In Mid-May 1780 Colonel Abraham Buford had marched his regiment, the 3rd Virginia Continentals, within forty miles of Charleston when he received news of the surrender; he then got orders to retreat to Hillsboro, North Carolina. Cornwallis dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton in pursuit. With a task force of 270 men, Tarleton caught up with Buford’s rear guard on the twenty-ninth at a place called Waxhaws, about ten miles east of present-day Lancaster, S.C. The American commander deployed into line on open ground, and his officers ordered their men to hold their fire until the charging cavalry came within ten yards of their line. The Continentals’ single volley was too late to break the momentum of Tarleton’s charge. The American line was shattered, and simultaneously the Tory cavalry swept around both flanks. The Continentals were encircled and soon became a helpless mass, most men throwing down their arms. Buford had Ensign Cruit raise a white flag; when Tarleton himself charged at the flag, his horse was killed. Seeing him downed, a fury swept through his troopers with the word that their leader had been shot down in front of a flag of truce. Tarleton could not or would not hold back his men. They were out of control, sabering right and left, ignoring any cries for quarter. In moments the Tory infantry of the legion were into the Americans with their bayonets. The Americans by now were completely helpless, since they had grounded their muskets when the white flag was raised. In Robert Bass’s version of the affair, “the infantrymen continued to sweep over the ground, plunging their bayonets into any living American. Where several had fallen together, they used their bayonets to untangle them, in order to finish off those on the bottom” (The Green Dragoon).
In this massacre was born the American battle cry of “Tarleton’s quarter!” The “Waxhaws massacre” and “Tarleton’s quarter” flamed across the Carolinas and Georgia to become household words, and Tarleton became the hated symbol of the Crown and Tory oppression, and henceforth was known as Bloody Tarleton.
American casualties were 113 killed and 203 prisoners, but 150 of those were too badly wounded to be moved. Buford escaped on horseback, losing all six pieces of his artillery and his entire supply train. Tarleton counted his casualties at 19 killed or wounded and a loss of 31 horses. Buford’s losses, however, became more symbolic than material; they symbolized the end of organized Patriot military power in South Carolina.
The Waxhaws affair also signaled the spread of civil War. Although there were too many skirmishes to recount, at least four actions took place after Waxhaws that could be called battles. They were notable not only for blood and bitterness but further for the absence of British regular troops.
On 20 June 400 Patriots under Colonel Francis Locke attacked some 700 Tories at Ramsour’s Mill in North Carolina. Each side lost about 150 men, losses which speak clearly for the fierceness of the encounter.
At Williamson’s Plantation on 12 July a hastily organized band of Patriots surprised a Tory raiding party by attacking its camp at dawn. Out of 115 Tories in the camp only 24 escaped; of the remainder, 30 to 40 were killed and 50 wounded. The attacking Patriots lost one man killed out of about 250 who actually made the attack.
The victory at Williamson’s Plantation encouraged many of the rebels to rally to the side of famed Thomas Sumter, the “Carolina Gamecock,” who was building up a force in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Sumter decided to move against the fortified post at Rocky Mount, South Carolina, held by the Tory Lieutenant Colonel Turnbull with some 150 New York Volunteers and a detachment of South Carolina Tories. Turnbull had been warned of Sumter’s approach and was prepared. Three successive assaults were beaten back by the heavy fire of the defenders. After unsuccessful attempts to burn out the Tories, Sumter had to call it quits and withdraw to Land’s Ford on the Catawba River. Losses were equally light on both sides, each losing about fourteen killed or wounded.
Sumter had not earned the title of Gamecock by sitting around camp fires; four days after Rocky Mount, he left Land’s Ford to attack the heavily garrisoned outpost at Hanging Rock, about twelve miles east of Rocky Mount. Sumter had mustered 500 North Carolina militia and about 300 South Carolinians; all could be considered mounted infantry. Sumter divided his force into three columns, each with the mission of attacking one of the Tory camps. Their guides went astray, and all three divisions ended up on the front and flank of the North Carolinians on the Tory left. Sumter’s men drove on but were stopped by heavy fire from the legionaries and rangers of the enemy center. The Tory force commander, Major Garden, seeing his chance, took a detachment and fell upon Sumter’s flank. The surprised Americans rallied and, with amazing fierceness for militia, retaliated with such firepower that Tory casualties mounted to the point where Garden’s men fled or surrendered.
The main Tory camp and supply center were now wide open, and the triumphant victors went hog wild. Stores of rum were uncovered and gulped down, and while Sumter’s disorganized men were getting drunk and out of control, Garden formed some rallied men into a hollow square with two cannon on its corners and prepared to continue the fight. Garden was opposed by Major William Davie, a noted partisan leader. Davie had kept his “dragoons” under control and away from the looting. In the meantime Sumter had succeeded in drawing about 200 of his men from the looted camp. While so engaged he was threatened by two companies of legion cavalry who had come to join the fight. Davie led a charge against the new threat and drove the Tory cavalry out of sight. At this point, with the enemy square still standing fast, Sumter decided that further offensive action was out of the question and offered a general withdrawal. Outside of the fiasco in the looted camp, the battle had been fought with firmness and courage on both sides. The Tory losses were especially heavy: nearly 200 killed and wounded. The Patriots claimed to have suffered casualties of only 12 killed and 41 wounded, which is unlikely.
The Battle of Hanging Rock was the largest and last of the civil war actions after the fall of Charleston. Now, in early August 1780, new Patriot forces were entering the arena, forces not composed of partisans or irregulars.