In February 1781, Thomas Sumter emerged from his three-month convalescence to begin his next campaign in the South Carolina interior. Having been wounded seriously in the back, chest, and shoulder at the Battle of the Blackstocks, leading his militia army against a combined force of British regulars and volunteers commanded by the notorious Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton on November 20, 1780, Sumter was not yet completely healed. Yet he had good reasons to hurry a return to the field.
As Sumter’s biographer Anne Gregorie King notes, the planning of a militia campaign in the South Carolina backcountry often depended on the crop cycle and the contingencies of a six-week enlistment, and Sumter understood instinctively he would need to muster his militia in February if he hoped to campaign before the spring planting season. He also believed Cornwallis’s foray into North Carolina, in the campaign that would culminate in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, had left the remaining British force in South Carolina vulnerable to a decisive attack. Informing his men erroneously that Francis, Lord Rawdon had only three hundred men enforcing the British garrison in Camden, Sumter proposed a lightning strike on the Congaree and Santee outposts guarding the British supply line between Camden and Charleston. With Rawdon’s reduced force unable to adequately reinforce these outposts, he argued, a successful campaign could isolate the British garrisons at Camden and Ninety-Six, forcing Rawdon to abandon the South Carolina interior. That these outposts also contained considerable stores of British supplies and captured loot was a fact not lost on Sumter. Ever the backcountry psychologist, Sumter knew his men would be as motivated by the promise of plunder as they were by a chance to deliver a decisive blow against the British.
But there were other reasons to rush a return to the field. One was the strong encouragement of Continental Gen. Nathanael Greene, who had been in correspondence with Sumter throughout the winter. ‘I am impatient to hear of your perfect recovery and of seeing you again at the head of the Militia,” Greene wrote to Sumter on January 8, 1781. And on February 3, 1781, Greene wrote to Sumter,
It is true I wish to see you again in the field; and I have ever considered it a great misfortune that you was wounded on my first coming to the command … You will please to inform me what force you think you can collect and when your health will permit your taking the field. I am sorry your wound continues troublesome. I was in hopes from the account of several people that you would be in the field in a few days.
As genuinely anxious as Greene was for Sumter’s partisan campaigning to resume, this latter letter was also an attempt at diplomacy, for by now Greene was well aware the famed “Carolina Gamecock” had been deeply offended by Gen. Daniel Morgan’s command in the western theater during Sumter’s convalescence, even if it had resulted in the stunning American victory at Cowpens. In the same letter, Greene admitted, “In what respect General Morgans command embarrassed you I am at a loss to Imagine; but dare say I cou’d explain it to your perfect satisfaction in a few minutes, could I have the happiness to see you.”
For all his faults and flaws, Sumter was no mere plunderer, as Greene, in an uncharacteristic blunder, had unfortunately suggested in his letter of January 8. Though his methods were sometimes questionable, his commitment to the Patriot cause was unassailable, as it was to the United States in his later service as both a Congressman and Senator. Yet like many men, both powerful and insignificant, Sumter’s ego could wreak havoc with his better nature, and in his campaigns of 1780-81, this human shortcoming was often on display. During the Cowpens campaign, Sumter ordered his subordinates to disregard Morgan’s orders unless they came through him. Later in 1781, during Greene’s assault on Camden in March, he would be deliberately insubordinate to Greene’s direct orders, though always with some plausible excuse.
One benefit of Sumter’s pique with Greene was that it had gained him, once again, command over all the South Carolina militia. This was a return to the status he enjoyed in the fall of 1780, when South Carolina Gov. John Rutledge had appointed him the colony’s sole brigadier general. Since then, and during Sumter’s convalescence, both Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens had also been named brigadier generals by Rutledge, but in an effort to regain Sumter’s favor, Greene seemingly promised him a return to overall command in his letter of February 3:
I agree with you [Sumter] in opinion that if proper measures are taken the enemy may be made apprehensive in the rear. It is my ardent wish that you shoud embody your Militia as soon as your health will permit. This force I think may be usefully employed against the enemy in South Carolina; and whether it is employed there or with the continental Army when collected, you will have command of the whole.
And so, as eager to reestablish his authority as he was to seize a strategic advantage before the spring planting season, Sumter once more mustered his militia. Answering the call were men such as James Gill from the Chester District (south of current-day Rock Hill, South Carolina), who had fought with Sumter at both Rocky Mount and Fishing Creek, this latter battle part of a similar effort to cut off British supply lines below Camden during Gen. Horatio Gates’ campaign on Camden in August 1780. Like Gill, Hamilton Brown was also from the Chester District and had campaigned with Sumter the summer before. Zachary Kitchens also served at Sumter’s defeat at Fishing Creek on August 18, 1780, and returned for this similar mission. “Sumpter called us together and examined the strength of the British Outposts,” Kitchen recalled in his pension application.
Yet the muster was as notable for its absences as for those who answered the call. Only 280 men assembled at Sumter’s old camp ground in the Waxhaws. In contrast, Sumter had fought with over one thousand men at the Blackstocks. With both Pickens and Marion grown more powerful during Sumter’s convalescence, the Gamecock’s drawing power was now diminished. And as usual, Sumter’s men were poorly provisioned, though motivated for a try at the British stores. Deciding, as he often did, that speed was more strategically expedient than caution, Sumter disregarded the diminished state of his force and launched the campaign described by many who fought with him as “Sumter’s Rounds,” marching out from the Waxhaws on February 16.
Sumter’s first objective was Fort Granby (also known as Fort Congaree), which guarded an important trading post and ferry on the Congaree River.The fort was located in the settlement of Granby at the home of James Cayce, a two-story structure built in 1770 and fortified by the British in 1780 with a square earthen redoubt that included bastions, strong parapets, and a surrounding ditch with abatis, logs carved to a point and protruding from the earthworks.
Granby’s commander was Maj. Andrew Maxwell, a Maryland Tory and notorious plunderer who commanded about three hundred Provincials and Loyalist militia inside the fort.Arriving at Fort Granby on February 19, 1781, Sumter attempted to deceive the garrison into surrender by painting logs and tobacco hogsheads black to disguise them as artillery—aruse de guerre known as “Quaker guns,” which had been used successfully before in the Carolina backcountry, most notably by Continental Col. William Washington at Rugeley’s Mill near Camden on December 4, 1780. But Maxwell had received intelligence of both Sumter’s approach and his lack of artillery, so the ruse failed. After an unsuccessful attack, Sumter set up a siege of the fort, laying down a slow, continuous rifle fire to harass the garrison’s inhabitants.
During the siege, Sumter’s men erected a crude tower from which they could fire down into the fort from a covered position. With more thoughtful engineering and construction, this same device would be perfected by South Carolina Maj. Hezekiah Maham during the successful siege of Fort Watson by forces under the command of Francis Marion and Lt. Col. Henry Lee in April 1781, becoming forever immortalized as the “Maham Tower,” though Sumter and his men deserve some credit for its conception.
Learning of Sumter’s attack, Lord Rawdon dispatched a force of seven hundred men and two artillery pieces under the command of Lt. Col. Welbore Ellis Doyle to relieve Granby. Fearing such an attack, though apparently still unaware of the true strength of Rawdon’s force, Sumter wrote to Marion on February 20, 1781, requesting reinforcement:
I arrived at this place [Fort Granby] yesterday morning … Every thing hitherto favourable, and have no doubt but I shall succeed, if not interrupted by Lord Rawdon, who, I know, will strip his post as bare of men as possible to spare, to obviate which, as far as may be in your power, it is my wish that you would be pleased to move in such a direction as to attract his attention, and thereby prevent his designs … If you can, with propriety, advance Southwardly so as to cooperate, or correspond with me, it might have the best of consequences.
Whether by fate or design, Marion did not answer Sumter’s call for reinforcement. On February 28 he responded to Sumter’s request with excuses about his paucity of troops and the strength of the enemy in his theater.
Doyle assumed Sumter would retreat northwards, up the Broad River, and seized all the fords in that direction. Learning of Doyle’s approach, Sumter broke the siege and marched south toward Marion, futilely seeking a rendezvous with the Swamp Fox. Meanwhile Rawdon, sensing perhaps a long-awaited endgame to the British Army’s exhausting attempts to rid themselves of Sumter, dispatched the 64th Regiment of Foot, the New York Volunteers, and a fieldpiece under the command of Maj. Robert McLeroth toward Sumter’s new position. A force of regulars and militia also set out from Ninety-Six in pursuit of Sumter.
With British forces closing in from three sides, his men outnumbered and poorly provisioned, a more cautious commander might have dispersed his forces into the wilderness. But not the Gamecock, who optimistically believed Patriot militia from the region would be drawn to his command and still awaited reinforcement from Marion. Instead he crossed the Congaree and traveled thirty-five miles downriver to the British outpost at Belleville.
Another link in the chain guarding supply and communications from Charleston to the British interior, Belleville was located at the home of Col. William Thomson, a Patriot who had been captured at the fall of Charleston. In command of the outpost was Lt. John Stuart of the 71st Regiment of Foot (Fraser’s Highlanders). The home had been fortified by a stockade, with plantation outbuildings comprising part of the defensive works.
Arriving at the fort on February 22, a day after leaving Granby, Sumter ordered a direct attack on the fort across an open field, where his men endured heavy fire before burning some of the outbuildings. But Stuart’s men strongly resisted and successfully doused the fire, causing Sumter to break off the attack after only thirty minutes. His men exhausted and hungry, Sumter left detachments to surround the fort but retreated with the bulk of his force to Manigault’s Ferry, approximately two miles away on the Santee River.
At Manigault’s, fortune finally smiled on Sumter’s otherwise ill-fated campaign, however briefly. On the morning of February 23, Sumter received intelligence that a convoy of British supply wagons was approaching his position from the south. He moved quickly to a rising piece of ground a short distance away known as Big Savannah, setting up his ambush just as the convoy appeared in the distance. Sumter successfully outflanked the eighty British regulars under Maj. David McIntosh, and after a skirmish that resulted in several British deaths, captured the British wagons, including not only a large supply of arms, ammunition, and clothing, but also several locked chests thought to contain British gold.
The capture was a windfall for the small, partisan band. Perhaps that is why it was remembered so vividly by many of the soldiers with Sumter during this campaign in their pension applications, many of which were recorded fifty years later. But the tides of war quickly shifted again: with Rawdon’s British forces still in hot pursuit, Sumter had the supplies and British chests loaded onto boats and floated down the Santee River; but the pilot of the boat, a man named Robert Livingstone, steered the flotilla to the British outpost at Fort Watson, whether by mistake or treachery, where they were retaken by the British.
“I met and fought the British at a place called Big Savannah, where our forces captured a large guard and great quantity of military stores,” recalled William Hillhouse. “Hearing of a reinforcement [after the action at Bellville], we marched to meet them [the British]. It turned out to be a small detachment of British guarding some British wagons loaded with clothing & money for the soldiers. These surrendered & the loading was put on a barge & soon retaken at Wright’s Bluff [Fort Watson] with some of our men,” added James Gill. At least one of Sumter’s soldiers believed Sumter was complicit in Livingstone’s presumed treachery. “A suspicion was then entertained that Sumpter used the money – the deponent believes so yet,” reads the pension application of Zachary Kitchens.
After Sumter’s army sent off the boats, a fresh detachment of British forces from Camden, including cavalry and a field gun, approached their position. Sumter formed for battle but the British withdrew, unaware of Sumter’s precarious plight. Hoping to rendezvous with his boats carrying the captured British stores, Sumter retreated to the Santee River, but instead learned of the supply convoy’s recapture. Now trapped against the river, Sumter and his men searched desperately for boats hidden in the adjoining swamps so they could escape. Finally finding two canoes, they spent the next two days crossing the Santee, three men to each canoe, their horses swimming beside them.
Having escaped Rawdon’s men in the desperate river crossing, Sumter now decided to attack the British outpost at Fort Watson in an attempt to regain the lost wagon convoy. Built the previous year by Col. John Watson, the fort was at a place called Wright’s Bluff along the Santee River, just below its junction with the Congaree River, roughly fifty miles due south of Camden. Colonel Watson constructed the fort on a Santee Indian ritual mound, rising about fifty feet above the surrounding swamp, to defend the river and the trading route from Charleston to Camden. Though not a large outpost, the fort’s defenses were considerable, with fosse (a defensive ditch)], parapet (a defensive earthen wall), and abatis (logs sharpened to a point protruding outward from the defenses).
Fort Watson had recently been reinforced with about four hundred Provincial troops, but with characteristic alacrity and a failure to do any reconnaissance, Sumter ordered his tiny band of two hundred to directly assault the well-guarded and well-defended outpost at around noon on February 28, 1781. The results were predictable: the British account of the battle listed Sumter’s casualties as eighteen killed, with some prisoners and many horses taken.
After the unsuccessful attack on Fort Watson, Sumter withdrew to a place called Farr’s Plantation on the swamps of the Black River, near his own mills and property. Sumter’s biographer Anne King Gregorie describes this as a “dark time for the Americans.” Discouraged and exhausted officers and men fled the camp. The North Carolina militia, attempting to desert en masse, were held at bayonet point.
Marion, responding to Sumter’s entreaties for troops and support on March 2, answered again with his regrets; his own force was too weak, the enemy’s opposition too strong. Still hoping to solicit the Swamp Fox’s assistance, Sumter responded to Marion on March 4, 1781:
Yours of 2d instant has this moment come to hand, I am very sorry to be so far out of the way of meeting with you at a time when there is the greatest occasion for it … My horses are so worn out that I can scarce move at all, and officers and men quite discouraged—ﬁnding no force in these parts, not even men enough to join to guide me through the country. But, notwithstanding little may be done now, yet much good might be expected to result hereafter from a personal consultation, which I hope to have the favour of by tomorrow night.
Such a consultation would never come. Sumter’s biographer Robert D. Bass optimistically insists Marion’s failure to respond was due to circumstance, not recalcitrance. “Although there was little co-operation between the Gamecock and the Swamp Fox, there was no animosity between these Partisans,” he writes with Pollyannaish optimism.But the earlier South Carolina historian Edward R. McCrady acknowledges something more nefarious in Marion’s actions. “Still, it is strange that, within a day’s journey of Sumter, he does not appear to have made any response to the earnest appeal for a conference.”
While recuperating and waiting for reinforcement, Sumter’s militia captured four of Watson’s men at Nelson’s Ferry and Sumter attempted to negotiate an exchange. In a letter to Marion dated March 15, 1781, Watson reported to Marion that he offered an exchange, but that Sumter never completed it, presumably because he was once more being pursued by the British, this time by Maj. Thomas Fraser and his force of South Carolina Loyalists.
Sumter now moved to his own plantation at the High Hills of the Santee to collect his wife and son before fleeing Fraser’s pursuit by way of friendly settlements near the swamps of Black River, hoping to escape to safety in the Waxhaws. According to documentary history collected by the nineteenth-century historian Lyman Draper and reported in several contemporary sources, it was a fraught and terrifying escape. Sumter’s paralytic wife, Mary, was mounted on horseback with a featherbed for a saddle and a negro woman behind her to hold her in place, while the Sumters’ sole child, Tom, then only twelve years old, and many of the family’s slaves, either walked or rode along within the ranks of what was left of Sumter’s ragtag militia.
On March 6, 1781, Fraser apprehended Sumter’s party near a place called Ratcliff’s Bridge over the Lynches River. Sumter sent his family and slaves into the swamps and turned to face Fraser’s Loyalists, though many of his men also fled. An account from Draper tells of Sumter frantically calling out to his son, “Lay down Tom! Lay down Tom!” as the British attacked.
In a running battle, Sumter was able to collect his family and retreat to Ratcliffe’s Bridge, burning it to prevent further pursuit by Fraser. “Fraser yesterday fell in with Sumter (who was advancing this way) between Scape Hoar and Radcliffe’s Bridge,” Rawdon informed Watson in a letter dated March 7, 1781. “A smart action ensued, in which the enemy were completely routed, leaving ten dead on the field and about forty wounded. Unfortunately none of our Dragoons had joined Fraser, so that he could not pursue his victory. Sumter fled across Lynches Creek and continued his retreat northward; he had his family with him, so that I think he has entirely abandoned the lower country.”
Sumter’s tattered, hungry, discouraged army finally returned to the Waxhaws after their perilous escape at Ratcliff’s Bridge. During the disastrous three-week campaign, they lost approximately a quarter of their force in the series of ill-conceived battles. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the men were dejected and angry. Many of them felt deceived by Sumter, who had so clearly misinformed them about the strength of Rawdon’s force. Some believed Sumter put their lives in peril to rescue his own family. Men like Zachary Kitchens believed Sumter had employed some sort of deception in the loss of the briefly-captured British supply wagon. Sumter had captured many slaves during the expedition, and apparently this, too, caused resentment. Col. Robert Gray, a prominent Loyalist from the Camden area who wrote a reminiscence of the Revolutionary War in 1782, recounted: “They [Sumter’s men] were now exceedingly dejected … Sumter, who had carried off a number of Negroes, offered one to every person who would enlist for ten months as a dragoon to form a body of state cavalry, he could hardly procure a single recruit and he began to grow extremely unpopular. They raised so great a clamor against him for deceiving them with regard to Lord Rawdon’s strength that he was obliged at a muster to enter into a long vindication of his conduct. All of this however was ineffectual.”
Though it was conducted at the urging of Nathanael Greene and was successful in eliciting a massive response from Rawdon, who perhaps might have been able to support Cornwallis’s operations in North Carolina if not engaged in his pursuit of the Gamecock, Sumter’s Rounds failed in its other strategic objectives: capturing the British outposts supporting the supply lines to Camden, if not the supplies themselves, and raising militia along the Congaree-Santee basin for more extensive action against the British occupation.
More significantly, Sumter’s Rounds portended the personality conflicts that would hamper the Patriot’s spring campaign, once Greene made his strategic decision to return to South Carolina following the Battle at Guilford Courthouse. In the months to come, Sumter would continue to promote his idea of using slaves as enticement for more lengthy enlistments in a standing body of state troops, an initiative that came to be known as “Sumter’s Law” and would leave a black mark on Sumter’s later political career along with his historic legacy. A vehement opponent of Sumter’s Law, Marion would continue to operate independently of Sumter’s command, finding reason after reason not to support the Gamecock. Interestingly, the Quaker-born Nathanael Greene would react more ambivalently toward Sumter’s Law, a rare moral misjudgment for a man who would otherwise go down in history as a compassionate military commander.
However, neither Greene’s tacit support for Sumter’s Law nor his solicitous efforts to assuage Sumter’s bruised ego would exonerate him for the indignity Sumter felt during his convalescence, when Greene bruised his ego by placing Morgan in command over his troops. This contempt would manifest itself more overtly when Greene returned to South Carolina, and Sumter repeatedly ignored his pleas for support in Greene’s assault on Camden, the campaign that would result in Greene’s defeat at Hobkirk’s Hill, an insubordination that would eventually cause Greene to regard the Gamecock as a “a mere Pandour and freebooter.”
Sumter’s ongoing personality conflicts in 1781 lead some historians to suggest he underwent some fundamental psychological schism during his convalescence, a selfishness not apparent during his campaigns of 1780. “Did this experience [his serious wound at Blackstocks] sap some of the bold courage of the Gamecock? Did he not press his attack with the same hard courage he had once displayed?” asks historian John S. Pancake. “Probably Thomas Sumter himself could not have answered such questions, but the terrible wound and its painful aftermath may have affected his fighting spirit in ways of which he himself was not aware.”
Regardless of his psychological state, Sumter was still the brigadier general over all South Carolina militia, a man to be reckoned with by British and Continental alike. And undaunted by the miseries of Sumter’s Rounds, he would soon return to the field in campaigns that would contribute to the Revolutionary War’s endgames in the vital South Carolina theater.
Anne King Gregorie. Thomas Sumter(Columbia, SC: The R.L. Bryan Company, 1931), 136; Robert Gray, “Col. Robert Gray’s Observations on the War in Carolina,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, XI (July 1910), archive.org/details/Col.RobertGraysObservationsOnTheWarInCarolina1782.
Nathanael Green to Thomas Sumter, January 8, 1781, in The Papers of Nathanael Greene, 13 vols., eds: Richard K. Showman and Dennis Conrad (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1976-2006), 7: 74. Hereafter cited as NG with appropriate volume and page numbers, e.g. 7: 74. Spelling grammar, punctuation, and capitalization are presented as in the original. Author’s notes in brackets for clarification.
“Revolutionary War Pension Application of Hamilton Brown,” September 22, 1832, transcribed by Will Graves; “Revolutionary War Pension Application of Hicks Chappel,” March 13, 1833, transcribed by C. Leon Harris; “Revolutionary War Pension Application of Zachary Kitchens,” January 7, 1833, transcribed by C. Leon Harris; all located online at Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters,www.revwarapps.org.
The naming of South Carolina’s river system can be confusing; the Broad River flows south out of North Carolina into South Carolina and becomes the Congaree River at the confluence with the Saluda River near present-day Columbia, then becomes the Santee River at the confluence with the Wateree River at present-day Lake Marion. Despite the different names, this campaign occurred primarily along this main Congaree-Santee river channel.
“Revolutionary War Pension Application of James Gill,” September 22, 1832, transcribed by Will Graves, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters,www.revwarapps.org; O’Kelley, Nothing But Blood and Slaughter, 3:93.
“Revolutionary War Pension Application of William Hillhouse,” date unknown, transcribed by Will Graves; “Revolutionary War Pension Application of James Gill,” September 22, 1832, transcribed by Will Graves; “Revolutionary War Pension Application of Zachary Kitchens,” Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters, www.revwarapps.org.
William R. Davie, The Revolutionary War Sketches of William R. Davie, ed: Blackwell P. Robinson (Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1976), 44.