Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Skirmishes & Huck's Defeat, Summer 1780

Ramsour's Mill set the stage as July and early August of 1780 played out as a series of skirmishes traversing the Carolina backcountry. The absence of regular Continental army and any real general command structure allowed the rise of notable, innovative militia leaders such as Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, Thomas Sumter (apart from his Fishing Creek episode), William Davie, and others. (Continental Line General Horatio Gates would not arrive in the Carolinas until late July.) Innovation and spontaneity were key factors within the geography of swamps, dense forests, thick underbrush, along with fickle weather patterns, which created challenges not traditionally experienced by British officers. The locals, both Patriot and Loyalist, knew the environment and how to best exploit it to advantage. Loyalists, however, had mostly British commanders who hadn't a clue as to the local terrain, but had to trust the locals for guidance. 
The men of the backcountry had been militarily seasoned, if not trained, by their "savage neighbors."* The Indian tactics they learned, out of necessity, were tree-to-rock, rock-to-tree, rifle, knife, and hatchet. They became experts of the surprise raid and hasty retreat, the silent disappearance into woods and swamps. These were precursors of modern guerrilla warfare.
Incidents at militia outposts such as Earle's Ford, Thicketty Fort, Rocky Mount, Cedar Creek, and Hanging Rock kept the game on, but the most pivotal encounter took place as a side effect of British Commander George Turnbull's order to apprehend backcountry rebel commanders John McClure and William Bratton. Colonel Turnbull was under the impression that Captain McClure and Colonel Bratton had returned home to oversee their wheat harvests. Captain Christian Huck, a fervent Loyalist, was on the receiving end of Turnbull's order and set out from Rocky Mount July 10th with a company of thirty-five British dragoons, twenty New York volunteers, and about fifty mounted Loyalist militia. 
"You are hereby ordered, with the Cavalry under your command, to proceed to the frontier of the province, collecting all the royal militia with you on your march, And with said force to push the rebels as far as you may deem convenient."
—Colonel George Turnbull to Captain Christian Huck, excerpt
Huck and his troops descended upon both the McClure and Bratton households, invoking terror as they might. McClure's brother and brother-in-law were captured and sentenced to hang. The McClure house was set afire. Mrs Bratton put up a good fight, despite being physically threatened with a reaping hook. She stood her ground and refused to give up any information. Huck, frustrated, moved along in his search to James Williamson's plantation. Bratton and McClure, in the meantime, had gotten wind of Captain Huck's pursuit and tactics, and devised a strategy to intercept Huck at Williamson's. They amassed a sizeable militia force from the surrounding countryside. At sunrise on July 12th, the patriot forces managed to trap the Loyalists in a fenced-in lane which ran from the main road to the Williamson home. The attack was a total surprise. Huck tried to rally his dragoons, but a single bullet from a sharpshooter killed the captain instantly. This was Huck's Defeat. The battle lasted only about ten minutes, but its implications would resonate far longer.
[Huck's Defeat] was the first check the enemy had received after the fall of Charleston; and was of greater consequence to the American cause than can be well supposed from an affair of small a magnitude as it had the tendency to inspire the Americans with courage & fortitude & to teach them that the enemy was not invincible. 
—Colonel William Hill*
* A nod to Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors, published 2008, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, N.Y.
* William Hill, Colonel William Hill's Memoirs of the Revolution, Columbia, South Carolina