The Fishing Creek
August 18, 1780 at Catawba Ford, Chester County, South Carolina
The Battle of Fishing Creek was also known as the Battle of Catawba Ford / Sumter’s Defeat / War on Sugar Creek. It was fought near the junction of Fishing Creek and the Catawba River in South Carolina.
British forces under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton surprised the militia company of Thomas Sumter, killing a significant number, taking about 300 captives, and very nearly capturing Sumter, who some say was asleep at the time of the attack.
Facts about the Battle of Fishing Creek
- Armies - American Forces was commanded by Col. Thomas Sumter and consisted of about 700 Soldiers and militia. British Forces was commanded by Lt Col. Banastre Tarleton and consisted of about 160 Soldiers and militia.
- Casualties - American casualties were estimated to be 150 killed and 300 captured. British casualties was approximately 16 killed/wounded.
- Outcome - The result of the battle was a British victory. The battle was part of the Southern Theater 1775-82.
Following the routing of Continental Army forces from South Carolina in the May 1780 Battle of Waxhaws, the British "southern strategy" for reconquering the rebellious United States in the Revolutionary War appeared to Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, the British commander in the south, to be going well. British and Loyalist outposts were established throughout South Carolina and Georgia.
In the absence of Continental Army units in South Carolina, militia commanders like Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, and Thomas Sumter began to form units to contest the British presence. Sumter had been particularly successful in the northern part of the state, making attacks on Rocky Mount and Hanging Rock in early August 1780.
In August, a new Continental Army threat began to form in North Carolina, as Major General Horatio Gates began moving a regrouped army formation, accompanied by a large number of militia, south to dispute the British outpost at Camden, South Carolina. Cornwallis moved reinforcements to Camden from Charleston, while Sumter, in some coordination with Gates' movements, harassed British communication and supply lines. The armies of Gates and Cornwallis met north of Camden on August 16, and Gates was decisively routed.
On August 16, after the Battle of Camden, Captain Nathaniel Martin and a couple of dragoons were sent to warn Sumter of the American loss and to appoint a rendezvous near Charlotte. They would have to march all day to be able to to escape the British. They were loaded down with 100 prisoners, 30 supply wagons, 300 head of cattle and a flock of sheep, taken from the Battle of Wateree Ferry.
They left and moved up the west side of the Wateree River towards Charlotte. Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis learned of Sumter's movement and ordered Tarleton, with his cavalry of the British Legion, to locate and neutralize Sumter the next morning.
On August 17 , in the early morning, Tarleton set out with 350 men and one cannon. They started up the east side of the Waterlee River. By late that afternoon, Tarleton found out that Sumter was across the river travelling on a parrallel course. One day before, Sumter had twice fallen on British supply convoys, and his forces were slowed by prisoners and 80 wagons of supplies. He was moving north toward Charlotte, North Carolina when he learned of the disaster at Camden. In spite of this news, he failed to take some basic precautions when his column took a break near Fishing Creek
At dusk, Tarleton arrived at the ferry at Rocky Mount and saw the American campfires about one mile west of the river. Tarleton made camp at the ferry and did not light any campfires. He hoped that Sumter would not see his camp and cross there in the morning. Then, Tarleton would be able to attack him at this vunerable position.
On August 18, British scouts informed Tarleton that the Americans were continueing west and not heading to the ferry. He gathered his force, crossed the river, and followed Sumter. He remained undetected all the way to Fishing Creek. Fishing Creek was about 40 miles from Camden.
The British infantry were unable to continue. He pushed forward with 100 mounted dragoons and 60 infantry, with the infantry riding double with the dragoons. They rode for 5 miles until they caught up with the Americans.
Around noon, Tarleton's advance guard ran into two of Sumter's scouts. After a few shots, one British and both scouts were killed. The advance guard continued till they came to a hill. On top of it, they saw Sumter's force resting, without any sentries posted.
The soldier's arms were all stacked, and all of the men were either sleeping, cooking, or bathing in the Catawba River. Sumter was sleeping on a blanket under a wagon. Tarleton quickly deployed his men and ordered them to charge. Tarleton had surprised Sumter because Sumter's patrol had reported that all was clear.
During the battle, 150 of Sumter's men were cut to pieces and about 350 were captured. Sumter, without boots and half dressed, jumped upon an unsaddled horse and escaped. The rest of the American force got behind their wagons and engaged the British. Tarleton got back everything Sumter had captured 3 days before, including 44 supply wagons, 2 "grasshopper" cannons, and 800 horses. He also was able to free some 250 British and Loyalists prisoners.
Tarleton freed prisoners and recaptured the wagon trains of supplies that Sumter had taken, as well as taking 300 of Sumter's men prisoner.
Sumter arrived in Charlotte, alone, two days later. He eventually reformed his militia, and got a measure of revenge against Tarleton at Blackstock's Farm in November 1780.
“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 forwards in a compact and servicable 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, in order to refresh themselves, and cover the retreat in case of accident."
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 forwards with great circumspection: 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 sabres before Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton could interpose, or any information be obtained respecting Colonel Sumpter.
A serjeant and four men of the British legion soon afterwards approached the summit of the neighbouring 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.
The arms and artillery of the continentals were secured before the men could be assembled: Universal consternation immediately ensued throughout the camp; some opposition was, however, made from behind the waggons, in front of the militia. The numbers, and extensive encampment of the enemy, occasioned several conflicts before the action was decided.
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.
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, in order to refresh themselves after their late vigorous exertions.
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 honour 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.”
“Major Davie about an hour after Genl Gates passed him despatched a confidential officer to give him information of the misfortunes of the morning, the officers reached his Camp the same evening and Colo Sumpter with his Detachment consisting of 100 regr infantry a compy of Artillery 2 brass pieces & 700 militia began to retreat along the West bank of the river to gain the Upper Country and avoid the fate of the main Army; on the night of the 17th May encamped at Rocky Mount, at this place Colo Sumpter received advice that the British Legion had reached the opposite bank of the Wateree river then called the Catawba and already occupied the banks and fords. He marched again at day break — and about 12 'Oclock the detachment halted having passed Fishing Creek and gained an open ridge on the No side of the creek, the Detachment halted in the line of march, the rear guard consisting of militia were posted at the Creek, the prisoners and part of the baggage were with the advance guard, the troops were permitted to stack their arms and indulge themselves in rest or refreshment, several strolled to a neighboring plantation, some went to the river to bathe, and numbers sought in sleep some refuge from their fatigue, in this unguarded and critical moment, Colo Tarleton approached the American Camp.
The disposition for the attack was simple and made in a moment, the Cavalry consisting of 100, and the light infantry about 60 were formed in a single line and giving a general shout advanced to the charge The arms and artillery of the continentals were immediately in the possession of the enemy, as the men started from their slumbers they were cut down, a general panic ensued no regular opposition was made; and all that could escape, sought their safety in immediate flight, the main guard joined the fugitives and the prisoners were instantly released.
This Victory cost the British very little, Capt Cambel [Charles Campbell] killed, and 15 privates killed and wounded. The Americans lost 150 officers and privates killed and wounded, 10 Continental offs 100 soldrs, a large no. of mila officers & 200 privates were made prisoners, The Artillery, 1000 stand of arms, 46 waggons loaded with valuable stores fell also in to the British possession.
In this action Colo Tarlton had the merit of audacity and good fortune but the glory of the enterprise was stained by the unfeeling barbarity of the legion who continued to hack and maim the militia long after they had surrendered, scarce a man was wounded until he considered himself a prisoner, and had deprived himself of the means of defence. Numbers of these were old grey headed-men, who had turned out to encourage & animate the younger citizens, but their hoary honors were not respected by the British sabre.
Colo Tarlton with only 160 men, presented himself before the American camp, without either information, or a moments reflection proceeded to charge them, had the Commanding officer taken any of the ordinary precautions to resist an attack, Tarlton must have suffered severly for this boyish Temerity; the conflict was nothing, the fighting was entirely on one side, and the slaughter among the defenceless.
Colo Sumpter recd information that the British Legion crossed near Rocky-Mount that morning, and that they were hanging on his rear, and yet marched only 8 miles before he halted & strangely neglected the necessary precautions to prevent a surprise and every means to resist an attack —- The Detachment was halted in the line of march upon an open ridge, no advantage was taken of waggons, the rear guard was posted so near that it was not distinguished by the enemy from the main body; the whole security of the army rested upon two videttes whose fire was disregarded or not heard by a slumbering camp; if a halt was absolutely necessary after a march of only 8 miles, a position should have been taken most unfavorable to the action of Cavalry, the army should have been posted or formed in order of battle, and the waggons so disposed as to have covered the troops from the charge of British Cavalry, these precautions dictated by common practice and common prudence would have enabled him to have repelled five times the Enemys force.
If a proper patrole had been sent down the road towards the Enemy, and the rear guard had been sufficiently strong & posted at the usual distance, and the men had been ordered to remain in Camp near their arms, Colo Sumpter might have been beaten, but he would not have been surprised; or have yielded eight hundred men and two pieces of artillery as easy prey to 160 light troops: The listless and slumbering security in which this Detachment were caught at Mid-day under the eye of an enterprising enemy admits of neither apology nor explanation — Colo Sumpter who was asleep under a waggon when the action commenced, fortunately made his escape amidst the general confusion and reached Major Davie's camp at Charlotte two days afterwards without a single follower.”
The writer is indebted for this information to the late William Ashe of Franklin County, Ga., who was at the time with Sumter. Mr. Ashe stated that the army was almost worn out with fatigue and watching when they stopped on the bank of Fishing Creek. It was near noon and the heat excessive. Sumter had received no intelligence of the enemy since the retreat commenced and thought they might enjoy repose without danger. No great attention was paid to order, but a guard was placed at some distance in the rear.
The wearied soldiers had leave to prepare food and take rest for several hours before resuming their march. It happened that two Tory women passed the place soon after Sumter halted and went on in the direction whence Sumter had come. They had passed the rear guard about half a mile when they met Tarleton's force. They gave Tarleton precise information as to Sumter's position and the arrangement of things connected with his army. They also informed him of a way by which he could leave the main road and fall into a road leading to Sumter's position at right angles to the main road.
This way was taken by the British and hence came upon wholly unexpected. The guard placed in that direction was small and near the army. No alarm was given until the whole squadron was dashing up in full view. "Here," said the late Samuel Morrow of Spartanburg District, S. C., "I seized my gun and shot a Capt. Campbell of the British light horse. I looked around me and saw Sumter's men running in every direction. I snatched up another gun and saw Col. Bratton rallying on a little eminence near me. I joined the little band that stood with him, fired again and the man at whom I took aim dropped. By this time the British were passed us in pursuit of those retiring and we saw no chance and our escape."
Mr. Ashe also stated that he was standing near Col. Sumter when the attack began. Sumter was sitting in the shade of a wagon shaving and the operation was about half finished. When the colonel saw the state of things around, he cut a rope with which a horse was tied to a wagon, dropped his razor, mounted the horse and made his escape without saddle or bridle.
Mr. Ashe also stated that he cut a horse loose and mounted without any means of guiding him except his gun. His horse plunged into the thicket extending up the stream and lying between it and the road. He rode some distance at a gallop when he was knocked off the horse by a piece of projecting timber and lay for some time in a state of insensibility. When he recovered from the shock he heard the noise of battle in the road near him and escaped on foot.
This disaster completely dispersed Sumter's command for a season and left the Whig population once more completely exposed. It is true that Williams and some other partisan leaders kept forces embodied, but without the power of even keeping up a show of resistance. Hence they moved from place to place and to some extent checked the ferocity of the Tories. The writer has often felt regret that Sumter was not with Gates when he met Cornwallis.
Sumter's militia differed widely from the raw recruits from North Carolina and Virginia that were present on that occasion. His men had seen service in all its varieties and had recently learned that their equals were hard to find in the British Army. Hence had they stood with the Continentals the result might have been different when the hero of Saratoga exchanged his Northern laurels for Southern willows.