September 7, 2023 at 12:48 p.m.

The Battle of Hanging Rock

The Hanging Rock Battlefield Trail is a small segment of the Carolina Thread Trail.  Located near Heath Springs, SC, it includes this marker commemorating the battle.
The Hanging Rock Battlefield Trail is a small segment of the Carolina Thread Trail. Located near Heath Springs, SC, it includes this marker commemorating the battle.

Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

If you are interested in history, chances are you may have noticed the absence in recent weeks of our series of articles from the SAR & DAR that we began months ago and intend to continue publishing until America's 250th birthday in 2026.  

Our website crashed and we have been attempting to a new system that frankly isn't where it needs to be just yet.  We're working on improvements as we slowly continue to recover from the crash.  Over the next several weeks, we'll publish some of the articles that had already been supplied but had not yet been published.  

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The Battle of Hanging Rock

Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter

Following the fall of Charleston in May 1780, the British established a number of outposts with the intention of restoring Royal authority over South Carolina’s population and resources. While the British sought to consolidate their gains, Patriot forces worked to weaken the enemy’s hold on the South. Confident that the British would be unable to quickly assemble a substantial number of troops to adequately defend any one outpost, General Thomas Sumter proposed small, calculated attacks on the British outposts. His ultimate goal: make it undesirable and unsustainable to remain at key strategic locations along the Santee and Wateree Rivers. One of these locations was at Hanging Rock – a crossroads between Camden, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina.

In the hazy summer of 1780, South Carolina’s partisan wars were heating up as American detachments ransacked the string of British garrisons established by Lord Cornwallis. Patriots became increasingly bold in their attacks, especially after guerrilla forces destroyed a British detachment commanded by Captain Christian Huck on July 12. In late July, Patriot leaders from across the Carolinas met to plan further operations. It was decided that Patriot forces would focus their efforts on British outposts in the Catawba River Valley. The most northern of these outposts, located at Hanging Rock, guarded the Camden-Charlotte Road. Although it was an outpost, it did not have typical fortifications and instead was a garrison divided among three distinct encampments of Loyalist partisans and British troopers.

On July 30, American Colonel William Richardson Davie successfully ambushed a British unit in sight of their outpost at Hanging Rock, a diversion while partisan group General Thomas Sumter’s Patriots besieged the British post of Rocky Mount for eight hours 17 miles to the west. With 40 dragoons and roughly the same number of mounted riflemen, Davie’s force was far too small to take on Colonel Samuel Bryan’s 500 member North Carolina Loyalist Militia. Instead, Davie focused his efforts on a garrisoned house near the fort at Hanging Rock. Using the similarities in dress, speech, and manner between his men and Bryan’s Loyalists to his advantage, Davie’s Mountain riflemen casually rode into three companies of Loyalist mounted infantry and opened fire. Anticipating the Loyalist flight, Davie circled his dragoons to cut off their retreat. All this happened in plain view of the main Loyalist encampment, and having routed a small number of Loyalists, Davie withdrew before reinforcements arrived.

Nearby, at Rocky Mount, Sumter and his men were thwarted in their attack by a thunderstorm and therefore, Sumter was as determined as ever to strike a blow. Once Davie’s forces returned, it was decided a full assault on Hanging Rock, which had minimal defenses and reduced its forces in light of Sumter’s attack, might lead to the evacuation of Rocky Mount altogether. On August 5, reinforced by Davie and nearly 800 militia, Sumter marched 16 miles through the night, stopping just short of Hanging Rock. Crossing Hanging Rock Creek at 6:00am, the attack began.

The garrison at Hanging Rock was under the command of Major John Carden, the newly appointed commander of the Prince of Wales Loyal Volunteers. Carden earned his promotion after Lt. Col. Thomas Pattinson was found drunk by Lord Rawdon upon inspection of the encampment on July 29. The remaining forces consisted of Colonel Samuel Bryan’s North Carolina Tory militia, still reeling from

Davie’s raid included mixtures of North and South Carolina Loyalist militia, and 160 Infantry of the British Legion, minus its commander, Banastre Tarleton.

photo of Hanging Rock Battlefield courtesy of Natl. Park Service

Accounts differ as to how many of these mixed units were actually present during the battle. Some accounts state 1,400 troops, including 800 militia were among those encamped, while other accounts state the garrison had only 500 soldiers present the morning of August 6. Regardless of the number, the British mixed forces encamped south of and above Hanging Rock Creek, on hills, roughly positioned as a crescent, stretching along the Camden Road. These camps were divided among mixed units and were surrounded by open fields with scattered wooded areas and defended by makeshift earthworks. Author William Dobein James described the British as being “secured by a strong position, a stockade fort and a field piece; on Sumter’s front the wood crossed the Hanging Rock Creek, running between lofty hills; on the right lay the British in open ground; on his left encamped the Tories on a hill side, covered with trees, and between them and the fort ran a small stream of water thro’ a valley covered with brush wood.”

Supported by Davie’s cavalry, Colonel Richard Winn was to assault the garrison. Sumter’s force was divided into four units under Colonels William Bratton, Edward Lacey, William Hill, and James Hawthorne. Men and boys without weapons took care of the horses at the base of sheltering boulders in the creek valley including a 13-year-old future US President Andrew Jackson among them. From Davie’s perspective, “The Regulars were posted on the right, a part of the British Legion and Hamilton’s regiment were at some houses in the center, and Bryan’s regiment and other Loyalists were some distance on the left and separated from the center by a skirt of wood. The British situation could not be approached without an entire exposure of the assailants.”

Davie’s column on the right consisted of his corps, “some volunteers under Major Bryan, and some detached companies of South Carolina refugees. Hill commanded the left composed of South Carolina refugees. Colonel Irwin commanded the center, entirely of the Mecklenburgh militia.” William James continued in his writing, “The South Carolinians formed the right and center; Steene commanded the right and Lacey and Lyles the center; the North Carolinians under Col. Irvin formed the left. Capt. McClure with 50 riflemen and Capt. Davie with 60 cavalry soldiers were thrown into the reserve… Capt. McJunkin was ordered to penetrate between the camps. Col. Lyles, Watson, and Ervin commanded the center and left divisions. They were ordered to enfilade and cut off the Regulars. Sumter, in person, led the center and left.” The Mecklenburg County, North Carolina forces totaled about 500 while the remaining 300 Americans hailed from South Carolina.

Approaching from the northwest, the three American divisions were supposed to attack the British position from the left, right, and center prongs. However, Patriot scouts misled the approaching columns of the center and right detachments, causing the entire forces to collide as they fell upon the North Carolina Volunteers on the right flank of the British camp. This was the fault of “the Guides, through ignorance or timidity,” reported Davie. Hill acknowledged, the “action commenced under many very unfavorable circumstances…as they had to march across a water course & climb a steep cliff, being all this time under the enemy’s fire.” McClure led his men through the valley of Hanging Rock Creek and ascended the bluff opposite the enemy’s encampment. The attacking forces “rushed forward right into [Samuel] Bryan’s camp, fired two rounds and then clubbing their muskets, rid the field. The Tories fled towards the British camp about a half mile distant,” wrote soldier Daniel Stinson. Bryan’s Tory militia had been completely overrun in a matter of minutes.

As these units fell back towards the British camp, located in the center of the garrison, the Legion infantry, and members of Montfort Browne's corps formed a line of fire. The Legion infantry and the corps tried to make a stand behind a fence, located near a patch of thick tree line. Browne's men fell back into the woods and for a moment had a tactically secured position to unleash musket fire under 50 yards. Sumter’s partisans soon overran them, taking the wooded positions for themselves. The entire camp was now in chaos. With the Provincials in full flight, leaving behind their artillery pieces, the Prince of Wales Regiment pushed a deadly fire into Sumter’s men, recapturing the field pieces. Amidst the intense fighting, Major John Carden became overwhelmed, lost his nerve, and turned over command of the crumbling forces to Legion Captain John Rousselet, who formed a hollow square on cleared ground, supported by the two fieldpieces. Sumter’s men refused to charge across open ground in the face of both artillery and musket fire. Some of the Legion and the North Carolina Volunteers not in the British square, tried to reform to attack the partisans, but Davie’s dragoons moved behind the cover of the trees and charged towards them, driving them out. The Tory fighters remaining were overtaken by nonstop American firepower. Hidden in the woods and using what cover they provided, Sumter’s riflemen soon left few British officers standing on the field. Dangerously low on ammunition, Sumter observed, “The action continued without intermission for three hours, men fainting with heat and drought.”

As the British encampment deteriorated, American militia rushed forward to seize precious supplies, including stores of rum. Soon enough, many of the soldiers were too inebriated to fall back into rank and gather for the continuing fight and Sumter lost the chance to completely rout the remaining British forces. The American strength of 800 now dwindled to about 250 remaining committed to the offensive. Hearing of the fighting, Colonel George Turnbull sent cavalry from his detachment of the British Legion from Rocky Mount to reinforce Carden. They ordered their men to extend their files to look larger than they were. Spying these forces assembling on the nearby Camden Road, Davie’s dragoons rode in, successfully chasing them off before they could effectively get into the action. With the outside threat now gone, and the bulk of his forces plundering the encampment, Sumter called off the attack. He watched as many walked off with what spoils they could carry, leaving the American commander to call for the rest of his forces to abandon Hanging Rock. The remaining Tory troops had lingered in plain sight of the Americans ransacking their garrison. In spite of their rout, they gave “three cheers for King George!” when the Americans retreated. Not to be outdone, they were answered with “three cheers for Washington, the hero of American Liberty.” Later, both sides flew a flag of truce to collect the dead and wounded still left on the battlefield.

Considering the numbers engaged in the Battle of Hanging Rock, the engagement was one of the bloodier battles of the American Revolution, at least for the British. Following the battle, the Prince of Wales Regiment was nearly wiped out, removing them as an effective fighting force. The British Legion had 62 men killed and wounded; all totaled the British suffered 25 killed and 175 wounded. Many Loyalists simply fled from the field upon the initial American charge. Sumter’s forces took 100 horses, 250 muskets and untold stores in the plundering. Had the American units kept their discipline and remained committed to offering deadly musket bursts into the encampment, Sumter likely could have captured more than just casks of rum and spare munitions; he could have taken hundreds of Tory prisoners while claiming Hanging Rock for himself. The battle was an American victory, but Sumter had failed to take the British garrison, missing the opportunity of fully removing the enemy from the field as many partisans would return to fight another day.


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