As Nathanael Greene retreated from Ninety Six in late June 1781, following his unsuccessful siege there, Thomas Sumter was eager to campaign in lower South Carolina. This was a stratagem the Gamecock had employed before. Following Greene’s defeat at Hobkirk’s Hill on April 25, 1781, Sumter quickly opened a campaign against the British supply depots along the Congaree River. If Sumter dreamed a Greene defeat would permit him to operate independently, as he had following the fall of Charleston the year before, it was a fantasy that never quite came true. Then, he butted heads with Greene’s trusted subordinate, Lt. Col. Henry Lee, over the spoils of Fort Granby, near modern-day Columbia, South Carolina, in a tantrum that led to his temporary resignation. Now Sumter wanted to make an expedition toward the British forces at Monck’s Corner. Anxious to rouse Patriot sentiment in that region of South Carolina, Greene was inclined to let him to do it. “I wish you to file off towards the Congaree,” Greene wrote to Sumter on June 25, just six days after evacuating Ninety Six. “No time is to be lost and you will endeavor to spirit up the people as much as you can.”
Despite a troubled relationship between Sumter and Francis Marion, the famed “Swamp Fox,” Greene ordered Marion to cooperate with Sumter for this expedition: “General Sumter is preparing for a manoeuver down into the lower parts of the State, and he requires your aid to carry it into effect. You will therefore call out all the force you can and operate with him in any manner he may direct.”
Greene’s retreat from Ninety Six had been precipitated by the approach of Francis, Lord Rawdon, who relieved Ninety Six with his army of two thousand on June 21. They had marched fourteen days, departing from Monck’s Corner on June 7. Most of Rawdon’s force had recently arrived from Ireland and were unaccustomed to South Carolina’s grueling summer heat—after first arriving in Charleston, the officers of the 19th Regiment marched with silk umbrellas to shade them from the sun. In their heavy wool uniforms, their legs still wobbly from the long sea voyage, Rawdon’s soldiers arrived at Ninety Six exhausted.
Rawdon was in poor shape himself, recurring bouts of malaria mixed with exhaustion taking a toll on his already fragile constitution. Writing to Cornwallis on June 7, the same day he left for Ninety Six, Rawdon admitted, “I am now, my dear Lord, with great pain to tell you that I … could not outlive the summer in this climate. I am by no means now in a state of health fit to undertake the business upon which I am going, but as my knowledge of the country and my acquaintance with the inhabitants make me think that I can effect it better than any person here, I am determined to attempt it.”
Despite the exhaustion of Rawdon and his troops, he briefly pursued Greene across northwestern South Carolina after relieving Ninety Six. But Greene skillfully eluded Rawdon’s pursuit, passing with his army over the Broad River to safety. His men spent, Rawdon broke the pursuit and ordered them back to Ninety Six, where they arrived on June 25 or 26.
With Greene once more out of his grasp, and no appetite for holding Ninety Six, now isolated with Camden abandoned following Hobkirk’s Hill and Augusta surrendered on June 5, Rawdon ordered the post evacuated. Meanwhile, Greene moved to the High Hills of the Santee, a long, narrow, hilly region located north of the Santee and east of the Wateree rivers in present-day Sumter County, east of Columbia, South Carolina. Rising about two hundred feet, the hills at least gave an impression of relief from the surrounding lowland heat, thanks in part to a prevalent breeze. A detachment of about two hundred North Carolina Continentals under Maj. John Armstrong, anticipated for weeks, finally reached Greene there, bolstering his spirits, and he still anticipated the arrival of about one thousand militia under the command of Col. Francis Lock from the area around Salisbury, North Carolina.
The backcountry finally abandoned by the British, and reinforcements arrived or on their way, it was a perfect time for Greene to give his South Carolina partisans exactly what they wanted: liberty to pursue their own objectives. Sumter already had Greene’s approval to move against Monck’s Corner, but almost as if he was genetically predisposed not to follow Greene’s orders, even when they authorized him to do exactly as he wished, Sumter didn’t “file off towards the Congaree,” as Greene had commanded. Instead he decided “to take a Turn through the upper Regiments,” traveling north to his headquarters in the Catawba basin, successfully recruiting militia for his planned expedition against the lower posts, but less successfully procuring arms for them. He hired several artificers but reported that “Material for Making of Swords are extreamly Scarce.”
Once again, Sumter’s disobedience vexed Greene’s plans, for in the meantime, Greene learned that a British force under Lt. Col. Alexander Stewart sent to reinforce Rawdon had mistakenly returned to Dorchester, South Carolina. Marching south and east toward this junction with Stewart, Rawdon had left part of his force back at Ninety Six to assist with the evacuation of Loyalist settlers, reducing his strength to less than a thousand troops. With Stewart’s delay, Rawdon was vulnerable to attack. On July 2, Rawdon was reported by both Lee, commander of the mixed infantry and cavalry division known as “Lee’s Legion,” and Lt. Col. William Washington, commander of Greene’s cavalry, to be at Fort Granby guarding Friday’s Ferry, the strategically important crossing on the Congaree River. Hoping to seize an advantage and prevent the British from “reestablishing themselves at … the Congarees,” Greene ordered Sumter toward Friday’s Ferry. “If our force … is collected we can oblige the Enemy to keep theirs collected; and that will prevent their establishing their posts again … Having given you a state of matters, I beg you will form a junction with us as soon as possible. I have already directed General Marion to meet us at Fridays Ferry without loss of time.”
Sumter would do no such thing, for unbeknownst to Greene, he was over seventy miles away, back in the Waxhaws near present-day Charlotte, North Carolina, far from where Greene expected him to be. Greene received news of Sumter’s unanticipated diversion on July 3, as he moved his own troops to a camp at Winnsboro, South Carolina, on the other side of the Wateree. Nevertheless, he made plans to press his attack against Rawdon at Granby, ordering Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens to join him at Friday’s Ferry. Meanwhile, he ordered Lee and Washington to harass the British reinforcements of Col. Alexander Stewart to delay his junction with Rawdon.
Greene’s army arrived at Friday’s Ferry on July 6, finding Rawdon vanished. Though Andrew Pickens united with him there with three hundred men, Pickens’ horses were “much worn down from the long march,” his men exhausted and “intiarly unfit to perform the service of discovering the enemys movement or even to gett out of their way should they prove too powerfull for us.” Marion, for his part, performed as commanded, joining with Lee and Washington, but not in time to prevent Rawdon’s junction with Stewart at Orangeburg on July 7. According to one source, fifty of Rawdon’s men died from heat exhaustion along the way. Stewart’s reinforcements were in no better shape. Nevertheless, Rawdon and Stewart’s combined force set up a strong defensive position at Orangeburg.
Only Sumter remained absent, writing from Camden on July 6 to explain that he intended to set out for Greene’s camp “this Morning” but because of the “Movements of the enemy” would await “further orders.”
If Rawdon had stayed at Granby, if Greene had been able to convene his partisans in time for an attack there, he might have caught Rawdon vulnerable. Though that was not to be, Greene still hoped for a decisive strike at Orangeburg after receiving word from Marion that Rawdon’s troops were “so fatigued they cannot possibly move.”For once, Sumter performed as Greene desired, marching down from Camden, joining with the forces of Lee, Marion, and Washington outside Orangeburg on July 9.
His forces now combined, Greene left his own Army camped at a place called Beaver Creek and rode down with a cavalry guard to meet with Lee, Washington, and his South Carolina partisan commanders outside Orangeburg on July 10. “General Greene … put himself at the head of his cavalry, commanded by Washington and Lee, accompanied by his principal officers, for the purpose of examining the enemy’s position, with a view of forcing it if possible,” recalled Lee. “The reconnaissance was made with great attention, and close to the enemy; for being comparatively destitute of cavalry, Rawdon had no means to interrupt it. After spending several hours in examining the British position, General Greene decided against hazarding an assault.”
Although Greene’s army now numbered approximately two thousand, compared to Rawdon’s sixteen hundred, less than a thousand were trained Continentals, the rest militia. The British position at Orangeburg was stronger than anticipated, and according to Lee’s recollections, Rawdon “had secured his retreat across the Edisto” to his rear, making even a successful assault on Orangeburg little more than a pyrrhic victory.
According to Lee, another reason for Greene’s hesitation was the extreme deprivation faced by his troops. Greene’s army rarely had adequate supply during the Southern campaign, but due in part to the intense summer heat, the situation outside Orangeburg was particularly bad. Lee recalled memorably,
Of meat we had literally none … Frogs abounded in some neighboring ponds, and on them chiefly did the light troops subsist. They became in great demand from their nutritiousness; and, after conquering the existing prejudice, were diligently sought after. Even the alligator was used by a few; and, very probably, had the army been much longer detained upon that ground, might have rivalled the frog in the estimation of our epicures.
Deciding against attack, Greene delayed outside Orangeburg for three days, hoping Rawdon would act to form and launch an attack on him, as he had at Hobkirk’s Hill. But three days of frog and alligator were enough, and the infirmed Rawdon had no intention of leaving his defensive position. On July 13, Greene ordered the Patriot position at Orangeburg evacuated and headed again to the more moderate environs of the High Hills of the Santee, where he planned to wait out the summer heat.
With his militia now finally gathered and eager for action, if not plunder, Sumter wanted to reinstitute his plan to move into the “lower country” against the British posts protecting Charleston. Lee also wanted to remain in the field, and Marion again was ordered to support their combined operations.
Greene seemed sanguine about letting his partisans and light troops campaign while he bivouacked the main part of his army in the High Hills. “No time is to be lost, therefore push your operations night and day,” an enthusiastic Greene advised Sumter, writing on July 14. “Keep Col. Lee and General Marian advisd of all matters from above and tell Col. Lee to thunder even at the gates of Charleston. I have high expectations from your force and enterprise.”
Sumter’s ambitious plan involved dividing his force of between one thousand and 1,100 men – consisting of mounted militia and Continental cavalry with one field piece – into several different detachments that would attack smaller objectives before converging on the British position at Monck’s Corner, now the main British outpost defending Charleston from an interior, land-based attack. The outpost at Monck’s Corner was located within Biggin’s Church, the local parish, and defended by six hundred British regulars under Col. James Coates and about 150 mounted troops from the South Carolina Rangers, a Loyalist corps. The church occupied an elevation at an important intersection of roads that led southeast to the Cooper River and on to Charleston. The British had constructed an abatis surrounding the sixty-foot-long church, which itself was sturdily made of three-foot-thick brick walls.
Sumter’s raid against the lower posts has come to be known as the “Dog Days Expedition,” thanks to a popular fictionalized account called The Forayers, or the Raid of the Dogdays by the writer William Gilmore Simms. Published in 1855, the novel glorified the endurance and bravery of the South Carolina partisans. The “dog days” are the period from early July thru mid-August that precede the rising of the dog star Sirius, and also happen to frequently be the most brutally hot days of summer.
Though Greene later criticized Sumter’s plan for its logistical complexities, Sumter’s detachments found initial success. Marion and his mounted men went ahead to guard the approaches to Monck’s Corner, with orders to destroy the strategically important bridges over Wadboo Creek. Marion’s former officer Hezekiah Maham was recently promoted to rank of lieutenant colonel and put in charge of his own battalion of light dragoons, which would come to be known as Maham’s Legion. To Maham and his Legion was assigned the strategically important Wadboo Bridge on one of the main routes leading back toward Charleston from Biggin’s Church. Though Maham’s Legion did damage the bridge, it is thought they spent most of their time destroying two schooners found at anchor there.
Meanwhile, Lee raided the British position at Dorchester, South Carolina, taking a convoy of horses and wagons that were headed to Orangeburg to supply Rawdon. Col. Wade Hampton, leading Sumter’s cavalry of state troops, raided successfully on the very outskirts of Charleston, creating a general state of alarm and fear inside Charleston itself, the first time the city had been threatened militarily since the British captured it back in May of 1780.
With his detachments wreaking havoc throughout the countryside, Sumter approached Biggin’s Church with the main body of his militia on July 16. As he approached, a body of British dragoons attacked an advance Patriot company led by Col. Peter Horry of Marion’s brigade. Horry repulsed the attack easily, but when Coates sent out some British infantry to support the dragoons, Sumter thought the British were preparing to attack in force, and ordered his men into a defensive position outside the British garrison as evening approached. There he waited for his detachments under Lee, Marion, and Hampton to join him.
Under cover of night, while Sumter waited for reinforcements, Coates ordered Biggin’s Church evacuated. “I Arrived here this morning four OClock: & found this post Avacuated [evacuated],” Sumter reported to Greene on the morning of July 17. “Have not been able as yet to ascertain, or even gain the least knowledge of their [the British] rout[e].”
Coates had retreated in the night toward Charleston on the Wadboo Bridge, which his forces had been able to repair as they crossed. Part of Sumter’s confusion was because he not only thought the bridge destroyed, but also mistakenly believed Maham was in possession of it. In fact, Maham had abandoned his position there just a few hours before Coates passed.
The Patriots, however, soon discovered Coates’ route, and the cavalry of Lee and Hampton pursued. About a mile from Quinby Bridge, a crossing over Quinby Creek on the Public Road leading to Charleston, Lee’s advance troops overtook Coates’ baggage train after an eighteen-mile chase, easily capturing the baggage and Coates’ rear guard, which according to Henry Lee were raw recruits from Ireland.
Lee’s advance troops under the command of Capt. John Armstrong pressed forward and came upon Coates, “who, having passed the bridge was carelessly reposing, expecting his rear-guard—having determined to destroy the bridge as soon as his rear and baggage should have passed it. With this view the planks were mostly raised from the sleepers, lying on them loosely, ready to be thrown into the stream when the rear should get over.”
According to Lee, writing in his memoirs, Armstrong sent to Lee for instructions, but neglected to inform his commander that Coates had already crossed the bridge, which was now guarded by a howitzer, a field piece designed for launching projectiles, like a cross between a cannon and a mortar. Believing that Coates was still in open ground, Lee “warmly” reminded Armstrong “the order of the day, which was to fall upon the foe without respect to consequences.”
Lee’s memoir provides a dramatic description of Armstrong’s attack:
The brave Armstrong put spur to horse at the head of his section, and threw himself over the bridge upon the guard stationed there with a howitzer. So sudden was his charge that he drove all before him—the soldiers abandoning their piece. Some of the loose planks were dashed off by Armstrong’s section, which, forming a chasm in the bridge, presented a dangerous obstacle. Nevertheless the second section … took the leap and closed with Armstrong, then engaged in personal combat with Lieutenant-Colonel Coates, who . . . effectually parried the many sabre strokes, aimed at his head. Most of his soldiers, appalled at the sudden and daring attack, had abandoned their colonel, and were running through the field, some with, some without arms, to take shelter in the farm-house.
Capt. David John Bell, an officer of the 19th Regiment under Coates’ command, reported “a party of Rebells galloped over the Bridge in the face of our Field Piece, rode through the Regiment, & wounded two Men: it was the most daring thing I ever heard of: one of them made a stroke at the Colonel which he turned off … Three of the five paid for their temerity.” Neither Sumter nor Greene reported the attack with Lee’s dramatic flourishes, suggesting some literary license on Lee’s part, yet Bell’s account clearly suggests Armstrong and his men acted with dramatic bravery in the skirmish before being chased back across the bridge by Coates’ infantry.
Operating without his cavalry, which he had sent on a separate route, Coates and his infantry now set up a defensive position at the nearby Shubrick’s Plantation. Marion came up with his men and the Legion infantry around three in the afternoon on July 17. Together, he and Lee forded the creek upstream of the bridge to survey Coates’ position. The British were formed in a hollow square, their front supported by the Howitzer, their flanks protected by plantation outbuildings and a rail fence, behind which Coates had posted men. Sumter arrived with his infantry around five o’clock. “Their position was the most Advantageous that cou’d have fallen in their way,” Sumter later reported to Greene. “Lodged in a long line of Houses on an Emminence.”
Sumter’s fieldpiece was still on the way, following far behind in the day’s long chase; Lee and Marion deemed the position too strong to attack without artillery, but Sumter commanded an attack. He formed his battle line in a half moon around the front of the British position, with Horry’s brigade on the far right and Marion’s brigade on the far left. Lee and Hampton’s mounted troops were held in reserve, as there was little they could do against Coates’ defensive position. In the center, where there were some small slave quarters for cover, Sumter posted his own men.
A little after five, Sumter ordered Thomas Taylor’s militia regiment of forty-five men forward in a charge to gain the rail fence, commencing the attack. The British counterattacked with a bayonet charge, sending Taylor reeling back. Marion ordered his men up to cover Taylor’s retreat. “I marched my men to a fence about fifty yards of the Enimy under a very heavy fire,” Marion reported to Greene.
Under Marion’s fire, the British broke their formation and most fell back into the plantation’s mansion house. “We soon made them take shelter in and behind the houses,” Marion continued in his report, “but was fired on from the stoop of the Houses & through the doors, windows & Corners.”
After an intense forty-minute firefight, both Sumter and Marion’s men were almost out of ammunition. “Our Ammunition being Intirely Expended I was obliged to retire,” Marion continued. “I cannot give any perticulars of Gen. Sumters Brigade as they was too great a distance from me with fences & Corn fields which Interupted the sight.”
Sumter retreated three miles, “With a Design of Renewing the attack in the Morning,” once his field piece arrived. But a renewed attack was not to be. Marion’s casualties were eight killed and nineteen wounded. Sumter reported thirteen killed and twenty-three wounded. Marion’s men were furious with Sumter. They viewed the position of Sumter’s men, fighting with cover from the slave quarters, as superior to the open, coverless position where Sumter ordered them. If only Sumter had waited for his fieldpiece, they fumed, their comrades would not have been needlessly slaughtered.
In an account collected by the nineteenth-century researcher Lyman Draper, and printed in Anne King Gregorie’s biography of Sumter, Taylor was furious with the Gamecock after the battle, feeling that he and his men had been needlessly sacrificed. In the account, recollected by Taylor’s son, Taylor “found Gen. Sumter sitting coolly under the shade of a tree – & said: ‘Sir, I don’t know why you sent me forward on a forlorn hope, promising to sustain me, & failed to do so, unless you designed to sacrifice me. I will never more serve under you’ & then retired from Sumter’s command.”
Marion and Lee drew off in the night, Marion struggling to keep his furious troops from outright mutiny. Neither bothered to inform Sumter of their departure; both were clearly disgruntled. Sumter ordered his retreat the following day, worried about news of a British reinforcement and suddenly without Marion and Lee for support.
The disastrous attack at Shubrick’s Plantation clearly marked some turning point for the Gamecock. Up until now, both Marion and Lee had managed to keep their frustrations with him contained, at least in terms of respecting his command; Shubrick’s was the first time they openly expressed their disdain through insubordination. And this disdain was also evident within his own ranks, in a way not seen since the end to the disastrous Sumter’s Rounds expedition back in March 1781. A year before, Sumter’s unimaginative battle plans were accepted by his troops, partly because he found some limited success with his straight-ahead attacks, partly because the Gamecock’s personal magnetism neutralized any criticism. The Gamecock may have never been a great battlefield commander, but for a brief time following the fall of Charleston, he was the only battlefield commander most South Carolina partisans had. But a year of fighting, exacerbated by his serious wound at the Blackstocks, now exposed the Gamecock’s tactical shortcomings. “It cannot, however, escape the observation of even a panegyrist of the great leader that it was the misfortune of Sumter to incur in succession the hostility of Morgan, Greene, and Lee, as well as the want of cordiality upon the part of Marion,” admits the nineteenth-century historian Edward McCrady.
For her part, Gregorie tried to put a positive spin on the “Dog Days” expedition, noting that it resulted in the destruction of the post at Biggin’s Church, the capture or destruction of a considerable amount of British stores, and the capture of many prisoners, wagons, and horses. Among the captured items was a regimental paymaster’s chest containing eight hundred gold guineas, which Sumter ordered distributed to his men.
Most importantly perhaps was the psychological toll taken on Charleston, now largely inhabited by Loyalist refugeess, who suddenly found the city threatened by Patriot forces. In a letter to Sir Henry Clinton, British Col. Nisbet Balfour, commanding at Charleston, admitted that Sumter’s expedition, together with the American superiority in cavalry and a “general Revolt of the Province,” would “much circumscribe any future Position” the British could take in South Carolina.
Greene also attempted to frame the expedition positively, perhaps because he had not participated in it, congratulating Sumter on his success: “Tho our advantages are not as great as our prospects once promised, they nevertheless will have their advantages, and reflect honor upon your command.” Yet in his private correspondence, Sumter expressed frustrations with the Gamecock, writing to Daniel Morgan, “had you been with me a few weeks past, you would have had it in your power to give the world the pleasure of reading a second Cowpen affair. General Sumter had the command; but the event did not answer my expectations.”
The southern campaign was entering its final phase, with Sumter’s power and influence diminishing. Yet it was not the style of the Gamecock to go quietly into that good night. Though the next act, at Eutaw Springs, would be played largely without him, Sumter would not resign his command until January 1782, when he left to serve in the South Carolina General Assembly. Though he no longer held the respect of Marion, Lee, Greene, and others among the Patriot officer corps, his status among the rank and file of the South Carolina backcountry remained strong, forming the foundation of a long and distinguished political career.
“Nathanael Greene to Thomas Sumter, June 25, 1781,” The Papers of Nathanael Greene(hereafter NG), Dennis M. Conrad and Richard K. Showman, ed. (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 8:458.