Battle of Musgrove's Mill (18 August 1780)
On this march Sumter was joined by Col. James Williams, and also received instructions from Gen. Gates to cooperate with him in the contemplated attack on the British forces at Camden.
Williams preferred a return toward Ninety Six to a march down the Wateree, took that direction. Such of Sumter's force as desired it joined Williams. Among these were Steen and McJunkin.
Col. Williams, having separated from Sumter, turned his face toward the British post at Ninety Six. He was probably induced to take this course from several considerations. He resided but a short distance from that place, and his friends were suffering from the domination of the British Tories. Gen. McDowell had advanced with a considerable force into the northern portion of the state.
The Northern Army under Gates was advancing toward Camden. The recent spirited conflicts in which the command of Sumter had been engaged had rekindled the spirit of liberty and taught the militia that it was possible for them to conquer a foe superior to them in number and equipment.
Williams, therefore, crossed the Catawba and took post near Smith's Ford on Broad River. Gen. McDowell lay at the Cherokee Ford, a few miles above, on the same river. The latter detached a part of his command under Cols. Shelby and Clark to unite with Williams for the purpose of surprising a body of 500 or 600 Loyalists who were understood to have taken post at Musgrove's Mill, Enoree River, forty miles distant. This arrangement was completed Aug. 18. Just before sundown this combined force, consisting of about 700 horsemen, crossed at Smith's Ford. They kept through woods until after dark. They also turned off the route to avoid the army of Col. Ferguson, which lay in their way. Through the whole night they pressed forward, often at a gallop, and at dawn of day met a strong patrol party half a mile from the enemy's camp. With this a skirmish ensued, but it soon gave way and communicated the alarm to the main body. Just at this time a man residing in the community joined them and communicated the intelligence that the Tories had been reinforced by a body of 500 or 600 British troops under command of Col. Innis. To attack, under the circumstances, seemed imprudent; to escape, impossible. It was therefore determined to wear out the day as safely as possible and use the darkness of the ensuing night in effecting their retreat. A breastwork of old logs and brush was hastily constructed. Parties were thrown out to watch the movements of the enemy.
It was soon ascertained that the enemy were formed near the ford of the river with the intention of giving battle. A corresponding preparation took place among the Whigs. The command of Williams was placed in the centre. That of Shelby on the right and that of Clark on the left. At his own request Capt. Inman was sent forward with a party to skirmish with the enemy as they advanced. A flanking party of twenty‑four men under the direction of Josiah Culbertson was sent out from Shelby's command. Inman met the enemy at the moment they began to peep forward and gave them a hot reception. The word of command passed along the American line, "Reserve your fire until you can see the whites of their eyes!" Meanwhile, Inman's command gradually fell back from place to place until the enemy made a general charge under the impression that they were driving the main body before them. Inman passed the American line and the main body of the British and Tories were rushing forward in the utmost confusion within seventy yards of their foes. A stream of fire revealed the hidden battalions of liberty. The British sank down in great numbers, the survivors recoiled, rallied and again pressed forward, but the fire from the American line continued with little abatement for one hour to thin their ranks, while their own produced little effect.
Culbertson's party, under cover of trees, was pouring in a deadly fire upon the flank and rear. Innis and other leaders were shot down and the whole of the royal forces fell back in consternation. Capt. Inman immediately rallied a party and pursued the fugitives to the river, but this onset proved fatal to the gallant Inman. In this engagement the royal force exceeded that of the Americans by at least 300. The British lost sixty‑three killed and 160 wounded and prisoners. The American loss was four killed and nine wounded.
The Whigs were greatly exhilarated by the result of this conflict. They mounted their horses with the determination of being at Ninety Six that night. At this moment an express arrived from Gen. McDowell. Shelby received a letter from Gen. McDowell, inclosing one for himself from Gov. Caswell dated on the battleground where Gates's defeat occurred, giving an account of that disastrous engagement. McDowell advised Shelby and his companions to provide for their own safety. This intelligence led to a change of operations. It was necessary to avoid Ferguson's army, which lay between them and McDowell. And there was a strong probability that Ferguson would lose no time in pursuing.
They, therefore, turned their faces toward the mountains of North Carolina in order to make good their retreat and secure the results of their victory. Their march was continued the balance of the day, through the night and the next day without stopping to take any other refreshment than drinking from the brooks by the way, pulling green corn from the fields near their road and eating it raw. Ferguson pursued, but found the backwoods men too fleet to be overtaken. The writer remembers having heard the late Major John Alexander, who died in Lawrenceville, Ga., May, 1820, speak of this march. He stated that he was without food for nearly four days. When his engagements permitted and the opportunity offered he pulled some corn and ate it raw and found it delicious. Major Alexander's residence at the time was at the fork of Tyger River, in the Nazareth congregation, and the retreating army passed through this congregation and up the North Tyger. The panic which followed Gates's defeat induced McDowell's army to disperse, and the leaders of the heroes of Musgrove's Mill, having kept together for several days after the battle separated, each to obey his own impulses in rousing the spirits of his countrymen to resistance and in affording protection to their friends from the insults of a triumphant invader.