Friday, September 25, 2009

The Battle of Williamson's Plantation 3

Part 3: The Americans Gather

" was determined to attack Lord Hook"

Captain Christian Huck, on a mission to seize local American militia commanders, failed to find either Colonel William Bratton or Captain John McClure. As his force advanced far from its base at Rocky Mount, it unwittingly entered into a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the Americans. Huck was looking for the Americans, but soon the Americans were also looking for him. The Americans were not at their individual homes, but had kept together in small bands for safety; further, they reacted to Huck's advance by drawing together into a fairly large ad hoc force.

The Americans sought to put a stop to Huck's raid, although they inconsistently described the underlying motives.

James Collins cited the destruction of Hill's Ironworks ("it was determined to attack Lord Hook, and take vengeance for the burning of the ironworks"). However, William Hill, who had owned the ironworks, described Huck's "blasphemy" and his seizure of "all the horses fit for his purpose, so that many of the aged men had to walk many miles home afoot." He concluded that "This ill behaviour of the enemy made an impression on the minds of the most serious men in this little band and raised their courage under the belief that they would be made instruments in the hand of Heaven to punish this enemy for his wickedness and blasphemy — and no doubt the recent injuries that many of their families received from the said Hook and his party had an effect to stimulate this little band to a proper courage." John Craig claimed that Huck had made refugees of the Americans' families, and when they reached the Catawba River on their way home, they saw that "the far bank was lined with women and children, who had been ordered from their homes by the British and Tories on account of their relations generally having joined themselves to the Whig party [i.e., Sumter's militia]... The situation of these women and children driven from their firesides, excited in every bosom a sympathy for the distressed, and an indignation against the hard-hearted foe who could perpetrate such an inhuman deed."

Craig's account seems suspect because he alone recalled a heart-rending scene that others seemingly would have remembered. Other accounts have William Bratton's family remaining at home after a visit from Huck and his men, even though Bratton was the most notorious "rebel" in the vicinity.

In any event, participant accounts make clear that on July 11, 1780, several bands of Americans united and decided what to do about Huck. Craig claimed that "we received orders to turn out our horses to graze, and meanwhile the officers called a council and soon determined to risk all consequences and attack the inhuman ruffians." According to Colonel Richard Winn, the decision to attack Huck was not made easily. Winn noted that "both Officers & Men seemed loath to Engage the Horse [i.e., Huck's British Legion dragoons] as they had cut Buford Men to pieces so shortly before." A month and a half before a sizeable force of Continentals had been slaughtered by British Legion dragoons at the Waxhaws. How could they take on such men? Nevertheless, "about 130 agreed to follow Winn and try the Business."

Estimating American Total Strength:

It is difficult to determine the exact size of American militia forces at American Revolutionary War battles because of a paucity of reliable records. I commented on this issue at length during my Cowpens project. I noted that if statements by American officials are taken at face value than one concludes that the American militia numbered around 500 or so (How Many Fought at Cowpens?). However, if one estimates American numbers based on the number of pension applications filed by survivors (Problems with Pensions, Veteran Survival), or the number of officers that were present (Little River Regiment), then the number would be about three times as large (Cowpens in Miniature 3). Concern for this issue represents more than an interest in fine details. Whether the Americans' victory at Cowpens should be regarded as a triumph of underdogs hinges on which interpretation one makes [see Note 1]. I suggested one could test the plausibility of different approaches by making comparisons with other battles. Williamson's Plantation, which has been especially well studied among battles in the Southern campaign, happens to make an ideal test case.

One of the striking features about Williamson's Plantation is that there is relatively good agreement on the question of how many Americans were present:

In correspondence written by nonparticipants shortly after the battle, Thomas Sumter wrote that “I had about one hundred and thirty in the action." Major Thomas Blount said that the Americans fielded "a party of 80 or 90 Militia."

In pension statements or memoirs written many years later, participants claimed that there was "about 130" (Winn), "The number of the Americans was 133, and many of them without arms" (Hill), "We numbered one hundred and thirty-three" (Craig), there were "a few militia Boys" (Hillhouse), the Americans consisted of "Col. Bratton and Capt. Jenkins with about one hundred men" (Jenkins), the Americans consisted of "Coll. Neel... with 110 men" (Lofton).

Early secondary sources provided similar information: Ramsay wrote there were 133 men. Lossing said there were initially 133 men, but 23 left the American force before the battle, leaving only 110. Lossing explicitly claimed to have obtained his information from a veteran. Ramsay probably did as well.

The specificity in these numbers strongly suggest that a headcount was taken before the battle and the participants well remembered the result (133). However, there is still room for varying interpretations -- does this total represent the initial strength or the total after some dropped out? Does it include men without arms and/or men left to guard the horses? Does it include, as will be described in the next post, other detachments that were made shortly before the battle? Given this uncertainty, one can argue for a total considerably above or below 133 men. Michael Scoggins' recent history of the battle, for example, has 159 Americans participating in the fighting [see Note 2]. However, one can build a case around the statements by Winn, Lossing, Blount, Jenkins and Lofton, that the true total was closer to 100. Nevertheless, the variation among these estimates is fairly low: the total seems to have been about 133, plus or minus 30 men.

Michael Scoggins' history allows the validity of different methods of estimating troop totals to be tested because it includes a table that lists every alleged participant, the sources that identify that individual as a participant, and the individual's rank and likely unit affiliation. Therefore, if the method of estimating the number of participants by examining pension applications or counting the number of captains present is valid, then the estimates generated by these methods should be within 133 plus-or-minus 30 men.

Taking the approach of estimating totals based on pension applications, one finds that 58 persons claimed to have been at the battle. Using Lawrence Babits' estimate of around 3.5 actual participants for every pension application filed, one arrives at a total American force of 203 men. This method of estimation produces a total that is a little more than 50% above the actual approximate size of the American force, suggesting moderately poor validity.

Taking the approach of estimating one 25-man company for every captain identified at the battle, one finds in Scoggins' table that there were 23 participants with the rank of captain. By extension, 575 participants (25 * 23) would have been present. The estimated total is far above the likely historical total, suggesting that the method has very poor validity.

At the time that I wrote about Cowpens I observed that the logic behind these methods of estimation seems sound, yet the results they produce are questionable. An examination of these methods with the numbers for Williamson's Plantation confirms for me that opinion. I gave some reasons previously why I thought the results could be flawed even though the logic seems sound. I also have some new thoughts on the subject, which I'll share in an upcoming post.

American Order of Battle:

The American order of battle, described below, is based on Michael Scoggins' history of the battle. The totals for each regiment are approximate because a handful of men could not be clearly linked to a specific unit. In these cases I randomly assigned the participant to one of the units to which he plausibly could have belonged. The accuracy of information in original sources is assumed. The rank and file indicated below includes mostly privates, a few men are identified as sergeants, none as corporals. Richard Winn claimed to have been commander of this force (as did others); he evidently was present, but not his regiment.

Neal's Regiment:

Colonel Andrew Neal, Lieutenant-Colonel William Hill, Major James Hawthorne, about 7 captains, 4 lieutenants, 19 rank and file.

Bratton's Regiment:

Colonel William Bratton, Major John Wallace, about 11 captains, 6 lieutenants, 42 rank and file.

Lacey's Regiment:

Colonel Eward Lacey, Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick McGriff, Major Michael Dickson, about 5 captains, 7 lieutenants, 30 rank and file.

One pension application (Samuel Wallace) identifies two units of North Carolina militia at the battle; the absence of confirmation by other applications or sources suggests that North Carolina militia regiments were not present.

A stand-out feature of this order of battle is the exceptionally high ratio of officers to rank and file: 1:1.36 for Neal's regiment, 1:2.21 for Bratton's regiment, and 1:2.00 for Lacey's regiment. A similarly high ratio may have been present among the South Carolina militia regiments at Cowpens. This does not mean, of course, that such a high ratio was always present among South Carolina militia regiments, to say nothing of regiments from other states.


1. The high-end estimates of American totals at cowpens have the Americans outnumbering the British by more than 2:1. The low-end estimates have the British outnumbering the Americans by about 1.3:1.

2. This estimate is based on a combination of participant statements and a compilation of state and federal records (such as pension applications) that identify participants by name.


Thomas Blount. Letter to Abner Nash, July 23, 1780. Colonial and State Records of North Carolina.

James Collins. (1859). Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier.

Will Graves transcribed William Hill's memoir. (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of William Hillhouse (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of William Jenkins (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Thomas Lofton (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Samuel Wallace (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed General Richard Winn's Notes -- 1780. (.pdf file).

Benson John Lossing. (1860). Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution (Vol. 2).

David Ramsay (1811). The History of the American Revolution (Vol. 2).

Michael C. Scoggins. (2005). The Day It Rained Militia: Huck's Defeat and the Revolution in the South Carolina Backcountry, May-July 1780. (Includes transcriptions of statements by many participants).

Thomas Sumter. Letter to Johann De Kalb, July 17, 1780. Colonial and State Records of North Carolina.

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