John McClure Rallies the South

Had he made it through the war, John McClure’s name would likely draw equal fame and respect as the nation’s most celebrated southern patriots. Indeed, not only can John be considered the first officer in the field against British occupation after the disaster at Charleston in June 1780 but, without his courage and leadership, the summer partisan campaign may have fizzled to a quick ending.

Still just a young man of 25 years, by 1780 John McClure already had several years of service in the Chester District Militia under command of Colonel Thompson.   During the campaign around Charleston, his company served near Monk’s Corner. They were devastated by the news of surrender. “At the time, when the Capital of our State had surrendered to the invading enemy! Our army of the South disarmed and imprisoned! And not a vestige of armed force on our behalf in the State.”[1]

In late May, the militia regiment disbanded and the men returned to their homes in the backcountry. John McClure and a small group of men stopped at the home of his uncle, John Gaston in Chester County. News arrived of Tarleton’s “shocking massacre” of Buford’s men at the Waxhaws. When they heard the details, Captain McClure and the others “arose upon their feet and made this united and solemn declaration: “that they would never surrender to the enemies of their country; that ‘Liberty or Death’ from that time forth should be their motto!”[2]

While Captain McClure remained at the Gaston place considering his next move, a group of 50 Tories stopped by under command of “a man calling himself Colonel Housman.” Without uniforms they appeared to be little more than “plundering banditti which British policy had dignified with the name of ‘loyalists’.”[3] The Tory colonel strongly advised Mr. Gaston to have his sons come in and give parole at his camp a distance away at Alexander’s Old Fields.

McClure and the other young men came up with an alternate plan for the Tory meeting. Instead of going in for parole, McClure “immediately visited the settlements of Fishing Creek, Rocky Creek, and Sandy River” to recruit men for action against the Tories. McClure gathered 32 volunteers, his brothers and cousins among them, and moved toward the Old Fields.

With this small group, “Captain McClure attacked Colonel Housman, on the appointed day, and routed about two hundred men without losing a man.” Two of the attackers were wounded including McClure’s brother, Hugh, whose arm was broken. None of the Tories were injured as “It is most possible that McClure’s men did not wish to kill, knowing that many good men might be there” who believed they had no choice but give parole.[4] McClure hoped to give them an alternative. His “design was to raise the fallen standard of liberty once more in South Carolina, though it should be at the expense of their lives.”[5] In fact, “some of the tories defeated on this occasion finding that the red coats were not invincible, and could neither defend themselves nor their allies, immediately changed sides, and joined the whigs, believing that they were now the strongest party.”[6]

After the action at Old Fields, McClure’s Company joined a regiment commanded by Colonels Richard Winn and William Bratton. At Mobley’s Meeting House, Winn led an attack against a group of Tories rich with plunder from a recent raid against a number of Whig plantations. In the skirmish that followed, “the British adherents were routed, and the horses forcibly taken from the whigs, for the purpose of mounting British cavalry, re-taken and restored to their owners.”[7] The restored horses included at least three that had been taken from Captain McClure’s mother.

“News of McClure’s movements instantly spread” around the Chester and Fairfield districts thereby rewarding the Patriots with a number of new recruits. In fact, McClure doubled the size of his company within a few days. Unfortunately, the activities also alarmed the British which caused McClure and his men to retreat into North Carolina. Once there, “they found the patriotic General Thomas Sumter” who was “inviting volunteers to his standard; and this small band formed the nucleus of his army.”[8]

Within a short time, Sumter’s camp moved to the Indian lands along the Catawba River where they commenced the summer campaign.

Huck’s Defeat

In the aftermath of rebel actions at the Old Fields and Mobley’s Meeting House, the British commander at Rocky Mount sent Captain Huck of the British Legion on patrol into the countryside with orders to “push the rebels as far as you may deem convenient.”[9] Known as a severe man who “never failed, on convenient occasions, to curse Bibles and Presbyterians”, Captain Huck took his orders to heart and led his detachment into the countryside where they began burning and plundering the Whig plantations along with the occasional murder.[10]

Col. Bratton's house. Photo by author.
Col. Bratton’s house. Photo by author.

On the 11th of July, Huck marched his men to the McClure plantation in search of John and his brother Hugh. The pair were off with Sumter’s militia but their younger brother, James McClure, got caught in the act of melting down pewter plates for rifle balls.[11] After plundering the McClure home, Huck took James and his friend Ned Martin prisoner and carried them “to the house of Captain [sic] Bratton in York District.”[12] Once at Colonel Bratton’s plantation, Huck settled in for the night and placed his prisoners in a corn-crib until morning when they were to be hanged at sunrise.

As soon as Huck rode away from the McClure home, “Mrs. McClure despatched her daughter Mary in all haste to Sumter’s camp, to carry the news of the outrage she had suffered and the captivity of the young men.”[13] Already aware that Huck had been terrorizing the Whig population, John McClure and William Bratton “hastened their preparations for the expedition against him” and struck out immediately to try and catch up with Huck before morning.

The small army (about 150 men) arrived at Walker’s Mill at sunset and took a rest while Captain McClure led a 20 man scout ahead toward the British. McClure came upon a young African-American slave who told him that Huck had gone to Colonel Bratton’s house. McClure quickly returned to give the news to the group of colonels who commanded the expedition.[14] By midnight, the rebel column was back on the road, this time to Colonel Bratton’s house.

As the rebel force approached the area, they learned that Huck’s men were actually camped at the Williamson house about 300 yards down the lane from Bratton’s place. They decided on a plan whereby McClure would take a party of 25 men through the woods and around the British so there would be no escape when Bratton led the attack on their camp.[15]

At sunrise, Bratton led the assault. The rebels caught Huck and the British by surprise routing them down the lane toward McClure. Unfortunately, McClure’s party had not quite reached their positions and were not numerous enough to stop the flood of Tories and soldiers scattering toward them. “He gave them a fire but was not near enough to do them much damage.” Most of the enemy escaped and fled back to their base at Rocky Mount with “the gallant McClure in pursuit.”[16] Huck himself was not so lucky: “by the time he was mounted was shot dead with several of his Men Kild & wounded Chiefest part of, the rest ran off left behind them their horses Saddles pistols etc. We was in full possession of the field in five minutes.”[17]

Huck’s death and the rout of his troops marked the first time the backcountry men had successfully challenged any units of Cornwallis’s regular army. John McClure’s motivation in attacking Huck may have been the rescue of his brother or retribution for the plundering of his family plantation but the result was a major boost in morale for the Patriots of the south. He soon found his company growing rapidly and the Chester Militia became one of the core regiments of Thomas Sumter’s partisan army.

Rocky Mount

After the battle, McClure returned to Thomas Sumter’s camp on the Catawba. Sumter was organizing his army for strikes against the British outposts at Rocky Mount and Hanging Rock which represented the seat of British occupation forces in the district. The first attack would go against Lt. Colonel Turnbull and his New York Volunteers at Rocky Mount. At that post “Turnbull Commanded about 300 Men and was posted in a Strong Block House two Stories high properly prepared for defense and sufficient abates [sic – abatis].”[18]

At the battle of Rocky Mount, Andrew Neal served as Colonel to the Chester Militia with William Hill chosen as Lt. Colonel. John McClure remained a captain and led the scouting patrols for Sumter’s army which had grown to about 600 men.

As the Patriots approached Rocky Mount, the British pulled back into their defenses. Colonel Neal led a direct assault on “the abbatis and sustained a heavy fire for some time from the Block House which was returned, here Colo Niel was Killed.”[19] Sumter’s men retreated away from the attack and tried another attack on the right side but had no success. The Patriots had no cannon and therefore no way to dislodge Turnbull from the fortified house. In a final effort, Sumter tried to set the house on fire but that also failed when “powerful rains” began to fall on the field leaving Sumter with no choice but to retreat before the river rose and cut them off from the ford.

Colonel McClure at Hanging Rock

While camped at Land’s Ford, “General Sumter ordered an election for General officers in the Chester Regiment. McClure’s company, that day, numbered about 120 men. He was elected Colonel.”[20]

Sumter was encouraged by the bravery of his troops at Rocky Mount and “especially by the good conduct of his officers.” He decided to make a move on the other British outpost in the district, at Hanging Rock. There were no fortifications at that post and Sumter’s army would have a much greater chance of success.[21]

As they approached the British camp, the partisan army attacked a large group of Tories from North Carolina who had marched down from the upper Yadkin to join Cornwallis but were not yet armed or supplied. Sumter’s men had a grand time chasing them from out of their beds and back to the British camp. Sumter then lined up his men for the attack. “In this action, Colonel McClure led one of the three divisions. He, as usual, was among the foremost, in the fight.”[22]

The Patriot “order of battle was in three lines, about one hundred apart in files of two. The enemy’s lines were extended from a point at right angles. McClure commanded the front of the centre line, against the united point of the enemy’s line; and, on this account, sustained much of the enemy’s first fire.”[23]

“Colonel McClure was shot through the thigh, early in the action, but stuffing the wound with wadding, he rushed ahead of his command, and his clear voice was still heard urging on his men to the continued charge. Just as the tories fled, he fell, pierced by several wounds. Those near him ran up to his relief, but he ordered them back to the fight, and his voice continued to be heard, urging and encouraging them in the pursuit. His division sustained the greatest share of the loss. The victory was complete.”[24]

John McClure’s promotion to Colonel lasted little more than a week before he received the wounds that took him out of action. One of his men described the situation. “John McClure got wounded twice the first ball went through the thick part of his thigh & the next ball went in under the left breast and out under the shoulder blade – he died of the wound nine days afterwards in Charlotte North Carolina.”[25]

The name John McClure attracts little attention today. His early death before the battle of Camden is probably to blame for that relative obscurity. However, anyone looking into the southern campaigns of the American Revolution and, particularly, the crucial period in South Carolina following the siege of Charleston and capture of General Benjamin Lincoln’s army, should keep in mind that that it was Captain John McClure “who was the first that made any resistance to the Enemy in this part of the country.”[26]

/// Featured image at top: Porch of the Colonel Bratton house. Courtesy of author.

 


[1] Joseph Gaston, “Mr. Gaston’s Narrative” from “A Reminiscence of the War of the Revolution,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 3rd Ser. 2 (August 1873), 90 – 92.

[2] Gaston, “Mr. Gaston’s Narrative.”

[3] Gaston, “Mr. Gaston’s Narrative.”

[4] Gaston, “Mr. Gaston’s Narrative.”

[5] Gaston, “Mr. Gaston’s Narrative.”

[6] Joseph Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South: Including Biographical Sketches, Incidents, and Anecdotes, Few of which Have been Published, Particularly of Residents in the Upper Country, (Walker & James, Charleston SC, 1851), 340.

[7] Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, 341.

[8] Gaston, “Mr. Gaston’s Narrative.” Also note that Gaston refers to Sumter as “General” and indicates that he held a commission from Governor Rutledge. Other sources indicate that Sumter was later elected general by a meeting of the various colonels once his army had gathered in camp on the Catawba.

[9] Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, 336.

[10] Gaston, “Mr. Gaston’s Narrative,” mentions the murder of young William Strong, “with his Bible in his hand, near to his father’s door.”

[11] Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences,342.

[12] Mary Martin, Pension Application of Edward Martin W21746, http://revwarapps.org/w21746.pdf.

[13] E. F. Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution, Volume III, (Baker and Scribner, New York, 1818), 183.

[14] Some confusion exists as to just who commanded as Colonel Bratton, Colonel Winn, and Colonel Lacy all later claimed to have commanded at Huck’s Defeat. Author E. F. Ellet indicates that Lacy rose to the rank of colonel after the death of McClure at Hanging Rock. This assertion is supported by mention that Lacey was “promoted to Colonel” at Fish Dam Ford after the battle of Hanging Rock and following the death of McClure; pension application of Hamilton Brown W1707, http://revwarapps.org/w1707.pdf.

[15] Michael C. Scoggins, The Day it Rained Militia (History Press, Charleston, 2005), 113, noting that Colonels Winn, Neal, Hill, and Captain Moffett attacked with Bratton’s main group while Lacey traveled with McClure. Scoggins indicates that Bratton and Neal led the main group even though Richard Winn later claimed to have commanded the whole.

[16] Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution, 270.

[17] Richard Winn, General Richard Winn’s Notes, transcription by Will Graves available on the Internet at http://revwarapps.org/scx2.pdf.

[18] Winn, General Richard Winn’s Notes.

[19] Winn, General Richard Winn’s Notes.

[20] Gaston, “Mr. Gaston’s Narrative,” also explains that Colonel Lacy was “unpopular among the Chester Whigs” at that time. He does not elaborate but a later biography of Lacey (written without footnote) suggests the problem was that Lacey’s father was a Loyalist.   In a later statement, Joseph McJunkin also indicated that Lacey had fallen out of favor over some “doubts respecting the soundness of” his principles. “He was detained some time a prisoner in camp; & then declared himself on the side of the American cause, & he was set at liberty & joined Sumter, & proved ever after a good soldier & a good officer & was reinstated in his command.” McJunkin makes no mention of Lacey’s father. Joseph McJunkin’s statement, Draper MSS, Sumter Papers 23VV203-212, reprinted in Will Graves, “What did McJunkin really Saye?,” Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Vol.2 No.11, (November 2005).

[21] Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, 345.

[22] Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, 345.

[23] Gaston, “Mr. Gaston’s Narrative.”

[24] Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, 345.

[25] Pension application of John Walker W9875, transcribed by Will Graves and located on the internet at http://revwarapps.org/w9875.pdf .

[26] Pension application of Joseph Gaston W23089, transcribed by Will Graves and located on the internet at http://revwarapps.org/w23089.pdf .

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4 Comments

  • Hello Wayne,

    I am interested in McClure family histories, particularly those of Scotch-Irish origin, as was that of John McClure. Has his age of 25 in 1780 been authenticated? Some DAR’s claim descent from him but I do not think he was married, or if so, that he had children. There may be confusion with his nephew, a younger John McClure.
    My reasoning is based on the terms of his mother’s will. She mentions all her grandchildren and the names of those from whom they descend. There is no mention of her son John’s children, for whom one would expect her to have had a particular affection.
    I appreciate that you may not not have an interest in nor a familiarity with the genealogy of the McClures of Fishing Creek, in which case I should be obliged if you can pass my query on to someone who has.

    My thanks in advance.

    Robert D. McClure in Belfast, N. Ireland.

    • Hi Robert, my name is Patty Smith. Mary Gaston McClure (John McClure’s mother) is a great aunt of mine. My ggggggrandfather is her brother, “Justice” John Gaston. I read your opinion yesterday about John maybe never marrying and not having children. It was such a coincidence because I have been trying to determine who his wife and children are and I had come to the same conclusion yesterday before I read your remarks. It was so nice to know someone has the same opinion. I noticed your letter was back in 2015. Have you found out any information since then?
      Sincerely,
      Patty Smith

  • Does anyone have any idea where John McClure is buried?
    The post at Find A Grave does not have a listing but says he died in Charlotte of his wounds and possibly buried there or in Waxhaws.

  • John McClure died at the makeshift hospital in Charlotte. Reportedly the very same room where the Mecklenburg Declaration was signed. When the reports of Gates’s defeat at Camden came in John became upset and began to pace about the room. Apparently, he pulled out stitches or otherwise tore open his wounds and quickly died. John’s mother was on hand and, after her son’s death, a rather embarrassing situation arose. Lord Cornwallis was approaching Charlotte from the south and, if that were not enough, Sumter had been surprised and routed at his camp at Land’s Ford the very day that McClure was to be buried. Everyone was abandoning the town and “it was proposed to bury the corpse without a coffin.” Mrs. McClure objected strongly and refused to go along with the plan. She “insisted on having him decently interred, saying that the enemy, ‘the servants of Satan, were bound like their master, and could go only the length of their chain.’ A few brave men remained with her, and rendered the last offices to the dead.”

    The historian, Joseph Johnson said:

    “In the death of Colonel John McClure, the country lost a hero, and his fellow soldiers an officer, who was all energy and vigilance in his warfare. Revolutionary men spoke of him as the ‘Bravest of the Brave.’ General Davie said of him, that ‘of the many brave men, with whom it was his fortune to become acquainted in the army, he [McClure] was one of the bravest; and when he fell, we looked upon it as a loss not to be easily calculated.”

    According to the story of John’s mother, Mary McClure, he would be in Charlotte but was buried in a hurry during a time of crisis. I don’t know if that will help or not.

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