The place where General Morgan established his camp the night of the 16th was near the intersection of the Mill Gap Road and the road from the present city of Spartanburg running northeast into North Carolina, and crossing the Broad River at Island Ford, Many roads of more recent construction now traverse this territory, but during the Revolutionary period they were few in number. The Mill Gap Road crossed the Broad at Cherokee Ford and ran northwestwardly through the present town of Gaffney, into the mountains far to the west. Its course followed generally the tops of ridges, thereby avoiding the crossing of creeks and rivers. The road from Spartanburg to North Carolina now runs through Chesnee, but in olden days it crossed the Mill Gap Road about 3 miles southeast of Chesnee. Morgan made camp in a wooded ravine having a stream of water running through it, which lay north of the Mill Gap Road, and about a thousand yards northwest of the cabin of Robert Scruggs, which was visited by Lossing in 1849.
The position selected for the action lay on both sides of the Mill Gap Road, just south of the camp. The ground is slightly undulating, and at the time was covered with scattered trees of red oak, hickory, and pine. Being used for the grazing of cattle, there was but little, if any, underbrush. Two very slight elevations top the ridge along which the Mill Gap Road runs, and these were selected as the lines of deployment for the American troops.
The main position was on the elevation just south of the ravine, in which camp was established. To its front for 300 yards there is a scarcely perceptible slope downward; beyond this the slope is
greater, dropping off into a shallow ravine 700 yards from the main position. To the rear of the main position, and just west of the camp site, is an elevation slightly higher than that of the main position. This ridge continues across the road in a south and southwest direction, but at a slightly less elevation. From either ridge the terrain between the two was visible under and through the trees. The ground offered no cover for either the attack or the defense, except such as was furnished by the trees. The flanks of both armies were exposed, as the terrain was favorable in all directions for the operation of mounted troops. The ravine in which Morgan camped and one on the opposite side of the road offered but little interference with the movement of foot or mounted troops.
Morgan's plan of battle was to use the Maryland Continentals and the Virginia Militia (of worth equal to the Continentals, as many had served in previous campaigns) in his main position on the summit of the southernmost ridge and astride the Mill Gap Road. Washington's dragoons to the number of 80, augmented by the 45 militia under McCall, were the main reserve, posted in rear of the northernmost ridge, where ground cover was sufficient to protect them from hostile observation and fire and sufficiently near "as to be able to charge the enemy, should they be broken." The militia were to form an interrupted line on the flanks in front, which position was to be held only temporarily, when they were to withdraw and reform on the flanks of the main position after reorganization had been effected and lend what assistance they could as an additional reserve.
At this time Howard's Maryland and Delaware Continentals consisted of 237 men. They were placed on the left of the line, astride the Mill Gap Road. To their right were Captain Beatie's and Major Triplett's companies of Virginia Militia, under the command of the latter, and totaling about 100 men. Captains Tate and Buchanan, with about 100 of the Augusta riflemen of Virginia, supported the right of the line. In the advanced position, which was to be abandoned early in the fight, were about 308 militia from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, under
Colonel Pickens. These troops were situated to guard the flanks. Major McDowell, of the North Carolina Volunteers, was posted on the right flank, 150 yards in front of Howard's line. Major Cunningham, of the Georgia Volunteers, was on the left flank, at the same distance in front of Howard's line. To the right of Major McDowell were posted the South Carolina Volunteers under Colonels Brannon and Thomas. To the left of Major Cunningham was posted the remainder of the South Carolina Militia, under Colonel Hays and Major Hammond. The latter commanded Major McCall's regiment, he being with Colonel Washington.
From Pickens's line of militia small parties of riflemen were sent 150 yards farther to the front to skirmish with the enemy. McDowell commanded those in the right sector of the skirmish line and Cunningham those in the left sector. Patrols covered the front and flanks to give warning of Tarleton's approach.
Tarleton broke camp at 3 o'clock in the morning, determined to engage the Americans before they could cross the Broad, or in case they made an early march and continued their withdrawal, to strike them when astride the river. The baggage and wagons were to remain in camp, under protection of a detachment from each corps, until daybreak. The advance guard consisted of three companies of light infantry, supported by the legion infantry. The main body comprised the Seventh Regiment, the two 3-pounders, and the First Battalion of the Seventy-first Infantry. The cavalry and mounted infantry brought up the rear. The march was slow, due to the ground being broken by creeks and ravines, and the necessity for careful reconnaissance on the front and flanks. Before dawn a screen of cavalry was placed on the front, soon after which contact was made with the American patrols, when Tarleton ordered two troops of dragoons to reinforce the advance guard and harass the rear of the enemy.
In due course of time the advance guard reported that the Americans were forming, and the native guides with Tarleton described their position as in an open woods, free from swamps, with the Broad parallel to their rear.
Tarleton viewed the enemy's situation as one vulnerable to attack, particularly in view of his superiority in cavalry, and the inability of a defeated force to escape beyond the Broad. Further, more, the supposed nearness of Cornwallis and the assumed superiority of his regulars over the large percentage of militia with Morgan made it seem apparent that success should be attended with no great loss to his command. His total strength, including the detachment left to guard the baggage, was about 1,000.
The dragoons in the advance guard drove in the hostile covering forces along the Mill Gap Road, thereby enabling Tarleton to proceed far enough to inspect the deployment of Morgan's army. It is probable that his estimate of the strength of the opposing forces was considerably less than the total of 1,920 mentioned later in his narrative. Even though he believed that he was opposed by about 500 Continentals, 120 cavalry, 1,000 militia, and 300 backwoodsmen, he probably ignored the two latter groups, and considered himself superior in quality to the American Continentals and cavalry, who made a force much smaller than his regulars.
Prior to deploying the infantry were directed to discard all surplus equipment and retain only their rifles and ammunition. The light infantry then filed to the right, into a position opposite to Morgan's militia, with their right flank extending as far as the left of the militia. The legion infantry were added to the left of the light infantry, and a 3-pounder placed in the line between the two commands. This force was instructed to advance within 300 yards of the enemy. When this position was reached, the Seventh Regiment formed upon the left of the legion infantry, and the other 3-pounder was given to the right division of the Seventh. A captain, with 50 dragoons, was placed on each flank of the line, to protect its flanks and threaten those of the enemy. The First Battalion of the Seventy-first Regiment formed 150 yards in rear of the left flank of the Seventh, and constituted, together with about 200 legion cavalry, the reserve.
The British deployment being completed at about 8 o'clock, Tarleton ordered his troops to attack. The whole line moved with
the greatest impetuosity, shouting as they advanced. The Americans responded with Indian war cries of equal intensity, and held their fire until the enemy closed to effective rifle range, when the front-line skirmishers under Cunningham and McDowell gave them a "heavy and galling fire, and retreated to the regiments intended for their support." Tarleton's infantry suffered but little from this fire and continued their approach to Pickens's line, which "kept up a fire by regiments, retreating agreeably to their orders." Still the British line suffered but little, and now it approached the Continentals and the Virginians under Howard. Here, according to Morgan, they received a "'well-directed and incessant fire." Tarleton says "'the fire on both sides was well supported, and produced much slaughter." The British advance was temporarily checked.
At this time Tarleton sent the troop of dragoons on the right of the line to harass that portion of the militia which had fallen back to the left of Pickens's line, and at the same time ordered forward his reserve. The First Battalion of the Seventy-first was directed to pass the left of the Seventh before delivering its fire. The reserve cavalry and the troop on the left of the line were ordered to incline to the left and form a line which would embrace the whole of the American right flank. When the battalion of the Seventy-first was in position, the entire British line moved forward. Tarleton now had about 750 infantry in line, supported by two guns, and was opposed by less than 450 infantry in Howard's line. Whether or not the militia, which had withdrawn to the two flanks of Howard's line, could be later assembled and used in the fight could not at this time be determined. Those who had withdrawn to the left rear of the main position were charged by the troop of dragoons from the right of Tarleton's line and were being cut down, when Washing, ton countercharged with his cavalry, supported by some infantry fire, and relieved the situation in that quarter.
It was evident to Howard that with the enemy reserve brought into action his right flank was exposed, and he ordered the flank company to change front to the right. In doing this some confusion
ensued, and first a part and then the whole of the company commenced a retreat. The officers along Howard's line seeing this, and supposing that orders had been given for a retreat, faced their men about and moved of. Morgan, at this time, was engaged in reforming the militia, and was surprised to observe the Maryland and Delaware Continentals, who had fought so valiantly at Camden, in apparent retreat. He quickly rode over to Howard to inquire into the situation and his apprehensions were quieted when Howard, pointing to the line, observed that "men were not beaten who retreated in that order." Morgan then ordered Howard to continue retiring his line until the rising ground to the rear was reached, and rode back to select the position on which the line was to halt and face about.
The halt and change of front was effected without mishap, and although this retreat resulted from misunderstanding, it was very fortunate, as Howard's units were thereby extricated from a position wherein they doubtless would have been defeated with heavy losses.
So certain were the British that victory was at hand that they pushed forward to close in on the retreating force with the bayonet, and an order was dispatched to the cavalry on the right to charge. Not more than 30 yards separated them from the Americans, when the latter unexpectedly halted and changed front, and again confronted them with a deadly volley, which stopped the British in their tracks and threw them into great confusion.
Further exertions to make the British infantry advance were useless. Nor could Tarleton's cavalry strike, for it was at the moment when they were prepared to charge the retreating line that Howard halted and faced his command about, and the panic which seized
the British infantry extended to the cavalry also, and a general flight ensued. Tarleton sent directions to his cavalry to form about 400 yards to the right of the enemy, whilst he endeavored to rally the infantry to protect the guns.
The British losses, as reported by General Morgan in a letter dated the 19th of January, were 10 officers and 100 noncommissioned officers and privates killed; 200 rank and file wounded; 502 noncommissioned officers and privates prisoners, independent of the wounded, and 29 commissioned officers prisoners. This totals approximately 841, and is somewhat in excess of the entire British infantry and artillery personnel in the battle. The losses in the legion cavalry were not heavy, and that night and the next day 200 of their scattered numbers rejoined Tarleton. The spoils of war
included 2 standards, 2 field pieces, 800 stand of arms, 100 dragoon horses, and 35 wagons. The baggage which had been left in camp was in a great measure destroyed by its guard before they fled.
Cornwallis's return of troops shows the following changes in the organizations under Tarleton's command:
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In addition to the foregoing, Tarleton had about 40 men of the Seventeenth Dragoons and a detachment of artillery to man the two 3-pounders. The American losses were inconsiderable, there not having been more than 12 killed and about 60 wounded.
Tarleton attributed his defeat to—