Hanging Rock, South Carolina

views updated

Hanging Rock, South Carolina

HANGING ROCK, SOUTH CAROLINA. 6 August 1780. In conjunction with his harassment campaign against the British occupying Camden, South Carolina, General Thomas Sumter moved against nearby Rocky Mount on 30 July 1780. At the same time, North Carolina Major William R. Davie, following Sumter's wishes, attacked the enemy garrison at Hanging Rock to divert British attention from Sumter's attack. The enemy garrison at Hanging Rock was under Major John Carden, of the Prince of Wales American Volunteers. In addition to his own unit, some three companies of British Legion Infantry under Captain Kenneth McCulloch, Colonel Morgan Bryan's North Carolina Provincial Regiment of refugees, and some of Colonel Thomas Brown's South Carolina Rangers were also present.

Davie's feint against Hanging Rock came on 1 August, when he led his forty cavalrymen and some forty mounted riflemen from the Mecklenburg militia. Davie learned during his approach that three companies of Bryan's Tories were camped near a farmhouse after foraging. Davie divided his men, sending the riflemen to ride into the camp masquerading as Loyalists while his dragoons waited nearby. The riflemen fired on Bryan's men, who fled toward Davie's dragoons and were driven back into the rifle fire. The Tories were caught at a corner of a fence and were hewn down by the dragoons. Davie later reported that "no prisoners could be safely taken." Davie captured some 60 horses, 100 rifles and muskets, and alarmed the main garrison, then withdrew his troops.

In the meantime, Sumter retreated from Rocky Mount and, upon being reinforced by Davie's 80 men and Colonel Robert Irwin's 400 North Carolina militia, he attacked Hanging Rock at dawn on 6 August. Despite Davie's raid, the post, divided into three camp areas, was unfortified.

Three assault columns that were intended to hit every camp were misdirected. The attack fell on the northern camp, where Bryan's North Carolina refugees were quickly routed. The assault continued against the British Legion infantry, allowing Brown's Rangers to rally and hold a rapidly forming battle line. Heavy fighting, including Legion bayonet charges, took place before the Legion and Rangers began to surrender or withdraw to form a hollow square around an artillery piece. As some militia stopped to plunder, Carden led his regiment from the British right flank in order to block Sumter's pursuit. Sumter's men faced the attack and opened a deadly fire that virtually annihilated the Prince of Wales American Regiment. As his men fell around him, Carden turned command over to Captain John Rousselet, who was the senior ranking Legion captain after McCulloch was mortally wounded in the intense fighting.

British and American accounts differ as to what happened next. Davie apparently outflanked the British line and scattered some Tories, while Sumter continued firing on the hollow square where the Loyalist militia was reforming. Other Americans were plundering the camp when Davie, returning toward Sumter's position, encountered a British Legion company of mounted infantry led by Captains Patrick Stewart and Charles McDonald. According to the history later written by Banastre Tarleton, these men broke the American will to continue fighting, but Davie says that his men drove the Loyalists off. There may be some truth in both accounts. Davie himself noted that the Americans were withdrawing because their ammunition was expended and many were intoxicated. Sumter's men and their plunder moved off, unmolested, shortly after noon, covered by Davie's dragoons.

The hotly contested battle lasted more than five hours, and the casualties reflect close fighting. Sumter said that twenty of his men were killed and another forty were wounded. There is a question as to whether these numbers included the dead and wounded from Davie's troops, because Davie noted severe losses. Tarleton claimed the British Legion alone had three officers and twenty men killed, plus nearly thirty wounded. He also noted that the Provincials led by Brown and Bryan were badly scattered.

Sumter retired to the Waxhaws, in South Carolina, gathering men and waiting for the arrival of the Maryland and Delaware Division of Continentals, who were then on the march toward South Carolina. His raiding precipitated British reinforcement of the Hanging Rock garrison with the Twenty-third Regiment. Upon the arrival of Continentals under Horatio Gates, the post was abandoned.

Sumter's attack came close to succeeding. His men had broken the will of the Loyalists to resist, and they were scattered. Only the determined resistance of McCulloch, and then Rousselet, with the British Legion infantry, stabilized the situation. As the fight went on, Sumter's men began to run out of ammunition. By that time, Davie and Sumter decided on a withdrawal to save their plunder. The engagement boosted American morale and led more recruits to join Sumter and other partisans. The Loyalists were dismayed, both by Davie's earlier attack and then the ferocity of the main battle.

SEE ALSO Camden Campaign.


Robinson, Blackwell P. The Revolutionary War Sketches of William R. Davie. Raleigh, N.C.: Department of Cultural Resources, Archives and History, 1976.

Tarleton, Banastre. A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America. London. 1787. Reprint. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1967.

                        revised by Lawrence E. Babits