Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Hanging Rock Battlefield - Part 4

An Alternative Proposal

In the previous two posts, I considered two different points of view about the location of British forces at the battle of Hanging Rock in South Carolina (see here and here). To evaluate these accounts, I developed an "objective" rating system that compared how well the landscape identified by these accounts matches that appearing in descriptions of the battlefield. Noteworthy, is that neither account rated better than a 75% under this system, suggesting that there is room for improvement. I therefore set about examining the terrain features in this area carefully, in order to determine whether there is some constellation of terrain features that would match participants at a higher rate.

A scheme that is a good match for participant accounts is shown in the map below. A description follows.

The center camp is located on top of a hill overlooking Hanging Rock Creek, at the approximate spot identified as the Hanging Rock battlefield on Mills' 1825 map of Kershaw District, South Carolina. (#3 on the map).

The right camp is located on top of a nearby high that is bounded by Hanging Rock Creek on two sides, a short distance upstream from the eponymous rock formation (the rock formation is #1 on the map).

The left camp is located on the Camden Road, at the approximate site of Cole's Old Fields. (#4 on the map).

Objective Assessment

1) The three camps were on elevations. 2 points.

2) Colonel Samuel Bryan and his North Carolina volunteers were encamped on the right of the British position. 2 points.

3) Bryan's men were encamped on a steeply-sloped hill bordering a creek. 2 points.

4) Bryan's men were encamped south and west of Hanging Rock Creek, near the "Hanging Rock." 2 points.

5) The hill on which Bryan was encamped curved in one place at nearly a 90-degree angle. 2 points. Remarkably, the hill has exactly this feature, as shown in the topographic map below. To highlight the hill shape, I've marked two of the contour lines in bold. Also important that this bend in the hill is pointed towards a defile (on which a blue arrow is placed) through which I believe the Americans advanced (see section below concerning William Davie's account of the American advance).

The red circles on this map are the three camps. The green box is described below.

6) To the left of Bryan's position there was a swampy patch of ground. 1 point. There is a flat patch of ground in the appropriate area in which several streams converge, but there is no "swamp" icon on this spot. This area is marked by the green box in the map above. The absence of a swamp icon may only be because the area is not large in extent.

7) Bryan's camp was about 1/4 to 1/2 mile from the center camp. 2 points. The distance is about .37 miles.

8) The Provincials were encamped, in part, on or near "Cole's Old Field." 2 points.

9) The Provincials were encamped on or near the Camden Road. 2 points. This is the brown line on the map above.

10) More than 1/4 mile separated the center camp from the left camp. 2 points.

Total Score: 19 points (95%).

Subjective Assessment

Aside from agreement with the 10-item list, there are several good reasons to adopt this interpretation of the placement of the British camps at Hanging Rock. These include 1) agreement with William Davie's description of the American route of attack, 2) agreement with participant descriptions of a British flank attack during the battle, and 3) the relative military soundness of this alignment.

1) William Davie on the American Advance. William Davie described the difficulties the Americans faced in attacking the British post as follows:

"the situation of the regular troops could not be approached without an entire exposure of the assailants, and a deep ravine and creek covered the whole point of the Tory camp."

In the account that I've described, this makes perfect sense. The center camp included two 3-pounders and a force of infantry. The cannon probably could not stop movement over the creek (both because of the distance and because of tall trees obscuring the view of the creek). However, south of the creek, an American force advancing along the Camden Road, would come to a high hill that was cleared of trees (participant accounts indicate that the center camp was on farmland). At that point, the cannon would have been a very significant obstacle to advancing infantry.

Both according to Davie's account and the maps above, an American force that crossed the creek further downstream would have had to cross a ravine and creek directly in front of the Loyalist militia. Note that in Davie's account, and that of other American participants, the Loyalists are called "Tories," and the Provincials are called "regulars."

Davie's description does not fit well with the Battlefield Property site. The creek covers the front of both camps, and attacking one hilltop camp would not seem to have entailed more exposure than attacking the other.

Davie also described the route the Americans took to the battlefield: "They [Sumter's force] turned to the left of the road to avoid the enemy's piquet and patrol, with an intention to return to it under cover of a defile near the camp, but the guides, either from ignorance or timidity, led them so far to the left that the right, centre, and left divisions, all fell on the Tory encampment."

As shown on the maps above, advancing parallel to the road, but on its east side (i.e., left, when one is heading south), would lead the Americans in the direction of the "Tory" camp. The defile that Davie referred to is readily identifiable in the account I've proposed: it runs parallel to the Camden Road, beginning in modern-day Heath Springs, and then joins the ravine through which Hanging Rock Creek runs. In the map below, the grey arrow shows the extent of the defile; the hilltop on which I've proposed that Bryan's Loyalist militia were encamped is at the bottom.

As will be seen when I describe the battle, the guides did not know that the Loyalist militia were on a hilltop across from this juncture, and thus this path lead Davie's men into Bryan's North Carolina Volunteers.

Davie's description of the route taken by the Americans, however, is not a good fit for the Battlefield Property site. They didn't leave the road "to avoid the enemy's piquet and patrol," but evidently swung far off to the east with the purpose of reaching the well-known Hanging Rock. Once at this point, they were directly across the creek from the Loyalist militia and Provincials. There would not have been a defile to follow from this position to reach the British encampments -- the only avenue of attack was to cross the creek.

2) The British Flank Attack. Thomas Sumter, writing 3 days after the battle, noted that "They [i.e., the Provincials] had Detached a Colum[n] to support Bryant [i.e., Samuel Bryan, commander of the Loyalist militia], who, through a swamp, found means to turn my Right flank." This "column" consisted of the Prince of Wales' American Regiment.

Richard Winn's force at that time was assaulting the center camp, but upon "hearing a Severe firing to my Right," from this column, he moved his men towards the regiment "as quick as possible." They then arrived "on the back [i.e., rear] of the British," who were engaged with another party of Americans. Once Winn's men opened up, the British detachment was caught "between two fires [and] gave way." Davie claimed that this attack occurred "between the Tory and centre encampments."

A comparison with the terrain I've identified as the battle site shows that there is a flat patch of ground fed by several streams between the center and right camps. A British force advancing into this area from the direction of the Camden Road would have run into the Americans that had seized the Loyalists' camp. A force of Americans attacking the center camp (i.e., Winn's men)could have turned around and fallen on the rear of this force. In short, the pieces appear to fit. (Some additional explanation is required concerning the movements of all of the units involved; that will appear in the description of the battle).

A comparison of these statements by Sumter, Winn, and Davie with the Hanging Rock Battleground Property is not a good fit. Yes, there is a swampy patch of ground on the right flank of the Americans' initial position east of Hanging Rock Creek, but not on their right flank once they seized Bryan's camp and turned south. The only way for a British force to get between the two camps would be to enter a wooded ravine dividing the hills on which the Loyalist militia and Provincials were allegedly camped. Such an attack would not have been a turning maneuver.

3) Strength of the Position. The British post was in place to defend the Camden Road at the point it crossed Hanging Rock Creek. The camps, one might expect, would be laid out in a way to provide for a strong defense of the crossing. The scheme I've described seems to have this feature. The British are deployed in three camps so as to prevent a coup de main, yet the three camps are within close supporting distance of each other, forming a kind of defensive "triangle." Each camp is also in a strong location. One camp (the center camp) is on high hill south of the creek, on the Camden Road. A second camp covers the right flank of this position, on a high hill next to the creek. The third camp is also on the Camden Road, in position to either cover the left flank of the position or to act as a reserve. Befitting the fighting style of the different forces on hand, the Provincials were on cleared land along the road, while the Loyalist militia were encamped in a wooded area.

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