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Overall: 33" x 25"
THE BATTLE OF WILLIAMSON'S PLANTATION, YORK COUNTY, SOUTH CAROLINA
In the spring and summer of 1780, the Revolutionary War moved full force into the area between the Broad and Catawba Rivers of upstate South Carolina. After capturing most of the Southern Department of the American Continental army at Charleston, SC, in May 1780, the British occupied Camden and established a strong post at Rocky Mount, a high elevation overlooking the area where Rocky Creek enters the Catawba River. Rocky Mount was commanded by a career British officer, Lieutenant Colonel George Turnbull, and was garrisoned by approximately 150 troops, composed of both British Provincial soldiers and Loyalist or “Tory” militia. The Provincials included a company of Turnbull’s own light infantry regiment, the New York Volunteers, commanded by Lieutenant William Adamson of New York, and a troop of British Legion light cavalry or “dragoons” under Captain Christian Huck of Philadelphia. The Provincials were veterans of the war in the north as well as the battles of Savannah and Charleston, and Huck’s troop had also been in the Battle of the Waxhaws on May 29, 1780, when the British Legion dragoons and infantry reportedly massacred American Continental soldiers after they had surrendered. The Loyalist militia was organized into two battalions commanded by Colonel Matthew Floyd from present-day York County and Colonel James Ferguson from present-day Chester County. Unlike the Provincials, the Tory militia had little military experience and Colonel Turnbull was not very impressed by their appearance or their performance.
In June 1780, Turnbull dispatched Huck’s dragoons and the Loyalist militia to destroy two Patriot or “Whig” militia camps at the Fishing Creek Presbyterian Meeting House in northern Chester County and Colonel William Hill’s Ironworks in York County, which were the centers for rebel activity in the area. Following the loss of their two field bases, the Whigs from the area between the Broad and Catawba Rivers, most of whom were also from the present-day counties of York and Chester, moved to the east side of the Catawba River, established a camp at Nation Ford, and began organizing a partisan militia brigade under the command of Colonel Thomas Sumter, former commander of the Sixth South Carolina Continental Regiment, whom they elected as their brigadier general of militia.
In early July, Turnbull received intelligence that many of the local rebel leaders, including Captain John McClure and Colonel William Bratton of the Fishing Creek communities in Chester and York counties, had returned home to check on their wheat harvest and to enlist additional recruits for Sumter’s Brigade. Turnbull gave Huck instructions to apprehend these officers and disperse any rebel militia still in arms. On the evening of July 10, Huck set out from Rocky Mount with 35 British Legion dragoons, 20 mounted New York Volunteers, and 50 mounted Loyalist or Tory militia. Over the course of the following day, Huck’s battalion slowly worked its way north through Chester County up the old Rocky Mount Road into York County, making numerous stops along the way to arrest rebel militiamen and forage supplies for the Rocky Mount garrison.
The Crown troops arrived at the Bratton home late on the afternoon of July 11. Colonel Bratton’s wife Martha and some other family members had just returned from the fields after reaping wheat all day. A Tory militiaman demanded to know her husband’s whereabouts, and threatened Martha with a reaping hook when she refused to answer. Lieutenant Adamson of the New York Volunteers came to Martha’s rescue and protected her from the belligerent Tory. Huck and his dragoons then arrived on the scene. After an unproductive and frustrating interview with Martha, during which she refused to cooperate in any way, Huck had Martha and her children locked in the attic of her house. He then moved his troops about ¼ of a mile southeast to the neighboring home of James Williamson, who had a large field of oats that Huck wanted for his horses.
Thanks to intelligence from several local residents, Sumter’s men had learned that Huck was once again on patrol, and they quickly made plans to intercept him. Throughout the day on July 11, the Whig officers dispatched riders to round up volunteers from all over present-day Yorkand Chester Counties in order to counter the British force. The Whigs set off from the Nation Ford camp late on the evening of July 11 with about 200 men and picked up Huck’s trail at Walker’s Mill in Chester County. Their plan was to advance on the enemy under cover of darkness and catch the Crown forces in a surprise attack at dawn. The primary Whig militia commanders were Colonel William Bratton, Colonel Andrew Neel and Colonel William Hill from York County; Colonel Edward Lacey and Captain John McClure from Chester County; and Colonel Richard Winn from Fairfield County.
When the Whigs arrived at Walker’s Mill on the night of July 11, they found that Huck had moved north to the Bratton plantation. During the forced march from Walker’s Mill into York County, about 50 Whig militiamen dropped out and either returned to camp or went back home. The remaining Whigs, now about 140-150 in number, arrived in the vicinity of Bratton’s plantation about 3:00 AM. Here they received new intelligence that Huck was actually camped at James Williamson’s plantation. The Whigs were thoroughly briefed on the layout of the enemy camp: the Tory militia was positioned in an old field about 100 yards south of Williamson’s house, while the New York Volunteers were camped in a fenced-in lane below the house. The British Legion dragoons were positioned around the Williamson house, with Huck billeted inside. At this point the Whigs decided to divide their force and attack the British from each end of the lane, east and west. One group, consisting primarily of men from present-day York County under Bratton and Neel, turned northeast and marched diagonally across Williamson’s field toward the Loyalist militia camp to attack from a southwesterly direction. The second group, composed primarily of men from present-day Chester County under Lacey and McClure, circled around the south side of the camps toward the east end of the lane and were forced to traverse some very difficult terrain, including creek swamps and wooded areas; consequently they were delayed getting into their position.
Just as the sun began to rise, about 5:30 AM, the Whigs under Bratton and Neel commenced their attack. The Loyalist militiamen, who were eating breakfast and preparing to break camp, were caught completely by surprise. The senior Loyalist militia officer, Colonel Floyd, mounted his horse and fled the battlefield, along with many of his men. The other Loyalist militia commander, Colonel Ferguson, stood his ground and tried to rally his men. Ferguson was shot down at almost point blank range by the vengeful Whigs, who held him responsible for the death of a young Whig militiaman during the June raid on Fishing Creek Meeting House. Many of the Tory militiamen were killed or wounded by the Whig riflemen, and many surrendered; others abandoned their horses and weapons on the field and escaped on foot to the surrounding woods. Some of the escapees died from their wounds after fleeing into the woods, and their bodies were discovered during the following week.
The Whigs then turned their attention on the New York Volunteers who were camped in Williamson’s Lane. The Volunteers were Provincial infantry well trained in the bayonet charge, but they were hemmed in by the fences running along both sides of the lane and could not maneuver effectively. They quickly began taking casualties from the Whigs’ rifle fire and, seeing the hopelessness of their position, grounded their arms and surrendered. The Whigs under Bratton and Neel then advanced on the British Legion dragoons, who were camped behind Williamson’s house.
When the Whigs began their attack, Huck rushed out from the Williamson house in his shirt sleeves and began shouting orders to his men. The British troopers mounted their horses and formed up, intending to charge the enemy soldiers as they had done so successfully in previous battles. But the Whigs remained behind the trees and fence rails, taking careful aim with their rifles and muskets as the dragoons maneuvered around the yard. After about a half dozen of his men were killed or wounded, Huck and several of his officers tried to break out of the trap and spurred their horses up the lane toward Bratton’s house. As Huck galloped away from the battle, a group of Whig riflemen took aim and fired. One of them, a Fishing Creek militiaman named John Carroll, loaded two balls in his weapon before firing. Huck was hit and fell from his saddle to the ground, dead. After their captain went down, the remaining dragoons surrendered. When Captain Huck’s body was examined, two bullet holes were found in the back of his head, about half an inch apart, and John Carroll was given credit for firing the shot that killed the British commander.
The second group of Whigs under Lacey and McClure were delayed reaching their positions and missed out on most of the battle. After the battle ended, McClure freed a group of Whig prisoners that Huck had locked in Williamson’s corn crib, including his younger brother, James McClure, and William Bratton’s older brother Robert. McClure and some of his men then mounted up and took off after the Loyalists who had escaped on horseback, pursuing them almost all the way back to Rocky Mount.
The battle was over in ten minutes or less. The total number of Provincial and Loyalist casualties was approximately 30 killed and 50 wounded, and a large number were taken prisoner. The only confirmed Whig casualty was a man from Chester County named Campbell. After the battle ended, Campbell was escorting a Tory prisoner up to Williamson’s house at gunpoint when the Tory pulled a pistol from inside his coat and shot Campbell at point-blank range. Campbell was killed instantly, and the Tory made his escape.
Lieutenant William Adamson of the New York Volunteers was severely wounded during the battle. Adamson, who was not a trained cavalryman, fell from his horse while trying to escape the battle and was impaled by a pine sapling. As he lay on the field bleeding from his wound, someone informed Colonel Bratton that it was Adamson who had threatened Martha Bratton’s life the day before. Bratton was about to dispatch Adamson with his sword when Adamson asked him to check with his wife first. Bratton sent for his wife, who with her children was still locked up in the Bratton house where Huck had left them the previous evening. Martha came to the battlefield, recognized Adamson, and informed her husband that it was he who had saved her life from the fury of an angry Tory. Martha then treated Adamson’s injuries and those of the other wounded Loyalists as best she could. Many of them owed their survival to Martha Bratton’s skills as a nurse, but Adamson never fully recovered and died at Camden later that summer.
The destruction of Huck’s British and Loyalist force at Williamson’s Plantation on July 12, 1780 helped revive the morale of the Whigs in South Carolina just when the situation seemed darkest. Coming two months after the British capture of Charleston, Huck’s Defeat was the first battle in which the South Carolina militia defeated a force of British regular soldiers. The battle paved the way for the larger Patriot victories at Kings Mountain and Cowpens over the course of the next six months, and helped turn the war in the South in the Americans’ favor.
Michael C. Scoggins - Historian, Culture & Heritage Museums
Research Director, Southern Revolutionary War Institute, York, SC