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This Day in History: A much-needed Patriot victory at Musgrove’s Mill

On about this day in 1780, American Patriots fight and win the Battle of Musgrove’s Mill. The victory was much-needed! Americans had just suffered a demoralizing defeat at Camden mere days earlier. (See August 16 history post.)


The South was then in a fair amount of turmoil. The British were working to establish a base there before moving on to conquer the North. They’d won important victories in places like Augusta, Charleston, and Camden. They seemed to have the upper hand.

Fortunately, victories such as the one at Musgrove’s Mill would begin to turn the tide in favor of the Patriots.


The conflict was sparked when 200 Patriots under the joint command of Colonels Isaac Shelby, James Williams and Elijah Clarke decided to raid a Loyalist camp. They were determined to launch a surprise attack, and they’d ridden under cover of night so as not to be detected on their approach toward the mill.


They succeeded! But they arrived in the area only to receive some unwelcome news. The Loyalists had been reinforced. Instead of attacking a camp of 200 men, the Patriots would be attacking a camp of 500.


The Patriot commanders were stuck between a rock and a hard place, to say the least. Their horses had been ridden hard all night and were too tired to continue. The Patriots would still need to fight somehow, despite being so badly outnumbered. If a direct attack was out of the question, could they find another way to gain an advantage?


Yes! They could.


The Patriots created a breastwork of brush and fallen timber near a road leading toward Musgrove Mill. Once these defenses were complete, 25 men under Captain Shadrach Inman were dispatched to probe the enemy and to entice them into pursuit.


“Inman and his men performed to perfection,” historian John Buchanan observes. Inman’s small force engaged the British, but then pretended to get confused and to retreat. In reality, of course, they were successfully luring the Loyalists toward the Patriot ambush.


The conflict that ensued lasted for about an hour, with the advantage flipping back and forth between the two sides. Loyalists at first fired too early, then found themselves on the receiving end of a devastating Patriot attack. Later, they had an opportunity to come at the Patriots with a bayonet charge as the Patriots were reloading their weapons. In the end, though, several of the Loyalist officers went down, prompting a chaotic Loyalist retreat.


Colonel Shelby later wrote that the Loyalists “broke in great confusion, the slaughter from thence to the Enoree River about half a mile was very great, dead men lay thick on the ground over which our men pursued the enemy.”


More than 220 of the Loyalists had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. By contrast, the Patriots had lost only 4 killed and 7 wounded.


“The British defeat was complete,” Buchanan concludes of this conflict, “and this did not bode well for the Tory cause. In the middle of strong Tory country a small band of daring Rebel guerrillas had badly hurt and sent flying in disarray regulars and militia more than double their number.”


Despite the much-needed victory at Musgrove’s Mill, the day was a mixed bag overall. Just miles away on the same day, the Battle of Fishing Creek was won decisively by the British. But that is a story for another day.


UPDATE:  Many have identified this battle as occurring on August 18, but recent research suggests that it may have been August 19 instead.  Either way, a great tale of determination at a critical moment in our Revolution!


Primary Sources:

  • Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South (1981)

  • Isaac Shelby’s Account of his Exploits During the Revolutionary War (reprinted in William T. Graves, Backcountry Revolutionary 2012)

  • John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas (1997)

  • Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (1999)

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Dallas, TX

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