Part 1: Huck Rides Again
Next: The British Encampment
[The account appearing in this and subsequent posts is heavily indebted to Michael C. Scoggins' recent history of the battle. The present account is generally consistent with his, although I arrived at a different conclusion about British numbers, as described below. Readers should note that Scoggins' history includes many more details concerning the battle of Williamson's Plantation than are related here].
In early July, 1780, much of Thomas Sumter's brigade of militia temporarily disbanded. The farmers-turned-soldiers returned to their homes to reap their crops, see their families, and otherwise prepare for the coming attempt to retake South Carolina. This dispersal of Sumter's men made them vulnerable, and an attempt was soon made by the British to capture some of the leading figures in the militia. Lieutenant-Colonel George Turnbull, who commanded the British post at Rocky Mount, wrote on July 12 to his superior officer, Colonel Francis Rawdon, informing him of the attempt.
There are two key sources of information on the strength of these commands: Lieutenant-Colonel Turnbull, who wrote several letters to Rawdon about Huck's mission and defeat, and Lieutenant Hunt of the British Legion. Hunt was in the battle, and the account he related to Lieutenant Anthony Allaire and Dr. Uzal Johnson appeared in their journals the day after Huck's defeat.
According to Allaire's journal:
"Lieut. Hunt of the Legion Cavalry came to our quarters... He was one of the party defeated the twelfth inst. He gave an imperfect account of the affair. Capt. Huck commanded the party consisting of one subaltern and seventeen dragoons of the Legion, three subalterns and eighteen New York Volunteers, twenty-five militia men."
Lieutenant Hunt was speaking candidly to another officer the day after the battle, and his account is not suspect. However, the numbers he stated (as recorded by Allaire) differed somewhat from that stated by others. Below I comment on why I am generally accepting of Hunt's statement.
British Legion: Captain Huck, Lieutenant Hunt, and 17 rank and file.
Turnbull did not report the number of dragoons to his superiors (at least in extant correspondence). Cornwallis reported to Clinton that the number of dragoons was between 30 and 40. Cornwallis may have given this number because he knew this to be the approximate strength of Huck's troop and he assumed (not having been told otherwise) that all of Huck's dragoons were present [see Note 1]. But were they? Huck had been dispatched on a search-and-seize mission, not a combat mission. Turnbull may have felt it wiser to give more experience to his Loyalist militia and a group of New York Volunteers that were recently mounted than to dispatch all of his dragoons. Turnbull did not expressly indicate this in his correspondence, but his comments to Rawdon on casualties (to be covered in an upcoming post) make considerably more sense if only a portion of the dragoons were present.
New York Volunteers: Lieutenant McGrigor, Ensign Cameron, and 18 rank and file.
Turnbull's letters to Rawdon name the officers with this group. Turnbull identifies Lieutenant Adamson as a third officer, but Uzal Johnston recorded in his journal that there were only two subalterns, and Michael Scoggins' research suggests that Adamson was not with the Volunteers, but rather the militia.
Loyalist Militia: 25 or so militiamen under Colonel Matthew Floyd and "Colonel" James Ferguson [see Note 2].
Hunt claimed that there were 25 militia; Cornwallis wrote Clinton that there were 60. Hunt's total for the militia is less reliable than his other figures because he is less likely to have been informed of their total or to have performed a head count. However, Hunt's statement should not be dismissed. American militia would leave the ranks at times for various reasons, and it could well be that the Loyalist militia were no different. It should be recalled that the British were not anticipating combat, and some men (perhaps many) might have been allowed to visit home while they were out on this expedition. Indeed, there may even have been some military value in such departures as it would help raise morale and allow the men to gather supplies. These militiamen might even have been able to learn of the Americans' latest movements from family members. There is at least some evidence of Loyalist militiamen leaving the ranks. Colonel Richard Winn wrote of capturing Major John Owens on the night preceding the battle and two privates the morning of the battle.
If the number of militiamen fluctuated, then it is all the more unlikely that Hunt's number is definite. His statement of 25 men sounds like an estimation, and in the confusion of the early morning fight, he hardly could have been sure.
Using Hunt as a source, Huck's force totaled 65 men or so [see Note 3]. Notably, American sources provided much higher estimates. The difference in their statements is so large that it seems safest to dismiss the latter estimates out of hand. These estimates include that there were “two or three hundred Tories” (Samuel Killough), “About 300 Tories under Colonel Floyd and fifty dragoons under Capt. Hook, and Capt. Adamson with fifty Light Infantry” (John Craig), and "100 horse &... of the Tory militia... about 300 men” (William Hill). It should be noted that the battle was short in duration, that the battle was fought under conditions of reduced visibility, and that these statements by American participants were made many years after the fact.
1. One might wonder why Cornwallis would have given a number for the British Legion dragoons if he did not know it for certain. My supposition is that Cornwallis was concerned about what Clinton would see in American newspapers. Both sides habitually magnified their opponent's strength and losses, and Cornwallis wanted Clinton to know that Huck's force was small in size and that the defeat was not of great military consequence (the political consequences, however, were another matter). Stating a number -- even if imprecise -- established this point.
2. It is questionable whether the British ever gave Ferguson a colonel's commission. He is not listed in Lambert's seminal history of South Carolina Loyalists.
3. Michael Scoggins sided with Cornwallis over Hunt on the question of the number of British Legion dragoons and Loyalist militia. Consequently, he had almost twice as many British participants in the battle as I state here.