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Blackstock's, South Carolina

Blackstock's, South Carolina

BLACKSTOCK'S, SOUTH CAROLINA. 20 November 1780. In the wake of rebel victories at King's Mountain, 7 October, and Fishdam Ford, 9 November, General Charles Cornwallis was determined to regain the initiative by securing the middle and upper regions of South Carolina. Certainly this step was essential to his plans for carrying out a second invasion of North Carolina. His first move was to call Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton back from the lower Peedee and to send Major Archibald MacArthur to secure Brierly's Ford on the Broad River. Campbell, with his First Battalion of the Seventy-first Regiment of Foot (Fraser's Highlanders) and the remaining men of James Wemyss' Sixty-third Foot, was to hold the ford until Tarleton could come up with his British Legion. When so combined, this force would then act against the body of rebel partisan militia said to be operating in the area under Brigadier General Thomas Sumter. Cornwallis was particularly concerned that rebel forces might try to take Ninety Six, a town that was the Loyalists' key backcountry stronghold, and his orders to Tarleton were to find and break up Sumter's band of partisans before they could do this or any other harm to the British cause.

It was this situation that led to the series of events that preceded the battle at Blackstock's Plantation. First, in accordance with his orders, Tarleton and his legion duly reached their objective of Brierly's Ford by forced marches the morning of 18 November. At that point they drew fire from a 150-man mounted force of rebels apparently sent to scout out just this sort of British move. Tarleton immediately crossed the river and set out in pursuit with his legion and the infantrymen of the Sixty-third, these last having been mounted on horses rounded up along the way.

The British pursuit changed things for Sumter. Reinforced by Georgia troops under Colonels Elijah Clarke and John Twiggs, he had until this moment intended to attack not Ninety-Six but a Tory post some fifteen miles away on Little River and commanded by Colonel James Kirkland. But on the night of 19 November a British deserter entered Sumter's camp with the news that Tarleton had returned from the Peedee and was at that moment coming after the Americans with all speed. Sumter ordered a retreat toward the Tyger River. The British continued their pursuit through the morning and into the afternoon of 20 November. But their progress was too slow for the hard-riding Tarleton. Realizing that he could not, with his entire force of slow-moving foot soldiers, move swiftly enough to catch Sumter, Tarleton decided to push ahead with his fastest troops: the nearly two hundred legion dragoons and the eighty mounted infantrymen of the Sixty-third. The remaining infantry troops and the three-pounder gun and its crew were ordered to follow as quickly as they could.

Tarleton's idea of pushing ahead with the mounted elements paid off, with the British advanced guard soon catching up to the rebels' rear elements. But Sumter's main body had already reached Blackstock's Plantation and the ford on the Tyger River. Escape from Tarleton beckoned. The light was already failing, and, with the onset of darkness, Sumter would have every chance of getting his command safely across to the far side of the river. At this juncture a woman of the neighborhood who had observed the passage of Tarleton's column rode up with important news: Tarleton's, she told Sumter, was only a partial force. The British main body of infantry and artillery was still well to the rear of the mounted elements. Encouraged by this information and knowing that it was sure death to be caught by Bloody Tarleton, as he was known, while astride a river, Sumter decided to make a stand at Blackstock's.

He was favored by good defensive terrain. Although the river was to his rear, on Sumter's left, as he faced the oncoming British, was a hill on which five log houses of the plantation were located in an open field. There Sumter posted Colonel Henry Hampton and his riflemen, and the Georgia sharpshooters of Colonel John Twiggs were positioned along a rail fence extending from the houses to the woods on the left flank. On a wooded hill that rose to his right from the main road he deployed the troops of Colonels William Bratton, William Hill, James McCall, and Edward Taylor. Colonel Edward Lacey's mounted infantry screened the right flank, and Colonel Richard Winn was posted to the rear, along the Tyger, as a reserve.

When Tarleton closed up to this position with the legion cavalry and mounted infantry of the Sixty-third Regiment, he realized the Americans were too strong to attack with just his small numbers. He would have to wait until the rest of his force could come up. He therefore dismounted the Sixty-third and formed them on his right overlooking the creek that ran in front of Sumter's position. To the left of the road he formed his dragoons. "Gamecock" Sumter, though, had little intention of standing idle with his far more numerous force while Tarleton's much smaller one gained its reinforcements. He moved to start the fight. Ordering Colonel Elijah Clarke to turn the enemy right with a hundred men and block the reinforcements that would be coming up the road, Sumter led Twiggs and four hundred men in an attack on the Sixty-third. The Americans crossed the creek and started up the hill against the redcoats, but delivered their fire too early. The British counterattacked and drove them back toward the houses of Blackstock's Plantation. As these eighty British regulars were engaged in the remarkable feat of pushing back a force five times their size, Sumter ordered Lacey to hit the British left flank and the legion dragoons posted there.

So busy were these in watching the infantry action on the other flank that Lacey was able to get within seventy-five yards of them undetected. His riflemen delivered a sudden fire that instantly dropped twenty enemy troopers out of the saddle. But just as quickly the British reacted, charging to drive Lacey back into the trees. Tarleton himself next led the dragoons in a wild, second charge. This one was in the direction of the log buildings of the plantation, from which Hampton's riflemen continued to pour forth a fire that had already mortally wounded the Sixty-third's battalion commander and stopped the redcoats cold. Tarleton's was less the unpromising tactic of a cavalry charge against riflemen firing from cover than a way of keeping Twiggs's men, who had rallied and reformed, from overrunning the remnants of the Sixty-third. The redcoats fell back in good order. Sumter, previously on the rebels' right flank with Lacey, at this point was riding back to the center of the line. A lucky shot from one of the Sixty-third's muskets struck him, penetrating his right shoulder, ripping along the shoulder blade, and chipping his backbone. Unable to speak and bleeding badly, Sumter had to be evacuated from the field on a makeshift litter carried between two horses. With Sumter down wounded, Twiggs assumed command.

Darkness had now fallen and both sides withdrew. Both sides claimed the victory. On the British side Tarleton had succeeded in his purpose of deflecting—for the moment—the threat of a rebel attack against Ninety six. His forces had dispersed the rebels and also inflicted wounds that were serious enough to keep Sumter out of action in the critical time ahead. On the other hand, Tarleton had taken losses the British could not afford. He had let the Americans pick the ground and circumstances of a fight. On the American side, Sumter's militiamen-partisans had repulsed a British attack and then, under cover of darkness, slipped away before the main body of Tarleton's column could come up to finish them off.

The Gamecock was indeed badly hurt, but within two and a half months he was back in the field (and lived to be ninety-eight, the last surviving general officer of the American Revolutionary War). The arrival of the remainder of Tarleton's force permitted him to occupy the field and claim the victory. He pursued for two days after the fight at Blackstock's, eventually reaching the Pacolet River and picking up rebel stragglers and British fugitives from such recent clashes as Patrick Ferguson's defeat at King's Mountain and Wemyss' defeat at Fishdam Ford. Tarleton persisted in believing reports that Sumter was mortally wounded and that his force, disheartened from the intensity of the British pursuit, had given up and dispersed into small units. Tarleton returned to Brierly's Ford about 1 December. The next time he pushed a rebel force so hard that they turned at bay with their backs to a river would be at Cowpens, 17 January 1781.

CONCLUSIONS

The events both leading up to and following this action showed the ability of the rebels, who fought in the mounted infantry style of riding to the battle but fighting dismounted, to get away before their British pursuers could catch them. What made Blackstock's Plantation significant was that Sumter chose to turn and fight. The action there was arguably the Gamecock's greatest fight as a partisan leader. For the first time in the campaign in the South, rebel partisan militiamen—fighting alone, with no help from the Continental regulars of their own side—managed to repulse British redcoat regulars. The battle was also emblematic of what some historians have identified as the Americans' "strategy of erosion"—a strategy of wearing down the British by inflicting losses and inducing them to engage in exhausting, fruitless marches. The Sixty-third Foot, for example, a veteran regiment that had fought engagements from Long Island to Monmouth Court House and had been sent south, at the end of 1779, for the fighting in South Carolina, had steadily lost men through just such weary marching and fighting. It lost two promising junior officers to the rebels' rifles at Blackstock's, as well as Major John Money, the Sixty-third's energetic and highly regarded commander. These were losses that the British could not replace. The fight at Blackstock's was also a significant learning experience for American commanders in another key matter: how best to combat the ever-aggressive Tarleton. Blackstock's confirmed the view that Tarleton would pursue at any cost in order to cut off retreating rebel forces, especially when these might try to cross a river to safety. At Cowpens two months later, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan would make the British and Tarleton in particular pay for just such aggressiveness.

NUMBERS AND LOSSES

The British troops engaged at Blackstock's comprised the 80 regulars of the Sixty-third Foot and the 190 Loyalist provincial troops of Tarleton's British Legion. The total number of British troops engaged in the battle thus amounted to 270 men. On the American side, Sumter's force comprised some 800 to 900 South Carolina militiamen plus an additional 100 Georgia militiamen. British losses amounted to 92 killed and 100 wounded (some accounts put the number of killed and wounded much lower), or somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the force that Tarleton committed to the battle. Sumter's losses amounted to 3 killed and 5 wounded (one of them himself).

SEE ALSO Clarke, Elijah; Cowpens, South Carolina; Fishdam Ford, South Carolina; Kings Mountain, South Carolina; Ninety Six, South Carolina; Sumter, Thomas; Tarleton, Banastre; Wemyss, James.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fortescue, Sir John. The War of Independence: The British Army in North America, 1775–1783, 1911. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2001.

Gordon, John W. South Carolina and the American Revolution: A Battlefield History. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2003.

Gregorie, Anne K. Thomas Sumter. 1931. Reprint, Sumter, S.C.: Gamecock City Printing, 2000.

Weigley, Russell F. The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780–1782. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1970.

                              revised by John Gordon

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