The American force spent the night of July 11-12, 1780 searching for Captain Christian Huck's British force. It wasn't until the early hours of the morning that they learned that Huck was encamped near Colonel William Bratton's plantation. By this time the Americans were doubtlessly exhausted, but they remained committed to the attack.
Although virtually every high ranking officer with the Americans would be credited by at least one source with holding the overall command, it seems more likely that decisions were made by committee. Colonel Richard Winn (who claimed to have been the American commander in his memoir), described the Americans' approach in some detail. The Americans, on horseback, were travelling along a road on or near the path of today's Brattonsville Road. He wrote that "it was then about one hour to day brake here Colo Winn Ordered the party to file off to the Left of the Road & Dismount and immediately had the whole paraded then Capt. Read a bold daring Officer was Ordered to pick Out twenty five Men and file off to the left of Col. Brattons plantation and as soon as the Action begun in front he was to attack the rear of the Enemy & take all Straggling parties..." The Americans were as of yet unfamiliar with how Huck and his men were deployed, but sent Read's group off into the woods to attempt to surround the Bratton house.
According to Winn, "at the same time Capt Read received his Orders the Remaining part of the Men Commenced their march to bring on the Action." The main part of the American force expected to encounter the British at any moment. However, "on coming to the fork of the Road was informed by two Tories in Search of their Horses that Colo. Ferguson with his party lay in the Edge of a field which was in advance of the British Horse about three Hundred yards." In other words, when the Americans reached the point where Williamson's Lane began, they learned that the British were not at Bratton's plantation, but at Williamson's neighboring plantation. There, "Capt. Hook who Commanded posted himself in a Strong log House around him prepared to Mount in a moment if Required."
The Americans paused and worked out a new plan of attack. Again, the tactical plan was to send a detachment in rear of the British position. Winn wrote, "you must Understand when I took the two Tories I halted for a short time and sent Capt. McClure with his Company Round Williams plantation to attack the Enemy as soon as he heard the first firing." Not mentioned by Winn is whether an effort was made to recall Read or redirect his movements [see Note 1].
The Americans approached the plantation from the west. Evidently, visibility was poor. Although the Loyalists and provincials were awake and their equipage packed, they did not see the Americans before they had closed to within rifle range. Winn wrote, "the Sun was about to rise and notwithstanding I marched in 10 or 15 Steps for at least 200 yards of Colo Fergusons party [i.e., Loyalist militia] I was not discovered until they were fired on Colo Ferguson and some of his Men was killed the first onset the rest ran and Chiefly left their Horses tho saddled and ready to Mount." John Craig likewise remembered Ferguson as being among the first to fall. He "stood at the end of the lane and was shot down, and his clothing was blackened with the gun powder." This description suggests that the Americans very quickly closed with the Loyalists. This rapid headlong rush sent first the Loyalist militia and then the New York Volunteers into headlong flight.
The Americans Attack (click to enlarge). Here and below, 1 miniature represents 5 participants in the battle.
John Craig remembered that "We heard the words, 'boys take over the fence,'" "and our men rushed after the Tories and British as they fled before us." Lieutenant-Colonel William Hill wrote that "there were many of their carcasses found in the woods some days after." Hill's statement implies that the fleeing soldiers did not rush down the lane en masse (which would have made them easy targets), but many instead fled through the fields and into the woods with a number of the Americans in pursuit.
"Take Over the Fence" (click to enlarge). Loyalists and Provincials flee before the American surprise attack.
At the same time that British resistance collapsed on the west end of the plantation, a second American force emerged from the woods behind the Williamson house. Militiaman James Collins, a 16-year-old armed with an obsolete shotgun, was with this force.
Collins wrote, "Not long after sunrise, we came in sight of their headquarters, which were in a log building. In the rear of the building was a large peach orchard; at some distance behind the peach orchard we all dismounted and tied our horses [see Note 2]; we then proceeded on foot through the orchard, thinking the peach trees would be a good safeguard, against the charge of the horsemen. We had not proceeded far until the sentinels discovered us--fired on us and fled. The troops were soon mounted and paraded. This, I confess, was a very imposing sight, at least to me, for I had never seen a troop of British horse before, and thought they differed vastly in appearance from us--poor hunting-shirt fellows. The leader drew his sword, mounted his horse, and began to storm and rave, and advanced on us; but we kept close to the peach orchard. When they had got pretty near the peach trees, their leader called out, “disperse you d--d rebels, or I will put every man of you to the sword.”
"We Did Not Stop One Minute" (two views; click to enlarge). The main American force advances from the west while a detachment approaches the Williamson house through the orchard.
Under ordinary conditions, this American detachment would have been overwhelmed by the British Legion dragoons. However, the dragoons didn't have the opportunity to mount a charge. At the same time that Huck responded to the danger in his rear, the main American force pressed towards the Williamson house. Winn wrote that "here we did not stop one Minute [after driving off the Loyalists and Provincials] but went on to commence our Attack on the British horse in a clear open old field we was paraded in About one Hundred yards from them." Collins, in the peach orchard, watched as "Our rifle balls began to whistle among them." John Craig, who was with the main American force claimed that "John Carroll led the way, I was next to him, and Charles Miles next." Huck was doomed. "We halted to fire and both Miles and Carroll fired at the same time, and brought down the Captain of the British Dragoons."
Collins saw that "Hook was shot off his horse and fell at full length; his sword flew out of his hand as he fell and lay at some distance, and both lay till some of his men gathered about him and around him two or three times. At length one halted and pointed his sword downward, seemed to pause a moment, then raising his sword, wheeled off and all started at full gallop. We then moved on to the house without opposition, but all had disappeared. There Collins saw two more dragoons that had been struck. "In the yard sat two good looking fellows bleeding pretty freely, their horses standing at no great distance: one of whom was shot through the thigh."
Huck's End. Huck lies in the yard of the Williamson house, his command scattered.
With that, the battle of Williamson's Plantation was over [see Note 3].
Winn reflected that "we was in full possession of the field in five Minutes without the loss of a Single Man Either Kild or Wounded, as I am well convinced the Enemy during the Action Never fired a Single gun or pistol." Another participant, Hugh Gaston, likewise believed that "The action continued but a few minutes."
1. Given the small size of the companies and regiments it seems surprising that Captains Read and McClure would be charged with commanding these important detachments and not one of the higher-ranking officers that were present. It may be that each of the senior officers regarded himself as the rightful commander of the main force and so chose to remain with it (Sumter was not present and he seemingly had not designated a second in command). Perhaps the several colonels eschewed command of a secondary force because it would serve as tacit acknowledgment of one's subordinate position. Alternatively, rank was sometimes determined by political considerations rather than by military ability (such was the case with Lieutenant-Colonel William Hill); perhaps Read and McClure were given these commands because they were recognized as especially active and able.
2. On this detail, accounts differ. According to Winn, the Americans had all dismounted some time earlier.
3. Or perhaps not. Winn described the the British fleeing eastward and wrote that "as they ran by Capt. McClure he gave them a fire but was not near enough to do them much damage he had the misfortune to lose one Man being a little advanced before the rest was I was inform kild by One of his Own party." Winn believed there were two groups of Americans on the battlefield: the main body, with which he served, and McClure's party. Winn wrote ruefully, "I do believe had I have not lost the Service of Capt. Read but few of the British or Tories would have been able to have Escaped." If Winn's account is accurate, then the group of Americans in the peach orchard must have been commanded by Captain McClure. The representation in miniature shows how Winn's account can be connected to Collins': the fleeing Loyalist militia and New York Volunteers cross the path of the Americans in rear of the house, allowing the Americans to have given them a fire before approaching Huck and the British Legion dragoons. Collins wrote that "For my own part, I fired my old shot gun only twice in the action. I suppose I did no more harm than burning so much powder." He did not mention seeing a group of retreating British infantry -- only some sentries and the British Legion dragoons. Rather than conclude that Collins omitted an important detail, Michael Scoggins concluded that Winn was mistaken about Read's absence. Scoggins placed Read's group (including Collins) behind the Williamson house, and McClure's group further to the east. The representation in miniature is consistent with this interpretation as well -- it just doesn't show such a third group, because it would have encountered the fleeing British outside the area I modeled.
William Hill's account of the battle touches somewhat on this issue. He wrote: "The plan was to attack both ends of the Lane at the same time, but unfortunately the party sent to make the attack on the east end of the lane met with some embarrassments, by fences, brush, briars &c. that they could not get to the end of the lane until the firing commenced at the west end." His account places two forces of Americans in the battle, which is consistent with the view that Collins was with McClure. However, he places the second group near the road, rather than behind the house, which is consistent with the view that Collins was with Read.
James Collins. (1859). Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier.
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Hugh Gaston. (.pdf file).
Will Graves transcribed William Hill's memoir. (.pdf file).
Will Graves transcribed General Richard Winn's Notes -- 1780. (.pdf file).
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).