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This Day in History: The Battle of Fishdam Ford

On this day in 1780, the British prepare a surprise attack, but their midnight strike on American forces doesn't succeed. Instead, Brigadier General Thomas Sumter and his men would win the little-known Battle of Fishdam Ford.

It was one more domino that fell, undermining the British during the final year of the American Revolution.

The British were then focused on their southern campaign. They’d gotten off to a good start with victories at Charleston, Waxhaws, and Camden. For a while, the British surely felt they were crushing American resistance.

Thomas Sumter, copy of Rembrandt Peale's 1796 portrait, by Johann Stolle (1884)

Fortunately, a few well-timed victories and a new southern commander for the American army helped turn the tide.

At about this time, British Major James Wemyss was conducting raids in South Carolina. He managed to obtain information about the location of Sumter’s camp from a Loyalist. Sumter (the “Gamecock”) was one of several local militia leaders whose fierce fighting tactics had left British General Charles Cornwallis feeling frustrated. Cornwallis would later describe Sumter as “daring and troublesome” and “our greatest plague in this country.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Wemyss obtained permission to attack Sumter. His orders were to wait until daybreak, but Wemyss instead attacked a little after midnight during the night of November 8-9.

It was a big mistake. The American camp was prepared, although sources seem to disagree on who in Sumter’s camp ordered the precautions taken. Was it Sumter himself? Or one of his colonels?

Either way, Americans had a strong advance guard posted. Fires were lit at the front of the camp and some men were hidden in vegetation at a distance, ready to fire if the enemy approached. Thus, when the British attacked, Americans responded quickly. Wemyss was wounded in the leg and arm within minutes. His second in command, Lt. Stark, took over. Stark could see that the British, mounted on horses, were easy targets in the light of the campfires. He ordered them to dismount and begin using bayonets.

One group of dragoons had been sent straight toward Sumter’s tent. Oddly, Sumter was not dressed, did not have his arms, and was otherwise unprepared. He barely escaped into a briar patch and spent the next few hours hiding near a river.

The fight was a quick one—only about 20 minutes! The British were losing, and Stark ordered a retreat. In the end, Americans took up to 25 prisoners, including the badly wounded Wemyss.

The victory was a relatively small one, but it was a victory nonetheless. And it was yet one more thing that would help turn the tide in favor of the Patriots.

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