Patriot forces under Colonel Thomas Sumter and Major William Richardson Davie attack and defeat a numerically superior British force, inflicting severe casualties.
On May 12, 1780, British forces under the command of Sir Henry Clinton took possession of Charleston, South Carolina after a six week siege. Returning north, Clinton left Lord Charles Cornwallis in command of British forces in the Southern theater.
The capture of Charleston gave the British almost complete control of South Carolina and escalated an ongoing guerilla conflict between Patriot and Loyalist partisans.
To cement their control of South Carolina, the British established outposts throughout the state. These outposts were tasked with recruiting Loyalists for the British army and suppressing Patriot partisans.
While the British sought to consolidate their gains, Patriot forces worked to weaken the enemy’s hold on the South.
In the summer of 1780, the 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.
At some point between July 30 and August 1, 1780, Patriot forces under the command of Colonel Thomas Sumter attacked the British outpost at Rocky Mount. Despite a determined effort, Sumter was unable to dislodge the enemy.
Meanwhile, a detachment under the command of Major William Richardson Davie engaged British forces at the Hanging Rock outpost in a diversion meant to support Sumter’s mission. Davie’s men actually enjoyed more success than Sumter’s, inflicting several casualties and capturing valuable supplies.
After the failure at Rocky Mount, Sumter and Davie decided to launch a genuine attack on Hanging Rock.
The senior British officer at Hanging Rock, Major John Carden, had roughly 1,400 men under his command. His forces consisted of a mixture of regular troops and Loyalist militiamen.
On the morning of August 6, 1780, Sumter split his forces, numbering roughly 800 men, into three columns and began advancing against the British outpost. Losing their way, the columns fortuitously converged on the weakest part of the British line, which was held by a group of North Carolina Loyalists. Sumter’s and Davie’s men drove the North Carolinians off in a panic. A detachment from the British Legion then attempted to drive back the Patriots with a bayonet charge, only to meet with withering fire. The Legion fell back as well.
As the Patriots advanced, a portion of the British force worked its way through some trees and around Sumter’s flank, catching Sumter’s men in a crossfire.
This represented enough of a setback to the Patriots that the surviving British companies were able to form a defensive square. The British also benefited from the fact that many of Sumter’s and Davie’s men were distracted from the fight by the opportunity for plunder.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, the loot in the British camp included several kegs of rum. The influence of alcohol served to further disorganize Sumter’s and Davie’s forces.
However, when scouts arrived with news that British reinforcements were en route, Sumter and Davie were able to partial order safely withdraw.
Considering the numbers engaged in the Battle of Hanging Rock, the engagement was one of the bloodier battles of the Revolutionary War, at least for the British, who lost 200 men killed and wounded out of 1,400 men engaged. One British unit, the Prince of Wales Regiment, was essentially wiped out. The Patriots, on the other hand, lost only 12 men killed and 41 wounded out of 800 engaged.
Although it was Sumter’s men who withdrew, Hanging Rock, in part due to the lopsided casualty figures, was in fact considered a Patriot victory, albeit an incomplete one. The victory at Hanging Rock served to further embolden Patriot efforts to dislodge the British. The battle was also significant because it represented the first military experience for a young messenger serving Davie: Andrew Jackson.