Enraged that the British burned his home and by the ruthless May 29, 1780, Waxhaws Massacre, General Thomas Sumter and his militia embarked on a guerrilla campaign that would pit brother against brother, father against son, and neighbor against neighbor, making South Carolina the site of the first American civil war.
Following the May 1780 Fall of Charleston the British established a number of out posts with the intention of restoring Royal authority over South Carolina’s population and resources. Confident that the British would be unable to quickly assemble a substantial number of troops to adequately defend any one outpost, Sumter proposed small, calculated attacks on the British outposts. His ultimate goal: make remaining at key strategic locations along the Santee and Wateree Rivers undesirable and unsustainable.
On July 17, 1780, Sumter wrote General Johann de Kalb from his camp on the Catawaba River expressing his desire to “prevent them [the British] from forcing the Militia to retreat…and also from stripping the country of all its resources.” He also gave de Kalb the best intelligence at his disposal. The British had 800 men in Charleston, 12 in Beaufort, 250 at Ninety Six, 200 at Rocky Mount, 700 at Camden; 280 men of foot, and 70 dragoons occupied Hanging Rock. Another 1,100 British lurked in Georgia. All told, Sumter estimated 3,482 British troops were within reasonable striking distance. This he called “most interesting.”
Located on the road between Camden – considered the key to controlling the backcountry of the Carolinas – and Charlotte, the outpost at Hanging Rock provided the British with a significant amount of natural cover. The area on the east side of Hanging Rock Creek was heavily wooded with steep banks that lead down to a creek full of massive boulders. The British camped on the west side of the creek where the ground rose sharply from the creak and plateaued. The rocks and trees surrounding Hanging Rock were essential factors in the success of Continental attacks.
While Sumter staged an attack on the nearby Rocky Mount, Major William Richardson Davie and his North Carolina Independent Corps of Light Horse prepared to ambush Colonel Samuel Bryan’s North Carolina Loyalist Militia at Hanging Rock on July 30, 1780. With 40 dragoons and roughly the same amount of mounted riflemen, Davie’s force was far too small to take on Bryan’s full force of 500. Instead, Davie focused his efforts on a garrisoned house near the fort at Hanging Rock.
Using the similarities in dress, speech, and manner between his men and Bryan’s Loyalists to his advantage, Davie’s mountain riflemen casually rode into three companies of Loyalist mounted infantry and opened fire. Anticipating the Loyalist flight, Davie circled his dragoons to cut off their retreat. All this happened in plain view of the main Loyalist encampment and, having routed a small number of Loyalists, Davie withdrew before reinforcements arrived.
Thwarted by a thunderstorm at Rocky Mount, Sumter was as determined as ever to strike a blow. On August 5 Sumter staged his own attack on Hanging Rock. Reinforced by Davie and nearly 800 troops, Sumter marched 16 miles through the night, stopping just short of Hanging Rock. Crossing Hanging Rock Creek at 6:00am, the attack began.
The British defenders under Major John Carden’s men, however, would not back down without a fight. With bayonets fixed they charged Sumter’s men twice. Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton called that effort “the example of courage.” The Continentals quickly took shelter behind rocks andtrees, using the cover while firing into the British lines. Within a few minutes, the majority of the British officers had been shot down. Within a half hour, the Continentals took the British Camp.
Sumter then shifted his focus to the main camp, where Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Robinson’s regiment of South Carolina Royalists was waiting. Using captured British ammunition, he forced the British into a southward retreat capturing two thirds of that camp as well.
The Battle of Hanging Rock raged on for a total of three hours in the sweltering South Carolina summer. Exhausted, many of Sumter’s men could no longer continue fighting. While the British “consoled themselves with some military music and an interlude of Three Cheers for King George,” the Continentals sang “Three Cheers and the Hero of American Liberty” as they plundered the camp, tended to the wounded, and helped themselves to British rum. At 1pm, Sumter’s men safely retreated.
Each side believed that they were the victor – the British because they did not give up all of their ground and the Continentals because they captured significant amounts of British stores and were able to withdraw unmolested. By the numbers though, the British suffered nearly 350 casualties
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