On this day in 1780, British Major James Wemyss, commanding a force of 140 horsemen, attempts to surprise 300 South Carolina militiamen under General Thomas Sumter at Fishdam Ford, South Carolina. Instead of capturing Sumter as planned, Wemyss, “the second most hated man in the British army,” was wounded in the arm and knee, and captured by Sumter.
Sumter and Wemyss were major figures in the bloody civil war that raged along the Santee River of South Carolina during the American War of Independence. British Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the man Carolinians most hated, for his brutal destruction of life and property, had burned Sumter’s plantation on the Santee in the early summer of 1780. Enraged, Sumter recruited a militia, which dubbed him the “Gamecock” for his willingness to fight, and began returning Tarleton’s terror tactics in kind.
James Wemyss found his way to the Carolinas after being commanded by British General Charles Cornwallis to find a way to defeat the cagey brigadier general of the South Carolina militia, Francis Marion, known as the “swamp fox.” Wemyss, the younger son of a British earl, was just as willing to burn homes and terrify civilians as his less noble counterparts.
Although Wemyss failed to capture Sumter on November 9, his fearsome compatriot Tarleton succeeded in wounding Sumter on November 20, forcing Sumter to give up his command. In his wake, the able Marion took the reigns of power in the Carolinas and was instrumental in driving the British out of the sister colonies to Virginia, where General George Washington would finish the job and the war less than a year later at Yorktown.
The guerilla war waged by Sumter, Marion, Tarleton and Wemyss served as partial inspiration for Mel Gibson’s film, The Patriot (2000).