Friday, January 1, 2010

The Hanging Rock Battlefield - Part 1

What Did Participants Say about the Hanging Rock Battlefield?

The largest battle of Sumter's first campaign against British-occupied South Carolina was the bloody battle of Hanging Rock (August 6, 1780). As will be seen, Hanging Rock was a remarkable battle in a number of respects, but unfortunately, it has not received the kind of detailed treatment from historians that it deserves. One hindrance to a detailed account of the battle is that the exact site of the fighting is unknown. The topographical map below (click to enlarge) shows four locales linked to the battlefield during the 19th Century. All are on or near Hanging Rock Creek, south of the present-day town of Heath Springs, South Carolina.

Briefly, Heath Springs is at the top of the map. Flat Rock Road (or State Road S-29-15) runs north to south. Hanging Rock Creek flows from the top left of the map down to the bottom right.

Locations on the map:

1. "Hanging Rock" -- a peculiar rock formation which lent its name to both the creek and the general area. It has long been believed that the battle took place not far from this rock formation. However, to the best of my knowledge, no account has claimed that the fighting actually occurred on this spot.

2. Site of the Hanging Rock battlefield, as indicated by Mills' 1825 Atlas of the State of South Carolina.

3. Site of the Hanging Rock battlefield, as indicated by Mills' 1825 map of Kershaw District, South Carolina.

4. The approximate site of Cole's Old Field. Benjamin Lossing, in his Field Book of the Revolution, Volume 2 (1850) visited the Hanging Rock battlefield, and noted that "Along a by-road, across the high rolling plain upon which (at Coles’s Old Field) tradition avers the hottest of the battle was fought." The farm of one "Colly" is shown in James Cook's 1773 A Map of the Province of South Carolina...

Lossing's sketch of Hanging Rock.

A complicating factor is that when Sumter attacked the British post at Hanging Rock, the British were encamped in three distinct position (e.g., William Davie wrote that the British "were pretty strongly posted in three different encampments the British Regulars... were encamped on the right, a part of the British Legion and Hamiltons regiment at some Houses in the centre, and Bryan's regiment with the other Loyalists... some distance on the left.") A complete treatment of the battle should identify the location of each of these camps.

In the next few posts I will consider the location of each encampment. Later, I will use this information to describe, in considerable detail, how I believe the battle of Hanging Rock was fought. In identifying the location of the Hanging Rock battlefield, I relied mainly on statements made by participants in the battle; an exception is that I was also influenced by Benjamin Lossing's mid-19th Century description of the battlefield. Below are ten clues about the location of the British camps appearing in these sources.

1) The three camps were on elevations. Thomas Sumter claimed that "The enemy had three large encampments... all upon exceeding advantageous hights."

2) Colonel Samuel Bryan and his North Carolina volunteers were encamped on the right of the British position. William Davie wrote that before the battle, "the army turned to the left of the road... the guides... led them so far to the left, that... [Sumter's whole force ran up against] the Tory encampment." This statement indicates that Bryan's men were on the right of the British position. Davie also wrote that when Bryan was attacked, the British attempted to support him by making "a movement to their right."

In a seeming contradiction of this description, Davie also wrote that "the British Regulars... were encamped on the right, a part of the British Legion and Hamiltons regiment at some Houses in the centre, and Bryan's regiment with the other Loyalists... some distance on the left." However, he doesn't indicate in this passage whether he is referring to his left and right or that of the British. If he meant his left and right, then there is no discrepancy.

3) Bryan's men were encamped on a steeply-sloped hill bordering a creek (presumably, Hanging Rock Creek). William Hill wrote that the Americans "had to march across a water course & climb a steep cliff" to attack Bryan. William Davie wrote that "a Creek with a deep ravine covered the whole front of the Tory camp." Richard Winn recorded that Bryan's men were "On the top of a big hill."

4) Bryan's men were encamped south and west of Hanging Rock Creek, near the "Hanging Rock." Joseph McJunkin stated that Bryan's regiment was "to the South of Hanging Rock creek." Benjamin Lossing recorded that "Bryan’s corps [was] on the verge of the western bank of the creek, near the Great Rock."

5) The hill on which Bryan was encamped curved in one place at nearly a 90-degree angle. Joseph McJunkin stated that the hill formed "something like a half moon or a workman's square." Joseph Gaston recalled, "The enemy's lines [i.e., Bryan's men on the hill] were extended from a point at right angles."

6) To the left of Bryan's position there was a swampy patch of ground. Thomas Sumter wrote that while the Americans were attacking Bryan, the British sent "a Colum to support Bryant, who, through a swamp, found means to turn my Right flank." Samuel Saxon stated that "a body of British had taken up a position near that of the Tories separated from them by a marsh."

7) Bryan's camp was about 1/4 to 1/2 mile from the center camp. Edward Doyle claimed, "the British Troops were stationed about four hundred yards from the Tories." William Hill claimed that "the British camp [was] about one quarter of a mile from this Tory camp." Joseph Graham noted that "the British [were] near a quarter of a mile distant" from Bryan's men. Joseph Gaston recalled that "From that [Bryan's] post, the British lay about a quarter of a mile." Matthew McClurkin claimed that "the British soldiers [were] encamped about half a mile from the place where the Tories were attacked." Richard Winn claimed that the British were "about half [a] Mile from where Brian was posted." Benjamin Lossing wrote that Bryan’s corps... [was] half a mile from the British camp."

8) The Provincials were encamped, in part, on or near "Cole's Old Field." Richard Winn wrote that the British were "in an Open Old field." Private Thomas Gill said that he "marched to the hanging rock Coles old fields where he was in another battle with the British & Tories." Lossing claimed that "the main body [of troops were] stationed upon the plain at Coles’s Old Field." [cf. #4 in the above map]

9) The Provincials were encamped on or near the Camden Road [i.e., today's Flat Rock Road]. Joseph McJunkin stated that "the British were... encamped in Camden road." William Davie claimed that the Provincials in the center camp were "at some Houses."

10) More than 1/4 mile separated the center camp from the left camp. During the battle, the British were forced to give up their center camp; they fell back on their third camp, which they successfully defended. Joseph Graham, describing this retreat, noted that the British first retreated "about 300 yards where they rallied," and then "they were compelled gradually to give ground 200 yards further." Presumably, the third camp was not far behind this final position.

The "high rolling plain" at Hanging Rock. This image previously appeared in the post Touring the Revolution with Google Earth.


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

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Edward Doyle. (.pdf file).

Joseph Gaston. (1873). A reminiscence of the war of the revolution, in South Carolina. The Historical Magazine..., Vol 2.

C. Leon Harris transcribed the pension application of Thomas Gill. (.pdf file).

The website, The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, hosted by the University of North Carolina, includes a transcription of a letter from Joseph Graham to Archibald D. Murphey, March 9, 1821.

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

Benson John Lossing. (1860). Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution (Vol. 2).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Matthew McClurkin. (.pdf file).

Will Graves. (2005). What Did Joseph McJunkin Really Saye? Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Volume 2, Issue 11.

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

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

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