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.
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.