Friday, November 27, 2009

The Battle of Rocky Mount 3

Part 3: The Assault on Rocky Mount

[Revised 12/31/09]

Sumter's Plan of Attack:

Brigadier-General Thomas Sumter resolved to attack the British post at Rocky Mount, ahead of the American invasion of South Carolina. This British post was garrisoned by a force significantly smaller than his own, and any British force attempting to come to its relief would have to cross the wide Catawba River [Note 1]. Nevertheless, Rocky Mount would not be an easy post to take, especially as Sumter's militia had no artillery.

Sumter did not leave a written description of his specific plan of attack, but a reconstruction can be made on the basis of British and American statements. Sumter, it seems, planned to send small parties forward to clear the abatis surrounding the post and then set fire to the buildings while protected by covering fire from the rest of his force, which would be on the edge of the surrounding woods. Given that the Americans had a 2 to 1 advantage in numbers, they hoped to bring enough suppressing fire on the buildings to make the operation a success. To improve the odds of success, the American force was to get close to the fort the day before the battle and then make a surprise attack early in the morning. Further, when the Americans attacked they would do so from three directions at once [see Note 2].

The Attack Begins:

Sumter's plan of attack was sound, and he successfully brought his men close to Rocky Mount without detection. Before the Americans made their final advance, Sumter divided his men into three columns. According to Private William Clark, "The attack was made, by dividing the Army into three divisions, each of which was to approach in different directions. The commanders of these three divisions were Colonels [Andrew] Neal, Brannon [i.e., Thomas Brandon] & William Bratton. In line with this view, Private James Clinton remembered that "Sumter divided his men into two or three divisions and ordered the assault to be made from different directions." Likewise, Private Arthur Travis stated that "Our forces were divided into three divisions."

At the time that the Americans were making their final approach march to Rocky Mount, the British garrison was in a normal state of alert, but unsuspecting that Sumter's men were so near. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Rawdon (who was not present, but who had received a letter from the post's commander immediately after the battle), "The New York Volunteers... were as usual at the hour standing to their arms." The horses of the British Legion dragoons had "been saddled all night, [and man and horse] were soon after Day-break ordered out to grass."

Rawdon wrote that the dragoons "had scarcely passed an abbatis which surrounded the Post, when they fell in with three large Columns of the Rebels by whom they were fired upon and dispersed" [see Note 3]. According to Sumter, the Americans took "several prisoners, a Great Number of excellent horses, Saddles, Guns, &c."

The firing alerted the post, and the New York Volunteers "were immediately thrown into some Log Houses constructed for the purpose of defence." Although the element of surprise had been lost, the Americans pressed gamely forward. North Carolina militiaman Joseph Graham described what the Americans saw once they reached the British defenses:

"The slope from the top of the hill was gradual, and nearly equal on all sides, and the land cleared. There was no swell in the ground to shelter them from the enemy's fire, only on the west side of a ledge of a blackish kind of rocks at the distance of one hundred and forty yards from the houses. The men were drawn up in a line below these rocks, and advanced up to them, and a party sent around on each flank."

In other words, the three American columns approached the post from the west, but then one column was sent to attack from the north, while another was sent to attack from the south. A comparison of the accounts by Colonel Richard Winn and Private William Clark suggests that Colonel Thomas Brandon led the northern column, Colonel Andrew Neal led the center column, and Colonel William Bratton led the southern column.

The advance of these columns unnerved the Loyalists stationed outside the abatis. According to Rawdon, "some Militia abandoning a Redoubt which they were appointed to garrison... ran into the Houses." South Carolina Militiaman Samuel Gordon claimed that the Americans "drove old Colonel Floyd, a Tory commander into the Fort."

"Blackish kind of Rocks." These boulders, on the western slope of Rocky Mount, are of the same type that the American militia sheltered behind. This image is a screen shot showing a Google Maps "street view" of the area. Appropriate to the American attack, this picture of Rocky Mount was taken in the morning, while the western slope of the hill was cast in shadow.

A Flanking Column Approaches Rocky Mount (click to enlarge). The representations of the battle in miniature on this page are intended to be evocative of the action, but they do not follow a set scale.

Neal's Assault:

With the Americans closing with the post from three directions, Sumter ordered an assault. According to British Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, Sumter "selected some of his bravest followers [see Note 4], to remove the [abatis], and to endeavour to set fire to the [buildings], whilst his people, under cover of the trees and rocks, on the declivity of the mountain, maintained a heavy fire upon the garrison."

William Clark, who was with the center column, noted that attack had to be made "through an old field about 200 yards to the house in which the enemy were posted and around which they had fixed huge timbers pointing outwards. On our approach, the enemy poured a destructive fire on us, and in this assault Colonel Neal, and several others were killed."

James Clinton, who was also present, recalled that "Colonel Neal was killed, not 5 feet from where I stood. I saw him fall & heard, and do now remember, his last words: 'I have received a mortal wound – God have mercy on my soul' and instantly died."

Richard Winn then took over. He wrote that, "being in a Clear Old field and finding his Men much Exposed Ordered a Retrt for a Small Distance." The other columns were also repulsed, although, apparently with fewer losses. Lieutenant-Colonel William Hill (with the southern column, according to Winn) wrote that, "we were forced to retreat behind a ledge of Rocks about a hundred y[ar]ds. from the house."

Attacking the Abatis. A party of militia (one of whom is carrying a torch), rush the abatis under covering fire from riflemen in the woods. According to William Clark, the abatis consisted of "fixed huge timbers pointing outwards."


1. Sumter took the precaution of detaching a large party of North Carolina militia, including Major William Davie's dragoons, to occupy the British post at Hanging Rock (the post most likely to send reinforcements to Rocky Mount). Davie's memoir records a successful raid on Hanging Rock the same day that Sumter attacked Rocky Mount.

2. This description of the Sumter's plan of attack is rather different than that which I've encountered elsewhere. Historian John Buchanan claimed the attack mostly entailed sniping and a single, disastrous, frontal assault. However, the present description is well grounded in accounts of the battle. Evidence of the use of covering fire is in the accounts by Major William Davie and Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton (neither of whom was present, but their histories of the Southern Campaign are generally deemed reliable). Evidence of the division of Sumter’s force into three parts is in descriptions of the battle by Colonel Richard Winn, Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Rawdon, Adjutant Joseph Graham, and Privates William Clark, James Clinton and Arthur Travis. My reading of the various sources has led me to believe that Sumter was a competent tactician, but that does not mean that he is above criticism.

Henry Lee (who was not present, but nevertheless is a good source of information) claimed in his postwar history that Sumter "approached Rocky Mount with his characteristic impetuosity." Lee had a point: My impression is that Sumter was eager to attack the enemy and chose not to wait until a piece of cannon became available, or for some fortunate circumstance to develop (e.g., foggy weather certainly would have helped). Much of the American plan of attack at Rocky Mount seems also improvised.

3. American Colonel Richard Winn was one that participated in this exchange. However, his memoir describes a very different incident. He wrote that we:

"Should have completely Surprised the place had it not have been for a Tory Colonel by the Name of Black with about 100 Tory Militia from Broad River to reinforce the Mount they getting to the place late encampt Out with intention of going on Early in the Morning these people we had no Knowledge until we were among them Winn being in the Advance gave them a fire & they Ran and left many of their Horses & Cloathing, this gave the alarm to the Mount, however in a few Minutes the place was attacked."

This discrepancy can be attributed to faulty memory on Winn's part. However, another, intriguing possibility is that the dragoons were not wearing their uniform jackets and the several dragoons captured by the Americans lied about their unit identification.

4. The privates claiming to have participated in this attack were from Neal's regiment, suggesting that his regiment, in whole or in part, constituted the assaulting force. Given the small size of the South Carolina militia regiments (see Note 1 in Part 2 of this series), it's possible the British would have mistaken his command for a picked force.


Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's postwar memoir.

John Buchanan. (1997). The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas.

William R. Davie, The Revolutionary War Sketches of William R. Davie [excerpt]

William Alexander Graham. (1904). General Joseph Graham and His Papers on North Carolina Revolutionary History.

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

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of James Clinton. (.pdf file).

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

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

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Arthur Travis. (.pdf file).

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

Henry Lee. (1812). Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.

William T. Sherman. (2009). Calendar and Record of the Revolutionary War in the South: 1780-1781. 6th Ed. (.pdf file). [Contains a transcription of Rawdon's letter].

The website, The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, hosted by the University of North Carolina, includes a transcription of the Letter from Thomas Sumter to Thomas Pinckney, August 9, 1780.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Battle of Rocky Mount 2

Part 2: Sumter's First Target

[Revised 12/30/09]

At the end of July, several factors convinced Brigadier-General Thomas Sumter to lead his brigade of militia into the field against the system of British outposts in the South Carolina Backcountry. One factor was that the American army in the South was on the move, and aimed to capture the British post at Camden. This left Sumter the choice of either joining in the offensive, or being reduced to a spectator in the critical campaign to liberate his home state.

A second factor was the steady growth of his brigade in July, 1780. At the end of June, his brigade consisted of only a small cadre of South Carolinians (see Sumter's Brigade Forms). However, he had been joined by additional South Carolinians, dozens of Catawba Indians, and, in late July, hundreds of North Carolina militia. In all he commanded around 500-600 men [see Note 1] For the first time, Sumter’s force was large enough to hazard a major action with the British.

A third factor was that Sumter received valuable information about the nearby British post at Rocky Mount, South Carolina, that helped convince him it could be taken. Colonel Richard Winn claimed, in his postwar memoir, that he had seized Major John Owens of the Loyalist militia the night before the battle at Williamson’s Plantation, and that Winn “gave Owens a parole & employed him as a Spy without fee or reward to go to Rocky Mount Count the numbers of Men and report the State and Strength of the place.” Major Owens, either out of fear of what would happen if he was captured again, or to hedge his bets lest his side lost the battle for South Carolina, “punctually complied” with Winn’s request. The two of them secretly met on or about July 20th. According to Winn, Owens claimed that “Colo Turnbull [Lieutenant-Colonel George Turnbull] Commanded had about 300 Men and was posted in a Strong Block House two Stories high properly prepared for defense and sufficient abbates.”

Owens' report corresponds remarkably well with the description that British Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton gave of the place [see Note 2]:

“The defences of Rocky mount consisted of two log houses, a loop-holed building [i.e., the blockhouse], and an abbatis; placed upon an eminence, which commanded a view of the neighbouring country.”

A letter from from Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Rawdon to Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis (dated July 31, 1780) notes that the site included "Log Houses constructed for the purpose of defence," and that an "abbatis... surrounded the Post." Rawdon also noted the presence of a nearby "redoubt."

The abatis lay a short distance from the houses and surrounded the post. Beyond the abatis lay an old field, which was quite extensive in some directions [see Note 3].

American accounts, like Winn's sometimes mention only the presence of a single building, suggesting that one large house or blockhouse was of particular importance to the defense [see Note 4].

Tarleton claimed that Turnbull's "force was composed of one hundred and fifty provincials, and as many militia." The provincials were Turnbull's own New York Volunteers; the militia are thought to have been commanded by Colonel Matthew Floyd. Rawdon's letter notes the presence of British Legion dragoons; these were probably the remnants of Captain Christian Huck's company, which had fought at Hill's Ironworks and Williamson's Plantation.

The site of the British post at Rocky Mount, as seen using Google Maps (click to enlarge). The post was situated on a high hill overlooking the Catawba River. A topographical view is on the left, a satellite view on the right. The red dot shows the approximate location of the British blockhouse (cf. John A. Robertson et al.'s Global Gazetteer of the American Revolution).


1. Sumter claimed that "With about five hundred men I attacked Rockey Mount" in a letter to Thomas Pinckney dated August 9, 1780. Other sources have credited him with more men. Among the principal commanders of the South Carolinians were Richard Winn, Andrew Neal, William Bratton, Edward Lacey, William Hill, and John McClure. The North Carolinians were headed by Colonel Robert Irwin, and the Catawba Indians were led by General New River.

The large number of senior South Carolina officers give the impression that South Carolinians constituted the bulk of Sumter’s brigade. However, as described previously, the South Carolina militia regiments operating with Sumter were quite small in size. Adjutant Joseph Graham of North Carolina made this point explicitly years later:

“From the number of the field officers from South Carolina under their command the reader would believe in the ranks of the former the principal force consisted of the militia from South Carolina, whereas, the fact was, that in the well fought battles of Rocky Mount & Hanging Rock the North Carolinians, under the command of Colos. Irwin and Huggins and Major Davie, constituted the greater part of his Command and the [South Carolina] field officers referred to had not sometimes each a Dozen of men with them.”

2. Winn’s memoir was written after Tarleton’s account of the battle was published, and not impossible is that Winn’s statement was influenced by Tarleton’s description. Some American histories (Davie, Lossing) clearly copied Tarleton’s language. Nevertheless, it is important to observe that Winn remembered Owens’ description as accurate.

3. Thomas Sumter wrote to Thomas Pinckney that "the action... was offten within thirty feet of their works." Because the Americans had difficulty penetrating the abatis, it can be inferred that Sumter believed the abatis was no more than 30 feet away from the buildings. Private William Clark claimed that to attack the post, his regiment had to "attack through an old field about 200 yards to the house."

4. Below are some of the statements made by American participants about the British defenses at Rocky Mount:

North Carolina militiaman Joseph Graham claimed that the British were ensconced in "log buildings... [that] had loop holes to shoot through.”

South Carolina militiaman Hugh Gaston stated that the "Tories & British took shelter in a large log house."

South Carolina militiaman Thomas Reagan said that the British were "in a large log house at a place called 'Rocky Mount' on the Catawba."

An exception to these descriptions appears in the memoir of Lieutenant-Colonel William Hill. He recalled that the British were stationed in “a large framed house: the walls of which were only thin clap boards.” Hill claimed the attack was made because “we supposed that our balls w[oul]d. Have the desired effect by shooting through the wall." But instead, "the Enemy had wrought day & night and had placed small logs about a foot from the inside of the wall and rammed the cavity with clay, and under this delusion we made the attack —; but soon found that we c[oul]d. injure them no way, but by shooting, in their port-holes." He attributed this erroneous information to a strengthening of the British post between Owens' report (about July 20) and the date of the attack (July 30). Hill's description is not compelling in light of the other accounts, and at the very least does not seem to accurately describe the main defensive building on the site.


Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's postwar memoir.

John Buchanan. (1997). The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas.

William R. Davie, The Revolutionary War Sketches of William R. Davie [excerpt]

William Alexander Graham. (1904). General Joseph Graham and His Papers on North Carolina Revolutionary History.

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

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Hugh Gaston. (.pdf file).

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

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Thomas Reagan. (.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 Paul Reuwer. Documentary Resources and Notes on Gen. Thomas Sumter and the North and South Carolina militias Attack on the British forward outpost at Rocky Mount, South Carolina (July 31 or August 1, 1780). In Volume 1, Number 1 of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution newsletter. (.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.

William T. Sherman. (2009). Calendar and Record of the Revolutionary War in the South: 1780-1781. 6th Ed. (.pdf file). [Contains a transcription of Rawdon's letter].

The website, The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, hosted by the University of North Carolina, includes a transcription of the Letter from Thomas Sumter to Thomas Pinckney, August 9, 1780.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Battle of Rocky Mount 1

The Battle of Rocky Mount
Part 1: An American Offensive
Next: Sumter's First Target

The battle of Williamson's Plantation was a disaster for the British, not because of the British losses that were incurred, but rather because it cooled Loyalist ardor, greatly encouraged the Americans, and put to an end the previously-effective Provincial/Loyalist raids from Rocky Mount.

The most striking sign of this change in fortunes consisted of the defection of a body of Loyalist militia to the Americans. British Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton lamented that:

"An instance of treachery which took place about this time, ruined all confidence between the regulars and the militia: The inhabitants in the districts of the rivers Ennoree and Tyger had been enrolled since the siege of Charles town, under the orders of Colonel [Matthew] Floyd; Colonel [Andrew] Neale, the former commanding officer, having fled out of the province for his violent persecution of the loyalists. One [James] Lisle, who had belonged to the same corps, and who had been banished to the islands, availing himself of the proclamation to exchange his parole for a certificate of his being a good citizen, was made second in command: And as soon as the battalion was completed with arms and ammunition, he carried it off to Colonel Neale, who had joined Colonel Sumpter's command on the Catawba."

Also boosting American morale was the assemblage of a new American army in the South under the command of Major-General Horatio Gates and seconded by Major-General Johann de Kalb. This army consisted primarily of a division of Maryland and Delaware Continentals, backed up by large numbers of Virginia and North Carolina militia. Their mission was to liberate British-occupied South Carolina.

Brigadier-General Thomas Sumter, who commanded a brigade of militia based in the Catawba Nation, intended to loosely cooperate with this American army. Writing to de Kalb shortly after the action at Williamson's Plantation, Sumter boasted that:

"I having Collected a party of men, attacked and Dispersed the enemy, So As to Cleare two Regiments of them [see Note 1]."

For all this bravado, however, Sumter remained deeply concerned about the numbers of South Carolina militia potentially in British employment. He wrote that if the British "have an opportunity of Collecting the Tories and imbodying the militia, who they Compell to do Duty... they will... add above ten thousand men to their army—and thereby be come so strong as Not only to Keep possession of Charles Town, but also a Great part of the State besides."

Sumter advised de Kalb that the main American army should send "a Body of Light Troops" to sweep down the eastern portion of the state and "take post upon the South Side of Santee River, at Neilson's and Marigalutes Ferries." In this position they "woud effectually Cut of their [the British] Retreat to Towns [i.e., the eastern seaboard] and thereby prevent them from forcing the Militia to retreat with them, or from there Gethering to gether the Forces, and also from Striping the Country of all its Resources." Sumter believed that in one fell swoop, the British would be forced to abandon all of their posts in the BackCountry. Sumter's proposed advance would have been dangerous to the British, but such a force would have had numerous rivers to cross and could have been easily delayed. What's more, as the Americans advanced deep into British-held territory, they would themselves run the risk of being cut off and destroyed. Gates and de Kalb would ultimately adopt a much more conservative (and in my view, sensible) strategy.

Sumter had no intention of adding his numbers to the main American army, but rather saw their offensive as an opportunity when he might "be the better inabled to act aGainst the enemy With a probability of success."

Rocky Mount and Vicinity, July, 1780 (click to enlarge). 1) British post at Rocky Mount, 2) British post at Hanging Rock Creek, 3) site of the battle of Williamson's Plantation, 4) British post at Camden. Shaded area is the Catawba Nation. The dark line at the top of the map is part of the border between North and South Carolina.


1. Sumter is referring to the regiments of Ferguson and Floyd, which were routed at Willamson's Plantation.


Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's postwar memoir.

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

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Bit of Perspective

Here is a look at a drummer of the 7th Regiment of Foot (Essex miniatures). To provide some sense of scale, I've posed him next to my index finger.