In the spring of 1780, British forces captured the city of Charleston, South Carolina, which gave them almost complete control of the state and escalated a preexisting civil war between Patriot and Loyalist partisans.
The British established garrisons throughout South Carolina and attempted to consolidate their control of the region. Bands of Patriot guerillas, meanwhile, strove to undermine the British and their Loyalist allies by striking at their outposts in the back-country.
On the morning of August 19, 1780, 200 mounted Patriots arrived in the vicinity of Musgrove’s Mill after an all-night ride. The Patriot force consisted of Georgians commanded by Col. Elijah Clarke, South Carolinians commanded by Col.l James Williams, and a group of “Over Mountain Men” from present-day Tennessee commanded by Col. Isaac Shelby.
Musgrove’s Mill was the key to the local grain supply and was home to a Tory outpost which commanded a ford over the Enoree River. Shelby, Williams, and Clarke were under the impression that the enemy’s numbers were equivalent to their own.
The Patriots revealed their presence in the area when several of their scouts clashed with a Loyalist patrol. Two of the rebels were wounded in the brief clash.
After falling back, the Patriots encountered a farmer friendly to the rebel cause, who informed them that, contrary to their initial intelligence, the enemy garrison of 200 men had been reinforced with 100 additional Loyalist militiamen and 200 Tory Regulars.
Realizing they were outnumbered more than two-to-one and that they had lost the element of surprise, the Patriot commanders decided to go on the defensive.
On a ridge top overlooking the road leading to Musgrove’s Mill, the Patriots dug in and threw up a make shift breastwork. A small detachment under the command Georgian Capt. Shadrach Inman was dispatched to lure the enemy into an ambush.
Inman crossed the ford over the Enoree River and engaged the Loyalists, who took the rebel bait. Shadrach retreated back to the Patriot line with the Tories, under the command of Col. Alexander Innes, hot on his heels.
As the Loyalists approached, the rebels were told to hold their fire until they “could distinguish the buttons on their clothes.” When the enemy was within 70 yards the Patriots opened fire. The effect was devastating but the disciplined Tory regulars kept their nerve. Fixing bayonets, they advanced on the Patriots’ right flank. The rebel right was held by Shelby’s men. Lacking bayonets with which to defend themselves in hand-to-hand combat, the frontiersmen fell back.
Realizing that the line was in peril, Col. Clarke attempted to relieve some of the pressure on Shelby by attacking the enemy’s right flank. Around the same time, one of Shelby’s men shot and wounded Innes, who fell from his horse. The “Over Mountain Men” rallied and returned to the fray with a war cry borrowed from Native Americans. Meanwhile, the Loyalists began to waver and withdraw. As the Patriots pressed home their attack, what began as a retreat transformed into a rout.
Although the battle only lasted for about an hour, the Loyalists suffered heavy casualties. Out of roughly 500 men, they lost 63 killed, 90 wounded, and about 70 captured. The Patriots only lost 4 men killed and 12 wounded.
Before they could follow up on their success, the Patriot leaders learned of the destruction of Horatio’s Gates army at Camden and decided to disperse their forces. Nonetheless, the rebel victory at Musgrove’s Mill served as a reminder that resistance to British rule had not been snuffed out.
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