Thomas Sumter did not command enough men to simply overpower the British in the South Carolina Backcountry, and what men he had were deficient in arms and ammunition. Therefore, he chose to rely on surprise to give him an advantage over his opponents. The battle plan he developed for the attack on Hanging Rock was a repeat of that used at Rocky Mount. On both occasions, he sought to achieve surprise by making a night march to suddenly close with his target. Then, he planned to launch his attack at daybreak from multiple directions. Sumter's subordinates had also adopted this stratagem several weeks earlier at Williamson's Plantation.
The American plans at Williamson's Plantation and Rocky Mount were spoiled by an unexpected obstacle on the eve of the attack . Hanging Rock would be no different. In this case, Sumter's men found the Catawba River to be unexpectedly difficult to cross. Sumter noted:
“I… began to pass the river on Saturday evening [i.e., August 5, 1780]. The rapidity of the current was so great I was not only much delayed, but met with considerable loss; however, [I] proceeded on.” .
Once across, Sumter proceeded with some caution. Scouts were dispatched in advance of Sumter’s column , and “two spies” had been placed in the British camp before Sumter made his march. During the night, these men stole their way north and reported their findings. They “claimed that “the British camp… did not exceed 300 and that their reinforcement sent to Rocky Mount had not returned” .
Armed with this good news, Sumter’s men made their final approach march. According to William Davie, the column “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” .
Soon, the Americans could hear “the sound of horse bells” and see “the smoke settled along the valley of Hanging Rock Creek” . “A whispering order came along the line that any might sit down with arms in hand to be ready” . Sumter had wanted to attack at daybreak, but he claimed that “[I] was obliged to alter my mode of attack” because of the time it had taken during the night to get across the Catawba. Therefore, he “concealed” his men near the British camp, waiting for the British “to scatter” .
Both sides understood that early morning was an ideal time to launch a surprise attack. At Rocky Mount, George Turnbull kept his infantry under arms at daybreak, lest an attack should come. Sumter implies that by delaying the attack, the British relaxed and went about their daily routine.
While the Americans waited, they “took two Tories,” who claimed “that the reinforcement sent to Rocky Mount had returned” since the spies’ departure. This was very alarming news, and a council of war was held with Sumter and his principal commanders. Initial opinion was divided: “some for fighting others for retreating.” A consensus, however, was quickly achieved in favor of going forward because “no officer was willing to be out done by the other in bravery” .
What the Americans had learned, according to William Davie, was that the British were “pretty strongly posted in three divisions.” This force included “Regulars” [actually Provincials] “on the [American] right; a part of the British legion and Hamilton's Regiment were at some houses in the centre; and Bryan's Regiment, and other Loyalists some distance on the [American] left.”
Sumter downscaled the scope of the attack in view of this unwelcome news. Because the “three large encampments” were “so extensive,” “it was impossible to attack the whole at once.” Therefore, he wrote, “I proceeded against the most considerable of the Tory encampments and that of the British, which lay in the center” .
Sumter’s men would attack in three divisions. His left and center divisions would attack Samuel Bryan’s North Carolina Volunteers. The center division would attack in front, while the left division curled around to the rear . These two divisions had “orders not to fire a gun” until the left division had “passed between the British and Tory lines to the extremities [i.e., the flank and rear] . The Americans might not be able to seize the entire post, but the North Carolina Loyalists, at least, were going to get thrashed. Sumter’s right division was sent against the center camp . If this force was unable to capture the center camp on its own, they would at least occupy the Provincials while Bryan’s men were slaughtered.
In order to maximize surprise, Sumter wanted his men to ride up to the camps and dismount in sight of the enemy. Davie claimed that “This plan was approved by all the officers” excepting himself. Davie “insisted on leaving the horses at this place and marching to the attack on foot, urging the confusion always consequent on dismounting under a fire, and the certainty of losing the effect of a sudden and vigorous attack. This objection was, however, overruled” .
1. At Williamson's Plantation, the Americans were led to believe that the British were encamped at a neighboring plantation, which threw off somewhat the planned timing of the attack, and possibly cost them the services of some of their best men (See Richard Winn's account, in General Richard Winn's Notes -- 1780, transcribed by Will Graves). At Rocky Mount, the Americans unexpectedly ran into a detachment of the British Legion before they were in position to attack.
2. Letter from Thomas Sumter to Thomas Pinckney, August 9, 1780. The difficulty in crossing the river might be connected to the rain showers on July 30.
3. The pension application of Edward Rogers, transcribed by Will Graves. He recalled that “The night before the battle he got wounded while spying out the enemy's camp.”
4. Winn, ibid.
5. 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. There are some basic disagreements between the accounts of Thomas Sumter, Richard Winn, and William Davie on events during this time. Sumter’s and Winn’s accounts are fairly compatible, and as Sumter’s account is especially trustworthy, I side with them over Davie where there are disagreements.
6. William A. Graham (1904). General Joseph Graham and His Papers on North Carolina Revolutionary History.
7. Joseph McJunkin's account of the battle, in Will Graves. (2005). What Did Joseph McJunkin Really Saye? Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Volume 2, Issue 11.
8. Sumter, ibid. McJunkin, ibid., recalled how he spent the time: “I and a fellow soldier sat down by a pine and both slept a little.”
9. Winn, ibid.
10. Sumter, ibid.
11. Inference based on statements by Winn and McJunkin
12. McJunkin, ibid.
13. Winn and Davie have the right division attacking the Provincials.
14. Davie, ibid. His apprehension may stem, in part, from the particularly dangerous undertaking assigned to his men (the right division).