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Thomas Sumter

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Thomas Sumter

SUMTER, Thomas, soldier, born in Virginia in 1734; died at South Mount, near Camden, South Carolina, 1 June, 1832. Little or nothing is known of his parentage and early life. He was present at Braddock’s defeat in 1755, and seems afterward to have been engaged in military service on the frontier In March, 1776, he was appointed by the Provincial congress lieutenant-colonel of the 2d regiment of South Carolina riflemen, and was sent to overawe the Tories and Indians, who were threatening the upper counties of that state. But he does not seem to have distinguished himself until after the fall of Charleston, in May, 1780. About three weeks after that event Sir Henry Clinton wrote home to the ministry: “I may venture to assert that there are few men in South Carolina who are not either our prisoners or in arms with us.” Among the few who were neither the one nor the other was Colonel Sumter. After hiding for a while in the swamps of the Santee, he made his way to North Carolina, where he collected a small force of refugees, and presently returned to carry on a partisan warfare against the British invaders. On 12 July he surprised and cut to pieces Captain Christian Huck’s company of mounted infantry.

Among Sumter’s comrades on this occasion was Colonel William Neale, whose regiment Lord Cornwallis was attempting to impress into the British service. On hearing of the approach of Sumter, these men made haste to join him and place themselves under their former commander. Small parties of Whigs, coming in from the Waxhaw settlements, still further swelled the numbers of the little partisan force, and Sumter was promoted by Governor Rutledge to the rank of brigadier-general in the state militia. Having now more than 600 men under his command, on 30 July he crossed Broad river and made a desperate assault upon the log-fortress at Rocky Mount, which was held by a strong body of New York and South Carolina loyalists under Colonel George Turnbull. Finding the place too strong to be reduced without artillery, of which he had none, Sumter withdrew, and marched suddenly against the fortified post of Hanging Rock. This place was defended by 500 men, of whom at least 160 were British regulars from Tarleton’s legion; the rest were Tories from the two Carolinas and Georgia. They were surprised by Sumter, and, after a severe struggle, the Tories were put to flight, but the British held their ground until sixty-two of their number had been killed or wounded. By that time Sumter’s ill-disciplined men, thinking victory assured, had begun to disperse in quest of plunder and liquor, until he found himself unable to bring up force enough for his final assault, and he accordingly ordered a retreat.

On this occasion Andrew Jackson made his first appearance as a fighter. General Sumter now crossed the Catawba river and undertook to act in co-operation with General Gates, who re-enforced him with 400 good troops and two field-pieces, and on 15 August Sumter succeeded in cutting Cornwallis’s line of communications and capturing his supply-train with its convoy. This brilliant exploit was more than neutralized by the overwhelming defeat of Gates at Camden, 16 August, which made it necessary for Sumter to retreat with all possible haste, encumbered as he was with prisoners and fifty wagons laden with spoils. At noon of the 18th he encamped on the north bank of Fishing creek, a small stream that flows into the Catawba forty miles above Camden. Here he was surprised by the indefatigable Tarleton. As the jaded men were resting under the trees, they were assaulted by the British dragoons, who, by a forced march, had passed the stream in their rear. The Americans were routed, with a loss of nearly 500 in killed, wounded, and prisoners; the remnant of their force was dispersed, and the stores were recovered by the British. After this staggering blow, Sumter fled to the mountains, where his men gradually came together, and within a few weeks he was able to take the field again and scout the country between the Ennoree, Broad, and Tiger rivers.

Late in October, Cornwallis sent Major James Wemyss against him, with the 63d regiment and a few of Tarleton’s dragoons. In a night attack upon Sumter’s camp on Broad river, 8 November, Wemyss was badly defeated and taken prisoner. Tarleton himself was now sent up with re-enforcements, and advanced upon Sumter, who retreated to Blackstock hill, where he planted himself in an exceedingly strong position. Here Tarleton, assaulting him, 20 November, was repelled with a loss of about 200 killed and wounded, while Sumter lost three killed and four wounded; and the disaster of Fishing creek was thus avenged. In this action General Sumter received a wound in the right shoulder which kept him inactive for three months.

In February 1781, he was again in the field, and played an important part in harassing Lord Rawdon, whom Cornwallis left in command in South Carolina, while he followed General Greene’s army northward to the Dan. During the subsequent campaign, April to July, 1781, in which Greene dislodged Rawdon from Camden and re-conquered the interior of the state. Sumter’s operations, in threatening the enemy’s communications and dispersing parties of Tory militia, were very valuable, although he usually chose an independent course of action, and was sometimes regarded by Greene and his officers as insubordinate. Before the end of the campaign he was obliged by failing health to quit active service, and by the time he was again fit for duty the enemy had been cooped up in Charleston.

After the war, General Sumter was interested in politics, and at the time of the adoption of the constitution he was a zealous Federalist. He was a member of congress in 1789-‘93 and 1797-1801, United States senator in 1801-‘9, and minister to Brazil in 1809-‘11. He was the last surviving general officer of the Revolutionary war. The best-known portrait of him is by Charles W. Peale, represented in the accompanying vignette.

 


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