The American Revolution in South Carolina

Brigadier General James Williams

James Williams was born on November 10, 1740 in Hanover County, VA, the fourth child (third son) of Daniel Williams and Ursula Clark Henderson. Daniel's will is dated November 15, 1759 and was probated in Granville County, NC. James William married Mary Wallace in 1762. James and Mary remained in Granville County, NC until around 1773, when they moved to the Little River area of the Upper District between the Broad and Saluda Rivers, South Carolina - near the Laurens and Newberry County lines of today. James Williams established himself as a farmer, a miller, and a merchant - and was elected to the SC First Provincial Congress in 1775. He was also elected to the Second Provincial Congress later that same year.

As a member of the First Provincial Congress, James Williams was one of the signers of the "Association" adopted on June 3, 1775, when word of the fighting in Massachusetts reached South Carolina. His brother John Williams was also elected into this congress. Both brothers were very active in the Patriot cause and they had considerable influence in the backcountry, even with the Loyalists. However, the noted Loyalist, Robert Cunningham, defeated Williams in the first senatorial election of the Little River District during 1778.

In November of 1775, James Williams was elected as a Captain to lead a company within the Little River District Regiment (militia), and he served under Col. John Lindsey. He was promoted to Major in mid-1776, and to Lt. Colonel later in 1776. By February of 1777, he assumed command of the Little River District Regiment (militia) as a Lt. Colonel. In September of 1779, he became Colonel.

At the Fall of Charleston in May of 1780, two key backcountry militia leaders surrendered and gave their parole - BG Andrew Williamson and Col. Andrew Pickens. If the British truly thought that this would bring an end to the conflict they really misunderstood the commitment of Col. James Williams as well as a few other militia leaders. The backcountry degenerated into a veritable Civil War between Patriots and Loyalists, each faction confiscating the other's crops and livestock, burning each other's homes, and hanging as traitors those who were unlucky enough to fall into their opponent's hands.

James Williams had his plantation, Mount Pleasant, confiscated in early June of 1780 - apparently he foresaw this happening because he had already removed most of his slaves and personal belongings and took them to his brother, Henry's, home in Caswell County, NC. While there, he prepared his last will, naming his wife Mary and children, Daniel, Joseph, William, John James, Washington, Elizabeth, and Mary.

Upon returning to South Carolina in late June or early July, Col. Williams immediately raised his Little River District Regiment once again. He was in camp on the Catawba River with Col. Thomas Sumter on July 4th. Shortly thereafter, Williams and his men linked up with other regiments when appropriate - with the primary goal of keeping local Loyalists in their homes and not out raising troops. His regiment was involved in many battles and skirmishes in the backcountry.

For some unknown reason there was a strong tension and perhaps even animosity between Col. James Williams and Col. Thomas Sumter - of course, each led their own regiment of militia and each considered themselves fully suited to help lead South Carolina out of the military mess it was in after the Fall of Charleston. However, with no civil authorities within the state, both men managed to keep their egos in check and kept their focus on harrassing the British and thwarting the plans of the Loyalists.

In exile at Salisbury and Hillsborough, NC, Governor John Rutledge learned (or already knew) of the tensions between Williams and Sumter, and some contemporary documentation hints that Rutledge intended to use the rivaly between the two to animate the backcountry militia's resistance. Since the Fall of Charleston, those who chose to follow Sumter seemed to idolize him - and all referred to him as General, a rank he did not yet hold, but a rank that he strongly coveted. Many regimental colonels deferred to him as though he were senior to them - several did not, including Col. James Williams. Perhaps Gov. Rutledge was well aware of this fact.

In late September or early October of 1780, Gov. John Rutledge commissioned Col. James Williams as a Brigadier General, thanks to his great service at the battle of Musgrove's Mill on August 18th, among other battles and skirmishes since then. Sumter was mortified, as were his followers. Five rode to Hillsborough immediately to press the exiled governor for a general's commission for Col. Thomas Sumter.

In the meantime, the battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780 resulted in a mortally wounded Col./Brig. Gen. James Williams - and, he died the next day, with full knowledge that the Patriots had won the day before. On October 27, 1780, Gen. George Washington recognized Col. James Williams and his death at Kings Mountain in an order issued for his headquarters in Totoway - most understand that this was issued to help rally the morale of the Carolina troops at that point in time.

Some historians claim that James Williams died never knowing that he had been promoted to brigadier general. Others claim that he received word on his promotion the day before the battle of Kings Mountain, whereas others claim that he "harrassed" Col. Thomas Sumter and his minions several days earlier by waiving his new commission and bragging about it within Sumter's camp. Whatever the truth is, one key fact remains - James Williams was the first brigadier general commissioned by the South Carolina civil authorities after the Fall of Charleston, proving that he was a very remarkable leader of men in his time.

Biography from Benson J. Lossing in his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution [with minor edits]:

James Williams was a native of Granville County, North Carolina. He settled upon the Little River in Laurens District, South Carolina in 1773, where he engaged in the pursuit of a farmer and a merchant. He early espoused the patriot cause.

Williams first appears as a colonel in the militia in April of 1778. In the spring of 1779, he went into actual service and he was probably at the Siege of Savannah. He was with Sumter in 1780, but does not seem to have been permanently attached to the corps of that partisan.

In the early part of that year, he was engaged in the battle at Musgrove's Mill on the Enoree River. After that engagement, he went to Hillsborough, North Carolina, where he raised a corps of cavalry and returned to South Carolina; and during Ferguson's movements, after crossing the Wateree River, Williams continually hovered around his camp.

In the sanguinary battle upon Kings Mountain, he was slain. He was near Maj. Ferguson and both officers recieved their death-wound at the same moment. He died on the morning after the battle, and was buried within two miles of the place where he fell. Tradition says that his first words, when reviving a little soon after he was shot, were, "For God's sake, boys, don't give up the hill!"

© 2008 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved