The Battle of Rocky Mount

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The Battle of Rocky Mount

August 1, 1780 at Rocky Mount, Lancaster County, South Carolina

American Forces Commanded by
Lt. Col. Thomas Sumter
Strength Killed & Wounded Missing / Captured
600 20 ?
British Forces Commanded by
Lt. Col. George Trumball
Strength Killed & Wounded Missing / Captured
300 12 ?
Conclusion: British Victory

After the American victory at the Battle of Williamson's Plantation, American patriots of the Catawba District soon became encouraged by this success and decided to head to Lt. Col. Thomas Sumter's standard. Sumter was soon able to gather up enough forces to undertake offensive operations in support of Maj. Gen. Johann Kalb's American advance from the North against the British.

On July 17, Sumter wrote Kalb to propose operations against the British line of communications from Charleston to Camden and other interior British posts.

On July 30, Col. Thomas Sumter with 200 to 300 South Carolina refugees, and Col. Robert Irwin (also Irvin) with 300 Mecklenburg militia, rendezvoused at Davie's camp on the north side of Waxhaw's Creek. It was decided that Sumter, Neal, and Irwin, with their combined force of about 500-600 men, would assault Rocky Mount on the west side of the Wateree. Davie meanwhile, was with about 40 militia cavalry and mounted infantry, was to make a diversionary attack at Hanging Rock about fifteen miles eastward.

Tarleton speaks of the fortifications at Rocky Mount consisted of two log houses and a loop hole building surround by a "strong" abbatis, on an elevation which was clear all around. Bass, on the other hand, describes the buildings as a shed and a great house. Defending Rocky Mount was Lieut. Col. George Turnbull with a force of 300, about half of which were some New York Volunteers, and the other some loyalist militia. The Tories held a strong natural position. Their small fort was formed by 3 log cabins that had been loopholed and encircled by a ditch and abatis. Turnbull had learned from Tory spies that Sumter and his force was heading to this outpost. Turnbull prepared his men for this attack and they were ready for it.

At the same time of Sumter's advance, Maj. William Davie was ordered to advance to Hanging Rock and engage the Tory forces there. Both Rocky Mount and Hanging Rock were known as Tory outposts which served to protect the vital British base at Camden, about 25 miles to the south.

On August 1, early in the day, Sumter appeared opposite of the Tory position. He sent a request to Turnbull for the Tory force to surrender. Turnbull sent back a response that said that if Sumter wanted the post, he would have to "come and get it."

Without any artillery to soften up the post, Sumter had no choice but to make a direct assault on it. Sumter sent Lt. Col. Thomas Neal to make a charge. Neal succedded in pushing through the abatis and forced the Tories into the log cabins. In a brief fight here, Neal and 5 of his men were killed. With the Tories inside their cabins, Sumter tried to burn them down. he tried unsuccessfully to set the log cabins on fire by having burning fagots thrown against them. Next, Sumter rolled a burning wagon against the cabins. The Tories put up a white flag and was going to surrender. Just at that time, a rainstorm appeared and the rain quickly put out the fire. The Tories withdrew their surrender request and engaged the Americans again. Sumter soon gave up his assault and withdrew his forces to Land's Ford on the Catawba River.

Extract from Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America, (1787; reprint, North Stratford, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, Inc., 1999), Chapter II, pp. 93-94.

An instance of treachery which took place about this time, ruined all confidence between the regulars and the militia: The inhabitants in the districts of the rivers Ennoree and Tyger had been enrolled since the siege of Charles town, under the orders of Col. ?? Floyd; Colonel Neale, the former commanding officer, having fled out of the province for his violent persecution of the loyalists.

One Lisle, who had belonged to the same corps, and who had been banished to the islands, availing himself of the proclamation to exchange his parole for a certificate of his being a good citizen, was made second in command: And as soon as the battalion was completed with arms and ammunition, he carried it off to Colonel Neale, who had joined Colonel Sumpter's command in the Catawba. This reinforcement, added to his former numbers, inspired Sumpter with a desire of signalizing himself, by attacking some of the British posts upon the frontier. Having gained the necessary information, he directed his efforts against the corps at Rocky mount.

Near the end of July, he passed the Broad River, at Blair's Ford, with about 900 men, and advanced upon Turnbull, whose force was composed of 150 provincials, and as many militia. The defenses of Rocky mount consisted of two log houses, a loop-holed building, and an abbatis; placed upon an eminence, which commanded a view of the neighbouring country. Sumpter, having no cannon to destroy the abbatis, or the buildings, selected some of his bravest followers, to remove the former, and to endeavour to set fire to the latter, whilst his people, under cover of the trees and rocks, on the declivity of the mountain, maintained a heavy fire upon the garrison.

After 3 attacks, in the last of which some of the forlorn hope penetrated within the abbatis, the American commander retreated with loss and precipitation. In the gallant defence of this post, Lt. Col. George Turnbull had one officer killed, one wounded, and about ten men killed and wounded.

Tarleton:

“Having gained the necessary information, he [Sumter] directed his efforts against the corps at Rocky mount. Near the end of July he passed Broad river, at Blair's ford, with about nine hundred men, and advanced upon Turnbull, whose force was composed of one hundred and fifty provincials, and as many militia. The defences of Rocky mount consisted of two log houses, a loop-holed building, and an abbatis; placed upon an eminence, which commanded a view of the neighbouring country. Colonel Sumpter having no cannon to destroy the abbatis or the buildings, selected some of his bravest followers, to remove the former, and to endeavour to set fire to the latter, whilst his people, under cover of the trees and rocks, on the declivity of the mountain, maintained a heavy fire upon the garrison. After three attacks, in the last of which some of the forlorn hope penetrated within the abbatis, the American commander retreated with loss and precipitation. In the gallant defence of this post, Lieutenant-colonel Turnbull had one officer killed, one wounded, and about ten men killed and wounded.”

Pension statement of Thomas Reagan of Newberry County:

“The next morning this applicant with Sumpters forces about sunrise moved down the River towards the British Camp & arrived there about 24 hours after they started. They lay about one mile & a half of the enemy the succeeding night and came within gunshot distance (neither side having cannon) about 8 o clock Sumpters forces immediately attacked the British who lay in a large log house at a place called "Rocky Mount" on the Catabaw (sic) -- The ingagement (sic) lasted till near 11 o clock in the fore noon when the troops under Sumpter drew off, leaving the British in possession of the log house. During this ingagment Sumpters party were protected by the woods and the huge rocks situated near the log house consequently but few were killed of his men -- This applicant thinks there were killed and missing about 14 or 15 men and among the killed were Col. Lee -- Capt. Jones and Capt. Burns who was shot in the Eye & fell close by this applicant who took an active part in the ingagement. Our forces were marched back to their old Camping ground and incamped for the night -- The forgoing officers named as belonging to Sumpters force except one Maj. Heather who carried a flag to the British the next day to get permission to bury the dead, are all now recollected. This applicant left Sumpters forces the third day after his joining them & with his six companions returned to Newbury County and joined the rest of his company.”

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