On August 16, 1780, the men of Thomas Sumter’s brigade could hear the distant sound of cannon fire from the battle of Camden, and anxiously awaited word of the result. That evening, three or four riders appeared bearing news of the American defeat; they also conveyed orders from Major-General Horatio Gates for Sumter to retreat to a place of safety .
Sumter had held onto a toehold of South Carolina since late June, and although his men had galled the British at Williamson’s Plantation, he had been left undisturbed because of "the intense heat of the summer," because British offensive preparations were then incomplete, and because he did not yet register as a serious threat. After the attacks on Rocky Mount and Hanging Rock, Sumter was seen as truly dangerous, but the American offensive under Gates prohibited the British from launching a sustained retaliatory campaign. Now, Gates' army was destroyed, and Sumter’s protection was gone .
Sumter well appreciated the new strategic situation, and wasted no time in seeking the relative safety of the North Carolina border. That night his men marched north along the western bank of the Wateree . This night march was not as rapid as the one he made before the battles of Rocky Mount or Hanging Rock. On those occasions his force was mounted; now he was responsible for hundreds of men (the force lent by Gates and his British prisoners) who would travel by foot.
Sumter pushed his men again the following day (August 17), and got his force by nightfall to Rocky Mount, some 25 miles from Camden, and on the edge of his former sphere of operations. At dawn on August 18, Sumter burned the post at Rocky Mount (which had been abandoned by the British some days earlier) and headed north again .
By this time, Sumter had picked an unlooked-for reinforcement. A band of mounted militia led by Captain John Moffett met him on the road, which was fleeing from a different danger: a growing Loyalist militia presence in the western part of the state. On the morning of the 18th, Sumter’s men also met up with several Maryland Continentals who had journeyed from the Camden battlefield. These men included privates John Housley and Benjamin Burch of the 6th Maryland Regiment, which had been in the very center of the fighting. Housley had made the grueling journey despite a flesh wound .
By midday, Sumter’s force had made another 8 miles, and was on a ridge a short distance north of Fishing Creek. Both he and his men were exhausted and at least one wagon had broken down. He ordered a rest. Sumter had previously posted a lookout at the ford over the Catawba at Rocky Mount, and he now placed a patrol on the road south of Fishing Creek, and a strong guard at the ford across Fishing Creek. Vedettes kept watch over other approaches to the American position . After issuing these orders, Sumter partly undressed and napped under a wagon .
Soon after the battle of Camden ended, Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis plotted the destruction of Sumter’s brigade. Cornwallis had two forces that were capable of catching Sumter. On the far side of the wide Wateree, Major Patrick Ferguson and Lieutenant-Colonel George Turnbull commanded a force of Provincials and Loyalist militia collected from Rocky Mount and other points in western South Carolina. This force was not as numerous as Sumter’s brigade, but they were well positioned to cut off his retreat. On the near side of the river, he had Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a great driver of men. It was hoped that the two forces would act in concert, and orders were issued to both commands .
Tarleton set off early on the 17th with his British Legion dragoons, a 3-pounder cannon, and a number of infantry. By nightfall, he had reached the Catawba/Wateree near Rocky Mount. At that moment, Sumter’s men were on the other side of the river .
At dawn on the 18th, some of the British sentries reported that the Americans were pulling out. Fearing a ruse, Tarleton ordered Captain Charles Campbell to take a small party across the river to assess the situation. Campbell’s party captured the lookout the Americans had left at Rocky Mount, and confirmed that the Americans had departed. When Tarleton saw Campbell waving a white handkerchief from the top of the height, the British set off with the cannon and the light infantry in several boats, while the horses (with riders) first waded out into the river and then swam across the deepest part .
Tarleton was unable to make contact with Ferguson and Turnbull, and so would be forced to go it alone at this point. Tarleton marched his men up the river road, following the clear tracks left by Sumter’s men. Then: a remarkable stroke of fortune. Two Loyalist women met him on the road, who claimed that Sumter’s men had halted. The women described the Americans’ position and a byway that led to their flank. Losing no time, Tarleton left behind his cannon and those men unable to make a rapid march. He then pressed on with about 100 dragoons and 60 infantry. Leading the way was a vanguard of one sergeant and four privates of the British Legion dragoons .
Sumter's Retreat and Tarleton's Pursuit (click to enlarge). Approximate paths taken by Sumter's brigade (in blue) and Tarleton's command (in red) before the battle of Fishing Creek.
2. Letter from Charles Cornwallis to George Germain, August 20, 1780.
3. The pension application of Jonas Clark, transcribed by Will Graves.
4. Banastre Tarleton. (1787). A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781. The pension application of William McGarity, transcribed by Will Graves. The distance is based on a straight line from Rocky Creek to Camden town.
5. James Collins. (1859). Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier. The pension application of John Housley, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris. The pension application of Benjamin Burch, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris. At Camden, the 6th Maryland on the left flank of the 2nd Maryland Brigade (see Otho Holland Williams, A Narrative of the Campaign of 1780), where it was engaged with portions of at least three different regiments: The Volunteers of Ireland, the 33rd Foot, and the 71st Foot.
6. As noted previously, Thomas Sumter has been criticized for some of the military decisions that he made in the course of this campaign. The strongest criticisms have been made regarding his defenses (or lack thereof) at the battle of Fishing Creek. On this point, the present account of the battle differs substantially from others. The meme that Sumter was a careless commander received a large boost from William Davie, who wrote that Sumter “strangely neglected the necessary precautions to prevent a surprise… the whole security of the army rested upon two vedettes.” But Davie was not present, and he obtained his information largely from Tarleton’s memoir rather than from the remembrances of American participants. American accounts, in particular those recorded by James Saye and James Collins, point to a very different conclusion: that Tarleton surprised the Americans because he crossed Fishing Creek at an obscure (though still guarded) ford, and in this way suddenly gained the Americans’ flank. This interpretation of course does not completely exonerate Sumter, but it does further suggest that he was a much abler commander than some historians believe.
For Davie's account, see The Revolutionary War Sketches of William R. Davie [extract]. Saye's account can be found in this extract from his Memoirs of Major Joseph McJunkin, Revolutionary Patriot. For Collins' account, see the transcription appearing in Michael Scoggins (2005). The Battle of Fishing Creek. Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Vol. 2, No. 8.
7. Tarleton, ibid. Davie, ibid. The pension application of Zachary Kitchens, transcribed by C. Leon Harris. According to the pension application of David McCance (transcribed by Will Graves), Sumter slept in a tent.
8. Letter from Charles Cornwallis to George Germain, August 21, 1780.
9. Tarleton, ibid.
10. Tarleton, ibid.
11. Tarleton, ibid. James Hodge Saye. Memoirs of Major Joseph McJunkin, Revolutionary Patriot.