The Battle of Hanging Rock, South Carolina, in 1780

August 6, 1780

The Battle of Hanging Rock was fought between the United States of America and Great Britain on August 6, 1780, during the American Revolutionary War. American forces won the battle, which is most famous for being Thomas Sumter’s first victory in his campaign against British outposts in South Carolina.

Battle of Hanging Rock, 1780, American Assault

This illustration depicts the American attack on the hollow square at Hanging Rock. Image Source: Andrew Jackson’s The Hermitage.

Battle of Hanging Rock Facts

  • Also Known As — Second Battle of Hanging Rock.
  • Date — August 6, 1780.
  • Location — Near present-day Heath Springs, South Carolina.
  • Opponents — United States of America and Great Britain.
  • American Commanders — Thomas Sumter.
  • British Commanders — John Carden.
  • Winner — The United States won the Battle of Hanging Rock, even though American forces failed to capture the outpost.

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.
  • Colonel Thomas Sumter of South Carolina organized a force to attack the outposts.
  • Sumter attacked Rocky Mount on August 1 while William Richardson Davie attacked Hanging Rock.
  • Sumter’s attack failed, but Davie’s attack weakened the British garrison, so Sumter decided to attack Hanging Rock on August 6.
  • The battle at Hanging Rock was intense, and the Americans forced the garrison to evacuate their camps.
  • The Americans proceeded to loot the camps and drink the rum they found while the garrison took a defensive position and watched.
  • Sumter and his men gathered what they could and left around 1:00 in the afternoon.
  • Sometime after, the British abandoned Rocky Mount for fear of another attack by Sumter and the approach of the American Army led by General Horatio Gates.

Battle of Hanging Rock Significance

The Battle of Hanging Rock was significant because it was Thomas Sumter’s first victory in his campaign to disrupt the British communication and supply lines in South Carolina. Sumter followed Hanging Rock by capturing Carey’s Fort on August 15. However, American forces were crushed at the Battle of Camden on August 16. Sumter was forced to retreat north, leading to the Battle of Fishing Creek on August 18.

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

Battle of Hanging Rock 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.

Williamson’s Plantation, Rocky Mount, and the First Battle of Hanging Rock

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. Richarson’s attack is referred to as the First Battle of Hanging Rock.

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

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

The British Garrison at Hanging Rock

The British outpost at Hanging Rock was garrisoned by approximately 500 men, including:

  • Loyalist members of the Prince of Wales American Regiment.
  • A small contingent from Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion. 
  • Colonel Samuel Bryan and his North Carolina Loyalist Militia
  • Colonel Thomas Brown and his South Carolina Rangers. 

The outpost was under the command of Major John Carden, who led the Prince of Wales Volunteers, a unit of Connecticut Loyalists. Carden’s men were distributed across three camps but were not protected by defensive fortifications,

Davie’s attack on August 1 had been successful by inflicting casualties on Carden’s garrison, weakening its overall strength. Davie also captured 60 horses, 100 rifles, and muskets during his attack.

Sumter Arrives at Hanging Rock

Sumter arrived near Hanging Rock on the night of August 5 and prepared to attack the outpost the next morning. Sumter intended to carry out a three-part attack across the entire defensive front held by the Loyalists, even though they had a strong position on high ground.

The Battle of Hanging Rock Begins

Sumter’s plan fell apart almost right away when guides led his men in the wrong direction, directly into the left wing of the British Line. At that location were North Carolina Loyalists who were under the command of Colonel Morgan Bryan. 

However, Sumter ordered an assault that broke Bryan’s line, allowing Sumter to move toward the center of the British forces.

The British Legion infantry attacked, allowing Brown’s Rangers to rally and form a battle line. This led to Intense fighting, including bayonet charges by the British Legion. 

As the Americans closed in, the Loyalists arranged themselves in a square formation. The inside of the square was hollow, except for one or two pieces of artillery, which were used to fire on the Americans.

Carden Responds

Major Carden gathered his Prince of Wales Regiment, circled the field, and moved into position to attack Sumter from the side. Sumter was on the verge of breaking the center of the line when Carden ordered his attack, catching Sumter by surprise.

However, Sumter’s men were able to turn and face Carden’s assault. They unleashed a deadly volley that nearly decimated the Prince of Wales Regiment. According to some accounts, Carden panicked and resigned from his position during the heated battle.

Breakdown of Discipline at Hanging Rock

With the British camps vacated, Sumter’s men proceeded to loot them and found a significant supply of rum. Some of them proceeded to drink it and quickly became intoxicated.

British Reinforcements Arrive

A detachment of 40 dragoons from the British Legion arrived from Rocky Mount to join the fight. By then, too many of Sumter’s men were either too intoxicated to fight or too busy looting the camp. Sumter was forced to call for a retreat and withdraw, ending the Battle of Hanging Rock.

Battle of Hanging Rock Aftermath

After a five-hour battle, Sumter’s forces gathered their loot, left Hanging Rock around noon, and marched to Waxhaws, South Carolina. At Waxhaws, Sumter waited for Gates to arrive with his army, which, at that time, was made up primarily of Continental Soldiers from Delaware and Maryland.

Battle of Hanging Rock Casualties

It is believed the Americans suffered 12 fatalities and 41 wounded during the Battle of Hanging Rock. In contrast, the British documented a significantly higher casualty count, with a total of 192 casualties. 

Battle of Hanging Rock Outcome

The outcome of the Battle of Hanging Rock is inconclusive, however, it leans more toward an American victory. Despite the attack, the British were able to maintain control of Rocky Mount, so the Americans failed to achieve the objective. 

However, the British suffered but suffered significantly more casualties than the Americans, and the threat of more raids from Sumter eventually led the British to vacate Rocky Mount. 

Further, as word spread that Sumter and his men had successfully looted the British camps, it convinced more men to volunteer to join Sumter’s force and fight for the Patriots.

Battle of Hanging Rock Interesting Facts

  1. In total, there were around 1,400 Loyalist troops at Hanging Rock, in three camps. The Prince of Wales American Regiment was on the right. Colonel Thomas Brown and his regiment were in the center, and the North Carolina Loyalists were on the left.
  2. The camps were located on high ground, with a deep ravine and creek in front of them.
  3. The Loyalists remained in their square formation while the Americans looted the camp and marched away.
  4. The Americans suffered a significant casualty when Captain John McClure, a hero of the Battle of Williamson’s Plantation, was mortally wounded. McClure died two weeks later in Charlotte, North Carolina.
  5. 13-year-old Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, tended to the Patriot horses during the battle.

Battle of Hanging Rock Perspectives

William Richardson Davie’s Account of the Battle of Hanging Rock

This account of the Battle of Hanging Rock was written by Major William Davie soon after the battle took place. Please note that minor text corrections have been made. The original report is available.

William Richardson Davie, American Revolution, Portrait, Peale
William Richardson Davie. Image Source: UNC University Libraries.

On the 5th of August, these Detachments met again at Lands Ford on the Catawba, their strength was little diminished by the attack on Rocky Mount and Major Davie had lost no men; the North Carolina Militia under Col Irwin and Major Davie numbered about five hundred effective men Officers and privates, and about three hundred South Carolinians remained with Colonels Sumpter, Hill, Lacy and others. 

It became of great importance to remove the enemy from these posts, and it was supposed if one of them was taken the other would be evacuated; and upon a meeting of the Officers it was resolved to attack the Hanging-Rock the next day; as this was an open Camp they expected to be on a more equal footing with the enemy, and the men whose approbation in those times was absolutely necessary, on being informed of the result of this council of war entered into the project with great spirit & cheerfulness.

The Troops marched in the evening and about midnight halted within two miles of the enemy’s camp, and a council was now called to settle the mode of attack; accurate information had been obtained of the enemy’s situation, who were pretty strongly posted in three different encampments the British regulars…

…were encamped on the right, a part of the British Legion and Hamilton’s regiment at some Houses in the centre, and Bryan’s regiment with the other Loyalists about nine hundred some distance on the left, and separated from the center-camp by a skirt of wood; the position of the regular troops could not be approached without an entire exposure of the assailants, and a Creek with a deep ravine covered the whole front of the Tory camp: 

Col. Sumpter proposed that the detachment should be divided into three divisions, and march directly to the centre encampment, then dismount and each Division attack its camp, this plan was approved by all the officers except Major Davie, who insisted on the necessity of leaving the horses at that place, and marching to the attack on foot, urging the confusion always consequent on dismounting under a fire and the certainty of losing the effect of a sudden and vigorous attack; this objection was however overruled…

The divisions were soon set, and as the day broke the march again commenced, the general command was conferred on Col. Sumpter as the Senior Officer — Major Davie led the column on the right, consisting of his own corps and some volunteers Major Winn’s regiment and some detached companies of S. Carolina refugees; Col. Hill commanded the left composed of the S. Cara refugees, and Col Irwin the column in the center formed entirely of the Mecklenburg militia; 

the army turned to the left of the road to avoid the enemy’s picket and patrol, with intention to return to it under the cover of a defile near the camp but the guides through ignorance or timidity led them so far to the left, that the right and center divisions fell together with the left upon the Tory encampment: — these devoted people were briskly attacked both in front & flank and soon routed with great slaughter; 

as the Americans pressed on in pursuit of the Tories who fled towards the center encampment they received a fire from 160 of the Legion Infantry and some companies of Hamilton’s regiment posted behind a fence, but their impetuosity was not checked a moment by this unexpected discharge, they rushed forward, and the Legion Infantry immediately broke and mingled in the flight of the Loyalists, yielding their camp without another struggle to the Militia; 

at this moment a part of Col. Brown’s regiment had nearly changed the fate of the day, they passed by a bold and skillful maneuver into the wood between the center & Tory encampment, drew up unperceived, and poured a Heavy fire on the Militia forming, from the disorder of the pursuit, on the flank of the encampment; 

these brave men took instinctively to the trees and bush heaps and returned the fire with deadly effect, in a few minutes there was not a British officer standing, one half of the regiment had fallen, and the others on being offered quarters threw down their arms; 

the remainder of the British line who had also made a movement to their right now retreated hastily towards their former position and drew up in the center of the cleared grounds in the form of a Hollow Square. 

The rout of these different corps the pursuit & the plunder of the camps had thrown the Americans into great confusion, the outmost exertions were made by Col. Sumpter & the other officers to carry the men on to attack the British square, about 200 Infantry with Davie’s dragoons were collected and formed on the margin of the woods, and a heavy but ineffectual fire was commenced on the British troops, about 3 or 400 of the Enemy consisting of the Legion infantry Hamilton’s regiment with a large body of the Tories, were observed rallying & forming in the edge of the woods on the opposite side of the British camp, and least they might be induced to take the Americans in flank…

Major Davie passed round the camp under cover of the trees, and charged them with his company of Dragoons, these people under the impressions of defeat were all routed and dispersed in a few minutes by this hand full of men. 

The distance of the square from the woods and the constant fire of two pieces of field artillery prevented the militia from making any considerable impression on the British troops; so that upon Major Davie’s return it was agreed to plunder the encampments and retire; as this party were returning toward the center encampment some of the Legion Cavalry appeared drawn up on the Camden road, with a countenance as if they meant to keep their position but on being charged by the dragoons of Davie’s corps they all took the woods in flight & one only was cut down. 

A retreat was by this time absolutely necessary — The commissary stores were taken in the center encampment, and numbers of the men were already inebriated, the greatest part were loaded with plunder and those in a condition to fight had exhausted their ammunition, about an Hour was employed in plundering the camp, taking the paroles of the British officers, and preparing litters for the wounded; all this was transacted in full view of the British army who in the mean time consoled themselves with some military music & an interlude of 3 cheers for King George, which was immediately answered by 3 cheers…

…the militia at length got into the line of march in three columns, Davie’s corps covering the rear, but as they were loaded with plunder, encumbered with their wounded friends, and many of them intoxicated, it is easy to conceive that this retreat could not be performed according to the rules of the most approved tactics, However under all these disadvantages they filed off unmolested along the front of the Enemy about 1 o’clock.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Hanging Rock, South Carolina, in 1780
  • Date August 6, 1780
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Hanging Rock, Thomas Sumter, William Davie
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 20, 2024