Friday, December 4, 2009

The Battle of Rocky Mount 4

Part 4: "Come and Take It"

[Revised 12/31/09]

Come and Take It:

Brigadier-General Thomas Sumter's initial effort to take the British post at Rocky Mount had failed. British Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Rawdon, writing of the Americans, noted that "They kept possession however of the Redoubt, from which, and the cover of Rocks, Trees, etc, they continued to fire [on the post] for a long time."

A British officer, Lieutenant Anthony Allaire, heard that some of the Americans shouted for the British to "take back your ammunition again" as they fired their guns. Probably these were some of the men that James Lisle took with him when he defected to the Americans [see Note 1]. The British counterfire was also intense. Adjutant Joseph Graham of North Carolina wrote that: “The Enemy were under cover in the fortified buildings and sustained but little damage from the Americans and the Rocks were not so extensive as to shelter them from the fire of the British… Alexander Haynes [a North Carolina militiaman]… who having fired his Rifle twice from behind the Rocks had loaded his gun a third time, and peeping past the side of the black rock for an object, his face being white became an object for the enemys marksmen one of whom shot him close under the eye. The shot ranged under the brain but missed the vertebrae of the neck… he lost his Eye; it run out shortly [after] he was wounded."

Meanwhile, Sumter considered his options. In the words of Colonel Richard Winn, "Genl. Sumter finding nothing Could be done thought it best to refresh his Men for a Short time and bring on the Attack from another Quarter by Marching round the place." In this new position, the Americans were able, thanks to “the Cover of large Rocks” get to a position only "about 50 yards of [i.e., from] the Block H[ouse]." The American fire became so dangerous at this point that "the Enemy was prevented from firing on us as they dare Not come to their post Holes." Hoping to avoid another assault, "Genl. Sumter Directed Colo. Winn to demand a Sunder of the place.”

Winn approached the British post under a flag of true, and gave the following summons to the British [see Note 2]:

31 July 1780
I am directed by Genl. Sumter to Demand a Surrender of Rocky Mount, therefore you will Surrender this place with the Men &c under your Command which will be considered as prisoner of war. S[igned]/ R. Winn"

Winn claimed that the British commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel George Turnbull “required that Hostilities should Cease for one Hour for Consideration.” Sumter agreed. Turnbull had no intention of surrendering the post to the Americans, but perhaps valued a respite. Turnbull then had Winn deliver the following written response to Sumter:

I have considered your Summons & return for Answer that duty and Inclination induces me to defend this place to the last extremity. 31 July 1780 S/ Turnbull Colo. Comm[an]d[an]t"

Lieutenant Allaire heard that Turnbull’s message for Sumter was, that if he wanted the fort, “he might come and take it.”

The Americans were not impressed. According to Private James Clinton, “immediately [a] second assault was made.” This attack, like the one before, was repulsed by the garrison [see Note 3].

Desperate Measures:

After the second attack failed, Major William Davie claimed that “various strategems were essayed in vain to set the buildings on fire.” Of these, Lieutenant-Colonel William Hill described a remarkable series of events in which he was involved. Hill wrote that:

“the officers held a council & it was discovered that there was a large rock, and between this rock and the fort, stood a small house which might be fired by throwing fire brands over the rock, & that this house w[oul]d. communicate the fire to the house the Enemy was in [i.e., the blockhouse] and as we had the command of the water [the Americans were between the post and the Catawba River] they could not possibly extinguish the flames — From this ledge of Rocks where the army lay, to the rock near the house was about 100 yds. free of any obstructions.”

Unfortunately, whoever made this attack would have to run straight towards the blockhouse, “& it is well known that when any object is going from or coming to a marksman, the marksman had near as good a chance [to hit it] as if the object was stationary.”According to Hill, Sumter and some other officers “proposed… for 2 men to endeavor to fire that small house. but the undertaking appeared so hazardous, that no two men of the army could be found to undertake it After some considerable time was spent, y[ou]r. author proposed that if any other man w[oul]d. go with him he w[oul]d.: make the attempt, at length a young man, brother to the Johnsons... proposed to undertake with me.”

A lull seems to have developed in the fighting, and during this time, Hill and his comrade “had every assistance that c[oul]d. be obtained — Rich lightwood split & bound with cords to cover the most vital parts of our bodies, as well as a large bundle of the same wood to carry in our arms, being thus equiped we run the 100 yds. to the rock; Mr. Johnson was to manage the fire & y[ou]r. author was to watch the enemys sallying out of the house.” The two men evidently got inside the abatis – the only Americans to do so – and were vulnerable to a counterattack from the garrison [see Note 4].

Hill then related that “before the fire was sufficiently kindled the enemy did sally out with fixed bayonets; the same race was run again, to where the army lay, & under a heavy fire, not only from those who had sallied out [these would be some of Turnbull’s New York Volunteers], but like wise from a large number of Port holes in that end of the house.”

The Americans were encouraged by this small success, and a second attempt was made:

“It was then proposed that the whole of our riflemen sh[oul]d. direct their fire to that space between the small & great house, which was about 15 ft.; we being equipt as before mentioned, made the 2d. attempt. & the plan already mentioned, prevented the Enemy from sallying a 2d. time.” With a steady volume of American gunfire pouring on the building, “We then had an opportunity of making a large fire behind the rock, & throwing fire brands on the roof of the little house & we staid until that roof was in flames. & the heat of it had caused the wall of the great house to smoke — We then concluded the work, was done, & undertook the 4th. race, which was much more hazardous than the former ones, as the Enemy during the interval, had opened a great many more port-holes in that end of the building — And here I beg leave to remark that Providence so protected us both, that neither of us lost a drop of blood, altho' locks of hair was cut from our heads and our garments riddled with balls.”

Great Mortification:

Panting, Hill stood alongside his comrades-in-arms, waiting for the main building to go up in flames. However, "Scarcily had we time to look back from behind the rock where our men lay, in hopes to see the fire progressing, but to our great mortification, when the great house was beginning to flame — as heavy a storm of rain fell, as hath fallen from that time to the present, & which extinguished the flames" [see Note 5].

The rain ended the Americans' hopes for taking the fort [see Note 6]. In Hill’s words, "We were then forced to retreat under as great mortification, as ever any number of men endured." The Americans gathered up their wounded and prepared to retreat. Rawdon noted that the Americans "carried off all who fell, excepting three dead and one wounded who lay too near the Post." Among those left on the field was Andrew Neal, who had been killed before the abatis. Adjutant Graham wrote of Alexander Haynes that "It was thought he was killed, but seeing life was in him when they were about to retire, his acquaintances carried him off."

British Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton claimed that “In the gallant defence of this post, Lieutenant-colonel Turnbull had one officer killed, one wounded, and about ten men killed and wounded.” The officer, evidently, was “Capt. Hulett” who “got wounded in the head,” according to Allaire.

The British did not know exactly how many men the Americans lost, because so many of the fallen had been carried off the field. Rawdon wrote that "Turnbull therefore cannot ascertain the Enemy’s loss; but imagines it to have been pretty severe."

American sources generally downplay the number of casualties they sustained, or give some very low total. James Clinton, for example, said that "Our loss at Rocky Mount was not great in numbers." Thomas Reagan stated that "During this engagement Sumpter's party were protected by the woods and the huge rocks situated near the log house consequently but few were killed of his men. This applicant thinks there were killed and missing about 14 or 15 men and among the killed were Col. Neel [Andrew Neal]—Capt. Jones and Capt. Burns who was shot in the Eye & fell close by this applicant." Thomas Sumter wrote 10 days after the battle that "My Loss, Kild and wounded did not exceed twenty" [see Note 7].


1. Allaire was not present, but his journal recorded information passed around among British officers serving in the South Carolina Backcountry at the time and is on the whole reliable. Most likely the quoted passage refers to this point in the battle, but it's possible the incident occurred somewhat earlier or later (the same is true of some of the other incidents described in connection with the battle). The defection of James Lisle was mentioned in Part 1, and is well described in Michael Scoggins' The Day It Rained Militia.

2. The flag of truce is mentioned by Lieutenant Allaire, and privates William Clark and James Clinton. Except where noted, the remainder of the quoted passages in this section are from Winn's memoir.

3. Other sources agreed that the Americans launched more than one attack. Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Rawdon wrote that after "The [surrender] proposal was rejected... the attack was repeated with as little success as at first." William Clark likewise stated that at this time "Sumter ordered a second attack, but as in the former attempt we were again repulsed." Arthur Travis recalled that “Sumter endeavored to storm [the British post], but failed after two attacks and some loss.”

4. British Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton's history of the Southern Campaign notes that there were “three attacks, in the last of which some of the forlorn hope [evidently Hill and his comrade] penetrated within the abbatis.”

5. A letter from Thomas Sumter to Thomas Pinckney, dated August 9, 1780, confirms part of Hill's tale. He wrote, "I Made an attempt to fire them [the British works] in the evening, and should have Succeeded, if the afternoon had Not proved excesively wet." Years later, Winn recalled, "the House could have been Easily Set on fire had it not been for the powerful rains that fell." William Clark stated, "It was possible for us to have set fire to the works, but a rain came on and prevented this last effort." Robert Fleming recalled, "the enemy were in the Fort which we set fire to but a shower of rain commenced falling in a short time which with the exertions of the enemy within extinguished the fire and we failed to drive them out."

6. This is not quite what Sumter claimed. He wrote to Pinckney, "My led [i.e., lead bullets] being exhausted, I withdrew a small distance." This statement implies that the Americans were able to keep their gunpowder dry and could have continued firing on the post longer had they sufficient ammunition. It seems unlikely, however, that a continuation of the Americans' sniping would have affected the outcome.

7. This total, 3%-4% of Sumter's force, belies the claim that Sumter had a "penchant for bloody and repeated frontal assaults" that were "unnecessarily costly."


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

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

Lyman Copeland Draper. (1881). King's Mountain and Its heroes: History of the Battle of King's Mountain. (Includes a transcription of Allaire's journal).

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 Robert Fleming. (.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 the pension application of Arthur Travis. (.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.

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.

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