Return to the Battlefield
The greater part of Sumter’s forces fled the Fishing Creek battlefield to the south, over the ford at the river road. As there was no safety in this direction, the Americans scattered. South Carolina militiaman James Collins lingered with some of his comrades near the scene of the fighting because some of his neighbors were missing. He remembered hearing, "little firing, except the pistols of the enemy," and then "all seemed to be silent." These men remained hidden while Tarleton brought off a large party of prisoners, the Americans’ guns, and all of their baggage. Late in the day, he recalled:
"a few blasts of the bugle brought some of our men in sight, who in their hurry had missed the fording place, and had gone up the creek where they found it difficult to pass, and were looking for our trail. Near sunset, a few more came up, but there were still some missing, of whom we could hear nothing. We then left the road, keeping a high, open ridge and went off some distance; night coming on, we dismounted in the woods and tied our horses; we had nothing for man or beast to eat, and the weather being warm, (August,) we kindled no fires. We lay down, every man with his sword by his side, his gun in his hands, and his pistol near his head. All were silent, for we expected the whole army had been taken prisoners, or put to the sword."
In the morning, Collins’ men cautiously approached the battlefield. Five of the men in his company were still missing. The men were also in need of food and water. At the battlefield they encountered some of Sumter’s men on a similar mission. Collins remembered that:
"The dead and wounded lay stretched cold and lifeless; some were yet straggling in the agonies of death, while here and there, lay others, faint with the loss of blood, almost famished for water, and begging for assistance. The scene before me, I could not reconcile to my feelings, and I again began to repent that I had ever taken any part in the matter [i.e., gone to war]; however, by custom, such things become familiar. We commenced our search and soon found two of our own party, one named Enloe, and the other Jackson, some distance apart, both setting up, unable to walk without assistance, and mangled by the sword. The other three we could not find among the living or the dead; what their fate was, we never knew, for we never heard of them afterwards. One was a lieutenant named Bryan, one of our most active men. We collected all the wounded we could; but poor fellows, we had little nourishment to give them; they all craved water, and even the little they received, seemed to revive them. We then began to look out [for] some provisions, for ourselves and horses; we found corn lying about in many places, that had not been consumed the day before, and there were several kettles setting about, where the fire had been kindled, with provisions already cooked—and provisions scattered about on the ground in various places. There was no time for choosing, and every man ate whatever he got hold of, asking no questions; then, taking a glass of cold water, we all felt somewhat braced up. There were horses grazing about the old field, that appeared to be nearly worn out, some with bridles and saddles on, others without."
Later, according to Collins: "After giving what help we could in burying the dead, in haste,--poor fellows it was badly done,--we caught two of the best looking horses we could find, and placing our two wounded men upon them, and supporting them as well as we could, we moved off, taking with us no plunder, (or very little) of what was considered of right to belong to Sumter’s men, being the property of their companions who had fallen… We got to a house, a few miles distant, where we obtained nourishment for the wounded, and finding an old horse-cart, we placed them in it, and next day, got them to their home, where they both recovered, but not without being much disfigured by their wounds" .
Tarleton brought off 252 prisoners from the battlefield, including 72 Continentals. Their treatment was harsh. According to one, "they were not allowed a draft of water or a mouthful to eat for two days." In the baking heat they were marched down to Camden . From there, some of the militia were placed in the Camden jail. The remainder was brought down to Charleston. Some escaped, but most suffered until they were eventually exchanged or released.
Samuel Eakins of the North Carolina militia was one that had the opportunity to escape. He was detained in Camden to assist American prisoners that had been wounded in the battle of Camden. One night he set off on what he claimed became a 3-week, 300 mile journey home. He walked, "mostly in the night being fearful of the Tories without a hat on his head or a shoe to his feet and not a penny in his pocket entirely dependent upon the charity of the Whigs whenever he fell in with them – he was frequently in a state of starvation – words cannot express the sufferings that [he] underwent in this journey" .
Benjamin Burch of the 6th Maryland Regiment was also "fortunate" in that he was exchanged the following year and deposited in Virginia. There, in a "state of nakedness and destitution," "without hat, coat, jacket, stockings or shoes – with only an old and broken shirt and a pair of tattered and worn out short-breeches… he literally begged his way home to Prince George County" .
1. James Collins (1859). Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier. A transcription appears in Michael Scoggins (2005). The Battle of Fishing Creek. Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Vol. 2, No. 8.
3. The pension application of Samuel Eakin , transcribed by Will Graves.
4. The pension application of Benjamin Burch, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris.