Did the First Cedar Springs Skirmish really happen?

The War Years (1775-1783)

May 12, 2016
by Conner Runyan Also by this Author


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Select any narrative from the dozens of sources that tell the story of what happened on July 12, 1780 at Cedar Springs, South Carolina, and basically here is what you get:

Sometime during the night of July 12 a group of Tory militia, said to be one hundred and fifty strong,  less than half a battalion, thought to be part of the command of British Maj. Patrick Ferguson, attempted a surprise attack on the Cedar Springs muster and refugee camp of the Patriot First Spartan Regiment. The Spartans, mostly members of the same Fair Forest Presbyterian Congregation,[1] had been forewarned and taken steps to protect themselves by hiding in the trees growing on a  knoll behind their camp. The result was a turn-of-the-table, with those expecting to surprise being surprised, hit with a hard volley from the sixty-man Spartan Regiment. There was only one known casualty, Loyalist John White.[2] Whether White was wounded, killed outright or died later remains unclear. The engagement was quick and decisive, basically over after this first volley.  Neither side seemed willing to continue the fight. The Tories, with the exception of about thirty-five men who continued on to Gowen’s Old Fort, disappear from the storyline. The Patriots, apparently shaken by their close call with annihilation, broke camp and moved to join Thomas Sumter.[3]

This is the die-cast narrative of First Cedar Springs. Over the next two hundred years, with minor changes here and there, it was mass produced and became entrenched as one of a dozen skirmishes and battles that took place in the summer of 1780, in the backcountry of South Carolina in and about Spartanburg. The significance of the skirmish is said to be that it was the first link in a chain of events leading to three more night time engagements—Gowen’s Old Fort, Earle’s Ford, and the running fight down Blackstock Road ending at Prince’s Fort. All are part of the events that led to King’s Mountain. Without First Cedar Springs, goes the thinking today, these links cannot be easily forged.

Today First Cedar Springs is acknowledged as a poorly documented[4] skirmish, but enough is thought to be known to include it in a driving tour of important sites as part of the Revolutionary War Trail in the Spartanburg area.[5] The skirmish is also part of the legend of a most amazing woman of the Revolution, Jane Thomas. She is thought to have made a famous sixty mile ride from the British outpost at Ninety Six to warn the men of the Spartan Regiment who were encamped at the once beautiful springs sheltered by a magnificent old Cedar.

But there is a bit of a problem: The skirmish of First Cedar Springs may never have occurred, at least not on July 12, 1780.

The skirmish must constantly be noted with care as First Cedar Springs to distinguish it from its bigger brother, Second Cedar Springs, a battle that occurred nearby in August of the same year; Second Cedar Springs is also called the Battle of Wofford’s Iron Work.[6] The evidence suggesting that something did happen at Cedar Springs on July 12 sits heavy on a three-legged stool. Each leg has its own set of mysteries, and does its share to add to the muddle.[7]  Break one leg of this stool and all topples over.

The first mention—or stool leg—describing what might have been the skirmish appeared in 1816, in Hugh McCall’s History of Georgia. McCall, son of patriot James McCall, wrote a narrative that is frustrating and open to more than one interpretation.[8] It is his account that causes much of the puzzle about the exact date of First Cedar Springs. McCall tells us that Col. John Jones, of Burke County, Georgia, leading his new command of thirty-five Georgia refugees, continued on to North Carolina after most of Col. Elijah Clarke’s men turned back following a fording of the Savannah River. Jones asked to be guided to the loyalist camp at Gowen’s Old Fort. It is well established that on the night of July 14, 1780, Colonel Jones captured the fort.[9] This date of July 14 is the register mark that gave Lyman Draper, author of King’s Mountain and Its Heroes and the first to give a precise date for First Cedar Springs, a way to determine that the skirmish took place on July 12. Draper’s work will be discussed in more detail below; of all the evidence he found for concluding when the skirmish of First Cedar Springs took place, the strongest is in this statement:

As they passed through the disaffected country, they pretended to be a company of loyalists, engaged in the king’s service; and in many instances were furnished with pilots, under that impression. When they had passed the head waters of Saluda River, one of these guides informed them, that ‘a party of rebels had attacked some loyalists the preceding night, a short distance in front, and defeated them.’ Jones expressed a wish to be conducted to the place, that he might join the loyalists, and have it in his power to take revenge for the blood of the king’s subjects which had been selected to pursue the Americans who had retreated to the north. About eleven o’clock on the night of the 14th of July, Jones was conducted to the royal party, where about forty were collected ….[10]

Is the description above conclusive evidence that the rebel attack Jones learned about was the one at Cedar Springs? McCall could just as well be writing of Huck’s Defeat, which also took place on July 12, 1780.  It all depends upon where Jones was in the area McCall calls the “head water of Saluda.”  Cedar Springs and Brattonsville, site of Huck’s Defeat, can both be considered “in front” and are separated by about forty-seven miles. News of Huck’s Defeat could have reached the upper Greenville area, and Jones, within a day.[11] Interpreting the above account as a precise date for the skirmish at Cedar Springs depends on where Jones was on July 13, and what exactly is meant by “a short distance in front.” How far could a good express rider, on a fast horse, with skill and luck, travel in one day? Bear in mind (with a bit of tongue in cheek) that Jane Thomas is widely believed to have made a similar ride, of sixty miles, just one day earlier.[12]

Is this leg of the stool solid or does it have a crack in it?

The second leg of our stool comes from Rev. James Hodge Saye, who recorded the recollections of his elderly grandfather-in-law. His writings were published in a number of ways, one of which is the 1837 The Memoirs of Major Joseph McJunkin. McJunkin was the son-in-law of Jane Thomas; consequently this narrative of First Cedar Springs also came to be called the Thomas family account.[13] It is the first three words of what Saye wrote about Jane Thomas and First Cedar Springs that are open to interpretation: “About this time….”[14] Saye uses this phrase to refer to the period between the Battle of Musgrove’s Mill, on August 19, 1780, and the events in September leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.

McJunkin was elderly when Saye spoke with him, and his recollections could have been faulty, something Saye talked about. But if placing the skirmish in August, and not July, was a mistake, Saye made it a second time. Saye ended his writing of the recollections of Major McJunkin by trying to clear up some misunderstanding over what took place at the Springs, noting there were “three conflicts at or near” [15] there. Saye says he knew this not only because of what the old major had told him, but also from what had been written by others, or learned by Saye, in an effort to resolve what Saye saw as flaws in McJunkin’s recollections. The result was that Saye relied on three additional sources: Robert Mills’ 1826 Statistics of South Carolina including a view of Its Natural, Civil, and Military History;[16] something written by “a writer in the Magnolia for 1842,”[17] referring to J.B. O’Neall, who wrote his own version of McJunkin’s life using materials given to him by Saye; and what Saye calls “local traditions”[18] These “local traditions” came from visits and correspondence Saye made with surviving Revolutionary War veterans. What these old vets told him led Saye to write one of his oddly phrased conclusions: “I have no reason to doubt that statements from local traditions in regard to these engagements are extremely liable to error and confusion.”[19]

Ultimately, Saye’s attempt to clarify only confounds things even more.  Careful examination of these “three conflicts” leaves little doubt that two of the three “various” fights are really one and the same: Second Cedar Springs, or Wofford’s Iron Works. Based solely on Saye’s sources, there were not, as he stated, three conflicts, but two.  Mills, in his 1826 Statistics, did not seem to know about First Cedar Springs. The action he described as “at the Green springs, near Berwick’s iron works” [20][21] not one can clearly be identified as mentioning First Cedar Springs. Careful reading of those that talk about Cedar Springs leads to the conclusion that they describe events known to have taken place at Second Cedar Springs. If any veterans who talked or corresponded with Saye mentioned a skirmish at Cedar Springs on July 12, none said anything that can definitively be associated with it in a pension application.[22]

What is clear in Saye’s attempt to clarify the muddle is his placement of First Cedar Springs in time. In another of his oddly phrased conclusions, he wrote, “The first is contained in the account given by the Thomas family. This is stated upon the authority of Major McJunkin, and was probably the last in the order of time.”[23] Regardless of how many Cedar Springs fights took place, Saye is telling us First Cedar Springs was the last one, taking place after Second Cedar Springs;

The last leg of the stool is Lyman Draper, who in King’s Mountain and Its Heroes apparently pays close attention to what Saye wrote and, as previously noted, was the first to give us the specific date of July 12, 1780.[24]  In a rather perplexing way, Draper relies only on three sources to back up his statement that the skirmish “was on the twelfth day of July.”[25] These sources are McCall’s Georgia, already discussed above, Frank Moore’s Diary of the American Revolution, and two diary entries from British Lt. Anthony Allaire, an officer in the Loyal American Regiment.

Moore’s Diary refers to an action “… at Packolet [sic] in the night of the 15th of July, where Colonel McDowell commanded ….”[26] This is Earle’s Ford, not Cedar Springs. Taken alone, there is no evidence in Moore’s Diary of a skirmish at Cedar Springs on the night of July 12.

The legend on the newly placed interpretative marker reads: ”The Battle of Cedar Spring. In early July 1780, a small force of Patriot militia under Colonel John Thomas, Jr. gathered near Cedar Spring. When news of the camp reached the British, they planned to attack them in a night time raid. The British plan of attack, however, was discovered by Colonel Thomas’ mother, Jane, who alerted her son. Colonel Thomas and his men waited in ambush on July 12 in the woods near their camp, and when the British attacked, they opened fire, killing and wounding many of the British while the survivors scattered in confusion.” This is all that remains to remind us of this once remarkable place. Even the name – Cedar Spring vs Cedar Springs—has become muddled. The author questions much of what now is printed on this sign. (Photo by author)
The legend on the newly placed interpretative marker reads: ”The Battle of Cedar Spring. In early July 1780, a small force of Patriot militia under Colonel John Thomas, Jr. gathered near Cedar Spring. When news of the camp reached the British, they planned to attack them in a night time raid. The British plan of attack, however, was discovered by Colonel Thomas’ mother, Jane, who alerted her son. Colonel Thomas and his men waited in ambush on July 12 in the woods near their camp, and when the British attacked, they opened fire, killing and wounding many of the British while the survivors scattered in confusion.” This is all that remains to remind us of this once remarkable place. Even the name – Cedar Spring vs Cedar Springs—has become muddled. The author questions much of what now is printed on this sign. (Photo by author)

Allaire’s diary entries for the week of July 10 through July 15 leave little doubt that he was commenting on why groups of loyalist militia were moving about in the Fair Forest area, but Draper makes things ambiguous by citing only the entries for July 14 and 15.[27]  entries for the week of July 10 through July 15 are ambiguous. The Loyalists from the Spartansburg area had been ordered to muster at Wofford’s Old Field on July 12, resulting in groups of men, both Loyalist and Patriot, being on the move in the same small area.[28] Two days later on July 14, while this Loyalist muster continues, Allaire wrote, “Every hour news from different parts of the country of Rebel parties doing mischief.” [29] This “doing mischief” is what Draper concluded was the planned British surgical strike, involving 150 loyalist militia, at First Cedar Springs.  Then, in a connection difficult to make, Draper strengthened his contention that First Cedar Springs took place on July 12 because of what Allaire wrote in his Diary for July 15: “Capt. [James] Dunlap had been obliged to retreat from Prince’s Fort.” [30]

It is possible Allaire was not referring to First Cedar Springs at all, but more likely was referring to stories told by men coming to join this Loyalist muster ordered by Balfour, four miles from Cedar Springs at Wofford’s Old Field. As each group arrived, Lieut. Allaire would have heard stories of various kinds of “rebel mischief.” Had a planned ambush involving half a battalion of loyalist militia taken place during this week, in the Fair Forest area where Allaire was camped, it would have been noted in his diary. No such mention is made.  It is unlikely Allaire was referring to a planned surprise attack on Thomas’ regiment at First Cedar Springs.

In light of this evidence, was there a skirmish at Cedar Springs on July 12, 1780?

If the answer is “yes,” based on belief in the accuracy of Draper’s date, then something of a new significance for the encounter may emerge. It is quite likely it was a conflict between two Fair Forest Spartan Regiments – one Patriot and the other Loyalist. Perhaps, on the night of July 12, men journeying to join Loyalist Maj. Zacharis Gibbs’ muster at nearby Wofford’s Old Field stumbled across a similar Patriot muster of Col. John Thomas, Jr at Cedar Springs.

If the answer is “no,” and nothing actually occurred on this date, then much work remains. Is the Second Battle of Cedar Springs really the First Battle of Cedar Springs? If so, we are left to explore with different eyes the events of July and August 1780, following the fall of Charlestown. If there had been no First Cedar Spring, would there still have been a skirmish at Gowen’s Old Fort? Without Gowen’s Old Fort, would Loyalist James Dunlap have rushed so recklessly to Earle’s Ford? Without Earle’s Ford, would the British have backed away from Prince’s Fort? How we answer these questions shape our view of events leading to King’s Mountain.

Clearing up this muddle that is Cedar Springs starts with “when.” Can we say with conviction a skirmish took place on the night of July 12, 1780?


[1] George Howe, History of the Presbyterian Church of South Carolina (Columbia, SC: Duffie & Chapman, 1870), 1:533.  Howe writes, “There was not a Tory among them.”

[2] William T Graves, “McJunkin Narrative: Draper MSS, Sumter Papers 23VV153-203,” Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution Vol 2 No 11.1 (November 2005), 40. www.southerncampaign.org/newsletter/v2n11.pdf. Learning more about John White is the key to unraveling the mysteries surrounding Cedar Springs. If indeed the skirmish did occur as currently written, he is the only known Loyalist participant and casualty, shot in the “hinder parts.” He lived in the Spartan District, part of the extensive White family; was called by Patriot Major Mcjunkin “my tory” because he lived in McJunkin’s militia recruitment area;  was at first “non-resistant” (meaning he was a Quaker) until the British moved into Ninety Six District. But most important is that he lived near Loyalist commanders Daniel Plummer and Zacharius Gibbs. This suggests he may have been part of the Loyalist Spartan Regiment. Whatever John White did, he was never forgiven for joining the British after the fall of Charleston. John White appears on the Commander’s Enemies Lists of 1783, along with such bright lights as Alexander Chesney, Adam Stedham, Thomas Fletchall, William Cunningham and John Cunningham. Who was this John White?

[3] Patrick O’Kelley, Nothing But Blood and Slaughter (Blue House Tavern Press, 2004), 2:197; John Parker, Parker’s Guide to the Revolutionary War in South Carolina (West Conshohocken, Pa: Infinity Publishing, 2013), 404; John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, (New York, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), 112. These are but a few of the modern, and better, narratives basically telling the same story.

[4] Brian Robson, Project Administrator, Battlefield Preservation Plan For Revolutionary War Battlefields in Upstate South Carolina, “Battle of 1st Cedar Springs” (South Carolina State Park Service: Hill Studio, 2009), 65.

[5] Katherine Cann, The American Revolution in the Spartan District (Spartanburg, SC: Hub City Press, 2014), 140.

[6] J.D. Lewis, “Wofford’s Iron Works, The American Revolution in South Carolina,” www.carolana.com, accessed October 16, 2016; Mary McKinney Teaster, “The Revolutionary Battle of Wofford’s Iron Works,” glendalesc.com/battleironworks.html, accessed October 16, 2016.

[7] Warren Ripley, Battleground: South Carolina in the Revolution (Charleston, SC: The News & Courier and The Evening Post, 1983), 75.

[8] Hugh McCall. The History of Georgia, Containing Brief Sketches of the Most Remarkable Events Up to the Present Day (Atlanta, GA: A.B. Caldwell, 1909), 2:473, https://archive.org/details/historygeorgia/ accessed March 14 2016.

[9] Balfour to Cornwallis, July 17, 1780, in Ian Saberton, ed., Cornwallis Papers (East Sussex, England: Naval & Military Press, 2010), 1:251.

[10] McCall, History of Georgia, 473.

[11] Saberton, Cornwallis Papers, 200.

[12] Elizabeth F. Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution (New York: Baker and Scribner, 1849), 253-258.

[13] James Hodge Saye, “Memoirs of Major Joseph McJunkin. The Various Cedar Springs Fights,” accessed March 7, 2016, sc_tories.tripod.com/battle_of_cedar_springs.htm.

[14] Graves, “McJunkin Narrative: Draper MSS, Sumter Papers 23VV153-203”, 40.

[15] James Hodge Saye, “Memoirs of Major Joseph McJunkin. The Various Cedar Springs Fights,” accessed April 26, 2016, sc_tories.tripod.com/battle_of_cedar_springs.htm.

[16] Robert Mills, Statistics of South Carolina including a view of Its Natural, Civil, and Military History (Charleston, SC: Hurlbut and Lloyd, 1826).

[17] Saye, “Memoirs of Major Joseph McJunkin. The Various Cedar Springs Fights.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20]Mills, Statistics of South Carolina”, 738.  “Green Springs” is an older name for Cedar Springs.

[21] William T Graves and C. Leon Harris, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters, revwarapps.org.

[22]Graves and Harris, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements. Use freeform search for “Cedar Springs” to duplicate the following observation:   Seventeen pension applications mention “Cedar Springs.” Each contain clues that suggest the veteran was speaking of Second Cedar Springs.

[23] Saye, “Memoirs of Major Joseph McJunkin,” The Various Cedar Springs Fights; Ilene Jones Cornwell, “The Various Cedar Springs Fights,” Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution (SCAR), accessed March 7, 2016 Vol.2. No. 5, 1.

[24] Lyman Copeland Draper, King’s Mountain and its heroes: history of the Battle of King’s Mountain, October 7th, 1780, and the events which led to it (Kessinger Legacy Reprints, undated: originally published; Cincinnati: Thomson, 1881), 73.

[25] Draper, King’s Mountain, 73n.

[26] Frank Moore, Diary of the American Revolution, Volume II (New York, NY: Charles Scribner, 1858), 351.

[27]  Draper, King’s Mountain, 500.

[28] Saberton, Cornwallis Papers, Vol. I, 248, 289-91. One of the interesting threads woven in the Cedar Springs fabric is the relationship between Loyalist Militia Maj. Patrick Ferguson, British Col. Nesbit Balfour and Lord Cornwallis. At this point in time, Ferguson was in hot water with Cornwallis, who was fretting that Ferguson would do something rash and bring about another British debacle such as had occurred in North Carolina at Ramseur’s Mill. Balfour hated Ferguson and continually undermined him. Thus, Balfour left to Ferguson to justify to Cornwallis why the lack of organization among the militia was becoming so costly. Furthermore, Balfour and Cornwallis were communicating rather nervously with one another about how best to avoid a premature conflict between roaming bands of loyalists and groups of patriots who had taken refuge in hidden camps. On July 11, Lord Cornwallis had received a letter from a rather nervous Maj. Patrick Ferguson, anxious to offer an explanation as to why the war effort in the backcountry was becoming so expensive: “I am sorry to intrude upon your time so frequently … At present it is evident here than many of the sufferers are casting about naturally enough to make up their losses [meaning the loyalists previously subjected to Patriot abuse until the fall of Charleston] … seduced into more sordid pursuits from a facility of preying upon the public.”  Ferguson was concerned that unless the loyalist militia were better organized, the necessary good will of backcountry settlers would be lost resulting in little chance of “… ever acquiring any discipline or knowledge of service.”  Ferguson, who was expected to bring about order in the loyalist backcountry militia, also suggested that plundering by the now-emboldened loyalists would result in the loss of the means by which Cornwallis hoped to self-finance the struggle: “slaves, horses and other property captured by the [Loyalist] militia here, with some valuable crops left by the rebels who have fled,”  a possible reference to the now forming Patriot refugee camps, one of which is at Cedar Springs. Balfour’s solution was to order a muster Loyalist Maj. Daniel Plummer’s and Maj. Zacharis Gibbs’s regiment of Spartan Loyalists at Wofford’s Old Field on the night of July 12. This, went the thinking of Balfour and Cornwallis, would keep everyone boxed up until the British were ready to make their move.  This British strategy is at odds to the accepted historical narrative that the engagement at First Cedar Springs was an ambush, planned sixty miles away at Ninety Six, and made by 150 Loyalist militia, who managed to march those sixty miles undetected,  just to surprise the Patriot Spartan Regiment at Cedar Springs. All this, if it happened, could have resulted in another Ramseur’s Mill and the unraveling of British strategy in the backcountry.

[29] Anthony Allaire, Diary of Lieut. Anthony Allaire, of Ferguson’s Corps, Memorandum of Occurrences During the Campaign of 1780, Month of July, 1780, entry for July 14, 1780. www.tngenweb.org/revwar/kingsmountain/allaire1.html, accessed April 27, 2016.

[30] Allaire, Diary, entry for July 15, 1780.


  • Nice work, Mr. Runyan. In my humble opinion, if an “event” involving hundreds of people was not recorded for 36 years, it is fair to say it never happened.

  • I’m a member of the Thomas Family, love your work Mr. Runyan now that I’ve found it. All the threads when you follow the Thomas Family history, there’s been a lot lost or not connected. I’m planning on putting it as much as I can before I’m gone, I’m 58, I owe it to all my grandparents.

    1. Mr. Wieland: I am member of Cedar Spring Baptist Church and would like any information you can give concerning your grandfather’s account of Cedar Spring Battle #1 Revolutionary War. Please respond to email su*******@ya***.com Out church sits right in the middle of probably where the battle took place near Kelsey Creek and the Daughters of American Revolution placed a stone marker next to the School for the Deaf and Blind for this historical event.

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