The American Revolution in South Carolina

Fish Dam Ford

November 9, 1780


Patriot Cdr:

Brigadier General
Thomas Sumter
British Cdr:

Major James Wemyss
Killed:

4
Killed:

4
Wounded:

10
Wounded:

23
Captured:

0
Captured:

14
Old District: 

Camden District/ Ninety-Six District
Present County:

Chester County/
Union County

aka Fishdam Ford. One source asserts that this engagement happened on November 12, 1780.


The battle of Fish Dam Ford was fought in the early morning hours of November 9, 1780. The Patriot forces were under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Sumter who had with him parts of the regiments of Colonels Thomas Taylor, Richard Winn, William Bratton, Edward Lacey, David Glynn, and William Hill, plus detachments of six other regiments under his command.

The battle of Fish Dam Ford is historically significant not only because it was a Revolutionary War battle, but because it was one of several battles during the campaign of 1780 in the upcountry that led to the British being driven out of the area leading to the ultimate surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia.

British troops were led in a surprise attack by Major James Wemyss against Brigadier General Thomas Sumter's SC Militia camp on the Broad River, trying to appease the South Carolina backcountry and end Patriot resistance; Major Wemyss was wounded and the British detachment defeated.


Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis learned that Brigadier General Thomas Sumter was in the area from a British patrol. He would have preferred to send Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton after him, but Lt. Col. Tarleton was busy chasing Col. Francis Marion in the lowcountry. Lord Cornwallis sent Major James Wemyss instead.

On the night of November 8th, Major Wemyss left Winnsborough and arrived at Moore's Mill by midnight. Brigadier General Sumter moved down the Broad River to Fish Dam Ford, on the present-day border of Union and Chester counties. Major Wemyss disobeyed Lord Cornwallis's order not to attack at night.

Brigadier General Sumter moved his troops around Fish Dam Ford, and then he went to his tent and fell asleep. He did not believe that Major Wemyss would attack at night. Col. Thomas Taylor of the Congaree was not convinced and he took measures to guard against surprise. He placed himself at the head of his men, marched them across the creek, built up large fires of durable material, sent out a patrol in the known direction of the British, made sure his men had a safe retreat down the creek if necessary, and took all precautions he deemed appropriate. He then withdrew his men from the fires in the direction of the main army.

Col. Richard Winn was also concerned, so he ordered his men to sleep with their guns in their arms and shot bags under their heads. He placed pickets around his men.

Around midnight, Col. Thomas Taylor heard a great sound in the direction he had expected. The British came to the top of the hill above him, formed, then charged down on the fires, expecting to butcher a sleeping foe. As soon as they were in the light of the fires, Col. Taylor's men opened fire and a few rounds decided the contest. The first shots emptied twenty British saddles, and Major Wemyss was one of the wounded, with a broken arm and a shattered knee.

The British command now fell to Lt. Henry Stark, who knew nothing of his superior's plan, or of the limitations placed upon them by Lord Cornwallis. Lt. Stark charged towards the invisible Patriots, but his men were easy targets. He then had his men to dismount and to fix bayonets.

The fight was fairly evenly matched until Col. Edward Lacey fired from the nearby woods at the British flank. After a few minutes of confused fighting, both sides withdrew. Col. Lacey admitted that he had his men to hold back because he couldn't tell friend from foe for a good long time.

The entire action lasted a mere twenty minutes. Lt. Col. William Bratton, Col. David Glynn and Col. William Hill did not even engage since the fighting was far from their camps.

Major Wemyss was left behind with thirteen other wounded under a flag of truce, with a Patriot Sergeant Major to guard over them. In the morning, they were the only ones on the battlefield. Brigadier General Thomas Sumter returned to the field two hours after sunrise and found them sitting there. He paroled them all and sent them to Charlestown. Brigadier General Sumter spread word throughout the countryside that he had a victory, not over Loyalist militia, but over British regulars. Recruits flocked to his camp and his command quickly grew to over 1,000 militiamen.


This is the first engagement fought since Thomas Sumter had been commissioned a Brigadier General by South Carolina Governor John Rutledge in October at Hillsborough, North Carolina. At or near the same time, James Williams was commissioned as a Brigadier General, but he was killed at the battle of Kings Mountain on October 7th, so Sumter was now the only South Carolina general of militia. It would be another two months before Governor Rutledge would commission Francis Marion as a Brigadier General in late December of 1780 (Marion did not learn of this until New Years Day of 1781), then another month before he would commission Andrew Pickens as a Brigadier General after the battle of Cowpens in January of 1781.

Being the sole Brigadier General on active duty in the state of South Carolina pleased Thomas Sumter immensely. Being the first pleased him even moreso, and he manipulated both facts to his benefit whenever he needed to. He apparently needed to quite often. Many colonels seemed to idolize Sumter, but certainly not all were blinded by his ambition and his unique style of leadership.

Col. Richard Winn of the Fairfield Regiment of Militia accompanied Brigadier General Sumter wherever he went and was at his side for every battle/skirmish Sumter fought. Col. William Hill was another staunch supporter of Brigadier General Thomas Sumter, and Col. Hill had nothing but praise for Sumter when he wrote his memoirs after the Revolutionary War (1815). Colonels Edward Lacey, Thomas Taylor, and William Bratton seemed to admire Sumter since they remained with him until his resignations of 1781 and 1782. The remaining regimental leaders under Sumter seemed to be wary of his leadership style and they seldom committed all of their troops to support his causes, coming and going at their discretion, not Sumter's discretion.

As stated above, by the end of January of 1781, there were two more brigadier generals within South Carolina, and by September of 1781, Robert Barnwell made it four. These appointments did not please Sumter, but when faced with specific instances to have to collaborate with these other three generals, Thomas Sumter never failed to make it perfectly clear that he was not their equal, but their superior. As one would expect, this did not make the others all that comfortable in their relationship with him.

Marion and Pickens avoided him as long as they could and each kept to their "sphere of operations" - Marion along the Pee Dee River and the lowcountry; Pickens along the Savannah River and the upcountry. Both expecting Brigadier General Sumter to manage the "middle of the state" as he saw fit. Barnwell had little if any involvement with Sumter, so their relationship is not very well known.

When Major General Nathanael Greene brought his Continentals into South Carolina in late 1780, Brigadier General Thomas Sumter was not impressed. He easily recalled Major General Horatio Gates coming into South Carolina in early August of 1780 and ignoring the Militia, including himself, and of course of Major General Gates getting thoroughly beaten at Camden by Lord Cornwallis. Therefore, Sumter had no need to collaborate with the Continentals since it was not "their" state, but "his." Furthermore, since Governor Rutledge was still in exile within North Carolina, Sumter truly believed that he was now the "supreme commander" of all of South Carolina and took orders from no one, especially from Continentals.

However, Major General Nathanael Greene was smart enough to know that he could not be effective within South Carolina without the help of ALL of the local militias, including Marion and Sumter, and of course later Pickens and Barnwell. Major General Greene quickly assessed Sumter's attitudes and chose to ignore the unpleasant qualities and to focus on the better qualities of his new allies, the local militia leaders, of which Sumter was merely one, although a very important one. Lucky for the Patriots that Major General Greene came when he did.

As the British posts were defeated by the Patriots over the course of 1781 all across the backcountry and the enemy was being forced back into Charlestown, it was inevitable that Brigadier General Thomas Sumter would "have" to collaborate with both the Continentals and the other Militia generals within South Carolina. At the battles of Quinby's Bridge and Shubrick's Plantation (considered one battle by some, separate by most others) in mid-July of 1781 was the first - and - the last time that Sumter collaborated with others. This debacle convinced many that they "would never fight under Gen. Sumter ever again," including some of his long-standing regimental leaders.

Around the same time, Brigadier General Thomas Sumter issued orders that essentially permitted looting by his men, and he was actually accused of taking advantage of the same people he was sworn to protect. These accusations hurt him deeply and he resigned. Major General Nathanael Greene convinced him to return to active duty after the battle of Eutaw Springs (September 8, 1781), but his heart was no longer in it. When he was elected to the legislature in November - to convene in January of 1782, Sumter once again resigned, this time for good.

Admire him or dislike him, Thomas Sumter brought a tremendous amount of talent and energy into his primary objective - which was to rid his home state of the British forces that had brought so much chaos and animosity to its citizens. His leadership was not perfect, but his heart was certainly in the right place, and he and his followers helped to end the brutal conflict within South Carolina, when many thought the cause was already lost.

Known Patriot Participants

Known British/Loyalist Participants

Brigadier General Thomas Sumter - Commanding Officer

Turkey Creek Regiment of Militia led by Col. Edward Lacey, with eight (8) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Samuel Adams
- Capt. Robert Frost
- Capt. Henry Lisle
- Capt. John McCool
- Capt. John Miller
- Capt. William Morris
- Capt. James Ramsey
- Capt. Thomas Robins

New Acquisition District Regiment of Militia detachment led by Lt. Col. William Bratton, with four (4) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Robert Hanna
- Capt. William Hanna
- Capt. John Henderson
- Capt. John McCloud

Fairfield Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. Richard Winn, with three (3) known companie,s led by:
- Capt. Samuel Lacey
- Capt. James Reid
- Capt. John Winn

Hill's Regiment of Light Dragoons detachment led by Col. William Hill and Lt. Col. James Hawthorn, with two (2) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Jacob Barnett
- Capt. Robert Cowden

1st Spartan Regiment of Militia detachment led by Major William Smith, with two (2) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Samuel Carr
- Capt. John Collins

2nd Spartan Regiment of Militia detachment of two (2) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Gavin Gordon
- Capt. John Lindsay

Kershaw Regiment of Militia detachment of two (2) known companies, led by:
- Capt. William Simpson
- Capt. Hugh White

Camden District Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. Thomas Taylor, with one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. John Taylor (wounded/died as result)

Lower District Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. David Glynn, with one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. William Taylor

Upper Ninety-Six District Regiment of Militia detachment led by Lt. Col. James McCall, with one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. Samuel Carr

Little River District Regiment of Militia detachment of one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. Josiah Greer

Polk's Regiment of Light Dragoons detachment of one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. James Martin

Richmond County Regiment Militia (GA) led by Col. Benjamin Few with unknown number of men

Burke County Regiment of Militia (GA) led by Col. Elijah Clarke with Major William Candler and Major James Jackson, with unknown number of men

Total Patriot Forces - 400

Major James Wemyss - Commanding Officer

63rd Regiment of Foot detachment led by Lt. Henry Bethune Stark with 63 men

British Legion Cavalry detachment led by Lt. Moore Hovenden with 40 men

Total British Forces - 103

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© 2009 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved