Battle of Huck's Defeat

HUCK’S DEFEAT: THE BATTLE OF WILLIAMSON’S PLANTATION

 

by Michael C. Scoggins

 

In the spring and summer of 1780, the Revolutionary War moved full force into the Broad and Catawba River regions of upper South Carolina, in particular the area now comprising York and Chester counties.[1] After capturing Charleston in May 1780, the British army occupied Camden and established a fortified outpost at Rocky Mount, a high elevation overlooking the area where Rocky Creek enters the Catawba River, near the present-day town of Great Falls. The garrison at Rocky Mount was commanded by a veteran British officer, Lieutenant Colonel George Turnbull, who also commanded a regiment of British Provincial infantry called the New York Volunteers. The British troops stationed at Rocky Mount included a detachment of the New York Volunteers commanded by Lieutenant William Adamson; a troop of British Legion dragoons or light cavalry under Captain Christian Huck; and several companies of Loyalist militia commanded by Colonel Matthew Floyd of York County and Colonel James Ferguson of Chester County. The Loyalist militiamen or “Tories” were local residents from the Broad and Catawba River valleys who were loyal to the British Crown.[2]

 

1. A New York Volunteer provincial infantry officer, summer 1780. Original painting © 2014 by Don Troiani.

2. Captain Christian Huck of the British Legion, July 1780. Original painting © 2018 by Thomas Kelly Pauley.

 

Captain Huck of the British Legion was a lawyer of German ancestry from Philadelphia and a staunch Loyalist, and he had a particular dislike for the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in the South Carolina backcountry, most of whom were Patriots or “Whigs,” as they liked to call themselves. During June 1780, Colonel Turnbull dispatched Huck on several excursions from Rocky Mount to destroy Whig militia camps in the area, including the Fishing Creek Presbyterian Meeting House in Chester County (June 11) and William Hill’s Iron Works in York County (June 17). Huck destroyed both the meeting house and the iron works and arrested a few rebel militiamen, but most of the Whigs eluded capture and remained a threat to the British forces. The Whigs then moved to the Old Nation Ford on the east side of the Catawba River and began organizing a partisan militia brigade under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Sumter, a former South Carolina Continental officer. Among the Whig militia officers who joined Sumter were Colonel William Bratton, Colonel Andrew Neal (or Neel), Lieutenant Colonel William Hill, and Major James Hawthorne from present-day York County; Colonel Edward Lacey, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick McGriff, Major Michael Dickson, and Captain John McClure from present-day Chester County; and Captain Richard Winn, a former South Carolina Continental officer from Fairfield County.

3. South Carolina mounted militiaman or “ranger,” late 1780. Original painting © 2014 by Dan Nance.

 

In early July, Turnbull received intelligence that many of the rebels, including Captain John McClure of Chester County and Colonel William Bratton of York County, had returned home to check on their wheat harvests and to enlist recruits for Sumter’s Brigade. Turnbull gave Huck instructions to apprehend McClure and Bratton and disperse the rebels in the upper Fishing Creek communities of Chester and York counties. On the evening of July 10, Huck set out from Rocky Mount with forty British Legion dragoons, twenty mounted New York Volunteers, and sixty mounted Tory militiamen—a total of about 120 men in all. Early on July 11, Huck arrived at the home of John McClure’s family near the Fishing Creek Meeting House. Captain McClure had already left for Sumter’s camp, but Huck captured McClure’s younger brother James and brother-in-law Edward Martin, and sentenced them to be hanged the next day. He terrorized the boys’ mother, set fire to their home, and then departed for the plantation of William Bratton some ten miles (16 km) to the north.

 

4. Colonel William Bratton of Sumter’s Militia Brigade, late 1780. Original painting © 2018 by Kelly Pauley.

 

Throughout the day of July 11, residents from surrounding communities (including John McClure’s teenaged sister Mary) rode into Sumter’s camp and brought word that Huck was out in force, looking for the leaders of the rebel militia. The Whigs dispatched riders to round up as many men as they could find on short notice, and made plans to intercept the British troops before they returned to Rocky Mount. Acting on early intelligence that Huck was camped at Philip Walker’s Grist Mill in Chester County, the Whig militiamen set off from Sumter’s camp late on the evening of July 11 with plans to ambush the Loyalists the next morning.

 

Unknown to the Whigs, however, Huck’s force had continued advancing north into York County, headed for Colonel Bratton’s plantation. They made several more stops along the way, confiscating food, horses, and other valuables from local families. Realizing that the British troops’ ultimate destination was the Bratton homestead, some area residents warned Colonel Bratton’s wife, Martha Robertson Bratton, that the British were on the way. Armed with this knowledge, Martha sent a trusted family slave named Watt to find her husband and warn him of the threat. Watt arrived at Sumter’s camp late that evening, only to find that most of the men had already left for Walker’s Mill. Undaunted, Watt set off after them, hoping to catch the Whigs in time to warn them that Huck was on his way to Colonel Bratton’s home.

 

5. Martha Bratton sends Watt to warn her husband that the British are coming, July 11, 1780. Original painting © 2014 by Dan Nance.

 

The British troops arrived at the Bratton plantation on the evening of July 11. The New York Volunteers and the Tory militia were first on the scene, and they questioned Martha Bratton about the location of her husband’s camp. When she refused to answer, an angry Tory threatened Martha with a reaping hook that was hanging nearby on the porch. Lieutenant Adamson of the New York Volunteers intervened, saved Martha’s life and disciplined the abusive Tory. Captain Huck then arrived and asked Martha to persuade her husband to join the Loyalist militia. When Martha refused, Huck angrily demanded that she prepare supper for him and his officers, while his troops set up camp at the nearby home of James Williamson. Like the Brattons, the Williamsons were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and Whig supporters, and they also had a large field of oats that Huck wanted for his horses. Once supper was over, Huck had Martha and her children locked in the attic of their home and then headed down to the Williamson plantation, about one-quarter of a mile away, to spend the night.

When the various Whig militia companies rendezvoused at Walker’s Mill, they found that Huck was gone. Luckily for them, they encountered Watt on the Rocky Mount Road leading north from Walker’s Mill. Watt informed the men that Huck’s ultimate destination was now the Bratton plantation. With a bright aurora borealis illuminating the night sky, the Whigs set out once more, but along the way some of the men dropped out and returned to their camp, leaving about 140 men to attack the British troops. As they approached Bratton’s plantation in the early morning hours of July 12, the Whigs encountered several local residents who informed them that Huck was actually camped at James Williamson’s farm. The Whigs learned that the Tory militia companies were positioned in an old field in front of Williamson’s log house, while the New York Volunteers were camped in a fenced lane that connected Williamson’s homestead to the main road near Colonel Bratton’s house. The British Legion dragoons were positioned behind the Williamson house, and Huck was asleep inside. The Whig officers held a council and decided to divide their force into two companies. One group, under Bratton and Neal, would attack the west end of the lane while the other group, under Lacey and McClure, would approach from the east end, thus cutting off any chance for the Loyalists to escape to the main road.

6. Whig militia officers plan their attack early on the morning of July 12, 1780, while a rare aurora borealis glows brightly overhead. Original painting © 2014 by Dan Nance. 

 

The Whigs under Bratton and Neal were the first group to reach the Loyalist encampment. The other group of Whigs, under Lacey and McClure, had to cross some difficult terrain and were delayed reaching their assigned position. The battle began when Samuel Williamson, the oldest son of James Williamson, shot one of the sleeping Tory sentinels, who was just waking up from his slumber. About an hour before sunrise, the Whigs commenced their attack on the Loyalist militia camp, and the Tories were caught completely by surprise. As the Whig riflemen began inflicting casualties on the startled Tories, the Loyalist militia commander, Colonel Floyd, mounted his horse and fled the scene. Many of his men did likewise, abandoning their horses and equipment for the safety of the surrounding woods. Other Tories, seeing no chance to escape, grounded their arms and surrendered without a fight. The second Loyalist militia commander, Colonel Ferguson, tried to rally his men and was shot down at point-blank range by the vengeful Whigs.

 

7. Using fence rails as cover, the Whigs open fire on the Tory militiamen at Williamson’s plantation. Original painting © 2014 by Dan Nance.

 

With the Loyalist militia no longer a threat, the Whigs turned their attention on the twenty New York Volunteer infantrymen, who were camped in the lane in front of Williamson’s house. As the Whigs took up positions along the fence line and opened fire, the British infantrymen found themselves trapped within the narrow confines of the lane and quickly surrendered. Their commander, Lieutenant Adamson, fell from his horse while trying to jump over a deep creek bed and landed on a pine sapling, which punctured his chest and left him lying on the ground badly wounded.

8. Whig militiamen attack the New York Volunteer infantry and the British Legion cavalry at Williamson’s plantation. Original painting © 2014 by Don Troiani.

 

Captain Huck had spent the night in the Williamson cabin. When the first shots of the battle rang out, he dashed outside, leaving his green dragoon jacket in the house. Thus dressed only in his shirt sleeves, Huck mounted his horse and waved his sword, trying to rally his dragoons. The British cavalrymen were trained to charge their enemies on horseback and attack them with their heavy cavalry sabers, but the Whigs remained behind the cover of Williamson’s fence rails and peach trees. The dragoons tried several unsuccessful charges as the Whig riflemen carefully picked out their targets and fired, killing and wounding a number of the British horsemen. Seeing the futility of the situation, Captain Huck and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Benjamin Hunt, spurred their horses and galloped up the lane towards Bratton’s house. Several Whig riflemen took aim and fired, and Huck fell from the saddle. He was dead before he hit the ground. The militiamen rushed over and began arguing about who had fired the killing shot. A rifleman named John Carroll, from the Fishing Creek community, stated that he had loaded and fired two balls from his rifle, and when the men examined Huck’s body the only wounds they found were two small bullet holes close together in the back of his head. Thus John Carroll was given the credit for killing Huck, and he took Huck’s dragoon cap and sword as trophies.  

9. Attempting to escape the battle, Captain Huck (left) is hit with two rifle balls and killed instantly.

Original painting © 2014 by Dan Nance.

10. As the Whig riflemen fire at Captain Huck and Lieutenant Hunt of the British Legion, the New York Volunteers offer their swords in surrender. Original painting © 2015 by Dan Nance. 

The battle was over in about fifteen minutes. The Loyalist casualties numbered approximately 30 killed and 50 wounded, and a large number were taken prisoner. Martha Bratton ministered to the wounded Tories as best she could, but the Whigs did not have adequate facilities for holding such a large number of prisoners, or for treating so many wounded men. Therefore, the following day the captured Loyalists, including most of the wounded men, were loaded onto wagons and taken back to Rocky Mount as prisoners on parole. Lieutenant Adamson was too badly wounded to be moved right away, so he remained at the Brattons’ home under the care of Martha. Later that summer he was transported to Camden, but he never fully recovered from his wound and he died there in September 1780. The only Patriot killed in the battle was a man from the Chester area named Campbell. Another Whig militiaman, John Forbes from York County, was wounded in the action by a British cavalry saber.

The destruction of Huck’s Loyalist force at Williamson’s Plantation on July 12, 1780 helped to revive the morale of the people in South Carolina at a time when British victory seemed inevitable. The defeat of these trained British troops and the death of the notorious Captain Huck caused the victorious Patriots to refer to the battle at “Huck’s Defeat,” and it served as a rallying point for the backcountry Whigs. Huck’s Defeat was one of a series of significant events that eventually led to the even larger Patriot victories at King’s Mountain in October 1780, Cowpens in January 1781, and finally to the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.

Note: Prints of all original paintings shown here are available for purchase from the Historic Brattonsville Gift Shop. For pricing and additional information, please call 803-684-2327, and refer to the number of the illustration when making inquiries.



[1] These counties did not exist at the time of the Revolution; they were organized in 1785. From 1775-1785, the area that comprises modern York County was known as the New Acquisition District; the Chester County area was the upper part of the District between the Broad and Catawba Rivers. Both of these electoral districts were part of the much-larger Camden Legal District.

[2] During the Revolution, Americans who supported independence from Great Britain referred to themselves as “Patriots” or “Whigs,” while the British troops generally called them “rebels.” Likewise, Americans who remained loyal to the British government were known as “Loyalists” or “Royalists,” but to their enemies they were known as “Tories.” The names “Whig” and “Tory” were taken from the political parties in British Parliament, who either favored or opposed colonial self-government.