Thursday, February 4, 2010

Battle of Hanging Rock 2

Part 2: Sumter's Second Target

Retreat from Rocky Mount

Thomas Sumter had tried, without success, to capture the British post of Rocky Mount, South Carolina, on July 30, 1780. That battle ended after a rain shower put an end to the Americans' efforts to burn down the British-occupied buildings. The Americans subsequently withdrew, but only for a short distance. The rain raised the level of Rocky Creek, which crossed their path of retreat [1]. Sumter might have directed his men towards a shallow ford upstream, but remaining close to the British post was good for morale, or at least his pride. He claimed that he spent this period "relieving and covering the country" from excursions by Provincials and Loyalist militia [2].

Sumter's decision to remain close to Rocky Mount was a dangerous one, for the British soon learned of the attack on Rocky Mount [3] and organized a retaliatory expedition against Sumter’s men. This force reached Rocky Mount on August 1 [4]. Late the following morning, the Americans found that the waters in the creek had receded somewhat, and a crossing was effected. Once on the other side, “the men turned out their horses and they themselves scattered about in search of roasting ears and green peaches” [5]. Sumter’s men did not realize their danger until “the enemy to the number [of] 8 or 900 men and 2 pieces of artillery was in a mile in our rear” [6]. According to one soldier, the British force reached the creek crossing “before our vittles were cooked,” and the Americans promptly fled, “leaving our provisions and some baggage” [7].

Colonel Richard Winn assembled an ad hoc rear guard, but the British could not close with the Americans before the latter made their escape. Winn then followed Sumter and detailed one “Captain Coleman from Midway in Georgia,” and a South Carolinian “by the name of Stroud” “to watch and give notice of the Enemy's motions.” Unfortunately, “these two men ventured too near the British. Both was made prisoner stripped naked and immediately hung up by the side of the road” [8].

Sumter’s Next Target

Sumter’s brigade returned to the Catawba Nation, its former base of operations. The brigade had grown steadily in size since its initial formation in late June, and new arrivals once again began to appear [9]. Sumter immediately began considering how to strike another blow at the British, even though he had by this time used up most of his ammunition.

Some authors, in considering Sumter’s actions during this period, have determined that he was at best imprudent, and at worse foolish. Others regarded him as a kind of genius. Banastre Tarleton claimed that, “This active partizan was thoroughly sensible, that the minds of men are influenced by enterprize, and that to keep undisciplined people together, it is necessary to employ them” [10]. Joseph Graham held the same opinion:

“[Sumter] had discovered that his men, while marching and fighting and fighting and marching would keep with him, but to encamp and remain stationary he might calculate with certainty his force might diminish; therefore if he failed in his enterprise the loss to the Country would only be those who were killed and wounded, the remainder might be organized in a short time as formidable as before. If he succeeded it would considerably weaken the Enemy’s effective force and have considerable weight in the operations which he expected shortly would take place” [11].

Having determined it was most prudent to remain on the offensive, he began to consider his options. Rocky Mount, now reinforced, was clearly unassailable, but the nearby post of Hanging Rock was defended by only 250 men [12]. The post at Hanging Rock was "very weak," because "the principle part of their troops" had been sent to reinforce Rocky Mount [13]. Moreover, Hanging Rock, he realized, was “of very great consequence” to the British. If Hanging Rock fell, Rocky Mount would have to be abandoned, and the central part of the state would be accessible to the Americans [14]. The British realized this, too, and they ensured that Hanging Rock was not vulnerable [15]. Before Sumter could strike, the post would receive a large reinforcement.


1. General Richard Winn's Notes -- 1780, transcribed by Will Graves. (See here for images of the original document).

2. Letter from Thomas Sumter to Thomas Pinckney, August 9, 1780.

3. For the circumstances in which the British learned of this attack, and their initial reaction to it, see the letter from Francis Rawdon to Charles Cornwallis, July 31, 1780. (In William T. Sherman, 2009, Calendar and Record of the Revolutionary War in the South: 1780-1781. 6th Ed).

4. Winn, ibid. Winn claims that this event occurred on Tuesday, August 2nd, but Tuesday was the 1st. Similarly, his account has the correct day of the week, but the wrong date, for the battles of Rocky Mount and Hanging Rock.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. The pension application of John Whelchel, transcribed by Will Graves. Whelchel served in Thomas Brandon’s regiment.

8. Winn's notes. Whelchel also referred to the capture and hanging of the two men.

9. This is claimed by several sources. See Winn’s memoir, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, Joseph Graham's papers, and the pension application of John Whelchel.

10. Tarleton, ibid.

11. Graham, ibid.

12. See this intelligence report.

13. Letter from Thomas Polk to Thomas Pinckney, August 6, 1780.

14. Letter from Thomas Sumter to Thomas Pinckney, August 9, 1780. William Davie claimed that the loss of Hanging Rock would cause the abandonment of Rocky Mount. See The Revolutionary War Sketches of William R. Davie [extract]. Davie's account also appears in, John H. Wheeler (1851). Historical Sketches of North Carolina from 1584 to 1851, Vol. 1.

15. Letter from Charles Cornwallis to George Germain, August 20, 1780.

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