The Fighting Gamecock: Thomas Sumter

Thomas Sumter in his encounters with the Indian na­tions enters the pages of recorded history. He had prob­ably been present at the fall of Fort Duquesne and in the campaign across the Ohio River and had learned some­thing of the red man during this early service. In any case, he was chosen to accompany Lieutenant Henry Timberlake to treat with the Over Hill Cherokees after they sought peace rather than face, from Byrd’s troops, more of what they had just received at the hands of Colonel James Grant and his mixed force of regulars and South Carolina militia. The embassy was a great adven­ture for the young Virginian as he suffered the hardships of the wilderness, hunted to survive, swam rivers, visited Echota and other Cherokee towns and competed with the braves in their own games and contests. Finally, with a peace concluded, several of the Cherokee chiefs accom­panied their diplomatic visitors to Williamsburg. There the Indians asked that their new white friends come with them as companions and interpreters on a voyage to Eng­land, for an interview between Chiefs Ostenaco, Conne Shote and Wooc and “the King their father.” Lieutenant Governor Fauquier agreed, and Thomas Sumter was soon on his way to England.

The combined party arrived at Plymouth on June 16, 1762. and continued in England (where they made a sensation) for over three months. Twice they met with the youthful George HI. The principal interpreter attached to the expedition had died, but Sumter (with only a little stuttering) facilitated a polite conversation of prince and heathen potentates. The English monarch was pleased, as were his aboriginal subjects. The entire party of North Americans was lionized throughout the town, and Sumter acquired invaluable experience of the world. On his re­turn to the colonies October 28, 1762. the Virginia ser­geant escorted his Indian charges to their homes, captured a French spy, made a full report to Governor Thomas Boone and his Council and only then returned to Preddy’s Creek. There he was harassed and abused over old debts contracted before his peace mission to the Cherokees. He was imprisoned but managed to escape with the help of old comrades. Under these circumstances Thomas Sumter migrated to South Carolina, where he had seen open land that he liked, and where 700 pounds from Lord Egremont and a grateful sovereign awaited his arrival.

In his early South Carolina years Thomas Sumter pur­chased land near Eutaw Springs, opened a store, ran a ferry, traded and married into the local gentry. He op­erated Mary Sumter’s plantation, his own at St. John’s, a sawmill, a grist mill and a new and larger store on Great Savannah. There is also some evidence that he had a part in the Regulator movement which demanded rep­resentation for the Up Country in the South Carolina Commons House Assembly. In these years he also began to resent ‘‘usurped power, and unconstitutional abuses of power” by the representatives of his erstwhile patron, George III. In 1773 Sumter was appointed Justice of the Peace and served on the local Grand Jury for the Camden District. In 1774 speculation and theft by a clerk in his employ brought him close to bankruptcy and another relocation, but his creditors persuaded him to stay where he was established. And his neighbors, also troubled by economic circumstances, sent him as their representative in the First Provincial Congress, which met in Charleston January 11, 1775.

For the District Eastward of Wateree River he was reelected to the Second Provincial Congress (1775-1776) and then elected to the First (1776). Second (1776-1778) and Third (1779-1780) General Assemblies. In these leg­islative contexts he said little, but soon earned the respect of the state’s leading men. who entrusted him with major military responsibilities. In these martial offices he spoke eloquently in the language which he best understood—that of deeds and actions. First Sumter helped to enforce the Articles of Continental Association in a region where many “disaffected” persons resided. As elected captain of the local militia, he functioned as adjutant general to Colonel Richard Richardson in the December. 1775 Snow Campaign against Loyalists who had organized a force in the Up Country. In February of 1776 he was appointed lieutenant colonel of the Second South Caro­lina regiment of riflemen—later the Sixth Regiment of the Continental Line. Sumter’s command fought at Fort Moultrie (June 28. 1776). in the Cherokee uprising (July- October, 1776) and in various Georgia campaigns (1777- 1778). But as their colonel he grew restive under the strain of indecisive conflicts, long and fruitless marches, and confusion in his business affairs brought on by long absence from home. The war in the South had become a relatively placid business. Therefore. Sumter resigned his commission as of September 19, 1778, and returned to the High Hills of the Santee.

Thomas Sumter was surprised when Charleston was surrendered to Clinton’s besieging host by General Ben­jamin Lincoln. But he was not about to surrender himself. Neither did he find the prospect of guerilla warfare, with everything at stake, in any way tedious or uninteresting. Therefore, when Tarleton’s patrols approached his home he put back on his uniform, fled to North Carolina, and began to raise men among the frontier folk and old sol­diers whose homes were being burned and property stolen along with his own. These men elected him their general and on October 6, 1780, his commission as brigadier-in­-command was made official. But by that time he was already in the field with a price of 500 guineas on his head. Sumter smote the King’s men at Hanging Rock, Fishdam Ford, and Blackstock’s Hill, where he was se­verely wounded. At Fishing Creek he was caught un­prepared, but escaped into the wilderness with most of his force. Soon his regiments were once more up to strength and deployed to ambush supply and relief col­umns. to attack isolated forts, discourage Tory recruiting and scout the enemy for General Nathanael Greene’s regulars. Eventually Sumter settled much of his brigade on the South Carolina establishment, promising to pay them for ten-month terms with slaves and plunder con­fiscated from obdurate Loyalists. Yet in order to have the effect he intended to achieve, he kept his command separate from other American units, even after the British abandoned all of their rural outposts and retired within the defenses of Charleston. Governor Rutledge called for the election of a new legislature and Sumter was chosen for a place in it. After this election and the dismounting of most of the militia, in February of 1782 Sumter re­signed once more, this time ending his military career. As a soldier the “‘Gamecock” fought always for victory, no matter the danger or the cost in blood. Yet he asked no more of his men than he demanded of himself. And though proud and sensitive concerning his achievements under arms and often caught up in disputes with Rut­ledge, Greene or Francis Marion, he was a completely heroic figure for those who fought with him. The British in offering a reward to his killer implied their awareness of who it was that prevented the subjugation of the South. As a partisan leader he defines much of the meaning of the Revolution for his section of the country. Rightfully, Light Horse Harry Lee compared him to Homer’s Ajax.

Thomas Sumter sat as senator for the District Eastward of Wateree River in the Jacksonboro Assembly which restored regular state government. In the Fifth General Assembly (1783-1784) he returned to his accustomed place in the House. These sessions of the legislature vindicated Sumter’s policy in offering slaves and booty as salary. They authorized Sumter to settle accounts with his own men, and provided him with the means he needed to close the books. Moreover, they forbade state courts from entertaining suits for recovery of property applied to the course of these obligations made under “Sumter’s Law.” Finally, they voted the high-spirited little general a gold medal to honor his record in the field—thus rein­forcing the commendation he had earlier received (1781) from the Continental Congress. Sumter continued to hold his place in the South Carolina legislature until 1790, serving in the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth General Assemblies. He declined an appointment to the Congress but did assist in writing the 1790 state constitution—a process which strengthened the representation of the Up Country in the government and moved the capital to Columbia. At home, he bred and raced horses, experi­mented in scientific agriculture (cotton and tobacco), re­opened his store and founded a town. He bought and sold thousands of acres, sat on the vestry of the local Episcopal parish, and promoted a Baptist academy. With the appearance of a movement to replace the Articles of Confederation with a new and firmer bond of Union he was drawn back to full-time public service and into a larger political arena.

In the South Carolina ratification convention held in Charleston in May of 1788, Sumter moved that South Carolina postpone its decision until Virginia had made its choice in October. After hot debate the motion failed, one hundred and thirty-five to eighty-nine. But South Carolina’s Federalists wanted no simple victory over the opponents of the Constitution made in Philadelphia. In­stead. they hoped for at least a tentative consensus in their own community. To specify that they understood the misgivings of Thomas Sumter and his friends re­garding their fears for the South, the gentry of the Low Country added to the instrument of ratification, in inter­pretation of their act, a declaration that “no section or paragraph of the said Constitution warrants a construction that the states do not retain every power, not expressly relinquished by them and vested in the General Govern­ment of the Union.”

At the insistence of his old comrades-in-arms who feared what the new government might mean for their lives. Thomas Sumter agreed to be a candidate for the First Congress of the United States. He was easily elected; and once the House of Representatives was or­ganized. Sumter was quick to insist that his colleagues move rapidly to adopt a Bill of Rights in order to relieve those anxieties which had brought him to sit in their midst. His point in this impressive address was that con­fidence in the new government might depend upon their attention to changes in the Constitution requested by the people of the states in the ratification conventions. Sum­ter resisted Hamilton’s economic plan and opposed an expansive system of Federal courts and broad Supreme Court jurisdiction; and he was hostile to plans for a large standing army.

Sumter was returned to the Second Congress (1791- 1793). but was defeated as a result of calumny at the end of that term. Returning home to South Carolina, he re­organized his business affairs and then, for the first and only time in his long career, conducted a personal cam­paign to recover the legislative office he had lost and in the process to restore his reputation. His 1797 effort was successful, and he continued as Representative from the Camden District until December, 1801, when he was chosen by the legislature to be United States Senator from South Carolina. Sumter did not retire from the Con­gress until December 16, 1810, when he resigned from his seat in the Senate. In these final years of public service he saw the triumph of his political principles in the election of Thomas Jefferson and the exoneration from abusive charges which his honor required. Sumter’s South Carolina critics had accused him of making a profit in indents from his foreknowledge of the treasury system and of taking advantage of the ignorance of his fellow veterans. Actually, he had joined Madison in insisting that the redemption of debt go to the original holders of government paper. Sumter was so far from taking ad­vantage of his situation that he opposed even a modest raise in salary for the Congress. Economy was the motif in most of his speeches—economy and restriction of the Federal power.

Sumter voted to repeal the Alien and Sedition Acts, voted against government funds for internal improvement (though he supported the Santee Canal as a private ven­ture) and voted in support of the articles of impeachment brought against Federalist judges who had exceeded their authority. He supported the claims of veterans and of the widows of veterans, but stood against the tariff and the excise on salt. Predictably, he was outraged by antislav­ery petitions which invited legislation forbidden in the Constitution. In every sense he represented the yeomen and planters of Up Country South Carolina. He person­ified “the genius of his people.” Then, with his party firmly in power and his son well established in the American diplomatic service, he withdrew from politics at the age of seventy-six—a recognized and venerable Father of the Republic, of whom John Randolph of Roa­noke had declared, “If I were allowed to vote by proxy, and on that vote depended the welfare of the Republic, I would make Thomas Sumter my proxy.”

After resuming permanent residence in South Caro­lina, Thomas Sumter lived another twenty-two years. The astonishing energy, which had at sixty made him the first man on the roof of Independence Hall when it was endangered by fire, did not abate. At sixty-five he sharp­ened his swords and called at the door of a Federalist half his age (a man who had insulted him in a theater). Nor did the spirit behind that vigor flag as he moved into his eighth and ninth decades. It was the same old soldier who at eighty-six was sued for assault by an insolent carpenter in his thirties. To the end. at the amazing age of ninety-eight, Sumter rose each day and mounted grace­fully to ride over his lands and direct his slaves. To the end he spoke his mind on the great political issues of the day, supporting John C. Calhoun in his quarrel with Northern centralizers and urging the people in 1831 “to endeavor to change a system of usurpation no longer in harmony with the spirit of our Constitution.” After he had been misrepresented as a critic of the Nullifiers, Sumter sent the following toast for members of an Anti-Tariff Convention to which he had been elected but could not attend: “The year 1832—The period when the char­acter of the State of South Carolina and her inhabitants shall be fixed forever: when no middle course shall be open to them, and when every individual will either rank among the enemies of the liberties of his country, or else among those who have honored it.” In this valedictory admonition can be recognized an echo of the Sumter who in 1780 told those prepared to join under his leadership in resisting their would-be conquerors, “I am under the same promise with you…our interests and fates are and must be identical: with me as with you—it is liberty, or death!”

There were difficulties in his last years. The economy was hard on Southern planters; Sumter was hounded by creditors and pulled down by the problems of his son. The South Carolina legislature relieved some of the pres­sure by restraining the State Bank from calling Sumter’s notes while he lived. But there were also honors. In the small Baptist church where he worshipped, the congre­gation rose when he entered. Other tributes and gestures of appreciation continued to shower upon his white head, even to the month of his death. But Sumter expected none of this and was, as the last surviving American general of the Revolution, a model of modesty. His pos­ture was unchanged from what it had been in 1782 when he returned his commission to the people he had so well defended: “If I have contributed to the relief of this lately oppressed state, the approbation of my country is full and ample reward…I never expected…I wished no other.” The concluding inscription on his monument at Stateburg is well chosen: Tanto Nomini Nullum Par Elogium—“Eulogy can add nothing to so great a name.”

This essay was originally published in the 1986 Fall/1987 Winter issue of Southern Partisan.

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