Across Fishing Creek
The Americans slaughtered cattle and feasted on beef, roasted ears of corn, and freshly picked peaches. Some men napped, while others shaved or washed their clothes. Men and women living in the neighborhood came out to greet and encourage the soldiers. The American guards detected no danger. The situation in the American camp was idyllic. Yet at that moment, Tarleton’s 160 men were quickly bearing down on the Americans along the byway .
The first Americans to see Tarleton’s men were two vedettes. These men stepped out of the bushes and fired, killing one of the five dragoons in the British vanguard. The remaining dragoons killed the vedettes with their sabers and headed towards the creek. Responsibility for guarding the ford by which the byway crossed Fishing Creek had been left to one Captain Thompson. Thompson, however, had left his post and the ford was now unguarded .
Among the Americans to see the British vanguard and live to tell of it were John Williams and John Dobbins of the North Carolina militia. These two men and others were collecting peaches in an orchard near Fishing Creek. Fortunately for them, the four remaining dragoons either did not see them, or took no notice of them. The incredulous Americans offered no resistance and swam to safety across the Catawba River .
Finally, the dragoons ascended a height from which the main American body was in view. The dragoons crouched upon their horses and waving for their comrades to come on. Tarleton sped ahead and when he reached the height he was amazed to see "the front of the American camp, perfectly quiet, and not the least alarmed by the fire of the vedettes" .
The Americans’ had been using rifles to slaughter cattle; although the vedette’s two shots had been heard in camp, they elicited no special notice .
Stealthily, Tarleton’s "cavalry and infantry were formed into one line," just out of the Americans’ view. Then, "giving a general shout," the British charged .
The Fishing Creek Battlefield. Fishing Creek is the winding stream at left; the Catawba River is at right. The large blue circle shows the approximate position of the main American body on the river road. The smaller blue circle shows the rear guard. The red arrow depicts Tarleton's charge . The main road (brown line) is based on the modern-day Catawba River Road. The byway is not depicted.
Fishing Creek Area. Part of the Fishing Creek battlefield has been flooded by damming on the Catawba River. This excerpt from Mills' 1825 atlas of South Carolina was used to roughly locate the original banks of the Catawba River in the above battlefield map. Islands shown in the 1825 atlas were not included in the battlefield map. Note that Mills' map designates the "Battle of F. C."
"A Perfect Rout"
The dragoons rushed the American encampment, with sabers gleaming brightly in the sunlight. The British infantry came streaming after, charging through the dragoons’ dusty wake.
Tarleton Forms His Line. Infantry and dragoons form a single-rank line of battle. According to Tarleton, most of his infantry came from the corps of light infantry that fought at Camden. Shown are light infantrymen from the 71st Foot and 16th Foot, as well as a soldier of the British Legion infantry. As per usual, the figure to participant ratio is 1:20.
Tarleton described the battle that followed in prosaic terms: "The arms and artillery of the Continentals were secured before the men could be assembled: Universal consternation immediately ensued throughout the camp; some opposition was, however, made from behind the wagons, in front of the militia. The numbers, and extensive encampment of the enemy, occasioned several conflicts before the action was decided" .
Young James Collins, who had only recently joined Sumter, recalled that "Before Sumter could wake up his men and form, the enemy were among them cutting down everything in their way" .
According to one account, Sumter was sitting next to a wagon and was halfway through a shave when the British attacked. "When the colonel saw the state of things around, he cut a rope with which a horse was tied to a wagon, dropped his razor, mounted the horse and made his escape without saddle or bridle" .
At least one knot of resistance developed where the wagons were interposed between the dragoons and the militia. Here, some South Carolinians briefly rallied around Colonel William Bratton before being driven off. Then, according to Collins, the main part of Sumter’s force "retreated across the creek at the main road, leaving the remainder to the mercy of the enemy." Collins was with “the greater part of our number [who] dashed through the creek, at the fording place." These men were desperate "to secure our own safety… and pushing on with all possible speed, reached the highland." He called this "a perfect rout." The fate of those left behind was "an indiscriminate slaughter" .
Tarleton also described the fighting as a "slaughter." According to one militiaman, the British were incensed at the deaths of a sergeant of the Legion dragoons and a captain of the light infantry. "The British officers had great spite at the militia, but ordered that the regulars [Continentals] should have quarters" .
The sight of so many enemy soldiers may also have been terrifying to the British, even though they had the upper hand. Relief came when the British found and released the Americans’ prisoners. These men picked up guns (which littered the ground) and joined their comrades. When this reinforcement arrived, the killing stopped .
By this time, the battleground was covered with scores of dead and grievously wounded Americans, both Continentals and militia. Tarleton claimed that 150 had been struck down, and the total American loss (including unwounded prisoners) was around 300. As for himself, he lost a mere 6 infantrymen, 9 dragoons, and 20 horses .
In some places the capitalization, spelling, and punctuation of the quoted source material has been altered to bring it into line with modern standards.
1. Banastre Tarleton. (1787). A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781. The pension application of Thomas Bartley, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris. The pension application of Edward Doyle, transcribed by Will Graves. The pension application of John Williams, transcribed and annotated by Will Graves. The pension application of Samuel Eakin , transcribed by Will Graves. The pension application of Zachary Kitchens, transcribed by C. Leon Harris. The pension application of David McCance, transcribed by Will Graves. James Hodge Saye. Memoirs of Major Joseph McJunkin, Revolutionary Patriot.
2. Tarleton, ibid. The pension application of John Henderson, transcribed by Will Graves.
3. The pension application of John Williams, transcribed and annotated by Will Graves.
4. Tarleton, ibid.
5. Tarleton, ibid. The pension application of Thomas Bartley, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris.
6. Tarleton, ibid.
7. Saye, ibid. has the British attacking along a relatively unguarded byway. Tarleton, ibid., claimed that the first thing he saw was "the front of the American camp" -- not the rear guard. James Collins in his (1859) Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier, claimed that the Americans "retreated across the creek at the main road," which is at the bottom of the map. This statement implies that the British were attacking from a different direction. Collins also recorded that "the rear guard consisting of militia were posted at the Creek." David McCance, ibid. claimed that "the rear guard was ordered to remain one mile behind" the main body, which is consistent with Collins' statement and Mills' placement of the battlefield. However, McCance also claimed that the rear guard "was taken," which seemingly is contradicted by Tarleton, Saye, and Collins (at least when the three are read together). Militiaman George Cunningham claimed that he was one of those "standing guard," but he was not captured. (see the pension application of George Cunningham, transcribed by Will Graves).
8. Tarleton, ibid.
9. Collins, ibid. A transcription appears in Michael Scoggins (2005). The Battle of Fishing Creek. Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Vol. 2, No. 8.
10. Saye, ibid.
11. Saye, ibid. Collins, ibid.
12. Tarleton, ibid. The pension application of Thomas Bartley, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris.
13. Tarleton, ibid.
14. Tarleton, ibid. British Legion killed and wounded at Catawba Fords. British Legion prisoners taken at Catawba Fords. The pension application of George Neely, transcribed by Will Graves. The pension application of John Patton, transcribed by Will Graves.