Friday, February 19, 2010

Battle of Hanging Rock 7

Part 7: Bryan's Defeat

Battle plan in place, the Americans remounted their horses and filed off towards the British camps. For a brief moment, everything went as planned. According to Richard Winn, "the main body [i.e., the center and left divisions] wheeled to the left," while Winn and Davie’s men moved "to the right." The American commanders knew their targets, but they did not know the terrain. Therefore, they were forced to rely on the services of local guides to lead them to their destinations. Unfortunately, the guides leading the right division knew only that they were to lead this column towards the center camp on the Camden Road; they had not been briefed on the placement of Samuel Bryan’s Volunteers [1]. As a consequence, they led the right division into the Hanging Rock Creek bottom and past the front of Samuel Bryan’s men.

At this moment, Bryan’s men were having breakfast [2], but they could hardly fail to notice the Americans. Indeed, Richard Winn claimed that "his party was within 30 steps" of some of Bryan’s men when they began to receive fire. Sumter’s intended plan of attack was quickly abandoned. There was no choice now but for all three American divisions to assail Bryan’s camp.

Davie’s dragoons were in the lead when the right division came under attack. Winn claimed that Davie’s men were "ordered to move on to make room for the [infantry]" [3]. Winn’s men hurriedly began to dismount. At this moment, he recalled, "we received a most tremendous fire from Brian," but "The enemy being on the top of a big hill over shot us." Davie, however, complained that his men "suffered much while tying their horses, and forming under a heavy fire from the Tories" [4].

The Americans Advance Up the Hill (click to enlarge). Leaving their horses near the creek bottom, the Americans advance under fire towards Bryan's Volunteers at upper left.

Bryan’s men, for their part, formed up so as to face all three American divisions, their lines following the contours of the hill. Opposite the American left division, the hill looked "something like a half moon or a workman’s square," [5] and here, their "lines were extended from a point at right angles" [6]. The left division had not yet reached its assigned ground when the firing began. As a consequence, the center and left divisions were forced into an almost head-on assault of the Loyalist camp. William Hill recalled that "This action commenced under many very unfavorable circumstances to the Americans, as they had to march across a water course and climb a steep cliff, being all this time under the enemy's fire" [7].

Bryan's Line of Defense (click to enlarge). In the foreground, a camp follower awaits the outcome of the fighting. Brush huts and barrels mark the site of Bryan's camp.

The first Americans to be attacked were the first to ascend the hill. On the right, "Winn's party was ordered to put up the Indian hollow and rush up the hill before they discharged their pieces. This took place in an instance at this same time [Davie’s troop] was ordered to charge" [8].

Davie's Dragoons Charge Bryan's Left

Bryan’s line was soon rolled up from left to right. On the left, his Volunteers were only able to get off a single volley, and American losses were relatively light: just one killed and two wounded [9]. In the center, the Loyalists got off two volleys before their line collapsed [10]. The most severe losses were inflicted by Bryan’s right. Here, John McClure led his men against the angle in the Loyalist lines. They ran forward in two ranks with a terrific fire began pouring down on them. In a few moments, McClure, Joseph Gaston, and two of his brothers "fell in the front of the action." Gaston "received a ball on the bridge of his nose" that "went under the left eye and out by the ear." One of Gaston’s brothers lay "dead on the ground," while McClure and another brother lay mortally wounded [11]. Much lore developed around the mortal wounding of John McClure. According to one tradition,

"Colonel McClure was shot through the thigh, early in the action, but stuffing the wound with wadding, he rushed ahead of his command, and his clear voice was still heard, urging on his men to the continued charge. Just as the tories fled, he fell, pierced by several wounds. Those near him ran up to his relief, but he ordered them back to the fight, and his voice continued to be heard, urging and encouraging them in the pursuit" [12].

Battle Amid the Trees. The southern end of the Loyalist (left) and American (right) lines during the assault on Bryan's camp.

As Bryan's line was rolled up, many of his men began fleeing toward the south. Just then, a part of the American left "got around the side of their camp" [13], "and as Brian's men went by," the Americans gave them "a severe fire" [14].

Bryan’s men were in full rout, "attacked in front and flank, and routed with great slaughter," [15] they "fled with the utmost precipitation, and spread confusion through every quarter of the post" [16]. Even flight was precarious, for Davie’s dragoons "could not be restrained, but pursued them" across the woodland [17]. Further, some of those Loyalists that fled towards the center camp were mistaken for Sumter's men and shot by Provincials [18]. Winn boasted that "many of these men was so frightened they never stopped [running] until they got into Georgia" [19].

Bryan's Volunteers in Flight

Assault on Bryan's Camp. Some of the unit actions occurring at this time will be described in subsequent posts. PoWAR = Prince of Wales' American Regiment.


1. The error of the guides is described by William Davie, Joseph Graham, and Richard Winn. For William Davie's account, see John H. Wheeler. (1851). Historical Sketches of North Carolina from 1584 to 1851, Vol. 1. For Graham's account, see William A. Graham (1904). General Joseph Graham and His Papers on North Carolina Revolutionary History. For Winn's account, see General Richard Winn's Notes -- 1780, transcribed by Will Graves.

2. The pension application of Samuel Saxon, transcribed by Will Graves.

3. Winn, ibid.

4. Davie, ibid.

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

6. Joseph Gaston. (1836/1873). Joseph Gaston's Narrative. The Historical Magazine and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America, Vol. 1.

7. Alexander S. Salley. (1921). Col. William Hill's Memoirs of the Revolution.

8. Winn, ibid.

9. Winn, ibid. However, as already noted, his description of American losses is at odds with Davie’s.

10. Graham, ibid., who was with Robert Irwin and the center division.

11. The pension application of Joseph Gaston, transcribed by Will Graves.

12. Joseph Johnson (1851). Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South. See Elizabeth Fries Ellet. (1850). Domestic history of the American Revolution for another version of this story. McClure’s death was mentioned by many participants.

13. Hill, ibid.

14. Winn, ibid.

15. Davie, ibid.

16. Charles Stedman. (1794). The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, Vol. 2.

17. Graham, ibid.

18. Saxon, ibid.

19. Winn, ibid. This is an exaggeration of course, but some of the Loyalists continued their retreat at least as far as Rawdon’s force on Lynche’s Creek, 12 miles away. They reached this point in the evening and were joined there by soldiers from the Royal North Carolina Regiment and the Prince of Wales’ American Regiment who fled during a later stage in the fighting. See Letter from Francis Rawdon to Colonel McMahon, January 19, 1801.

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