.

AT the time of Sumter’s appearance upon the grand theatre of the Southern War, Sir Henry Clinton had left Lord Cornwallis in command of the British army in the Southern States, with Lord Rawdon as the second in command. A proclamation had been issued calling upon the prisoners of war taken at Charleston, and paroled, to take up arms in the royal cause, and great numbers, disgusted by this bad faith of the British commanders, were ready to join the army of the United States. General Gates was on his march towards Camden, and great hopes were entertained of his being able effectually to relieve the Carolinas and expel the British from all their southern conquests.

Upon the fall of Charleston, says Lee,[note 1] many of the leading men of the State of South Carolina sought personal safety with their adherents, in the adjoining states. Delighted at the present prospect, these faithful and brave citizens hastened back to their country to share in the perils and toils of war.

Among them were Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter; both colonels in the South Carolina line, and both promoted by Governor Rutledge to the rank of brigadier general in the militia of the state. Marion was about forty-eight years of age, small in stature, hard in visage, healthy, abstemious, and taciturn. Enthusiastically wedded to the cause of liberty, he deeply deplored the doleful condition of his beloved country. The commonweal was his sole object; nothing selfish, nothing mercenary, soiled his ermine character. Fertile in stratagem, he struck unperceived; and retiring to those hidden retreats, selected by himself, in the morasses of Pedee and Black river, he placed his corps not only out of the reach of his foe, but often out of the discovery of his friends.[note 2] A rigid disciplinarian, he reduced to practice the justice of his heart; and during the difficult course of warfare, through which he passed, calumny itself never charged him with violating the rights of person, property, or of humanity. Never avoiding clanger, he never rashly sought it; and acting for all around him as he did for himself, he risked the lives of his troops only when it was necessary. Never elevated with prosperity, nor depressed by adversity, he preserved an equanimity which won the admiration of his friends, and exacted the respect of his enemies. The country from Camden to the seacoast between the Pedee and Santee rivers, was the theatre of his exertions.

Sumter was younger than Marion, larger in frame, better fitted in strength of body to the toils of war, and, like his compeer, devoted to the freedom of his country. His aspect was manly and stern, denoting insuperable firmness and lofty courage. He was not over scrupulous as a soldier in his use of means, and apt to make considerable allowances for a state of war. Believing it warranted by the necessity of the case, he did not occupy his mind with critical examinations of the equity of his measures, or of their bearings on individuals; but indiscriminately pressed forward to his end—the destruction of his enemy and liberation of his country. In his military character he resembled Ajax; relying more upon the fierceness of his courage than upon the results of unrelaxing vigilance and nicely adjusted combination. Determined to deserve success, he risked his own life and the lives of his associates without reserve. Enchanted with the splendor of victory, he would wade in torrents of blood to attain it. This general drew about him the hardy sons of the upper and middle grounds; brave and determined like himself, familiar with difficulty, and fearless of danger. He traversed the region between Camden and Ninety-Six.

A third gentleman quickly followed their great example. Andrew Pickens, younger than either of them, inexperienced in war, with a sound head, a virtuous heart, and a daring spirit, joined in the noble resolve to burst the chains of bondage riveted upon the two southern states, and soon proved himself worthy of being ranked with his illustrious precursors. This gentleman was also promoted by the governor to the station of brigadier general; and having assembled his associates of the same bold and hardy cast, distinguished himself and corps in the progress of the war by the patience and cheerfulness with which every privation was borne, and the gallantry with which every danger was confronted. The country between Ninety-Six and Augusta received his chief attention. These leaders were always engaged in breaking up the smaller posts and the intermediate communications, or in repairing losses sustained by action. The troops which followed their fortunes, on their own or their friends’ horses, were armed with rifles; in the use of which they had become expert; a small portion only who acted as cavalry, being provided with sabres. When they approached the enemy they dismounted, leaving their horses in some hidden spot to the care of a few of their comrades. Victorious or vanquished, they flew to their horses, and thus improved victory or secured retreat.

Their marches were long and toilsome, seldom feeding more than once a day. Their combats were like those of the Parthians, sudden and fierce: their decisions speedy, and all subsequent measures equally prompt. With alternate fortunes they persevered to the last, and greatly contributed to that success, which was the first object of their efforts.

With Marion on his right and Sumter on his left, and General Gates approaching in front, Rawdon discerning the critical event at hand, took his measures accordingly.

He not only called in his outposts, but drew from the garrison of Ninety-Six four companies of light infantry, and made known to Lord Cornwallis the menacing attitude of his enemy.

Sumter’s promotion had been the result of one of his brilliant feats. On the 12th of July, 1780, Sumter’s little band darted suddenly upon one of these parties, at Williams’s plantation, in one of the upper districts of South Carolina. The enemy was taken by surprise, and soon utterly defeated. The sabre did its work eagerly. Scarcely twenty of the bewildered wretches escaped its edge. Captain Huck, one of the most brutal of those who were conspicuous in this warfare, perished in his crimes; and Colonel Ferguson, who was probably the true commander of the party, a good officer, was also among the slain.

This affair, at once brief and brilliant, though on a small scale only, opened equally the eyes of friends and enemies. It was one of the very first, which, after the fall of the metropolis, denoted the reawakening of the spirit of patriotism throughout the state. Sumter’s squadron began to receive recruits. In a short time he found himself at the head of six hundred men. Rutledge, the governor of South Carolina, promptly acknowledged his spirit and services, by sending him a commission as a brigadier in the service of the state; and assigned to him, as he did to Marion, a certain portion of the country which he was to cover with his protection, and rescue from the enemy.[note 3]

Sumter continued his inroads upon the British territory by assaulting, on the first of August, 1780, the post of Rocky Mount, in the charge of Lieutenant Colonel Turnbull, with a small garrison of one hundred and fifty of the New York volunteers and some South Carolina militia. Sumter, attended by the Colonels Lacey, Erwine, and Neale, having each collected some of their militia, repaired, on the 30th of July, to Major Davie, who still continued near the enemy, and was now encamped on the North of the Waxhaw’s creek, for the purpose of concerting a joint assault upon some of the British outposts. They were led to hasten the execution of this step, fearing that, by delay, their associates might disperse without having effected any good. After due deliberation they came to the resolution of carrying the posts of Rocky Mount and Hanging rock in succession. The first of these is situated on the west side of the Catawba, thirty miles from Camden, and the last was established on the east side of the same river, twenty-four miles from Camden. They are distant from each other twelve miles.

Sumter having under him three colonels, advanced with the main body upon Rocky Mount. While Major Davie, with his corps and a part of the Mecklenburgh militia, under Colonel Heaggins, marched to Hanging Rock to watch the motions of the garrison, to procure exact intelligence of the condition of the post, and to be ready to unite with Sumter in the intended blow.

Rocky Mount station is fixed on the comb of a lofty eminence, encircled by open wood. This summit was surrounded with a small ditch and abatis; in the centre whereof were erected three log buildings, constructed to protect the garrison in battle, and perforated with loop holes for the annoyance of the assailants.

As Davie got near to Hanging Rock he learned that three companies of Bryant’s loyalists, part of the garrison, were just returning from an excursion, and had halted at a neighboring farm-house. He drew off, determined to fall upon this party. This was handsomely executed, and completely succeeded. Eluding the sentinels in one quarter with his infantry, and gaining the other point of attack with his horse undiscovered, by marching through some adjoining woods, he placed the enemy between these two divisions, each of which pressed gallantly into action.

The royalists, finding their front and rear occupied, attempted to escape in a direction believed to be open, but were disappointed; the Major having detached thither a party of his dragoons in time to meet them. They were all, except a few, killed and wounded; and the spoils of victory were safely brought off, consisting of sixty horses with their trappings, and one hundred muskets and rifles.

Sumter approached Rocky Mount with his characteristic impetuosity; but the British officer was found on his guard, and defended himself ably. Three times did Sumter attempt to carry it; but being always foiled, having no artillery to batter down the houses, he drew off undisturbed by the garrison, having lost a few of his detachment, with Colonel Neale, an active, determined, influential officer, and retired to his frontier position on the Catawba. Here he rested no longer than was necessary to recruit his corps, refresh his horses, and provide a part of the provisions necessary to support him on his next excursion. Quitting his retreat with his brave associates, Davie, Irvine, Hill, and Lacey, he darted upon the British line of communications, and fell on the post at Hanging Rock, (6th of August,) which was held by Major Garden with five hundred men, consisting of one hundred and sixty of the infantry of Tarleton’s legion, a part of Colonel Brown’s regiment, and Bryan’s North Carolina corps, a portion of which had, a few days before, been cut to pieces by Major Davie. His attack was, through the error of his guides, pointed at the corps of Bryan, which, being surprised, soon yielded and took to flight. Sumter pressed with ardor the advantage he had gained, and bore down upon the legion infantry, which was forced. He then fell upon Brown’s detachment. Here he was received upon the point of the bayonet. The contest grew fierce, and the issue doubtful; but at length the corps of Brown fell back, having lost nearly all its officers and a great proportion of its soldiers.

Hamilton’s regiment, with the remains of Brown’s, and the legion infantry, now formed in the centre of their position, a hollow square.

Sumter advanced with the determination to strike this last point of resistance; but the ranks of the militia had become disordered; and the men scattered from success, and from the plunder of part of the British camp, so that only two hundred infantry, and Davie’s dragoons, could be brought into array. The musketry opened; but their fire was ineffectual: nor could Sumter, by all his exertions, again bring his troops to risk close action against his well posted enemy, supported by two pieces of artillery. The cavalry under Davie fell upon a body of the loyalists, who, having rallied, had formed in the opposite quarter, and menaced our right flank. They were driven from their ground, and took shelter under the British infantry still in hollow square.

The spoils of the camp, and the free use of spirits in which the enemy abounded, had for some time attracted and incapacitated many of our soldiers. It was therefore determined to retreat with the prisoners and booty. This was done about twelve o’clock very leisurely in face of the enemy; who did not attempt interruption, so severely had he suffered. A party was now for the first time seen drawn up on the Camden road, with the appearance of renewal of the contest; but on the approach of Davie it fell back. Our loss was not ascertained, from the usual inattention to returns prevalent with militia officers; and many of our wounded were immediately carried home from the field of battle. The corps of Davie suffered most. Captain M’Clure, of South Carolina, and Captain Reed, of North Carolina, were killed; Colonel Hill, Major Winn, and Lieutenant Crawford, were wounded, as were Captain Craighead, Lieutenant Flenchau, and Ensign M’Clure, of North Carolina. The British loss exceeded the Americans. Captain M’Cullock, who commanded the legion infantry with much personal honor, two other officers, and twenty men of the same corps, were killed, and nearly forty wounded. Many officers and men of Brown’s regiment were also killed and wounded, and some taken.

Bryan’s loyalists were less hurt, having dispersed as soon as pressed. The error of the guides which deranged the plan of attack, the allurement of the spoils found in the enemy’s camp, and the indulgence in the use of liquor, deprived Sumter of the victory once within his grasp, and due to the zeal, gallantry, and perseverance of himself and his officers.

Checked but not dismayed, disappointed but not discouraged, Sumter sought his remote asylum to recruit and repair.