“The Gamecock: Thomas Sumter, South Carolina's Other Revolutionary War Hero,” David Reuwer
While Fort Sumter receives prominent attention
in most American history textbooks, very few of them devote much attention to
the man for whom the fort is named. That man, Thomas Sumter, was the featured
topic at the July 17 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond.
|David Reuwer with the figurine, "Young David Reuwer," painted and presented by Woody Childs|
David Reuwer presented an informative and entertaining program entitled “The Gamecock: Thomas Sumter, South Carolina’s Other Revolutionary War Hero.” Reuwer, a resident of Camden, South Carolina, is president of the American Revolution Association and co-founder of the Congress of American Revolution Roundtables. He is also co-editor of SCAR and past editor of American Revolution Magazine.
Reuwer reviewed the life of Thomas Sumter and compared him to South Carolina’s other partisan commanders who fought the British. While historians aren’t positive about the specifics of Sumter’s birth, the year 1734 is generally recognized as his birth year and a rural part of Louisa County, Virginia as his birth location. His father was a miller and millwright while his mother worked as a midwife.
Young Thomas Sumter had virtually no formal education and was unable to read or write until he became an adult. When he became old enough to enlist in the Virginia militia, he joined it and later served on the ill-fated Braddock Expedition of 1755.
In 1761 he served on an expedition into the Cherokee Nation, which would change his life. Serving under a friend named Lieutenant Henry Timberlake, Sergeant Sumter traveled into what today is eastern Tennessee where the Timberlake Expedition became friends with three Cherokee chiefs. The three chiefs returned with the expedition to Williamsburg and met with Virginia’s elected officials. One of the chiefs insisted on wanting to meet the King of England so in 1762 the three chiefs, along with Timberlake and Sumter, traveled to England where they met with a teenage King George III. The Cherokee chiefs were treated warmly by King George and by London’s population, which viewed them as celebrities. Sumter, who was approximately 6’ 2” tall and weighed 225 pounds, served as the Cherokee chiefs’ bodyguard.
When Sumter returned to America, he landed in Charleston, South Carolina and would set up a country store approximately 50 miles inland on the Santee River at a ferry crossing. He also became a land developer and married a wealthy widow who was 11 years older than he was and owned a large amount of land on the opposite shore of the Santee from his property. The married couple’s businesses and property flourished until the American Revolution when the British raided the Santee area and burned down their house.
From nearly the beginning of the American Revolution, Sumter sided with the patriot cause and became a South Carolina militia officer. He would rise to become a brigadier general and commander of the entire South Carolina militia, and was best known for his partisan raids and gathering military intelligence against Cornwallis’ army. In fact Cornwallis once described Sumter as “our greatest plague in this country.” The British also said Sumter was such a tenacious fighter that he “fought like a gamecock.” The “gamecock” nickname stuck.
Sumter was an extremely successful recruiter of South Carolinians to join the state militia but his method of paying enlistment bonuses can be considered controversial. He persuaded South Carolina’s legislature to approve “Sumter’s Law”, which called for the payment of enlistment bonuses in the form of slaves rather than money. For example, lieutenant colonels who re-enlisted would receive 3 1/2 slaves while captains would receive two slaves. Privates who re-enlisted would receive one slave.
In 1787 when the newly created United States was debating ratification of its proposed constitution, Sumter opposed the document which he felt gave too much power to a national government. As Reuwer noted in his presentation, even though Sumter was called an “Anti-Federalist” he was actually a very strong supporter of true federalism, which promotes a more balanced sharing of state and federal powers than what he perceived in the proposed constitution.
Even though he had opposed the new constitution, Sumter served in the new U.S. House of Representatives between 1789-93 and 1797-1801. He also served as a U.S. senator between 1801-10. In 1832 Sumter died at the ripe old age of 98, and was the last living general from the American Revolution.
As for Sumter’s place in American military history, Reuwer said that Sumter was far more important than his fellow South Carolina partisan, Francis Marion. He noted that while Marion was leading bands of only 50 troops against the British, Sumter was leading a partisan army with over 1,000 troops and had 11 colonels serving under him. Reuwer attributes Marion’s greater popularity over Sumter in today’s world to the Disney television show which aired on Francis Marion over 50 years ago.