Life of Major General Thomas Sumter
Cecil B. Hartley
Gates informed of Sumter's success—Movements of Major Davie—He informs Sumter of Gates's defeat—Sumter retreats rapidly—Pursued and surprised by Tarleton—Sumter escapes with part of his force—Comments on Tarleton's conduct—Gates retires to Salisbury—Afterwards to Hillsborough.
IN the midst of this heart-rending defeat, General Gates received advice of the success of Sumter against the British convoy. Some consolation[note 1] was thus administered to his wounded spirit. The corps under Sumter, added to those who had escaped this day of destruction, would have formed a force which could preserve the appearance of resistance, and give time for the arrival of succor. Major M'Arthur, about the same time, communicated the occurrence to Lord Cornwallis; who occupied his first moments after his victory in despatching orders to Lieutenant Colonel Turnbull, then stationed on Little river with the New York volunteers, and Major Ferguson's corps of loyalists, to intercept General Sumter and bring him to action.
Major Davie's corps, part of the force under Sumter, in his preceding operations, had suffered severely on the 6th of August, in the unsuccessful attempt on the post at Hanging Rock; and was subsequently engaged in escorting our wounded to Charlotte, where Davie had previously established a hospital. The moment this service was performed, Major Davie hastened to the general rendezvous at Rugeley's mill.
On the fifteenth, arriving after Gates had moved, he followed the army; and marching all night, met the first part of our flying troops about four miles from the field of battle. With an expectation of being useful in saving soldiers, baggage, and stores, he continued to advance; and meeting with Brigadier General Huger, of the South Carolina line, driving his tired horse before him, he learnt the probability of Sumter's ignorance of the defeat of our army, and of the consequent danger to which he would be exposed. Major Davie therefore instantly despatched Captain Martin, attended by two dragoons, to inform Sumter of this afflicting event; to urge him to take care of his corps by immediate retreat, and to request him to repair to Charlotte, whither himself meant to proceed, and assemble, as he returned, all the force which could be induced to take the field.
On the night following, Captain Martin reached Sumter, who immediately decamped with his prisoners and booty. Turnbull's attempt failed, from the celerity with which Sumter had moved. Apprehensive that Sumter might escape Turnbull, and anxious to break up this corps, the British general was not satisfied with a single effort to destroy him; and, on the same evening, directed Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton, with his legion and some light infantry, to proceed in the morning from the field of battle across the Wateree in pursuit of that enterprising officer.
Having avoided Turnbull, Sumter seems to have indulged a belief that he was safe; and accordingly encamped on the night of the 17th at Rocky Mount, about thirty miles from Camden, and much nearer Cornwallis. To halt for the night within striking distance of the British army was evidently improvident. After a few hours rest, he ought certainly to have renewed his march. At daylight, he did, indeed, resume it; but, having passed Fishing creek, eight miles distant, he again halted. His troops occupied, in line of march, a ridge contiguous to the north side of the creek, at which place his rear guard was stationed; and two videts were posted at a small distance in its front. Confiding in this hazardous situation, to these slender precautions, his arms were stacked, the men were permitted to indulge at pleasure; some in strolling, some bathing, and others reposing. The troops, no doubt, were extremely wearied; but bodily debility docs not warrant inattention in a commander: it should redouble his caution and exertion. If the halt at Fishing creek was unavoidable, the troops least fatigued and best armed should have been selected and posted for combat, while those most fatigued, snatched rest and food. With this alternate relief the retreat ought to have been continued; and the corps would have been saved.
Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton moved with his accustomed velocity; and after a rapid march on the 17th, approached Sumter's line of retreat. Finding many of his men and his horses too much exhausted to proceed with the requisite despatch, he left behind more than half of his force, and pressed forward with about one hundred and sixty. Passing the Catawba at Rocky Mount ford, he got into Sumter's rear, whose precautions for security were readily eluded. The enemy reached him unperceived, when consternation at the unlooked-for assault became general. Partial resistance was attempted, but soon terminated in universal flight. Sumter's force, with the detachment under Lieutenant Colonel Woolford, was estimated at eight hundred: some were killed, others wounded, and the rest dispersed. Sumter himself fortunately escaped, as did about three hundred and fifty of his men; leaving two brass pieces of artillery, arms, and baggage, in possession of the enemy, who recovered their wagons, stores, and prisoners.[note 2]
In this enterprise, although fortunate in its issue, Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton evinced a temerity, which could not, if pursued, long escape exemplary chastisement. Had Sumter discovered his approach, that day would at least have arrested his career, if it had not closed his existence. But unhappily for America, her soldiers were slaughtered, sometimes from the improvidence of their leaders, more often from their own fatal neglect of duty and disobedience of orders. Vain is it to place guards around your camp, and videts in their front, if, unmindful of the responsibility of their stations, they indulge in repose, or relinquish their posts. The severe consequences of such criminal neglect, we may suppose, would prevent the repetition of the evil; but soldiers are not to be corrected by their own observations or deductions. Rewards and punishments must be added; and execution on the spot, of a faithless or negligent sentinel, is humanity in the end. Militia will not endure this rigor, and are therefore improperly intrusted with the sword of the nation in war. The pursuance of that system must weaken the best resources of the state, by throwing away the lives of its citizens; and those rulers must provoke the vengeance of Heaven, who invite such destruction, by adhering to this impotent policy.
The tragedy of the 16th closing with the catastrophe of the 18th, the army of the South became a second time nearly annihilated. General Gates halted at Charlotte, where some of his defeated army had arrived. Soon after he retired to Salisbury, and afterwards to Hillsborough, one hundred and eighty miles from Camden; where he determined to collect his scattered forces, and to draw reinforcements, with a resolution of again facing his successful adversary.[note 3] Smallwood and Gist continued at Salisbury, until all the dispersed continentals were assembled. The militia of both states passed on towards their respective homes, selecting their own route, and obtaining subsistence from the charity of the farmers on the road.