The Battle of Fishing Creek, South Carolina, in 1780

August 18, 1780

The Battle of Fishing Creek was fought between the United States of America and Great Britain on August 18, 1780, during the American Revolutionary War. British forces won the battle, which is most famous for being part of Thomas Sumter’s campaign against British outposts in South Carolina.

Battle of Fishing Creek, 1780, Historic Marker, HMDB

Battle of Fishing Creek historic marker. Image Source: Historical Marker Database.

Battle of Fishing Creek Facts

  • Date — August 18, 1780.
  • Location — North of present-day Great Falls, South Carolina.
  • Opponents — United States of America and Great Britain.
  • American Commanders — Thomas Sumter.
  • British CommandersBanastre Tarleton.
  • Winner — Great Britain won the Battle of Fishing Creek.

Key Moments

  • In late 1779, the British started their Southern Campaign and systematically took control of Georgia and South Carolina and established outposts in South Carolina to maintain control of the Backcountry.
  • In central South Carolina, Thomas Sumter gathered men and organized attacks on outposts at Rocky Mount and Hanging Rock.
  • On August 15, Sumter’s men captured Carey’s Fort, along the Wateree River. The next day, while the Battle of Camden took place, Sumter marched north.
  • After the British victory at Camden, General Charles Cornwallis sent British forces in pursuit of Sumter.
  • On August 18, Banastre Tarleton and his British Legion caught up to Sumter at Fishing Creek.
  • Tarleton decimated the Americans, killing or capturing more than half of Sumter’s men. The rest, including Sumter, escaped.

Battle of Fishing Creek Significance

The Battle of Fishing Creek was significant because it temporarily ended Thomas Sumter’s raids on British outposts in South Carolina. The British victory also boosted the reputation of Banastre Tarleton and his British Legion. Despite the loss, Sumter regrouped and later resumed his campaign, which led to the Battle of Fishdam Ford (November 9).

Banastre Tarleton, British Legion, American Revolution, Portrait, Reynolds
Banastre Tarleton. Image Source: The National Gallery.

Battle of Fishing Creek Overview and History

In May 1780, American forces under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered to General Henry Clinton, ending the Siege of Charleston. Afterward, Clinton sailed to New York City and left General Charles Cornwallis in command of the South. British forces spread out and occupied key locations in South Carolina, including Camden, Cheraw, Georgetown, Ninety-Six, and Rocky Mount. The line of outposts covered more than 150 miles and ran northwest from Charleston on the coast to Rocky Mount.

A handful of American Patriots remained scattered throughout the region, including a group led by Colonel Thomas Sumter. Sumter planned to attack the British outposts to disrupt their communication and supply lines.

Charles Cornwallis, Portrait
General Charles Cornwallis.

Sumter’s Campaign

After American forces won the Battle of Williamson’s Plantation (July 12, 1780), support for the Patriot Cause grew. Volunteers joined Sumter’s ranks and he targeted the outposts at Rocky Mount and Hanging Rock.

On August 1, Sumter led the majority of his men to Rocky Mount while William Richardson Davie led 100 to Hanging Rock. Sumter intended to attack the garrison and capture the outpost, while Richardson was to create a diversion and keep the garrison at Hanging Rock from sending reinforcement to Rocky Mount.

While Richarson’s attack was successful, Sumter failed and was defeated at the Battle of Rocky Mount. He returned to his camp, regrouped, and marched to Hanging Rock to join Davie.

Meanwhile, General Horatio Gates led his American Army into South Carolina and marched toward Camden. After Charleston fell, Congress placed Gates in command of the Southern Department. 

On August 6, Sumter and Davie launched another attack on the Loyalists at Hanging Rock. Although the Loyalists were able to maintain possession of the outpost, Sumer and his men inflicted heavy casualties and seized supplies.

Gates Approaches Camden

Meanwhile, Gates continued to march deeper into South Carolina, toward Camden. On August 7, he joined with Major General Richard Caswell, who was leading 1,200 men from the North Carolina Militia. 

On August 10, Gates attacked British forces at Little Lynches Creek. Unable to dislodge the British, who were led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Rawdon, Gates decided to march two miles away and cross the creek at another location, forcing Rawdon to withdraw to Camden.

General Horatio Gates, Portrait, Stuart
Horatio Gates. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Gates Coordinates with Sumter

Two days later, on August 12, Sumter sent a message to Gates, suggesting they work together to take Camden. Sumter recommended sending a contingent behind Camden to disrupt the British supply route and block their anticipated retreat toward Charleston.

On August 14, as his army reached Rugeley’s Mill, approximately 12 miles from Camden, Gates followed Sumter’s advice. He sent Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Woolford, 100 Maryland Continentals, a company of artillery equipped with two guns, and 300 North Carolina militia to reinforce Sumter.

Battle of Carey’s Fort — August 15

After receiving the reinforcements, Sumter sent Colonel Thomas Taylor and a contingent of men to attack Carey’s Fort, a British outpost guarding Wateree Ferry near Camden. 

On August 15, Taylor and his men earned a decisive victory at the Battle of Carey’s Fort and captured a significant number of supply wagons, British troops, and a herd of cattle. Sumter and the rest of his men went to Carey’s Fort and joined with Taylor. 

Sumter sent a message to Gates, informing him that he had captured all the passages over the Wateree River, from Elkins Ford to Whitaker’s Ferry, which was five miles south of Camden. He told Gates he planned to occupy Carey’s Fort until he received further instructions.

However, Sumter was forced to change his plans when he received reports of British troops in the area. Sumter responded by abandoning the fort and marching 10 miles north up the Wateree River. His progress was slowed by the wagons, prisoners, and livestock.

Battle of Camden — August 16

That night, Gates mobilized his army and marched toward Camden, intending to attack the British Army, led by Charles Cornwallis. Unknown to Gates, Cornwallis had made a similar decision and was marching toward Gates. The two armies ran into each other on the road around 2:30 a.m. on August 16. After a brief skirmish, the two armies prepared for battle at sunrise.

The Battle of Camden (August 16) was a disaster for Gates and what he referred to as his “grand army.” Gates made a tactical error in the way he organized his men for battle, and Cornwallis took advantage. The Americans were easily defeated and the army, including Gates and some of his officers, fled to North Carolina. 

Tarleton Begins the Pursuit of Sumter

With Gates defeated, Sumter was leading the largest American military force in South Carolina. Cornwallis ordered Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to gather his British Legion, pursue Sumter, and destroy him. Tarleton had 350 men and one cannon with him.

By then Tarleton was known to the Americans as “Bloody Ban” for his brutal tactics that led to significant American casualties at Monck’s Corner (April 14, 1780), Lenud’s Ferry (May 6, 1780), and the Battle of Waxhaws (May 29, 1780).

Tarleton Follows Sumter Along the Wateree River

During the day on August 17, Tarleton moved along the east side of the Wateree River in pursuit of Sumter, but he did not know where Sumter was. At some point that afternoon, Tarleton discovered Sumter was near him, but on the west side of the river.

That night, Sumter and his exhausted troops camped on the west bank of the Wateree River near Rocky Mount.  Tarleton ordered his men to refrain from making fires or noise and kept watch on Sumter’s camp throughout the night. 

The next morning, on August 18, Sumter resumed his march and crossed Fishing Creek, where he established a new camp, roughly 40 miles from Camden. At that time, Sumter had no idea Tarleton was trailing him.

Tarleton followed by crossing the Wateree River, reaching Fishing Creek around noon. During his march, some of his became exhausted and were unable to continue the pursuit. Tarleton left them behind and continued ahead with less than half his men — 60 of his dragoons, riding horses, and 60 infantry. Each horse carried two men on its back.

Thomas Sumter, General, American Revolutionary War, Portrait, Peale
Thomas Sumter. Image Source: Columbia Museum of Art.

Tarleton Prepares to Attack Sumter at Fishing Creek

Tarleton approached the camp and rode up to a ridge that overlooked Sumter’s camp. From there, he saw the Americans were resting. 

Sumter was sleeping underneath a wagon while some of his men were bathing in the creek. Further, it was clear they did not expect an attack, because their weapons were stacked, and not with the men. 

Tarleton decided to use the same tactics that had earned him his reputation for brutality — a thundering charge into the American camp, with swords waving and bayonets fixed to inflict heavy casualties.

Riding ahead of Tarleton’s main force was Captain Charles Campbell and a squadron of cavalry. Campbell and his men rode for about five miles when they encountered two men from Sumter’s camp who were patrolling the area. The scouts fired on the British and killed at least one man. The British responded and killed both of the scouts.

In his camp, Sumter heard the shot and asked why they were fired. One of his men told him it was just the militia killing cattle.

The Battle of Fishing Creek Begins

Tarleton and his men rushed into Sumter’s camp and caught the Americans by complete surprise.

Sumter, half-dressed, tried to escape on horseback but was knocked unconscious and thrown from the saddle when he ran into a branch of an oak tree. After regaining consciousness, he found his horse and safely escaped.

Most of Sumter’s men were either killed or fled or fled into the woods. However, some of them were able to grab their weapons and fired on the British from behind wagons. Captain Charles Campbell, who had burned Sumter’s house, was killed in the battle.

Battle of Fishing Creek, 1780, Map
This map shows the location of Fishing Creek. Image Source: The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Country by James K. Swisher, 2008.

Battle of Fishing Creek Aftermath

On August 20, Sumter rode into Major William Richardson Davie’s camp. From there, he started to reorganize his militia force by gathering survivors from the battle and recruiting new members. Sumter resumed his campaign and harassed British supply lines.

Following the battle, Sumter received criticism. Colonel Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee said the militia was unreliable and had been in “neglect of duty.” However, Tarleton later defended Sumter (see Tarleton’s account of the Battle of Fishing Creek below).

On August 29, Cornwallis wrote to General Clinton and complained about Sumter, saying “…the indefatigable Sumter is again in the field.”

Battle of Fishing Creek Casualties

According to Tarleton, Sumter’s forces suffered 150 men killed or wounded, with approximately 300 men captured. Only 350 of Sumter’s men, including Sumter, escaped from the Battle of Fishing Creek.

Sumter also lost 2 small artillery pieces, 2 ammunition wagons, 44 supply wagons, and over 1,000 weapons. Tarleton also freed the prisoners Sumter had captured in earlier engagements.

Battle of Fishing Creek Outcome

The outcome of the Battle of Fishing Creek was a British victory. However, Tarleton’s inability to destroy Sumter’s army allowed Sumter to regroup and return.

Tarleton’s Account of the Battle of Fishing Creek

This account of the Battle of Fishing Creek is from Banastre Tarleton’s memoirs, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America. The book was published in 1787. 

Please note that minor text corrections, section headings, and spacing between paragraphs have been added to improve the readability of the text.

Sumter After the Battle of Carey’s Fort

Though the late victory was complete, and the principal army of the Americans was defeated, there yet remained in South Carolina some troops under Colonel Sumpter, well furnished with arms, and .provided with cannon. The vicinity of their situation to the late scene of action equally afforded them the opportunity to give refuge to the fugitives and to augment their own numbers. The river Wateree, which had separated General Gates and Colonel Sumpter, abounded with public ferries and private boats, besides being fordable in many places. It was not to supposed but that Sumpter had early information of the late misfortune, and that he would avail himself of his knowledge of the country to protect his dispersed friends, and to secure his own retreat. 

Cornwallis Sends Turnbull and Ferguson in Pursuit

The necessity of beating or driving this corps out of the province was so evident, that Earl Cornwallis dispatched an order on the evening of the 16th to Lieutenant-Colonel Turnbull, to move instantly with the New York volunteers, Major Ferguson’s detachment, and the loyal militia, in pursuit of Colonel Sumpter. 

The light Infantry, and the British legion, who were exhausted by the fatigue of the preceding night’s march, and by the action and pursuit of the day, also received orders to be in readiness to move early next morning. 

Tarleton Joins the Pursuit

Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton was desired to harass or strike at Colonel Sumpter, as he should find it most advisable when he approached him: For this purpose he directed his course next morning through the woods, with three hundred and fifty men and one piece of cannon, and marched up the east side of the Wateree, intending to pass it at or near Rocky Mount: Upon the route, he picked up about twenty scattered continentals, and in the afternoon he gained intelligence that Colonel Sumpter was retreating along the western bank of the river.

Tarleton made no alteration in his plan but continued his march to the ferry facing Rocky Mount: On his arrival at dusk, he perceived the enemy’s fires about a mile distant from the opposite shore: Immediate care was taken to secure the boats, and infant orders were given to the light troops to pass the night without fires. No alarm happened, and at daybreak, it was apparent that the Americans had decamped.

Tarleton’s Scouts Find Sumter Near Rocky Mount

Some of the British vedettes and sentries reported at dawn that they could discover the rear guard of the enemy quitting Rocky Mount,

Tarleton instantly detached Captain Campbell, of the light Infantry, with a small party across the river, with instructions to hold out a white handkerchief on Rocky Mount, if Colonel Sumpter continued his route up the Wateree. In the meantime, preparations were made for passing the river.

Campbell Moves Ahead

Captain Campbell, on his arrival at Rocky Mount, took a prisoner and displayed the appointed signal. The boats, with the three-pounder and the infantry. Immediately pushed off, and the cavalry crossed the part which was not fordable by swimming. After the passage was effected, a patrol of legion dragoons was directed to proceed a few miles to the westward, to inquire after Turnbull and Ferguson; but no intelligence was obtained.

Sumter Proceeds Toward Catawba

In the meantime, Colonel Sumpter, with his detachment, consisting of one hundred continentals, seven hundred militia, and two pieces of cannon, directed his march towards the fords near the Catawba settlement, where he intended to pass the river, to take a position eligible for his own numbers, and well adapted to receive the fugitives of the American army. 

This officer, since the period that he received reinforcement from General Gates, had been fortunate in his operations: He had taken above one hundred British soldiers, he had secured one hundred and fifty loyal American militia, and he had captured nearly fifty wagons loaded with arms, stores, and ammunition. 

Information was obtained at Rocky Mount, that these trophies of success were in Sumpter’s possession, and under the escort of his advanced guard: The impossibility of reaching that part of his corps, without the knowledge of the main body, determined Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton to hang upon the rear, and watch an opportunity of attempting something In that quarter: He was sensible that no alarm had been given, and that no jealousy could yet be entertained of his having passed the Wateree. 

These incidents, which at first fight appeared fo favorable, were nearly counterbalanced by the diligence of Sumpter’s march, by the exhausted condition of the British light troops, by the intense heat of the day, and by the ground yet to be gained before an attack could take place. 

Tarleton Arrives at Fishing Creek

When Tarleton arrived at Fishing Creek at twelve o’clock, he found the greatest part of his command overpowered by fatigue; the corps could no longer be moved forward in a compact and serviceable state. He therefore determined to separate the cavalry and infantry most able to bear farther hardship, to follow the enemy, whilst the remainder, with the three-pounder, took post on an advantageous piece of ground, to refresh themselves and cover the retreat in case of accident.

Tarleton Divides His Force

The number selected to continue the pursuit did not exceed one hundred legion dragoons and sixty foot soldiers: The light infantry furnished a great proportion of the latter. This detachment moved forward with great circumspection. 

Skirmish With American Scouts

No intelligence, except the recent tracks upon the road, occurred for five miles. Two of the enemy’s vedettes, who were concealed behind some bushes, fired upon the advanced guard as it entered a valley and killed a dragoon of the legion. A circumstance which irritated the foremost of his comrades to such a degree, that they dispatched the two Americans with their sabers before Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton could interpose, or any information be obtained refpeding Colonel Sumpter. 

Tarleton Overlooks Sumter’s Camp at Fishing Creek

A sergeant and our men of the British Legion soon afterward approached the summit of the neighboring eminence, where instantly halting, they crouched upon their horses and made a signal to their commanding officer. 

Tarleton rode forward to the advanced guard, and plainly discovered over the crest of the hill the front of the American camp, perfectly quiet and not the least alarmed by the fire of the vedettes. 

The decision, and the preparation for the attack, were momentary. The cavalry and infantry were formed into one line, and, giving a general shout, advanced to the charge.

Tarleton’s Attack at the Battle of Fishing Creek

The arms and artillery of the continentals were featured before the men could be assembled.  Universal consternation immediately ensued throughout the camp; some opposition was, however, made from behind the wagons, in front of the militia. The numbers, and extensive encampment of the enemy, occasioned several conflicts before the action was decided. 

Brtish Prisoners Freed

At length, the release of the regulars and the loyal militia, who were confined in the rear of the Americans, enabled Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton to stop the slaughter, and place guards over the prisoners.

Tarelton is Unable to Pursue the Fleeing Americans

The pursuit could not with propriety be pushed very far, the quantity of prisoners upon the spot demanding the immediate attention of great part of the light troops. Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton lost no time in sending for the detachment left at Fishing Creek, thinking this additional force necessary to repulse any attempt the enemy might make to rescue their friends. 

All the men he could assemble were likewise wanted to give assistance to the wounded, and to take charge of the prisoners; the troops who had gained this action having a just claim to some relaxation, to refresh themselves after their late vigorous exertions.

Death of Charles Campbell and British Casualties

Captain Charles Campbell, who commanded the light infantry, was unfortunately killed near the end of the affair. His death cannot be mentioned without regret. He was a young officer, whose conduct and abilities afforded the most flattering prospect that he would be an honor to his country. The loss, otherwise, on the side of the British was inconsiderable; fifteen non-commissioned officers and men, and twenty horses, were killed and wounded.

Sumter’s Escape and American Casualties at the Battle of Fishing Creek

Colonel Sumpter, who had taken off part of his clothes on account of the heat of the weather, in that situation, amidst the general confusion, made his escape: One hundred and fifty of his officers and soldiers were killed and wounded; ten continental officers and one hundred men, many militia officers, and upwards of two hundred privates, were made prisoners; two three pounders, two ammunition wagons, one thousand stand of arms, forty-four carriages, loaded with baggage, rum, and other stores, fell into the possession of the British.

Tarleton Explains Sumter’s Mistakes 

The position occupied by the Americans was eligible and advantageous; but the supposed distance of the King’s troops occasioned a negligence in their look out, and lulled them into fatal security. Some explanation however, received after the action, greatly diminished the mistakes which Colonel Sumpter deemed to have committed. 

It appeared upon inquiry that he had sent patrols to examine the road toward Rocky Mount; but, fortunately for the British, they had not proceeded far enough to discover their approach. 

It was evident likewise that he had demanded the cause of the two shots, and that an officer just returned from the advanced sentries had reported, that the militia were firing at cattle. A common practice in the American camp. 

Tarleton Praises His Men

In one word, the indefatigable perseverance of the British light troops obtained them a most brilliant advantage when their hopes and strength were nearly exhausted. The wounded being dressed, and the arms and prisoners being collected, the legion and light infantry commenced their march toward Camden. 

The three following days finished their toilsome duty when their services were rewarded by the approbation of Earl Cornwallis, and the acclamations of their fellow soldiers.

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  • Article Title The Battle of Fishing Creek, South Carolina, in 1780
  • Date August 18, 1780
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Fishing Creek, Thomas Sumter, Banastre Tarleton, British Legion
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 26, 2024