The Battle of Rocky Mount, South Carolina, in 1780

August 1, 1780

The Battle of Rocky Mount was fought between the United States of America and Great Britain on August 1, 1780, during the American Revolutionary War. British forces won the battle, which is most famous for being the first battle carried out in Thomas Sumter’s campaign against British outposts in South Carolina.

Battle of Rocky Mount, 1780, Marker, HMDB

This historical marker commemorates the Battle of Rocky Mount. Image Source: Historical Marker Database.

Battle of Rocky Mount Facts

  • Date — August 1, 1780.
  • Location — Near present-day Great Falls, South Carolina.
  • Opponents — United States of America and Great Britain.
  • American Commanders — Thomas Sumter.
  • British Commanders — George Turnbull.
  • Winner — Great Britain won the Battle of Rocky Mount.

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.
  • On August 1, Sumter approached the outpost at Rocky Mount, but the garrison saw the Americans coming and were prepared.
  • The Americans tried several frontal assaults against the well-fortified outpost, but they failed.
  • Sumter had his men set the walls on fire, and the British were preparing to surrender when a thunderstorm started and put the fire out.
  • The Americans were forced to withdraw.

Battle of Rocky Mount Significance

The Battle of Rocky Mount was significant because it was the first engagement of Sumter’s campaign to disrupt the British communication and supply lines in South Carolina. Although the American attack failed, it set up the Battle of Hanging Rock on August 6, when Sumter attacked another outpost.

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

Battle of Rocky Mount 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.

Thomas Sumter Mobilizes

Sumter was a Colonel in the 6th South Carolina Regiment from the beginning of the war until 1778, when he resigned from his position and returned to his home. 

On May 28, Sumter was informed that Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion were in pursuit of Colonel Abraham Buford and headed in his direction. The next day, Tarleton caught up to Buford at Waxhaws and brutally decimated the Americans in what is known as Buford’s Massacre.

Upon hearing what happened to Buford and his men, Sumter decided to take action. He rode out to find John Rutledge, the Governor of South Carolina. He found him in Salisbury, North Carolina, and presented a plan to attack the British forces in South Carolina. Rutledge approved the plan.

Sumter returned to South Carolina and gathered a force together that included 200 Catawba warriors. Eventually, the group formally elected Sumter as their leader.

Over the next month, Sumter camped near Hill’s Iron Works at Clem’s Branch and had his men build a fort. Although he was able to carry out small attacks on British forces, men deserted when they spent too much time at the fort.

Sumter needed more men to make a significant attack on any of the British outposts.

Battle of Waxhaws, 1780, Illustration
This illustration depicts the brutal attack at the Battle of Waxhaws. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Battle of Williamson’s Plantation Sets the Stage for Rocky Mount

From the outpost at Rocky Mount, Lieutenant Colonel George Turnbull routinely sent Captain Christian Huck out into the countryside to harass American Patriots and sympathizers. 

Huck and his men were from the British Legion, which was commanded by Tarleton. By this time, Tarleton and his men had earned a reputation for brutality that stemmed from tactics used at the Battle of Monck’s Corner (April 14, 1780), the Battle of Lenud’s Ferry (May 6, 1780), and the Battle of Waxhaws (May 29, 1780).

On July 11, Huck harassed the families of Captain John McClure and Colonel William Bratton and burned their homes. McClure’s daughter rode to the camp where her father was and told him what happened. The two men gathered a small force together and surrounded Huck’s camp at Williamson’s Plantation. 

On the morning of the 12th, the Patriots launched a surprise attack, easily routing Huck and his men. Huck was killed in the battle, which weakened the defenses at Rocky Mount. It also boosted support for the Patriot Cause in South Carolina and led to men volunteering to join Sumter’s growing army.

This event is known as the Battle of Williamson’s Plantation or Huck’s Defeat.

Gates Marches Toward Camden

By late July a reformed American Army was marching from North Carolina to South Carolina, led by General Horatio Gates, who intended to attack the British outpost at Camden, which the British were also using as a hospital and supply depot.

Sumter Plans to Attack Rocky Mount

Meanwhile, Sumter was encouraged by the increase in enlistments and intelligence he received about the Rocky Mount outpost. Sumter was told the walls of the buildings at Rocky Mount were nothing more than thin clapboard, which the Americans would be able to penetrate with their guns. Sumter decided to attack. 

Hanging Rock was located near the confluence of Rocky Creek and the Catawba River, south of present-day Great Falls, South Carolina. It was located at the top of a small hill, which was a strong defensive position.

On July 28, Sumter assembled his men and marched to the camp of Major William Richardson Davie camp at Waxhaws. It was there, likely on July 29, that Captain John McClure joined Sumter and Sumter asked Davie to carry out a diversionary maneuver against Hanging Rock.

On July 30, Sumter distributed extra rations and ammunition to his men and started his march to Rocky Mount while Davie marched toward Hanging Rock, 12 miles to the east. Davie’s maneuver was intended to distract British forces to make them think that was Sumter’s main target. Sumter also sent a message to General Johann de Kalb, informing him of his plans.

The British Outpost at Rocky Mount

At Rocky Mount, there were three fortified log buildings, which were protected by a trench and abatis — a defensive structure made of trees pointing outward. Some of the fortifications had been added since Sumter decided to attack, so it was stronger than he expected.

Turnbull’s garrison was primarily made up of 150 British Loyalists from New York York and a small group of Loyalist volunteers from South Carolina. In total, Turnbull had around 300 men.

Lt Col George Turnbull, American Revolution
George Turnbull. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Sumter’s Attack at the Battle of Rocky Mount

On August 1, Sumter prepared to attack Rocky Mount with 500 men. However, his advance force, led by Colonel Richard Winn, stumbled across a group of Loyalists who were camped outside of the outpost. The Americans fired on the Loyalists, scattering them. The garrison inside the outpost returned fire.

With the element of surprise lost, Sumter surrounded the outpost and demanded Turnbull’s surrender, which was refused. Turnbull had his men reinforce the walls with logs, making it impossible for the Americans to shoot inside the walls as Sumter expected. 

Sumter did not have enough artillery to bombard the outpost, so he decided to carry out a direct assault. Captain Thomas Neel led the first attack, supported by a covering fire that was led by Colonel John McClure. The assault resulted in heavy casualties for the Americans, including Neel and six other men who were killed. 

The British responded with heavy fire and Sumter sent two more assaults against the outpost. With each assault, the Americans tried to tear down the logs in the abatis to clear the approach to the buildings. The final assault breached the abatis but did not make a large enough space for Sumter to send more men in.

When the assaults failed, Sumter, tried to set the buildings on fire. There was a large boulder near the buildings, and if the Americans could climb on top, they would be able to light pieces of wood and throw them over onto the roofs of the buildings. Two of Sumter’s men — William Hill and Jeremy Johnson — volunteered for the task.

When Turnbull saw what they were doing, he ordered a small group of men to fix their bayonets and rush the Americans at the boulder. When the Americans saw the bayonets, they fled back to the American Line. 

Sumter decided to try to set the buildings on fire from the boulder again. This time, he put riflemen in place, so Turnbull could not send another bayonet attack. The volunteers returned to the boulder and proceeded to successfully set the buildings on fire. 

According to some accounts, Sumter had a wagon set on fire and rolled up against the walls of the fort. However, reports of the battle (see below) do not mention the wagon.

As the first started to spread, Turnbull prepared to surrender. However, a thunderstorm blew in and the heavy rain put out the fires, allowing Turnbull to resume the defense.

Frustrated by the lack of success, Sumter decided to call off the attack and retreated to his camp near Land’s Ford on the Catawba River.

Battle of Rocky Mount Aftermath

On August 2, 800 British reinforcements arrived at Rocky Mount from Camden. They brought two pieces of artillery with them and were led by Major John Carden.

The next day, Sumter moved his camp and his men went searching for food. While they were foraging, Carden and his men were marching to the outpost at Hanging Rock and had the artillery pieces with them.

The Americans sounded the alarm, but Sumter was unprepared for an engagement. He gathered Richard Winn and 100 men and ordered them to delay the British while the Americans made their escape.

While Winn’s men gathered their horses, he sent two scouts ahead. Unfortunately, they were captured, stripped, and hanged by the British.

Both sides exchanged long-range musket fire. Carden was also surprised at finding a large militia force and he ordered his men to return to Rocky Mount. Winn and his men followed them for some of the way, firing on them and inflicting casualties.

Battle of Rocky Mount Casualties

It is estimated that both sides suffered around 12 casualties each.

Davie’s Diversionary Attack on Hanging Rock

While Sumter was attacking Rocky Mount, Major Davie had approximately 100 men under his command as he approached Hanging Rock.

Instead of attacking the main outpost, he approached a nearby farmhouse where there were three companies of North Carolina Loyalists under the command of Colonel Samuel Bryan.

Davie sent some of his men riding toward the farm on their horses. They were not wearing uniforms, so the Loyalists let them pass. The Americans dismounted near the house and opened fire.

As the Loyalists panicked, Davie had the rest of his men surround the farm. The Loyalists were caught in a crossfire and suffered heavy casualties.

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

Battle of Rocky Mount Outcome

The British forces won the Battle of Rocky Mount by holding their position and forcing Sumter and his men to withdraw. The battle lasted for nearly eight hours. Five days later, Sumter decided to attack the outpost at Hanging Rock, North Carolina.

Battle of Rocky Mount Interesting Facts

  1. After the Battle of Williamson’s Plantation, Thomas Sumter learned that Horatio Gates had joined Johann de Kalb in North Carolina.
  2. Sumter’s scouts said there were roughly 700 British troops at Camden, which was passed on to Gates, likely convincing him to target that outpost.
  3. 13-year-old Andrew Jackson, who would go on to be the 7th President of the United States, was a member of the command of Major William Richardson Davie. Jackson served as a messenger.
  4. With the defeat at Williamson’s Plantation, Turnbull was expecting an attack on Rocky Mount and had his men reinforce the walls, so they were stronger than Sumter expected.
  5. Some accounts indicate the battle took place on July 31, 1780, but the contemporary view is it happened on August 1.

Battle of Rocky Mount Perspectives

William Richardson Davie’s Account of the Battle of Rocky Mount

This account of the Battle of Rocky Mount was written by Major William Davie soon after the battle took place. 

Colonels Sumpter and Neal with a number of the South Carolina Refugees, and Col. Irwin with 300 of the Mecklenburg Militia rendezvoused near Major Davie’s camp about the last of July, and a Council was immediately held by the officers to fix upon a proper object to strike at while this volunteer force was collected, Rocky-Mount and the Hanging-Rock presented themselves as not only the most important at the time but lying within their reach and strength; and it was finally agreed that Col. Sumpter should march with the Refugees & the N. Carolinians under Col Irwin to the Attack of Rocky-Mount, while Major Davie made a diversion to engage the attention of the corps at the Hanging-Rock, and their Detachments marched the same evening.

The defences of Rocky-Mount consisted of two log Houses calculated for defense, and a loop-holed building the whole secured by a strong Abbatis, the situation was considerably elevated, and surrounded with cleared grounds, Col. Sumpter arrived before this place early the next day, some small parties of rifle men were advanced under the cover of rocks and trees, and kept up a fire upon the Houses; several corps of this Detachment marched repeatedly thro’ the old field to the attack with great intrepidity, but were repulsed by the Heavy fire of the garrison, various stratagems were essayed in vain to set the buildings on fire, and having no artillery they were obliged to give over the attempt of taking the place, Col Neale lost his life in one of the attacks near the Abbatis, this was an influential interprising officer and fell much lamented the loss. The retreat was effected without interception.

Banastre Tarleton’s Account of the Battle of Rocky Mount

This account of the Battle of Rocky Mount 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.

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

Near the end of July, he (Sumter) 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 left of which some of the forlorn hope penetrated within the abbatis, the American commander retreated with lots 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.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Rocky Mount, South Carolina, in 1780
  • Date August 1, 1780
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Rocky Mount, Thomas Sumter, George Turnbull
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 26, 2024