The Day of Battle:
There is some uncertainty as to exactly when Captain Christian Huck attacked the American force at Hill's Ironworks. June 18 is the date given by several authors, but Michael Scoggins has made a strong argument in favor of the 17th. The evidence for the 18th is this:
On June 19th, Huck's superior, Lieutenant-Colonel George Turnbull, wrote to Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis that:
"I have the Pleasure to Acquaint your Lordship that by a Letter from Capt. Huck of the British Legion Dated yesterday some miles this side of the Iron Works. That the Rebells were assembled at that Place about one hundred and fifty strong that He with his Detachment of the Legion and about Sixty militia attacked them. The Rebells had time to pull down a Bridge very near the Iron Works which Impeded them for some time. That Repairing the Bridge they were Lucky enough to overtake their Rear Killed seven and took four Prisoners the Rest Fled to the mountains.
"I am Likewise to Inform your Lordship that Capt. Huck has Completely Destroyed the Iron works which has been the Head Quarters of the Rebells in arms for some time past."
Adjutant Joseph Graham of the North Carolina militia remembered being in arms with his men during Sunday service, and that "After sermon, parting with their families, the men were organized and marched down the east side of the river. The enemy advanced the same day as far as Hill's Iron Works, about ten miles below said church [Steel Creek], on the west side. They set the works on fire. In the evening when our party approached within four miles of the works on the hills above Bigger's Ferry, they saw the smoke ascending and heard the enemy there."
Graham incorrectly claimed this happened on Sunday, July 9. However, June 18th was a Sunday, and perhaps he at least correctly remembered the sequence of leaving church, riding to war, and seeing the ironworks in flames.
Neither Huck's statement to Turnbull nor Graham's remembrance provides definitive evidence (in the case of the former it's not clear whether Huck wrote to Turnbull the evening of the battle or the following day; in the case of the latter, the problem is with Graham's imperfect memory). Michael Scoggins favored the 17th because of a statement Lieutenant-Colonel Will Hill made on behalf of one of his captains. He said:
"This to Certify that on 17th June 1780 when a Great part of the State of South Carolina was overrun by the British, that there was a party of Our friends made a Stand at the Iron works in York County in Said State, & that I Sent Capt. John Henderson to endeavor to make discovery of the Enemeies movements, who in the execution of that endeavor, was Taken prisoner by the british..."
However, this statement, too, is not definitive in my opinion, because Henderson could have been taken before the battle, while Huck's force was moving through the countryside, or on the day of the battle itself.
Not only is the day of the battle of Hill's Ironworks in question, but what happened during the battle is also uncertain. Huck's description of the action, as related by Turnbull, is, to the best of my knowledge, the only description of the fighting. Nevertheless, this brief description does contain important clues as to what took place.
First, consider the site of the ironworks.
This map reconciles the contemporary topography of the area [see Note 1] with an 1813 plat map of the ironworks (the original can be seen in the issue of Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution linked to below). Note that the ironworks are on the south side of the stream (Allison Creek), the same side as the British outpost at Rocky Mount, yet Huck had to first cross a bridge before attacking. This suggests that Huck's force crossed somewhere upstream of the ironworks, and circled around to attack from the north. Why? Michael Scoggins maintained the Americans had set up a swivel gun on a hill south of the ironworks, defending the most likely route an attacking force would take. Perhaps Huck was appraised of this obstacle by the Loyalists accompanying his force and therefore determined to attack from an unexpected direction.
Below I show Huck's force approaching the ironworks from the north. Each miniature represents 20 combatants; therefore there are two British Legion dragoons (Scoggins estimated Huck's company at 30-40 men) and three mounted Loyalists (per Turnbull's letter to Cornwallis, claiming 60 militia).
The set-up of the scene is crude and not to scale. The hills are not represented. What is shown is the creek, road, and bridge. The ironworks are at the lower left, the many stumps in the area depict the extensive deforestation needed to meet the energy demands of the ironworks. The small field represents agricultural activity near the William Hill house.
The Americans were evidently sensitive to danger. William Hill had dispatched Captain Henderson to scout for Huck, a call for help was dispatched to the militia in North Carolina (implied in Graham's statement), and the Americans detected Huck's force before it reached the bridge. In the image above, a militiaman (representing a small group), is disabling the bridge as Huck's force approaches.
With the bridge out, and the Americans appraised of the danger, how did Huck's force cross the creek? The dragoons were armed only with sabers and pistols, and a small number of militiamen could have detained them indefinitely. Perhaps the Loyalist militia dismounted and forced the Americans away with the bridge with their rifles.
Once the bridge repair was underway, the Americans abandoned the ironworks. That the Americans pulled out at this point suggests that they were not as numerous as Huck claimed and/or that the ironworks and associated buildings were determined to be poor points of defense. In any case, the British quickly pressed their advantage, and the dragoons swarmed after the retreating Americans, overtaking some and brutally dispatching them with their sabers (note the high proportion of dead in Turnbull's letter: 7 killed and 4 captured).
I suggested previously (see Occupied South Carolina) that British provincials, operating in cooperation with Loyalist militia, would have been key to a successful British subjugation of South Carolina. The battle of Hill's Ironworks was a highpoint (maybe the highpoint) of such combined operations. If the present account of the battle of Hill's Ironworks is correct, then the Loyalists provided key intelligence of the American dispositions, helped Huck find an unguarded ford across the creek, and cleared the Americans from the bridge. The provincials provided discipline to the enterprise and the raw force to overpower their opponents.
1. A complicating factor is that the landscape has been dramatically altered since 1780. a downstream dam has dramatically widened Alison Creek, covering the site of the ironworks.
Michael C. Scoggins. (2005). The Day It Rained Militia: Huck's Defeat and the Revolution in the South Carolina Backcountry, May-July 1780. (link to amazon.com).
Michael C. Scoggins. More on the Battle of Hill's Ironworks (.pdf file). Article in Volume 2, Number 7 of the Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine.
William Alexander Graham. (1904). General Joseph Graham and His Papers on North Carolina Revolutionary History.
Keith Krawczynski. Aera Ironworks (.pdf file). Article in Volume 2, Number 7 of the Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine.