As the British overran the South Carolina Backcountry in June, 1780, scattered bands of American militia coalesced just across the border in North Carolina. A number of militia commanders convened and elected one of their number, Thomas Sumter, as their "brigade" commander [see Note 1].
Sumter had been the colonel of the 6th South Carolina regiment, but he resigned his commission and returned to private life in 1778. The virtual elimination [see Note 2] of the commanders of the South Carolina Continental line at the siege of Charleston, elevated Sumter from has-been to one of the most important men in the state. Knowing that he was a wanted man, Sumter fled to North Carolina in May, 1780.
Sumter has attracted some rather remarkable character sketches.
Here is Henry Lee describing Sumter in his postwar history:
"He was not over scrupulous as a soldier in his use of means, and apt to make considerable allowances for a state of war. Believing it warranted by the necessity of the case, he did not occupy his mind with critical examinations oi' the equity of his measures, or of their bearings on individuals; but indiscriminately pressed forward to his end—the destruction of his enemy and liberation of his country. In his military character he resembled Ajax; relying more upon the fierceness of his courage than upon the results of unrelaxing vigilance and nicely adjusted combination. Determined to deserve success, he risked his own life and the lives of his associates without reserve. Enchanted with the splendor of victory, he would wade in torrents of blood to attain it. This general drew about him the hardy sons of the upper and middle grounds; brave and determined like himself, familiar with difficulty, and fearless of danger."
Here is John Buchanan in the modern history, The Road to Guilford Courthouse:
"Thomas Sumter (1734-1832) is not a sympathetic character. Wearing his ego on his shoulder, he had few peers as a prima donna and could spot a slight, intended or not, around a corner. He was careless with security and lives. His penchant for bloody and repeated frontal assaults was unnecessarily costly and finally led one officer to swear to Sumter's face and before others that never again would he serve under the Gamecock. But of all his partisan foes, Lord Cornwallis considered Sumter the most troublesome and obstinate. Thomas Sumter was a fighter who kept alive the flame of resistance and acted as a beacon for like-minded men at a time when others believed all was lost..."
Buchanan's claims that Sumter "was careless with security and lives," and that he had a "penchant for bloody and repeated frontal assaults" that were "unnecessarily costly," rest on events occurring during the battles of Rocky Mount, Hanging Rock, and Fishing Creek. To anticipate my coverage of these battles in the months ahead, my description will suggest that Sumter behaved imprudently on each of these occasions, but otherwise it will be much less critical [see Note 3].
The date of Sumter's election is usually given as June 15 (cf. Buchanan's history and Robert Bass' biography of Sumter). However, some of the participants in this event remembered the election being held on June 19, or the day before the battle of Ramsour's Mill. I haven't examined this discrepancy well enough to form an opinion on its cause. Several descriptions of the election are quoted below. Note that on June 20, Sumter's newly-organized brigade sought to join in the attack against Loyalist forces at Ramsour's Mill, but because of poor communication between the various American militia forces, they only arrived on the battlefield some hours after the fighting had ended.
Colonel Richard Winn [see Note 4] wrote after the war that: [T]he next day Arrive at Genl Rutherford's Camp near Charlotte in No. Carolina where I found 44 of the So. Carolinians in the Same Situation of myself[.] [W]e got together and held a Consultation, notwithstanding the Smallness of Our No. [I]t was unanimously Agreed on to oppose the British & Tories under Expectation when the panick [sic, panic] of the people was over many would Join us, [T]he next Question was who Should Command[.] Capt. R Winn was Chosen without a Desenting Voice, Capt. Winn obsd. that Colo Sumter was on the ground An Old Experienced Officer[.] [H]e shorely [sic, surely] was the most proper person to take the Command, for the memd [?] this was Objected too, however it was Agreed on that Colo Patton & Capt. Winn should without delay Consult the Colo on the Subject[.] [A]fter some Converstation and Explination Colo Sumter Accepted the nomination and the Next day Set Out with his party on Horse back and made a forced March to Reinforce Colo. Lock in Order to Attack a body of about 1000 Tories who had Collected at Ramsowers Mill in No. Carolina on the So. fork of Catawba under their leader Colo Moore, however Colo Sumter did not Arrive untill the Action was over..."
Captain Samuel Otterson recalled that "On the day after the election, we marched toward the house of a celebrated Tory by the name of Ramsour for the purpose of defeating some Tories who had encamped at Ramsour's mill, but before we arrived, the Militia from Rowan, N. Carolina had defeated the Tories."
Captain Joseph McJunkin [see Note 5] recalled that "...we unanimously chose Col. Thos. Sumter to be our leader or General, to lead us to face the Enemy, &... Sumter joined Rutherford that day, & [we]... could hardly be constrained from proceeding that evening to attack the above Tories; but Rutherford would not consent for him to start until next morning, him & men, all anxious to meet the Enemy, started by time, & posted on with all possible speed, but the distance being too great, our hero & his party did not get to the place of action until it was over.
It has been supposed, by some authors, that all of Sumter's regimental commanders were present at his election. Winn, however, claimed that there were only 44 men with Sumter at the time, exclusive of those in his own command. Sumter's brigade is known to have grown steadily after Ramsour's Mill until it numbered in the hundreds by late July. Perhaps some of the regiments that fought with Sumter in July and August attached themselves to his brigade after its initial formation. William Hill is one of the American commanders credited with helping to elect Sumter, but in my reading of his postwar memoir, quoted below, he and Andrew Neal retained an independent command at the time, and did not join Sumter's brigade until after Ramsour's Mill.
"About this time [i.e., shortly after the battle of Hill's Ironworks of June 17 or 18, 1780], I was informed that Col. Sumter was then in Salisbury with a few men waiting for a reinforcement — I then wrote to him, informing him of our situation & that there was a probability of our making a handsome stand — and that we were about to form a junction with Genl. Rutherfd. in N. Cara. that we were going to attack a large body of Tories that had collected at a place called Ramsour's Mill — But so it was that a detached party of about 300 horse from Genl Ruthd. attacked the Tory camp said to be upwards of a 1000 men, killed & dispersd. the whole — and then it was that Col. Sumter met with us from So. Ca. He then got authority from the civil & military authority of that State to impress or take waggons horses, provisions of all kinds, from the enemy that was in that action — & to give a receipt to that state for the same —"
The victory at Ramsour's Mill and the arrival in North Carolina of a large force of Maryland and Delaware Continentals commanded by Major-General Johann de Kalb gave the Americans the initiative.
Sumter's brigade would play a major role in the campaign that followe. In late June, Sumter moved his forces into the lands of the Catawba Nation, giving the Americans a toehold in South Carolina. The value of this position was more psychological than military. The Americans were badly lacking in provisions, arms, and ammunition. In early July, most of the brigade was temporarily disbanded. As the big American push into South Carolina would not occur before August, Sumter's men were given an opportunity to see to their farms and families and obtain supplies from home before the campaign began. Sumter himself returned to North Carolina in search of supplies.
1. South Carolina Governor John Rutledge commissioned Sumter as brigadier general in October, 1780; because the election had no official standing, he is referred to in various sources as both a colonel and a general during the preceding summer.
2. A notable exception was Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Marion of the 2nd South Carolina regiment, who had been injured prior to the siege.
3. I'm also inclined to be less praiseworthy of Sumter. Buchanan implied that American resistance in the Backcountry somehow would have collapsed without Sumter. However, the accounts of Winn, Hill, and others make clear that a serious resistance to the British was organized in a number of places and before Sumter attained a prominent position. It seems likely that these various commands would have coalesced without Sumter -- just under a different leader. If participant accounts are to believed, there was no shortage of talented and determined officers in Sumter's brigade.
4. Richard Winn is credited as being colonel of the Fairfield militia regiment at this time (see J. D. Lewis' South Carolina military organization (or lack thereof): June 1, 1780, for a reconstruction). He calls himself captain in this account, but notes that "Capt. Winn begun to Rank as a Colonel" in early July.
5. Major Joseph McJunkin was frequently cited in my Cowpens project; McJunkin held the rank of captain during the summer of 1780.
Robert Duncan Bass. (1961). Gamecock: The Life and Campaigns of General Thomas Sumter.
John Buchanan. (1997). The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas.
Will Graves. (2005). What Did Joseph McJunkin Really Saye? Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Volume 2, Issue 11.
Will Graves transcribed General Richard Winn's Notes -- 1780. (.pdf file).
Will Graves transcribed William Hill's memoir. (.pdf file).
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Samuel Otterson. (.pdf file).
Henry Lee. (1812). Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.