Battle of Kettle Creek: American Militia Defeat Tory Force
"Engagement Between the Whigs [Patriots] and Tories [Loyalists]"
Author and date of production unknown
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(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: February 14, 1779
The American War of Independence (1775-1783) provides the setting for today's battle narrative. Nearly all students of history know of the battles in the northern colonies. But, the battles for control of the southern states were just as important, and in some cases, just as brutal. This conflict took place in the backwoods of Georgia, but involved American militia unites from nearby North and South Carolina.
From the beginning of the American Revolution, colonists joined together to form militia companies to defend their homes against the "King's troops." Many of these militia units knew little of formations and the "proper" way to load and fire their weapons in volleys, and the like. Eventually, with the influence of European-trained officers, American forces began to stand toe-to-toe with the British regulars.
However, in some areas of the colonies, the militia companies were the norm rather than the exception. The southern colonies – particularly Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina – the terrain was not conducive to the formation of regular forces. In addition, there were a much higher percentage of people who supported the British Crown against the rebellious Americans. Consequently, the American Revolution in the South was a much more personal and acrimonious conflict. Divided loyalties tore many a family apart.
The last major battle fought in the north took place in June of 1778, when Washington's army attacked the rearguard of a British army which was pulling back to New York City at the battle of Monmouth. New York was still in British control, but was being threatened by French naval forces. One year earlier, a major British setback occurred at the battle of Saratoga, in which a major English army was surrendered to the Americans.
King George III was unwilling to officially recognize American independence. He supported a policy of bombarding, attacking, and holding major colonial ports; inciting Native American tribes to attack frontier settlements; and encouraging the recruitment of Loyalists (also called Tories) to oppose the independence movement. Much of this was included in what came to be known as the "southern strategy."
The British began their southern strategy by sending expeditions from New York City and Saint Augustine, East Florida, to capture Savannah, Georgia late in 1778. The New York expedition, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, arrived first, and successfully captured the town on December 29, 1778. When British Brigadier General Augustine Prevost arrived from Saint Augustine in mid-January, he assumed command of the garrison there, and sent a force under Campbell to take control of Augusta and raise Loyalist forces
Archibald Campbell (1739-1791); Oil on canvas by George Romney (c 1792)
Archibald Campbell (1739-1791)
Oil on canvas by George Romney (c 1792)
Leaving Savannah on January 24, Campbell and more than 1,000 men arrived near Augusta a week later, with only minimal harassment from Georgia militia on the way. Augusta had been defended by South Carolina General Andrew Williamson leading about 1000 militia from Georgia and South Carolina, but he withdrew most of his men when the British approached. His rear guard skirmished briefly with Campbell's men before withdrawing across the Savannah River into South Carolina
Campbell immediately started recruiting Loyalists, signing up about 1100 men, but relatively few actually formed militia companies. Campbell then began requiring oaths of loyalty, on pain of forfeiture of property; many took this oath insincerely, quickly letting Williamson know their true feelings. Early in his march, Campbell dispatched Colonel John Boyd on an expedition to raise Loyalists in the backcountry of North and South Carolina. He met with success, and recruited several hundred men. As he traveled south back toward Augusta, more Loyalists joined his company, until it numbered over 600 men in central South Carolina. As this column moved on, the Tories plundered and pillaged along the way, predictably drawing angered colonists to take up arms.
The Continental Army commander in the south, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, based in Charleston, South Carolina, had been unable to respond adequately to the capture of Savannah. With only limited Continental resources (he was short of both men and funds), he was able to raise about 1400 South Carolina militia, but did not have authorization to order them outside the state. On January 30 he was further reinforced at Charleston by the arrival of 1100 North Carolina militia under Gen. John Ashe. These he immediately dispatched to join Williamson on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River near Augusta.
The Georgia banks of the Savannah in the Augusta area were controlled by a Loyalist force led by Col. Daniel McGirth, while the South Carolina banks were controlled by Georgia militia led by Col. John Dooly. When about 250 South Carolina militia under Col. Andrew Pickens arrived in the area, Pickens and Dooly joined forces to conduct offensive operations into Georgia, with Pickens taking overall command.
Andrew Pickens (1739-1817)
Oil on canvas painting, author and date unknown
Current location in Fort Hill, Clemson SC
Prelude to the Battle
On February 10, Pickens and Dooly crossed the Savannah River to attack a British Army camp southeast of Augusta. However, they found the camp unoccupied, and learned that the company was out on an extended patrol. Suspecting they would head for a stockaded frontier post called Carr's Fort, Pickens sent men directly there while the main body chased after the British. The British made it into the fort, but were forced to abandon their horses and baggage outside its walls. Pickens then besieged the fort until he learned that Boyd was passing through the Ninety Six district of South Carolina with several hundred Loyalists, headed for Georgia. He reluctantly raised the siege and moved to intercept Boyd.
Pickens established a strong presence near the mouth of the Broad River, where he expected Boyd might try to cross. However, Boyd and his force, grown by then to 800 men, chose to skirt to the north. He first tried Cherokee Ford, where eight Patriots with small swivel guns in an entrenched position repulsed his approach. Boyd moved north about 5 miles and crossed the river there, skirmishing with a small Patriot force that had shadowed his movements on the Georgia side. Boyd reported losing 100 men (killed, wounded, or deserted) in the encounter.
By the time Pickens learned that Boyd had crossed the river, he and his militiamen had crossed into South Carolina in an attempt to intercept Boyd. He immediately returned to Georgia upon learning of Boyd's whereabouts. On the morning of Sunday, February 14 Pickens caught up with Boyd when he paused to rest his troops near Kettle Creek, only a few miles from Col. McGirth's Loyalist camp.
Col. Boyd and his Loyalist regiment from North and South Carolina were headed to nearby Wrightsborough, where another group of British soldiers were located. Exact figures for Boyd's force are sketchy, probably numbering between 600 and 700 effectives. There were reports that many of the Carolinians were coerced into joining, and many used their feet to make a statement about their participation. On the evening of February 13, Boyd and his Loyalist militiamen camped in the vicinity of a cowpen or small farm in a meadow atop a steep hill in a bend of swampy Kettle Creek. It was surrounded by swamp, canebrakes, and thick woods. Boyd knew he was being pursued, but not how closely. His camp was established on the western side of Kettle Creek.
The Patriot militiamen numbered somewhat more than 300 men – a figure of 340 has been used in several histories. Col. Pickens was the overall commander, with John Dooly and Elijah Clarke as his subordinates. They had been pursuing the Loyalist militia between South Carolina and Georgia for several days; Col. Pickens wanted to end the threat to Augusta quickly.
Battle of Kettle Creek
Pickens men began movement about 10:00 am, when they heard the sound of Loyalist drums in their camp. Pickens sent Dooly and Clarke, leading columns of about 100 men each, through the woods and swamps to assault the enemy camp on the flanks. Pickens directed his own men – about 140 men – up a narrow path to attack the cowpen atop the hill in the center. The six hundred or so Loyalists held a strong position on the east side of Kettle Creek.
Battle of Kettle Creek, map from 1926 book
Boyd had posted pickets outside his camp, but they were lax and allowed the Carolinians to get close to their position. Despite Pickens's orders, the foremost Patriot militiamen fired at the sentries. The sounds of shooting alerted Boyd to his danger.
Boyd organized a hasty defensive line near his camp, then chose 200 men to advance toward the sound of the firing. Boyd's men reached a location northeast of the camp where some of the Loyalist militiamen had found a cow to butcher for a meal. Afterwards, they bivouacked in the open, using a crude breastwork of fallen trees and rail fencing for protection in case of an attack. Boyd led his men to the barricade, and ambushed the approaching Patriots. A hot firefight ensued, pinning down the small American center.
In the meantime, the flanking movements under Cols. Dooley and Clarke were held up, first by the terrain and then by Loyalist attacks. Neither side used any real formations or tactics, mostly using cover and firing at exposed targets. [Dooly would later write that only the hand of Providence saved him, Clarke, and Pickens, as they all exposed themselves on horseback during the fight at Kettle Creek.]
Still, Pickens's usual good luck had held. Many of the Loyalists, having come along only under threats and intimidation, had already deserted before the battle began. Three of Dooly's rifle men found themselves behind the lines. Seeing a British officer giving orders, the men fired on him and mortally wounded the enemy commander, Boyd. When Boyd fell, many of his Loyalist militiamen fell back towards their camp, then crossed the creek to reform. At this point both Dooly and Clarke's men successfully emerged from the swamp and charged the disorganized Loyalists. Despite the efforts of their second in command Captain William Spurgin, most of the Tories fled. After a battle lasting, at most, two or three hours, the Patriot militia was victorious.
Considering the size of the two forces, casualties on both sides were light. The Loyalists, in addition to the death of their commander Col. Boyd, had between 40 and 70 killed and initially 75 men captured. Leaving the battlefield, some of the Loyalists made their way back to North and South Carolina, while others were captured by Pickens's militiamen. Casualties among the Americans totaled seven dead and fifteen wounded.
Footnote #1: Altogether, about 150 Tories were captured after the battle. The remaining men made their way to Col. Campbell. He reported 270 men joined his force, and they were formed into two regiments, the North Carolina Royal Volunteers, and the South Carolina Royal Volunteers. However, by the end of the summer of 1779, both regiments had dissolved due to desertion.
Footnote #2: According to accounts of the battle, Col. Pickens found the dying Col. Boyd in the fight's aftermath – apparently the men were acquainted prior to the war. Boyd requested that Pickens return a broach to his wife, and tell her about the circumstances of his death. By all accounts, Pickens did so.
Footnote #3: Andrew Pickens served in a number of military actions in the remainder of the American Revolution, most notably at the battle of the Cowpens (January 17, 1781). He would later serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Fort Pickens in Alabama is named in his honor. He is the seven-times-great grandfather of former U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate John Edwards.
Footnote #4: The site of the Kettle Creek battle, which is located in Wilkes County, GA, is maintained by the Kettle Creek Battlefield Association, and Wilkes County. It has a number of monuments and markers commemorating the battle and the various participants.