Great Cane Brake
Cane Brake, Reedy River, Snow Campaign
Skirmish, *Col. William Thomson vs. Patrick Cunningham, Maj. Joseph Robinson, 22 Dec 1775
Where: 34.639563 -82.29013061306 Great Cane Brake
Maps: [map notes]
- This was a surprise attack resulting in a running battle covering several miles. The locations provided are only a small portion of the area involved.
- Terry Lipscomb, Names in South Carolina, Vol.XX, Winter 1973, , English Dept., University of SC, p.20-21,
By this time an expedition under Colonel Richard
Richardson was already on its way into the back
country to arrest the leaders of the Royal party.
Richardson decided that his mission was not affected
by the truce signed at Ninety Six and proceeded to
carry out his instructions.12 Receiving intelligence that
the most active leaders of the opposition were
encamped on Cherokee land, he dispatched a force
under Colonel William Thomson, which surprised the
Tories on the morning of December 22 and defeated
them in the Battle of Great Cane Brake. Since this is
the first mention of this officer, it will be appropriate to
note that Thomson, and not Thompson, is the correct
spelling of his name.13 Most of the Loyalist band were
captured; Patrick Cunningham escaped to the Cherokee
Nation. The Great Cane Brake was located on Reedy
River in the southern portion of present Greenville
County. The only location Colonel Richardson gives us
is that the site was a long march of nearly twenty-five
miles from his camp at Hollingsworth's Mill on Raborn's
Creek (in present Laurens County, and the
modern spelling is Rabon Creek).14 Luxuriant growths
of cane were quite common in river valleys of the up
country before the Revolution.
This is in fact where Reedy River derives its name. It is
also to be remembered that Greenville County was still
Indian land at this time, and presumably had been
spared the inroads of settlers, with their cleared fields
and domestic animals. The place where Thomson and
Cunningham had their action would have been one of
those virgin cane brakes which so impressed the. first
inhabitants of the back country.15
Two days before Christmas .of 1775, a snowstorm
began in the northern part of South Carolina which lasted
continuously for thirty hours. Colonel Richardson's men
were compelled to march back to the Congarees through
a fifteen inch accumulation of snow, many of them
suffering frostbite as a result. The expedition has ever
since been known as the Snow Campaign.16
12 Gibbes, Vol. 1, pp. 222-223.
13 Letter from William Thomson to Henry Laurens,
November 28, 1775 (original manuscript in S. C. Archives Gibbes
14 Gibbes, Vol. 1, pp. 242-244, 246-248.
15 John H. Logan, A History of the Upper Country
of South Carolina, pp. 9-10; Louis De Vorsey, Jr., The
Indian Boundary in the Southern Colonies, 1768-1775, p.
16 Gibbes, Vol. 1, p..247.
- Edward McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1775-1780, 1901, Macmillan & Co., Ltd., p.97
At Cane Brake there was a camp of King's
men which it was Richardson's object to break up. For
this purpose he dispatched Colonel Thomson with about
thirteen hundred men, who after a tedious march of near
twenty-three miles on the 21st of December arrived within
view of the Loyalists' campfires. Toward daylight of the
22d Thomson Amoved forward to attack, and had nearly
surrounded the camp when his men were discovered ; and
a fight immediately took place. Patrick Cuningham
escaped on a horse bareback, telling every one " to
shift for himself." Great slaughter, it is said, would have
ensued had' not Colonel Thomson prevented it. Five or
six of Cuningham's men were, however, killed, and one
hundred and thirty were taken prisoners. Of Colonel
Thomson's troops none were killed and only one was
Colonel Richardson now regarding the object of the
campaign as accomplished, dismissed the North Carolina
troops and breaking up his camp marched homewards.
From the snow which fell in the latter part of the expedition
it was called the "Snow Campaign."1 The campaign
was supposed to have completely broken up the
King's party in the upper country, but its success to this
extent was only apparent.
1 Memoirs of the Revolution (Drayton), vol. II, 126, 132.
- Harry M. Ward, The War for Independence and the Transformation of American Society, 2000,
Cofell and scofellites (eventually all backcountry loyalists wer called by the term) formed the core of backcountry resistance to the Revolution. Initially the scofellites counted Cherokee Indians as their allies. Colonel Richard Richardson, in December 1774, defeated a group of backcountry loyalists at Great Cane Brake in Cheokee country, taking 136 prisoners, of whom six were "scopholite" officers (one of whom was "colored" and another "mulatto"). Some scofellites were among "white Indians" captured in the Cherokee War of 1776.
- John Belton O'Neall, Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina: Embracing for ..., 1897
Shannon and Co., p.79-80
The presence of such a large army had a good effect on
the feelings of the disaffected people in that part of the
colony. They were much terrified and came in with fear
and trembling, giving up their arms with deep contrition
for their late conduct. The spirit of discord was much
abated. Most of the captains came in with a good portion
of their companies. The District of Ninety-Six was
now clear of any organized body of insurgents, but a
camp of the principal aggressors still existed four miles
beyond the Cherokee boundary line, at a place called the
Great Cane Brake, on the Reedy River, about twenty-five
miles from Hollingsworth's Mill. Colonel Richardson
determined to break up this nest of sedition and turbulent
spirits and for this purpose he detached from this
army at Hollingsworth's Mill, about thirteen hundred
cavalry and infantry under the command of Colonel William
Thomson. All of these were volunteers, and among
them were Colonels Martin and Rutherford, Neel, Polk
and Lyles and Major Williamson and other officers of
distinction. This command set out in the night on the
21st of December and after a tedious march of near
twenty-three miles, Colonel Thomson with his command got
within sight of the camp fires of the insurgents at a distance
of about two miles. A halt was taken for a short
time, after which, towards daylight on the 22d of December,
they moved forward to attack the camp. They had
nearly surrounded it when they were discovered. A flight
immediately took place from the side which-had not yet
been surrounded. Patrick Cunningham escaped on a
horse barebacked, telling every one as he galloped away "
to shift for himself."
The troops were much enraged against the insurgents
or King's men, as they preferred to call themselves, and
had it not been for the humanity of Colonel Thomson,
great slaughter would have taken place. The pursuit
was continued for some distance and five or six of the
insurgents were killed. Their camp consisted of about
two hundred men, about one hundred and thirty of whom
were taken prisoners. All their baggage, arms and
ammunition remained in possession of the victors. None
of the colonial troops were killed and only one was
was wounded. This was a son of Colonel Polk, a youth
of promise, who was shot through the shoulder.
On the 23d of December, Colonel Thomson with his
detachment returned to Richardson's camp. Soon after
this it commenced snowing and continued without intermission
for thirty hours. The account says, (see Drayton's Memoirs, vol. ii, page 122), that the ground was
generally covered for two feet. The army was without
tents. Their shoes and clothing being much worn, they
were badly prepared to encounter such dreadful weather.
- John B. McLeod, "Battle Of The Great Cane Brake Or All-American Skirmish On The Reedy", Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Vol.2, No.11, Nov. 2005. p.13-16
- There is supposedly an account or response from a loyalist viewpoint to the action in Samuel Curwen, Journal And Letters Of The Late Samuel Curwen, Judge of Admiralty, etc., a loyalist-refugee in England, during the American Revolution.. p.?. I was unable to locate such a letter.
An article referring to Curwen's version is found in Ward, George Atkinson, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol.12, Issue 7, July 1846, beginning at the very bottom of p.391. If you have trouble accessing, go here and click on item 7, then on "The Civil Warfare in the Carolinas..", then proceed to p.391. This can also be viewed in plain text or pdf.
- NBBAS:One p.71-72.
- Dec 1775 listing 12/22/1775 Cane Brake (Great Cane Brake, Reedy River). Per Heitman, Peckham, O'Kelley.
Confidence level::See above.