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.