In the spring of 1780, the British captured the city of Charleston, giving them almost complete control over South Carolina. Seeking to undermine the occupation of their state, Patriot guerillas, who were already engaged in a bloody civil war with Loyalist partisans, began striking their enemy’s outposts in the back-country.
On the morning of August 19, 200 mounted Patriots arrived near Musgrove’s Mill, the key to the local grain supply and the site of a Tory outpost. The Patriot force consisted of Georgians under Colonel Elijah Clarke, South Carolinians under Colonel James Williams, and a group of “Over Mountain Men” from present-day Tennessee commanded by Colonel Isaac Shelby.
The Patriots revealed their presence when several of their scouts clashed with a Loyalist patrol. Two Rebels were wounded in the brief clash. Falling back, the Patriots encountered a friendly farmer who informed them that, contrary to their initial intelligence, the Tory garrison had been reinforced and now consisted of 500 men.
Outnumbered, and having lost the element of surprise, the Patriots formed up on a ridge top overlooking the road to Musgrove’s Mill and threw up a make-shift breastwork. A small detachment under the command of Captain Shadrach Inman was dispatched to lure the enemy into an ambush.
Inman crossed a ford over the Enoree River and engaged the Loyalists before falling back to the main Patriot line. Taking the bait, the Tories pursued him.
The Rebels were ordered to hold fire until they “could distinguish the buttons” on the clothes of the approaching Loyalists, who were commanded by Colonel Alexander Innes. When Innes’s men were within 70 yards, the Patriots open fired with devastating effect. Yet the Tories kept their nerve, and fixing bayonets, advanced on the Patriots’ right flank, which was held by Shelby’s men. Lacking bayonets with which to defend themselves in hand-to-hand combat, the frontiersmen fell back.
Attempting to relieve some of the pressure on the imperiled Patriot line, Colonel Clarke attacked the enemy’s right flank. At 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 as the Loyalists began to waver and then withdraw. The Patriots pressed home their attack, and the Loyalist retreat transformed into a rout.
Although the battle only lasted for about an hour, the Loyalists suffered heavy casualties. While the Patriots losses were fairly light.Before they could follow up on their success, however. the Patriot commanders learned of Horatio Gates’s defeat at Camden and decided to disperse their forces. Nonetheless, the Battle of Musgrove’s Mill signaled that resistance to British rule had not been snuffed out.