The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The True Story of a Teenage Patriot

Posted on | November 22, 2020 | No Comments

Abraham Isham Bolt was just 16 years old in 1780 when he joined the South Carolina militia. The Patriot cause had suffered its worst defeat of the war when Charleston surrendered in May 1780. The British planned to use Charleston as a base of operations from which to open a new front in the war against the American rebellion. It was believed the rebellion was more popular in New England, while Tories were more numerous in the South. If the British could recruit Tory (or “Loyalist”) forces to suppress the rebellion in the South, this would divide the colonies, and draw Washington’s army away from the mid-Atlantic theater.

In an ironic twist of history, early British success in South Carolina led directly to Cornwallis’s final defeat in the war, and I am proud that my ancestor Abraham Bolt was part of that history. You’ve seen the movie The Patriot? Yeah, that’s what the South Carolina militia did.

Of course, Hollywood took liberties with the story. There are no portraits of Abraham Bolt, so he may have been as handsome as Heath Ledger, but it’s highly unlikely the South Carolina militia wore such spiffy uniforms. Nevertheless, there was a real war in South Carolina — a savage guerrilla campaign, with massacres and reprisals, ending in a stunning Patriot victory — and my teenage ancestor was there when it happened, in two crucial battles of the campaign. There is on file in the South Carolina archives a record of Abraham Bolt’s pay for his militia service, precisely enumerated in pounds and shillings — £12, 17 shillings, 1½ pence.

Notice that this payment wasn’t issued until May 1786, meaning that it took more than five years for South Carolina to pay its militia for their service during the war, and the state’s “currency” had been so devalued by inflation that £90 pounds in South Carolina paper money was worth less than £13, the actual coin amount paid to Abraham Bolt.

Until Saturday, I had no idea who Abraham Bolt was. What happened was that I was doing some research related to a post about Lena Dunham, seeking to show how large families were prevalent in America’s past. So I went to the genealogical records of my own family, and in the process of that research went back through the family tree, starting with my great-grandfather, Winston Wood Bolt (b. Jan. 5, 1839, Walton County, Georgia). His father, Benjamin Berryman Bolt (b. Nov. 23, 1806, Laurens County, South Carolina), was the son of James Robert Bolt (b. Jan. 14, 1783) whose father was Abraham Isham Bolt (b. Aug. 24, 1764, Fauquier County, Virginia). Abraham Bolt, the heroic teenage Patriot, was my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather.

Readers may object that it’s inaccurate for me to keep illustrating this post with pictures of Heath Ledger in The Patriot, but as I say, there are no portraits of Abraham Bolt, so if I want to imagine my ancestor as a handsome movie hero, why are you harshing my vibe, man?

To satisfy your demand for accuracy, however, I’ll tell you as much about my ancestor’s service as I can, and in the process tell the story of how this ragtag South Carolina militia won America’s independence.

The Real-Life Villain of History

When the siege of Charleston ended in surrender in May 1780, the British under Gen. Henry Clinton captured more than 5,000 American troops and all their supplies and equipment, a devastating loss to the Patriot cause. One of the few organized forces left in South Carolina was about 400 Virginia and North Carolina troops under the command of Col. Abraham Buford. They had been sent to help defend Charleston, but were delayed and did not arrive before the British captured the city.

When Clinton learned of the presence of Buford’s force nearby, he ordered Lord Cornwallis to attack. Buford retreated faster than the British army could advance, however, and so Cornwallis sent his mounted force — cavalry known as “dragoons” — to pursue the colonial rebels. The commander of these dragoons was Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, the real-life villain who inspired “Col. Tavington” in The Patriot.

Revisionist historians have attempted, with little success, to mend Tarleton’s villainous reputation. Part of the problem, you see, is that the role Tarleton played during the war contributed directly to Britain’s defeat. Even if Americans didn’t have every reason to hate Tarleton — which we do — the British have no good reason to defend him. Perhaps he was not the evil movie villain, but he was certainly quite bad.

On the afternoon of May 29, 1780, after a pursuit of nearly 150 miles, Tarleton’s dragoons caught up with Buford’s rear guard in the vicinity of Lancaster, S.C., near the North Carolina border. The fight that ensued was a decisive British victory, in which the Americans claimed their troops were slaughtered after they surrendered, so that the battle became known as the “Waxhaws Massacre.” The result of Tarleton’s victory thus proved a disaster for the British in two ways:

  1. Reports of the “massacre” served as a rallying cry for the Patriot cause in South Carolina, with a desire for revenge inspiring men to join the cause who might have stayed out of the war.
  2. His easy victory led Tarleton to become overconfident.

Having defeated the Americans, who outnumbered him at least 2-to-1 in his first battle, Tarleton evidently concluded that these ragtag rebels lacked any soldierly qualities. “Bloody Tarleton” treated the American enemy with contempt, ordering (or at least permitting) his troops to seize anything they wanted from local civilians, which only helped to inspire more resistance, and leading his dragoons in hasty attacks whenever and wherever he found rebel forces to fight. Tarleton’s force was famously harassed in guerrilla attacks led by the “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion, but in regular open combat, Tarleton continued to enjoy success, helping Cornwallis win the Battle of Camden, S.C., (Aug. 16, 1780) and two days later routing a South Carolina militia force at the Battle of Fishing Creek.

Then my ancestor joined the militia, and the rest is history.

OK, OK — maybe I’m exaggerating the heroic role Abraham Bolt played in Tarleton’s defeat, but you can’t prove that my ancestor was not as handsome as Heath Ledger, so don’t argue with me.

The Carolina Gamecock

Two years ago, a retired professor named C. Leon Harris was doing historical research on the Revolutionary War in South Carolina when he uploaded an annotated transcript of Abraham Bolt’s 1832 pension application describing his service in Capt. John Thompson’s company of militia, which was part of Col. Thomas Brandon’s 2nd “Spartan” Regiment. This application is all I know of my ancestor’s service, but it places him on the scene of two of the most crucial battles of the war.

The troops Tarleton defeated at Fishing Creek were led by one of South Carolina’s most famous Patriot commanders, Thomas Sumter. After this defeat, Sumter retreated into North Carolina, then rallied survivors and refugees to return to South Carolina, where my ancestor was recruited in the vicinity of Spartanburg in September 1780. About two months later, Cornwallis ordered Tarleton to leave aside his futile attempts to catch Francis Marion in the Lowlands and instead pursue the militia gathering upstate under Sumter. The rebels were emboldened after their victory at King’s Mountain in October, and Cornwallis thought an attack on Sumter’s militia would help rally upstate Tories: “If Tarleton only drives Sumter back in a hurry, I hope it will give our friends more spirit.”

Learning of Tarleton’s advance on Nov. 20, 1780, Sumter retreated toward the Tyger River, where Col. Brandon suggested Blackstock’s Farm as a good site to make a stand against the British. Wikipedia:

Sumter placed Colonel Henry Hampton and his South Carolina riflemen in the farm outbuildings. Some units he stationed behind stout fences and others he screened in the surrounding woods. Tarleton came up late in the fall afternoon and chose to make a frontal attack against a numerically superior force, not waiting for his infantry and artillery to catch up. At first he was successful. The Patriot militia fired at too great a distance, and before they could reload Major John Money, commanding the 63d Regiment, hit them with the bayonet. Nevertheless, in doing so, the 63d advanced too close to the farm buildings and came under fire from Hampton’s men inside, as usual aiming “at the epaulets and stripes.” Money and two of his lieutenants were killed, and according to an officer of Fraser’s Highlanders, a third of the privates as well. 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. As Henry Lumpkin has written, “caution never was Tarleton’s outstanding virtue.” 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.”

This was Tarleton’s first defeat in battle against the rebels.

Sumter was wounded, and turned over command to Col. John Twiggs, while Tarleton retreated about two miles and waited for reinforcements. The next day, Tarleton advanced again to find the rebels had disappeared, and in his report claimed the battle as a victory, but the Americans had inflicted heavy casualties — nearly a third of the British force were killed or wounded — while suffering only a few dozen casualties of their own. The South Carolina militia had vindicated their reputation and, after this battle, Tarleton commented that Sumter “fought like a gamecock,” thus establishing the state’s future mascot.

What do I know about Abraham Bolt’s role in that battle? Only that he was there, serving in Brandon’s regiment, so I can’t tell you any of my ancestor’s deeds at Blackstock’s Farm, but don’t let that stop you from imagining him to be as handsomely heroic as Heath Ledger.

The Battle That Won the War

Remember the final battle scene in The Patriot? That was inspired by yet another battle in which my ancestor participated and, while I can’t claim to know that teenage Abraham Bolt did anything more than his patriotic duty, it’s pretty cool to imagine him fighting in what is arguably one of the most decisive battles in American military history.

Gen. Nathaniel Greene had been appointed as commander of Patriot forces in the southern theater. At his headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., on Dec. 3, 1780, Greene met with Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan, and assigned him with about 600 men to threaten the western flank of Cornwalis’s army. Morgan’s orders were to avoid battle. The Americans needed time to recruit more troops and Green didn’t want to risk losing a showdown fight with the British, but Cornwallis had other ideas. Learning of Morgan’s movements, he was concerned the rebels planned an attack on the Tory stronghold at Ninety-Six, and sent Tarleton to intercept Morgan.

Morgan, meanwhile, had listened to what the South Carolina militia leaders told him about Tarleton’s aggressive tactics, and improvised a battle plan that led Tarleton into a deadly trap. Morgan had been retreating north toward the Broad River, but the river was running too high to be forded, and so the Patriot commander chose to make his stand on the south bank, on a low ridge overlooking a pasture that gave its name to the Battle of Cowpens. Morgan’s force numbered about 1,800, including about 300 veteran Continental infantry, two small detachments of Continental dragoons commanded by Lt. Col. William Washington, and the rest militia from Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas. On the British side, Tarleton brought about 1,200 troops to the field.

Tarleton was in a hurry, worried that the rebels would escape; he marched his men so rapidly they were short of sleep and low on food. The Wikipedia entry describes what the British ran into at Cowpens:

Morgan reasoned that Tarleton would be highly confident and attack him head on. He arranged his troops to encourage this. He set up three lines of soldiers: one of skirmishers (sharpshooters), one of militia, and a main one. The first was 150 select skirmishers from North Carolina (Major McDowell) and Georgia (Major Cunningham). The second line, behind the skirmishers but in front of the third line of Continentals, consisted of 300 militiamen under the command of Col. Andrew Pickens. The effect was the conspicuous placement of weak militia in the center front, to encourage the British to attack there. The skirmishers and militia would screen the strongest Continental troops, while inflicting damage as the British advanced.
Morgan asked the militia to fire two volleys, something they could achieve, and then withdraw to the left, to re-form in the rear, behind the third line, under cover of the reserve light dragoons (mounted infantry) commanded by William Washington and James McCall. The irregular militia commander, Colonel Pickens, would execute, in effect, a feigned rout to further embolden the British.

This plan worked so perfectly that Tarleton’s force was nearly wiped out. Morgan’s first line of sharpshooters fired their two shots each, then fell back before the advancing British. Next came the turn of the main militia force, which fired their two volleys and then ran toward the left rear, where their retreat was covered by Washington’s dragoons. Now, Tarleton’s advancing force was confronted with Morgan’s main line of veteran Continental troops who held firm on the hill.

Here is where Morgan’s plan proved to be pure genius. The militia that had retreated — seemingly in disorderly panic — toward the left flank were then marched around the rear of the hill on which the Continental troops held the main line. They emerged on the right flank in time to get an enfilade fire on Tarleton’s force. Meanwhile, the British were struck with a deadly volley from the main line, while Washington’s mounted dragoons swooped down from the left, at just about the same time that the commander of Morgan’s main line, John Howard, gave the order, “Charge bayonets!” To quote Wikipedia again: “The shock of the sudden charge, coupled with the reappearance of the American militiamen on the left flank where Tarleton’s exhausted men expected to see their own cavalry, proved too much for the British.” The Americans captured about 700 prisoners — more than half of Tarleton’s command, which also lost more than 100 men killed, and the British were so completely defeated that Tarleton himself just narrowly escaped being captured.

The defeat at Cowpens convinced Cornwallis to leave South Carolina behind and instead to pursue Greene’s main army in North Carolina:

In the opinion of John Marshall, “Seldom has a battle, in which greater numbers were not engaged, been so important in its consequences as that of Cowpens.” It gave General Nathanael Greene his chance to conduct a campaign of “dazzling shiftiness” that led Cornwallis by “an unbroken chain of consequences to the catastrophe at Yorktown which finally separated America from the British crown”.

How much of this brilliant victory was due to the effort of a farm boy named Abraham Bolt? Far be it from me to exaggerate what one teenage private in the South Carolina militia might have done in that battle, but the important thing is, he was there and did his duty.

Also, my guess is that he was very handsome. It’s hereditary, you know.

The Romantic Happy Ending

Readers may dismiss as a joke all my comments comparing my ancestor to a handsome movie star, but wait until I tell you what happened after the Battle of Cowpens. According to his pension application, Abraham Bolt was detailed to care for the wounded after that battle “and did not overtake the army again till after the battle of Guilford” (March 1781). His term of South Carolina militia service apparently being completed, Bolt then “refugeed” to Virginia (where he had relatives) and enlisted again in a Virginia militia unit, spending another four months in service. He was still only 17, and not long after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Bolt met a girl from Fauquier County named Mary Jane Clark. Readers may scoff all they want when I suggest how handsome my ancestor was, but he certainly had no trouble wooing a bride. His first son, my ancestor James Robert Bolt, was born in January 1783, when Abraham Bolt was 18 and Mary was just 15. The couple eventually had seven or eight children born in Laurens County, S.C., and my ancestor James moved with his family, first to Georgia and later to Randolph County, Alabama.

Six generations separate me from Abraham Bolt, the teenage Patriot. If he had eight children, how many distant cousins might I have through this one ancestor? You see, that was the whole point that got me going through this research. Our ancestors had big families, and over the course of a few generations, that adds up to a lot of cousins. Just to give you an idea, my Aunt Lera Mae had seven children. When she died at age 95, her survivors included 26 great-grandchildren. Do the math, and you soon realize that if all the descendants of my Patriot ancestor Abraham Bolt were to attend a family reunion, there would be hundreds of us.

Something else to think about: Every Fourth of July, we celebrate America’s independence, dating this to the anniversary of 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was made public. But it was not the fine phrases of the Declaration — those self-evident truths — that made the United States an independent nation. No, it was the soldiers who fought the war that won our freedom, and how many of those Patriot soldiers were just teenage farm boys like my ancestor? All he did was serve nine months of militia duty, earning only £12, 17 shillings, 1½ pence as payment for his service, and I never even knew his name until yesterday when I traced the family tree a few generations farther back.

Hollywood has a way of making war seem like something exciting and romantic, and if you’ve seen The Patriot, you might be forgiven for thinking of it almost as a fairy tale, but the war itself was very real. The uniforms weren’t quite so spiffy, and the South Carolina militia probably didn’t look much like a bunch of handsome movie stars, but they were actual flesh-and-blood human beings, not a fairy-tale myth.

Thursday is Thanksgiving. We will have many blessings for which to give thanks to God. Few of these blessings, however, are more precious than the simple fact that we are Americans, and as such have a valuable inheritance of liberty, for which so many of our ancestors fought.

We have every reason to be thankful for their service.




 

 

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