On this day in 1781, Americans fight the Battle of Quinby Bridge and Shubrick’s Plantation. It was a small engagement, as one historian notes, but it also “typifies the slow, inexorable military pressure that gradually drove the British into an ever-decreasing perimeter” in the final months of the American Revolution.
Brigadier General Thomas Sumter was in command of a special force operating about thirty miles outside of Charleston. He was working with Brigadier General Francis Marion and Lt. Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.
On the other side was Loyalist Lt. Col. James Coates. He learned that Sumter was coming and retreated to a church near Monck’s Corner. British supplies were brought inside the fortified walls of the church. A few skirmishes occurred between the two sides on July 16, but these appear to have been mostly diversionary tactics to cover Coates’s real intent: He abandoned his position late that night, setting fire to the church—and the supplies inside.
Sumter first discovered the British retreat when the fire caught his attention around 3 a.m. on July 17. He immediately set off after Coates.
The British had split up, taking two different routes, so Americans did the same. Lee and Marion followed the main army toward Quinby Bridge. Another colonel, Wade Hampton, followed a path that had been taken by the South Carolina Loyalists. Hampton ultimately failed to catch the Loyalists, who crossed Bonneau Ferry too quickly.
The other group of Americans was more successful.
Lee soon caught up to Coates’s rear guard, which gave up without a fight. In the meantime, however, Coates didn’t know that his rear guard had been captured. He was at Quinby Bridge, loosening the planks. He planned to finish disabling the bridge as soon as his rear guard crossed.
He must have been surprised to see Americans coming at him instead?!
Lee’s cavalry were soon charging the bridge. The British had a howitzer, but the Americans rushed the gun before it could be fired. The first round of cavalry had dislodged some of the already-loosened planks on the bridge, but a second round of cavalry continued across anyway. The British began running toward nearby Shubrick’s Plantation, which had many buildings that could act as defenses. The gaps in the bridge had been widening from the two cavalry charges, and the Patriot forces were delayed, but finally Lee and Marion both had their men on the other side. They agreed that attacking the plantation was not a good idea. They would wait for Sumter and his artillery.
Imagine their disappointment—or maybe simple frustration—when they learned that Sumter had left his artillery behind. He thought he could move more quickly without it. At this juncture, Marion and Lee were ready to wait for the artillery, but Sumter ordered an attack.
The attack wasn’t a good idea. Americans were at a serious disadvantage and lost many men during the battle. Unfortunately, Sumter didn’t call for retreat until Patriots ran out of ammunition and darkness fell.
Sumter had made questionable decisions before, but Shubrick’s Plantation was the straw that broke the camel’s back for some Americans. Many soldiers refused to fight for Sumter again.
If only those frustrated soldiers could have known: The final victory at Yorktown was just three months away.
P.S. The portrait is by Johann Stolle (1884) and is a copy of Rembrandt Peale’s 1796 portrait of Thomas Sumter.