Life of Major General Thomas Sumter
Cecil B. Hartley
Sumter again in the field—Operations of the parties and leaders in the South—Position of the British army—Operations of Marion and Sumter—Tarleton foiled by Marion—Major Wemyss defeated by Sumter—Tarleton sent against Sumter—Battle of Blackstock Hill—Total defeat of Tarleton by Sumter—Sumter severely wounded and compelled to quit active service—Operations of Marion—State of the Southern country.
IN three days after Sumter's disastrous defeat at Fishing creek, as related in the last chapter, he had collected his fugitive men, was reinforced by volunteers, and had made a stand at Sugar creek.
Although when the defeat of Gates at Camden was effected, there was no regular army in South Carolina for three months, Sumter with his small irregular force maintained a constant warfare with the enemy, and kept up the spirit of liberty in the country in the neighborhood of Broad river. He crossed that stream, and by rapid marches ranged the country between the Ennoree and Tyger rivers, in the neighborhood of the Broad. His men were all mounted. They would strike a blow in one place to-day; to-morrow their power would be felt at a point far distant. Marion and Pickens were engaged in a similar service in the lower country; while Clarke and Twiggs of Georgia, and Williams of Ninety-Six were equally active.
Meantime, on the 29th of October, the British army reached the country lying between Camden and Ninety-Six.
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 Sumter 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 Camden; 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 artillery, 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 partisan, 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 manœuvres, to circulate an opinion that, by detachments from his corps, he had very much reduced his 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 skillfully 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, Sumter hovered on the west of that river, searching for some vulnerable point to assail. This officer, equally indefatigable and enterprising 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 Sumter, 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 Sumter was encamped. The silent celerity with which Wemyss advanced, brought him, sooner than he intended, to the vicinity of his enemy; and, apprehending that Sumter might be apprised, before morning, of his proximity, he determined on a nocturnal attack. His corps was immediately formed for battle, and advanced on Sumter'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 Sumter 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 1]
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 Camden; 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 Sumter, 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 instantly despatched, recalling Tarleton from his expedition against Marion, and directing him to proceed without delay against Sumter. 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 Sumter, 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, luckily, a deserter from the British infantry had apprised the American general of his adversary's movements.
Sumter immediately drew off and passed the Ennoree, where the British van overtook a part of his rear guard, and handled it roughly. Sumter 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 Sumter 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 Sumter 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 dispatch; and in one hour might have joined him. There was no possibility of his enemy's escape without battle; and the co-operation 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, brushwood, 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 2]
“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 Sumter in quiet possession of the field.
“Sumter 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,[note 3] 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 Sumter 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 Sumter 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 Sumter 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.
Sumter'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 Camden, and endangered the communication between them. Frequently crossing the Santee, he interrupted the intercourse between Charleston and Camden; 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.[note 4]