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THE 1780 PRESBYTERIAN REBELLION AND THE BATTLE OF HUCK'S DEFEAT
Sam Thomas, Curator of History, Culture & Heritage Commission of York County
Coming predominantly from former homes in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, the first permanent European settlers began arriving in the area west of the Catawba River during the 1750s. These settlers were overwhelmingly Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who traveled here by way of the"Great Wagon Road." Allied by both blood and religious affiliations, the Scotch-Irish pioneers moved through the Shenandoah Valley and the present-day towns of Winchester, Lexington, and Roanoke in Virginia, and eventually pushed south to Salisbury, North Carolina. From here they drifted southward along the Catawba into South Carolina…
In the 1750s, the first settlers into the South Carolina Backcountry began arriving in the region and drifted into the eastern part of York County from Mecklenburg, Lancaster and Chester counties. As there were no villages established in the region until after the war, the first residents settled in loose, communal or clannish, family-related groups called"clachans," much as they had originally done in Ulster, and later in Pennsylvania and Virginia. These clachans developed around the Presbyterian Kirks, or meetinghouses, and became the forerunners of the congregations. 8 This congregation generally encompassed a 5 to 10 mile radius centered on the meetinghouse as this was deemed the distance one could travel for service and back home in the same day. Within this congregation lived anywhere from 20 to 500 families. 9 Charles Woodmason, an Anglican itinerant minister was sent into the Backcountry as a missionary in the 1760s and stated that the congregation at Waxhaw was"most surprisingly thick settled beyond any Spot in England . . . Seldom less than 9, 10, 1200 People assemble of a Sunday." 10 With these relatively compact populations centered around the meetinghouses, the Kirks quickly became religious and social centers in the Backcountry Scotch-Irish stronghold…
During the early years of settlement, the Charleston officials did not interfere with the Scotch-Irish settling in the"Back Parts" as they termed it. Just as in Pennsylvania, the Colonial officials sought to use the Scotch-Irish as a buffer to the natives. However, as the number of Scotch-Irish emigrants in the region rapidly grew, the attitudes of the Charleston officials began to change. Here, in the Carolina Piedmont, the Scotch-Irish enjoyed their independence. Being so far from the colonial capital in Charleston, the Presbyterians were allowed to practice their faith and way of living without worry of interference from the British Crown or Charleston officials.
As they were the first settlers on the frontier, and for purposes of self-defense, the Scotch-Irish began military drilling as soon as they entered the region. Finding themselves sandwiched in between unfriendly natives to the west, primarily in the form of the Cherokee, Shawnee and Creek, and English officials in Charleston who tended to turn their backs on the residents of the backcountry whom they considered backward and uncivilized, little more than savages themselves, the early settlers frequently found themselves the targets of Indian raids. As a result, the militia system in the backcountry was born of necessity.
In a region so often ignored, the local militia became a sort of police force, patrolling the area for possible Indian or slave troubles, and in controlling the seemingly numerous outlaw bands which roamed the region. 18 Militia units, or"Beat Companies" were formed enrolling every able bodied man on the frontier. Although the militia system gave some limited military training to the men of the Backcountry, it never developed enough to enable it to wage an all-out war. The one advantage, however, which the militia systems brought to the era was their social organization, and this organizational base contributed to the state's ability to fight for the next 100 years. As the American Revolution in the South approached, militia service became instrumental in turning the tide of war against the British.
Most of the Scotch-Irish, whether through direct dealings or by way of family traditions, continued to harbor great resentments against the Crown even after their settlement, and this in turn brought to the Backcountry a ready-made group of"born rebels," as one British officer called them.
In the Backcountry, due to their isolation from the coast, past resentments could be put aside - at least temporarily. When war arrived after 1776, at first the Scotch-Irish were rather lukewarm toward the idea of independence from Great Britain. Here they were content to remain neutral so long as they were left alone. The conflict as most of the Scotch-Irish saw it was between the British Crown and the Charleston aristocrats, whom they resented as much as the British officials and so it did not involve them. But the problems between the Backcountry and the Crown finally boiled to the surface in 1780 as"The Presbyterian Rebellion." In 1778 an unknown Hessian officer recorded his observations on the war."Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American Rebellion: it is nothing more or less than a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian Rebellion." 19 George Washington also remarked on the contribution to the war effort with a tribute to the Scotch-Irish from his headquarters at Valley Forge when he declared,"If defeated everywhere else, I will make my last stand for liberty among the Scotch-Irish . . ." 20 It is this Backcountry Rebellion which is so closely identified with the battles of Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Hanging Rock and Huck's Defeat.
By the time of the Revolution, the congregations were referred to collectively as"the Irish settlements" by contemporary writers. When writing their memoirs, many of the rebel or Whig leaders constantly referred to recruiting in the Irish settlements and calling men out of the congregations. It was in the Irish settlements and Presbyterian congregations that anti-British sentiment was the strongest. Nearly all of the men who fought at Kings Mountain were drawn from the Presbyterian settlements west of the Catawba. As the late Chalmers Davidson of Davidson College once wrote,"The seeds of resistance to British authority were sown in the Presbyterian Churches that made captains and colonels out of deacons and elders." 21
At the forefront of this anti-British attitude were the Presbyterian ministers. One Presbyterian minister sent the men of his congregation out to chase after Patrick Ferguson with the words,". . . go forth and wield the Sword of the Lord and of our Gideons." 22 William Martin, Presbyterian minister in the Fishing Creek area of Chester County, was arrested by the British in 1780 and charged with"preaching rebellion from the pulpit." 23 Once again our good friend Woodmason offers some insights into the teachings of the Presbyterian ministers."Not less than 20 Itinerant Presbyterian . . . Preachers are maintain'd by the Synod of Pennsylvania . . . to traverse this Country Poisoning the Minds of the People - Instilling Democratical and Common Wealth Principles into their Minds - Embittering them against the very Name of Bishops, and all Episcopal Government and laying deep their fatal Republican Notions and Principles - Especially - That they owe no Subjection to Great Britain - That they are a free People." 24 Because of their strong feelings against the Crown, strengthened by what has been called the"Presbyterian Ethic," the Scotch-Irish settlements and their meetinghouses, as well as the homes of their ministers and leaders became rallying points for those of like sentiments, while at the same time gathering the wrath of the British and their Tory allies. 25 As a result, many of the Scotch-Irish settlements became targets of Tory raids and destruction during the course of the war. Patrick Ferguson had made it known that upon leaving Kings Mountain, he intended to"spend one night in Bethel Church, leave it in ashes by day-light . . . and be on the east side of the Catawba before nightfall." 26
Banastre Tarleton, in his memoirs of the campaigns in the South in 1780 and 1781, makes mention of a"short expedition [by Colonel Lord Rawdon in June 1780] into a settlement of Irish, situated in the Waxhaws." When Rawdon left the settlement the church had been burned because,"All Presbyterian churches are shops of sedition," as he put it. 27 Tarleton further made reference to the Scotch-Irish when he wrote,". . . the Irish were the most averse of all other settlers to the British government in America." 28 A British Lieutenant captured after Kings Mountain and marched into North Carolina as a prisoner also made comment concerning the outlandish beliefs of the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians."Here we heard a Presbyterian sermon, truly adapted to their principles and the times; or rather, stuffed as full of Republicanism as their camp is of horse thieves."
One noted English historian of the 19th century later remarked that,"Throughout the revolted colonies . . . the foremost, the most irreconcilable, the most determined in pushing the quarrel to the last extremity, were the Scotch-Irish . . ." Presbyterians. 30 Even George Bancroft, the great religious historian of the late 19th century once claimed,". . . the first voice publicly raised in America to dissolve the connection with Great Britain came, not from the Puritans of New England, nor the Dutch of New York, nor the planters of Virginia, but from the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians." 31 British Colonel George Turnbull made reference to the Scotch-Irish of York, Chester and Lancaster Counties in a June 1780 report to Lord Cornwallis when he wrote,"[they] keep the candle of rebellion still burning in the backcountry." 32
The events which pushed the people of the Backcountry into vocal opposition to Royal authority were twofold and came in 1780. First, the proclamation by Sir Henry Clinton that every male resident of the colony would be required to fulfill his duty to the Crown as an English citizen. This meant they would be compelled to serve as loyalists troops. This was something the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians had no intention of doing.
The second event occurred in the early summer of 1780 with a series of"invasions" into the region; first by Banastre Tarleton and his"Green Dragoons" (or as they were more often referred to throughout the Backcountry, the"Bloody Scout"), and subsequently by Lord Cornwallis on two separate occasions.
Both of these events were preceded by the British occupation of Charleston in May 1780. With British control of Charleston, Great Britain seemed poised to regain all of the province of South Carolina and complete another step in their ultimate goal of victory in the South.
British strategy in the South hinged on making use of local troops in recovering the southern colonies, beginning with Georgia. After securing their southern neighbor, the British would advance northward into South Carolina and beyond, eventually linking up with British troops in New York. With this in mind, British Lord Cornwallis began moving into the interior of South Carolina in the late Spring of 1780, establishing his headquarters at Camden. From here he set about creating a number of forward outposts, consolidating his forces, recruiting loyalists in the region, and trying to quell the rising unrest in the Backcountry. Being unsuccessful in his venture of raising large numbers of loyalists in the area, Cornwallis was forced to depend more on his regular loyalist troops from Pennsylvania and New York.
In July, 1780, with the double goal of trying to recruit more loyalist supporters in the region of York and Chester Counties, and punishing those who had declared for the rebel cause, Matthew Floyd dispatched part of his loyalist force from the British post at Rocky Mount, under the command of Captain Christian Huck, to ferret out rebels where ever they could be found and made to pay. Huck had been a prominent lawyer in Philadelphia prior to the war and journeyed south with Cornwallis and Tarleton. Huck seemed to display an intense hatred for the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and in the Backcountry he found a great opportunity for carrying on his type of war. In the summer of 1780 he found himself commanding a mixed force of British Dragoons and Tory militia.
The capture or destruction of three prominent individuals and their followers were quickly identified as targets for Huck's force - William"Billy" Hill, John McClure and William Bratton. In early July, 1780, Huck and his band arrived at Hill's Iron Works in eastern York County. For some time, Hill had been in the habit of supplying iron shot for the rebel forces in the region, and Huck was determined to destroy the works and capture Hill in the process. Easily brushing aside the rebel guard at the works, but finding much to his disappointment that Hill was not at home, Huck proceeded to burn the iron works and Hill's home to the ground. With part of the mission complete, the loyalists moved farther south in search of the elusive rebels, establishing their headquarters at White's Mill in southern York County.
At the same time British forces were moving through York County west of the Catawba River, Thomas Sumter had established the main rebel camp east of the Catawba in northern Lancaster County on Clem's Branch. Being informed that Huck was at White's Mill, William Bratton and John McClure with their men set out from the rebel encampment to destroy the notorious Tory. Along the way Bratton and McClure were joined by others; Edward Lacey, William Hill, John Moffett, Andrew Love, Samuel Watson, James Moore, John Chambers, John Mills, Thomas Neal, James Mitchell, John Nixon, James Wallace and Richard Winn, along with their men. No other battle fought in the Carolina Backcountry, including Kings Mountain and Cowpens, would bring together such a concentration of local rebel leaders.
The numbers involved on both sides are extremely difficult to pin down due to the many different accounts and the fact that the rebel forces seem to have converged on Huck from different directions. For the rebels, accounts state that the numbers taking part in the attack range from 75 to 800. For the most part we are able to come up with at least four major rebel groups involved in the attack on Huck; Bratton & McClure, Hill & Neal, Lacey, and Moffett. Using first and second hand accounts from these major groups as a basis for determining numbers, we come up with a rebel force numbering in the neighborhood of 500 men.
We face the same problem in trying to pinpoint the number of Tory forces. While both Hill and Lacey set the Tory strength at 500, Tarleton lists Huck's force at about 110 men and officers. 33 The British estimate is a good starting point as these were the official numbers in Huck's force, but did not include local militia. In traversing the countryside up and down Fishing Creek however, Huck would probably have picked up a few converts. The figure of 120 to 150 would seem to be more in line with the differing accounts.
From White's Mill, Huck continued southward into present-day Chester County where he proceeded to burn the home and study of the Rev. John Simpson, minister of Fishing Creek Presbyterian Church; and the home of John McClure. After a stay in Chester County attempting to locate the rebels, Huck pushed northward to the home of William Bratton. Finding no rebels in arms there, he continued on up the road to the home of James Wiliamson where the main part of the British force encamped for the night on July 11.
Upon entering the Rocky Creek settlement in Chester County, the rebel forces learned that Huck was no longer at White's Mill, but instead was moving northwestward back into York County. Pushing on, the rebels arrived at the Williamson home before daylight on the 12th and made plans for a dawn attack. Dividing their force in two, the rebels placed one group to the north of the house while the other circled around to the east. At daybreak, as the British were just climbing out of their bedrolls, the attack began. Surprised by the suddenness of the attack, the British were thrown into chaos. Twice, the British tried unsuccessfully to mount a counterattack. Dashing from the Williamson house, Huck swung up onto his horse and waving his sword attempted to rally his force to meet the rebel threat. Thomas Carroll, sighting Huck, took aim and shot the Tory leader in the head. The British now lost what organized resistance they had and the fight became a running battle back to the south toward the Bratton house where some of the last fighting took place.
The battle lasted a little over an hour and cost the British 25 to 50 killed, several times that number wounded, and 29 captured. 34 As was custom for both sides during the war in the Backcountry, mercy was not freely given upon successful completion of a battle. Several of those captured were later hung. The only rebel casualty reported was a man by the name of Campbell. 35 On July 15, Lord Cornwallis reported to his superior, Lord Clinton,"the Captain is killed, and only twelve of the legion and as many of the militia escaped." 36
The battle of Huck's Defeat was not a major affair in military history, but for the rebellion in the Carolina Backcountry it marked a turning point in public opinion. William Hill, in his memoirs, commented on the far ranging magnitude of the victory;"It had the tendency to inspire the Americans with courage & fortitude & to teach them that the enemy was not invincible." 37 Edward Lacey also commented:"The entire overthrow of Huck's army was the first repulse the British arms had met with in South Carolina, after she was by many considered a subdued province, and proved that the British bayonet was not invincible." 38 The morale of the rebels was greatly enhanced, for this was the first success by the loosely-knit rebels over British forces in the South since the first British attack on Charleston in 1776 and the first check to British advances since the fall of Charleston six weeks earlier. The defeat of Huck brought many new recruits into the rebel camps throughout the region, and at the same time, forced most Tories to either flee or remain quiet. The counties of York and Chester were cleared of any open show of British support. At no other time during the course of the war would another Tory leader attempt to quell this hotbed of rebel activity. Even Patrick Ferguson stayed west of the Broad River on his northward march into North Carolina, only to turn back south and toward destruction as soon as he set foot in York County.
Although the battle of Huck's Defeat involved fewer numbers than the battles of Kings Mountain and Cowpens, which have both overshadowed the former, the destruction of Huck and his force on that early morning of July 12, 1780 set into motion a series of events which would lead to Kings Mountain in October, Cowpens in January, 1781, and finally to Yorktown in October of that same year. The period from summer 1780 to winter 1781 proved to be a pivotal six months for the British in their overall war strategy. With the reception he received in the Backcountry, Lord Cornwallis was persuaded to look more northward for salvation instead of this"nest of Presbyterian hornets" in which he found himself.
In the end it was the men of Backcountry, our ancestors, who proved to be the turning force in the fight for independence and the creation of the United States. We can take great pride in saying that the war for independence, fought without success in the North for over four years, was won in just six months of fighting between the Catawba and the Broad rivers of South Carolina. And if it had not been for the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians we might all be speaking the"Queen's English" today.
1 Gaius Jackson Slosser, ed., They Seek a Country: The American Presbyterians (NY: The Macmillan Company, 1955) 6-7.
2 Slosser, Seek a Country, 8.
3 Slosser, Seek a Country, 8.
4 Slosser, Seek a Country, 66; John Solomon Otto, The Southern Frontiers, 1607-1860 (NY: Greenwood Press, 1989) 65.
5 Prior to the American Revolution, of the 34 earliest churches founded in an 18 county region of the Carolina Piedmont stretching from Rowan County, North Carolina to Fairfield County, South Carolina, 31 of them were Presbyterian.
6 Arnold Shankman, et al, York County, South Carolina; Its People and Its Heritage (Norfolk, VA: The Donning Company, 1983), 36.
7 Evening Herald, 30 October 1931.
8 Otto, Southern Frontiers, 55-56.
9 Slosser, Seek a Country, 68.
18 This vigilante type of justice system was evidenced by the"Regulator Movement" of the South Carolina Backcountry from the mid 1760s to early 1770s, and centered around York, Chester and Lancaster Counties. For more information on the Regulator Movement in South Carolina see Richard Maxwell Brown's The South Carolina Regulators.
19 Ronnie Hanna, Land of the Free (Lurgan, Co. Armagh, N. Ireland: Ulster Society Publications Limited, 1992) 1.
20 Hanna, Land of Free, 82.
21 Chalmers Davidson,"The Colonial Scotch-Irish of the Carolina Piedmont," typewritten, unpublished manuscript, date unknown.
22 The Rev. Samuel Doak of the Watauga Settlement in what is now northeastern Tennessee (then northwestern North Carolina), October 1780.
23 George Howe, History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina (Columbia, SC: Duffie & Chapman, 1870) 500-501.
24 Woodmason, Carolina Backcountry, 240-241.
25 The Presbyterian Ethic, explained by David Caldwell in 1775 stated,". . . God would not produce a timely miracle just to rescue people from their bondage. Instead the Creator had long ago implanted into man's nature a capacity for civic responsibility. God had taught men to consider themselves His stewards, had given them talents and opportunities, and expected them to make the most of those endowments;" Robert M. Calhoon, Religion and the American Revolution in North Carolina (Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1976) 9.
26 R.A. Webb, History of the Presbyterian Church of Bethel (Privately Printed: Bethel Presbyterian Church, 1938) 13.
27 Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Volume One: 1607-1861 (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1963) 92; Howe, Presbyterian Church in South Carolina, 483.
28 Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (NY: Arne Press, 1968) 86.
29 From the diary of Lieutenant Anthony Allaire, of Ferguson's Corps; Lyman C. Draper, King's Mountain and its Heroes (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1967) 512.
30 Thompson, Presbyterians in South, Vol. 1, 88.
31 Thompson, Presbyterians in South, Vol. 1, 90.
32 Tarleton, Campaigns in the South.
33 Tarleton, Campaigns in the South, 93, 121; See also, Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South (NY: Paragon House Publishers, 1987) 83.
34 Lumpkin, Savannah to Yorktown, 83.
35 Battle of Huck's Defeat (Yorkville, SC: Tidings From The Craft, 1895) 6.
36 Tarleton, Campaigns in the Southern Provinces, 121.
37 A.S. Salley, Jr., Col. William Hill's Memoirs of the Revolution (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1921) 10.
38 M.A. Moore, Sr., The Life of Gen. Edward Lacey (Spartanburg SC: Douglas, Evins & Co., 1859) 11.