Huck's Defeat and Unconventional Warfare

Erick Nason, IInd SC Regiment

This month I want to take a look at the events surrounding Huck's Defeat, and how unconventional warfare played into it. By 1780, numerous partisan bands were being formed in both North and South Carolina. There was no conventional or "regular army" force since the destruction at Camden. An insurgency was being waged against the British occupiers. Along with conducting guerilla warfare against the British, the insurgents also collected intelligence against the British and kept the different partisan bands informed on movements and locations of camps. There was also limited subversion, showing the Loyalists how the British government couldn't protect them, as well as conduct sabotage against the British Forces.

The British had to do something about this and waged a counter-insurgency operation to pacify the back country. When Cornwallis assumed command of the Southern Campaign once Clinton departed, he relied upon two men to wage this counterinsurgency. Patrick Ferguson was the Inspector-General for the Loyalist Militia who really believed the Loyalist militias would perform well, and free up the regular British forces to continue the campaign. Of course, he stirred up the hornet's nest by demanding the back country folk to stop waging a guerrilla war against the British "or he would lay their homes waste with fire and sword." He would regret this when he was surrounded on King's Mountain and killed.

The other person Cornwallis relied upon for counter-insurgency was Banastre Tarleton. He was very direct in his approach to quelling the insurgency, using intimidation and fear to squash any local support for the partisans. As Tarleton and the British moved into the interior of South Carolina, they encouraged the Loyalists to harass their Whig neighbors. Instead of causing intimidation, it actually caused them to support the partisans more and sparked a fierce resistance. The British Legion was just as callous and vindictive as the Loyal South Carolina militias.

One of the areas that were considered "most adverse to the British government" was along the Catawba River Valley, settled by mostly Scotts-Irish. Colonel George Turnbull, commander of the Rocky Mount garrison, learned that Bratton and "some of the violent rebels" had returned to their plantations and were actively recruiting. He ordered Captain Christian Huck of the British Legion to return to this region and track down these rebels and to "persuade" the residents to be loyal to the King. Not the best choice Turnbull could have made. Captain Huck had already led an expedition into this region back in June and was the primary reason for the increase in Whig support and activity. Turnbull ordered Huck to gather as many Loyalists with him and with said force, push the rebels as far as you deem convenient. Huck was determined to push the rebels as far and as hard as he could!

Word was soon out that Huck and his men were on their way with about a hundred men. He had his men gather all of the men from the region and made his claims how he would root out the rebels. He had missed the opportunity to capture Reverend Simpson in June, he told his audience "if the Rebels were as thick as trees, and Jesus Christ himself were to command them, he would defeat them!" Then he confiscated all of their horses and forced the men to walk home. As angry as the men were for loosing their horses, the fact that Huck took the Lord's name in vain infuriated these devote Presbyterians. Not only are we now looking at an insurgency per say, now we also have secular fighting between the Presbyterians who believe the English are Protestant are blasphemers. (Gee, where have I seen this before?).

The word was out and it set the tone for the upcoming engagement between Huck and the local partisans. Many fence sitters made up their minds and joined the partisans due to Huck's comments. Additionally, Huck's progress through the Catawba River Valley would give rise of stories concerning British atrocities and brutality. At William Adair's home, Huck's men stripped the family of everything except their clothes. He threatened to hand Mrs. Adair's husband if she didn't send word for her two sons to abandon the Whig cause and join the King. Huck's men departed and Mr. Adair spoke to a patriot patrol that stopped in later, and told them of Huck and how he took everything. The roughing-up of back country women was standard practice intended to intimidate the populace. Whether or not this was substantiated, the use of propaganda to get the support for the partisans worked effectively, another means of unconventional warfare.

Captain John McClure of Sumter's command was one of the handfuls of partisans on Huck's most wanted list. On July 11th, Huck approached McClure's homestead hoping to catch him. While he wasn't there, two other men belonging to Sumter's band who were making bullets for the partisans were captured and taken away, to be hanged in the morning. When Mrs. McClure protested, she was struck with the flat of a sword. In the confusion of the confrontation with Mrs. McClure, the British over looked her daughter, Mary McClure who was able to evade them and run to Sumter's camp.

Along with the McClure, Captain Huck was hunting for William Hill and William Bratton. In June, Huck had reduced the Hill's home and forced the family into the woods, the Bratton's place was untouched. This would be Huck's next target.

Warned by her neighbors, Martha Bratton and her six-year old son waited for the enemy to arrive. When a detachment arrived and demanded to know where her husband was, she replied she didn't know. This infuriated one of the detachment's Tory members who grasped a reaping hook, and threatened to cut off her head unless she talked. She held firm and did not waver, even under that threat. This was a hard thing for the Tories to face; to them the only good rebel was a dead one. Yet, here was a woman facing them down and would not tell them what they wanted. Before the Tory could do anything, the reaping hook was struck down by Captain Adamson, a Tory from Camden who continued to beat the offending Tory with the flat of his sword. The captain apologized to Mrs. Bratton for the rude behavior of his man.

Later, Captain Huck arrived and demanded dinner from Mrs. Bratton. Three elderly neighbors who had been visiting were also taken prisoner, to be hung in the morning. Huck's men did not fire the house, and moved on down the road about a halfmile to James Williamson's plantation. The house was abandoned, seeing all five sons were partisans under Bratton. Captain Huck occupied the house with his 35 dragoons from the British Legion, 20 New York Loyalist Volunteers and 60 local Tories. The prisoners were locked into a corn crib to await their morning fate. Mrs. Bratton dispatched her slave Watt to find her husband once the British departed. Watt found Bratton at Fishing Creek and told him where Huck had encamped.

Joseph Kerr, who had been crippled from birth, was allowed to move freely through Huck's camp, they believing a cripple could do them no harm. Though Captain Huck had him retained until night fall, Joseph Kerr was able to escape and bring valuable intelligence to the partisans. The British camp had lacked security, only one man posted on the road, while the Tories had three men positioned around their camp. Unfortunately for Huck, he did not realize how many partisans were closing in on his position. After hearing of Huck's movement, Captain John McClure and Colonel William Bratton with about 150 men departed from Sumter's camp and rode home. Captain Edward Lacy and Colonels Andrew Neal and William Hill were also tracking Huck with their men. The partisans were informed at the Adair's house they were facing a combined Tory-British force of "a thousand men."(The one time the partisans received bad intelligence.) Undeterred, the partisans pressed on after Huck.

The partisans had roughly 500 men from four bands closing in on Huck. One detachment of 150 men was sent down the wrong road. Some of the men were not on horse back and another hundred fell behind. By the time the South Carolina partisans arrived at Bratton's place, they had 250 men with all of the leading patriots from the area in attendance: Bratton, Hill, McClure, Neal and Lacey. This gave them an excellent advantage over Huck; they knew the area and the terrain. Lacey also knew his father was a hard-core Loyalist as well as his brother Reuben who served under Huck. Seeing his farm was only a couple miles from Huck's camp, and his father determination to warn them, Lacey had his father tied to the bed in order to prevent him from warning Huck. Reuben, on the other hand, was a slacker and suffered from poor eye sight.

Some of the scouts spotted an approaching rider, who turned out to be Reuben. As he approached, the scouts called out to him as "friends of the King" and needed directions. Reuben told them everything, including where the sentries were due to his poor eye sight and being in the dark. After gleaning as much intelligence from him, they let him pass and continued on. The partisans split their force between Bratton and Lacey, while a new commander, Captain John Moffett arrived so the attack would come from three directions. Bratton and Lacey would attack from the different ends of the road which ran through the middle of the camp. Moffett, using the orchard for concealment, would approach the camp from the rear.

A sentry did see Moffett's men approach and fired a shot at them. The sentry ran back into the camp and some of the Legionnaires were able to mount their horses. Lacey's men were slowed by a swamp, while Bratton's men closed to with 75-yards before opening fire. Using the split-rail fence to rest their muskets and rifles, Bratton's men fired murderously into the confused camp as the British stumbled out of their tents. The battle was well under way before Huck emerged from the house. Mounting his horse, he began to rally his men before a sharpshooter; Thomas Carroll put a bullet in his head and dropped him from his horse. Once Huck fell, the Tories and Legionnaires panicked and finally collapsed as the partisans pressed the attack through the camp. Within the hour, the battle was over. Only approximately 24 of the British-Tory force were able to escape, the rest killed, captured or wounded. The partisans recovered as much of the weapons, equipment and horses from the fallen. This battle was a great example how guerrilla fighters were able to stop and destroy a professional British force through unconventional warfare.

Copyright © 2006 Erick Nason. All rights reserved.