Soldier, congressman, U.S. senator. Sumter was born on August 14, 1734, in Hanover County, Virginia. His father, William, was a miller and former indentured servant, while his mother, Patience, was a midwife. Most of Thomas Sumter’s early years were spent tending livestock and helping his father at the mill, not in school. He joined the provincial militia at the outbreak of the French and Indian War and rose to the rank of sergeant. In 1761 Sumter was selected to participate in a diplomatic mission to the Cherokee nation and escorted an Indian delegation to London the following year. After returning to Virginia via Charleston, he was imprisoned for indebtedness but escaped and fled to South Carolina. Around 1764 Sumter settled in St. John’s Berkeley Parish near the Santee River (Orangeburg County) and opened a country store. The mercantile venture prospered, and Sumter soon owned considerable property. In 1767 he married Mary Cantey Jameson, a wealthy, crippled widow eleven years his senior. Sumter and his wife moved to her plantation, Great Savannah, across the Santee in St. Mark’s Parish. The couple had two children.
The Revolutionary War interrupted Sumter’s comfortable life, and he found himself again a soldier. After being elected a delegate to the First and Second Provincial Congresses, Sumter participated in the Snow Campaign (December 1775), the Battle of Fort Moultrie (June 28, 1776), the Cherokee campaign (July–October 1776), and engagements in Georgia (1777, 1778). On September 19, 1778, Sumter left the army with the rank of colonel and returned to private life. He was in retirement when the British captured Charleston in May 1780. It was during this stage of the war, when the patriot tide in the state was at its lowest ebb, that Sumter made his greatest mark.
With South Carolina apparently subdued, the British were poised to push north and end the war in short order. They raided and burned Sumter’s home in May 1780, an attack that Sumter took personally. He immediately returned to the field and organized local militiamen into an army of backcountry partisans who informally elected him their general. In the summer of 1780 “Sumter’s Brigade” was the only organized opposition to the British in South Carolina. Though the brigade met with mixed success in engagements at Rocky Mount (July 30, 1780), Hanging Rock (August 6, 1780), and Fishing Creek (August 18, 1780), Sumter’s exploits in the upper part of the state injected beleaguered South Carolina patriots with a renewed energy to resist, earning Sumter the nickname “Gamecock” for his daring and tenacious resistance. After four months of invaluable but unofficial service, Sumter was commissioned as a brigadier general of the South Carolina militia on October 6, 1780. His force fought well at Fishdam Ford (November 9, 1780) and Blackstock’s (November 20, 1780), where Sumter was severely wounded. Incapacitated for several months, he returned to action in February 1781 and led his troops in additional encounters at Fort Granby (February 19–21, May 15, 1781) and Orangeburg (May 10–11, 1781).
Sumter’s pride and rash manner made him ill-suited to accept command from others. When the Continental army returned to South Carolina in the spring of 1781, Sumter was less than cooperative with General Nathanael Greene. Sumter attempted to resign as early as May 1781, but Greene refused to allow it. Maintaining his independent command, Sumter finally joined Greene in July 1781 and led “the raid of the dog days” into the lowcountry. Still smarting over command changes and militia reorganization, Sumter resigned in February 1782 and closed his military career.
The remainder of Sumter’s public life was spent in politics. He served eight terms in the General Assembly between 1776 and 1790. In 1783 he helped found the town of Stateburg, which he promoted for the new state capital. Elected by Camden District to the U.S. House of Representatives, he served five terms in Congress between 1789 and 1801. Sumter resigned from Congress on December 15, 1801, upon learning of his election to the U.S. Senate, where he served until December 16, 1810. In Washington, Sumter was a staunch Jeffersonian who remained devoted to the backcountry republican values he had known since childhood. Sumter died on June 1, 1832, at the age of ninety-seven. He was the last surviving general of the Revolutionary War. Sumter County and Fort Sumter were named in his honor.
Bass, Robert D. Gamecock: The Life and Campaigns of General Thomas Sumter. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.
Gregorie, Anne King. History of Sumter County. Sumter, S.C.: Library Board of Sumter County, 1954.
–––. Thomas Sumter. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1931.