Wife of Patriot Militia General Thomas Sumter
General Thomas Sumter
Charles Willson Peale, Artist
Mary Cantey was born in 1723. Thomas Sumter was born August 14, 1734, in Louisa County, Virginia, the son of William and Patience Sumter. Educated in common schools, Thomas worked in his father’s gristmill, and after his father’s early death, cared for his mother’s sheep and plowed his neighbor’s fields.
It has been said that Thomas Sumter was a wild boy. He gambled, went to cockfights, and horse races. When the Indians started causing problems, he joined the Virginia militia and served as a sargeant during the Cherokee War of 1760-1761. He accompanied Lieutenant Henry Timberlake on an arduous peace mission to the Overhill Cherokee towns in Tennessee in 1761.
Sumter and Timberlake escorted three Cherokee chiefs to London in 1762 to meet King George III. Upon returning to the colonies in August 1762, Sumter landed in Charleston and spent that winter with the Cherokee. He was paid by the British ministry for information about Indian affairs along the frontier.
Returning briefly to Virginia, Sumter was imprisoned for an old debt. His friend and fellow soldier Joseph Martin arrived at the prison, and asked to spend the night with Sumter in jail. Martin gave Sumter 10 guineas and a tomahawk. Sumter used the money to buy his way out of jail in 1766.
He traveled to Eutaw Springs, South Carolina, where he opened a crossroads store, earned the respect from the community, and was made a justice of the peace.
In 1767, Sumter married widow Mary Cantey Jameson, who was eleven years his senior. They had one child, Thomas Sumter, Jr., born August 30, 1768. Together they became successful plantation owners. As he became more prosperous, Sumter built a larger store, a sawmill and a gristmill, and began to obtain more and more land.
Sumter in the Revolutionary War
Thomas Sumter became the leader of rebel partisan forces in the South Carolina Piedmont (the plateau between the coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains) during the American Revolution. In 1775, he raised a band of Patriot militia and served as its captain. In November, he and his troops took part in the Snow Campaign against loyalist militia (British supporters).
In February 1776, Sumter was elected lieutenant colonel of the Second Rifle Regiment of the South Carolina Militia, and participated in several battles in the early months of the war. He and his regiment were in Charleston on September 20, 1776, as part of a defensive force when the city was attacked.
By March 1777, they were in Savannah ready to prevent a threatened invasion of Georgia. Later that year, Sumter and the Second Rifle Regiment were commissioned into the Continental Army under Major General Robert Howe.
In September 1778, Sumter resigned his commission in the Continental Army and returned home.
In early 1780, British General Charles Cornwallis was sent to invade South Carolina and North Carolina. His mission was to defeat all American forces in the Carolinas and keep the two colonies within the British Empire. A key part of Cornwallis’ plan was to recruit soldiers from local Loyalists (British supporters).
Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton arrived in South Carolina as part of the British plan to restore authority over the southern colonies where they believed there was more support for the crown. Tarleton almost destroyed the American cavalry at Monck’s Corner, and by May 12, 1780, the city of Charleston was surrendered and with it almost the entire Continental army in South Carolina.
The 350 Continentals who were left retreated towards North Carolina and Tarleton followed. This took him close to Thomas Sumter’s home at that time. Tarleton sent an officer to capture Sumter, whose home during the Revolution was located on a bluff overlooking the Santee River Basin. The British burned his home, and he barely escaped with his life.
After hiding for a while in the swamps of the Santee, he made his way to the American headquarters at Salisbury, North Carolina. There he presented a plan to recruit men and form guerrilla bands in order to harass the British and their supply lines – to strike quickly and retreat. On June 15, 1780, Sumter was appointed Colonel; he then returned to South Carolina to carry on a partisan warfare against the British invaders.
Sumter often refused to participate in joint maneuvers with the Continental Army, and preferred to go off on his own. On July 30, 1780, Sumter was repelled when he attacked a loyalist stronghold at Rocky Mount on the Catawba River. On August 6, 1780, he defeated a British and Loyalist force at Hanging Rock. Sumter proved to be a rather stubborn and perhaps even a bit of an egotistical man.
General Cornwallis once commented that Sumter “fought like a gamecock” (a rooster bred for cockfighting), recognizing in him “the qualities of a great fighter, who though worsted, would renew the combat the instant he recovered from the blow.” Thereafter, Sumter was called the Carolina Gamecock. Cornwallis paid him the finest tribute when he described Sumter as his greatest plague.
General Cornwallis sent Banastre Tarleton to disrupt Sumter’s activities. On August 17, 1780, Sumter’s force was scattered in a surprise attack by Colonel Tarleton at Fishing Creek on the Wateree River, but Sumter managed to escape. Sumter soon began rebuilding his force and on October 6, 1780, he was promoted to brigadier general.
After the defeat of British Major Patrick Ferguson and the destruction or capture of his entire military force of 900 men at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, the sparsely settled Carolina Backcountry became increasingly under the control of the Patriots.
On November 9, 1780, Sumter was attacked by Major James Wymess at Fish Dam Ford on the Broad River, but this time Sumter was victorious. As news of the victory spread, his numbers swelled to over 1000 men.
Sumter Memorial Plaque
South Carolina Statehouse
Battle of Blackstock’s Farm
On November 18, 1780, Tarleton’s dragoons were bathing and watering their horses on the Broad River when some of Sumter’s raiders fired at them from the opposite bank. The British brought up a 3-pound field gun and easily scattered the partisans. Putting his men across the river in flat boats that night, he pressed Sumter hard the next day.
Fortunately for Sumter, a deserter revealed Tarleton’s plans and location. Although Sumter now had a thousand Backcountry militiamen, Tarleton had never been defeated. Sumter and his colonels decided the best course was to find a strong defensive position and wait for Tarleton to attack them. One of Sumter’s colonels suggested the nearby farm of William Blackstock, a homestead on the hills above the Tyger River.
The land had been cleared, providing fields of fire and room to maneuver, and the outbuildings – solid log structures – were not chinked and thus provided “narrow but convenient openings for men firing from behind cover.” Sumter placed some of his riflemen in the outbuildings, and stationed some units behind stout fences and others in the surrounding woods.
Tarleton arrived late in the fall afternoon and made a frontal attack against a numerically superior force, not waiting for his infantry and artillery to catch up. Realizing he was badly outnumbered and out positioned, Tarleton attempted to delay in order to wait for the rest of his troops and his artillery. But Sumter was well aware of his advantage and sent his men forward to initiate the battle.
Unfortunately, Sumter’s men were charged by British bayonets before they could reload. But Patriot sharpshooters, safely ensconced in the outbuildings, effectively reduced the force before they could inflict much damage. Meanwhile, other partisans worked their way around their right flank and attacked Tarleton’s dragoons who were in their saddles but only watching the action.
Realizing that the battle was going against him, Tarleton desperately ordered an uphill cavalry charge against riflemen firing from cover. So many dragoons were knocked from their horses that “the road to the ford was blocked by the bodies of men and fallen chargers, the wounded, still targets, struggling back over their stricken comrades and kicking, screaming horses.” The British line broke and fell into retreat.
General Sumter rode forward to watch the British withdrawal when a British unit covering the retreat fired at him. Sumter was wounded in six places by buckshot but managed to ride back to the command post. He was tended by a surgeon at the Blackstock house and then carried off to the mountains on a bull’s hide attached to poles and slung between two horses, to recover. He would be out of action for the next two months.
The British had lost 92 killed and 75 wounded. Tarleton lied in his battle report to Cornwallis, claiming that only 51 of his men were killed or wounded, and that he had broken and dispersed the Americans. Of course, he made much of Sumter’s wounding. American casualties were 3 killed, 4 wounded, and 50 captured.
In fact, Tarleton, one of the most hated and feared commanders in the Backcountry, had been defeated for the first time, and his British regulars had been bested by militia – although from behind cover and not in the open field.
In January 1781, Tarleton’s forces were virtually destroyed by American Brigadier General Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens. Tarleton however managed to flee the battlefield with perhaps 250 men.
When Sumter returned to battle in February 1781, he lost more battles than he won. His attacks were repelled by the British at Fort Granby, Thomson’s Plantation and Fort Watson. His lone success during February was at Manigault’s Ferry.
During the summer of 1781, Sumter continued to harass the British supply lines around Charleston, and was still unwilling to coordinate his efforts with the Continental Army. His influence was severely sapped when he led a disastrous frontal attack on the British at Quinby Bridge. Sumter disbanded his militia and retired.
Sumter’s Political Career
After the War, Sumter resigned his commission as brigadier general and returned home to restore his plantation. The British had not burned his house near Nelson’s Ferry, but everything had been left in ruin. His service to his community, state and country continued from 1782 to December 16, 1810 when he retired from public life.
After moving to Stateburg from his former home on the Santee, Sumter was elected to the State General Assembly which met in Charleston in 1785. He was re-elected and was a member of the Assembly in 1788 when the Proposed Constitutional Convention was received. He was again a member of the Legislature which met in 1789, and thereafter refused other nominations.
Sumter was elected to the first United States Congress which met in New York in 1789. He was elected to the Second Congress but suffered his only defeat in the election of 1793. He remained out of politics for three years, but in 1796 he was elected as a member of the first Congress held in Washington, DC.
In December 1801, the General Assembly of South Carolina elected Congressman Sumter to fill Charles Pinkney’s unexpired term as U.S. Senator and took his seat on December 19, 1802. Sumter served in the Senate until his retirement.
On December 16, 1810, at the age of 76, Thomas Sumter retired to South Mount Plantation, his home near Stateburg, South Carolina.
Mary Jameson Sumter died at the age of ninety-four on October 24, 1817.
Mary Jameson Sumter Grave
Thomas Sumter Memorial Park
Sumter, South Carolina
Thomas Sumter died June 1, 1832, at South Mount Plantation at the age of 98. At the time of his death, he was the oldest surviving general officer of the American Revolution.
The town of Sumter and Sumter County were named for General Thomas Sumter. The town of Sumter is even dubbed the Gamecock City after his nickname, the Carolina Gamecock, which became one of several traditional nicknames for a native of South Carolina. The University of South Carolina’s official nickname is the Fighting Gamecocks, though since 1903 the teams have been simply known as the Gamecocks.
In addition, Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor was named for General Sumter after the War of 1812. The fort is best known as the site upon which the shots initiating the American Civil War were fired, at the Battle of Fort Sumter.
Thomas Sumter was one of the models for Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, in the 2000 movie, The Patriot (along with Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens, also from South Carolina).