There are few historic sites in America that accurately reflect our nation’s greatest triumphs while simultaneously recognizing some of its greatest tragedies. Historic Brattonsville is one of those places. This living history museum and working plantation offers visitors detailed insights about the European colonists who settled the region and the enslaved populations who toiled in its fields. The stories told at Historic Brattonsville will evoke strong emotions and an even stronger appreciation for history.
The Brattons were Scotch-Irish descendants who immigrated to the American Colonies during the mid-1740s. The extended family originally settled in the mid-Atlantic region but moved further south following the turbulence of the French and Indian War. In 1766, William Bratton and two of his brothers, Robert and Hugh, moved their families to present-day York County, South Carolina. William purchased two hundred acres of land and started a small farm that would eventually become one of the most prestigious plantations in the Carolinas.
THE BATTLE OF HUCK’S DEFEAT
In 1780, as the American Revolution entered its fifth year, landmark victories continued to elude both the British and Continental armies. The war had reached a tense standstill after neither side had been able to secure a strategic upper-hand. Hoping to break the stalemate and demoralize the Continental Army, the British launched an aggressive and ambitious series of assaults in the southern theater of war. British forces opened their campaign on March 29, 1780, with the Siege to Charleston, South Carolina. The Southern Continental Army fought valiantly to defend the crucial port city, but after six weeks of relentless bombardment and mounting casualties, Major General Benjamin Lincoln reluctantly surrendered Charleston and his 6,000-man army to the Redcoats on May 12.
The fall of Charleston resulted in the collapse of South Carolina’s colonial government and left absent an organized Continental force in the south. Only backcountry militias and scattered Patriot (Whig) regiments remained. Expecting overwhelming loyalist support, British leadership elected to extend their campaign further into the Carolina piedmont and squander the remaining resistance forces in the region before invading Virginia. In July 1780, Lieutenant Colonel George Turnbull, commander of British forces at Rocky Mount, South Carolina, dispatched Captain Christian Huck and a small force of Provincial troops into the Carolina backcountry to neutralize Patriot militias and compel colonists to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown.
Before enlisting in the British forces, Huck had practiced law in Philadelphia and was an outspoken loyalist during the early years of the Revolution. When the city was reclaimed by Continental forces in 1778, Huck was exiled due to his political beliefs and alliances. Huck harbored untold amounts of animosity towards the Whigs, particularly the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, who he blamed most for his displacement. Huck used his assignment as an excuse to terrorize those who had wronged him. His ferocity, vulgar language, and brutal tactics of intimidation earned him great disdain among the colonists and the scornful nickname “the swearing captain.”
On the morning of July 11, Huck and his 120 men—60 Loyalist militiamen (Tories), 40 British Legion cavalry, and 20 New York Volunteer Infantry—arrived at the home of Captain John McClure, an officer in the Patriot militia. Huck captured John’s younger brother James and brother-in-law Edward Martin (though McClure, himself, was away at camp) and ordered the two to be hanged as “traitors to the Crown” the following morning. McClure’s homestead was torched before the British forces resumed their march toward Colonel William Bratton’s estate.
Martha Bratton, William’s wife, received intelligence about the approaching enemy force as they mobilized. She hastily wrote a letter to her husband—detailing the strength and location of British troops—and directed the family slave, Watt, to deliver the message on horseback. Watt spurred away shortly before the British arrived.
Martha was apprehended by Huck’s men and harshly interrogated to reveal her husband’s location. She refused to cooperate, even after reportedly being threatened with a reaping hook to the neck. Irritated by her lack of assistance, Huck locked Martha and her children in the attic of their home and promptly left. He advanced his troops a few hundred yards west to James Williamson’s plantation where they made camp for the night.
Watt arrived at Bratton’s camp later that evening after traversing over twenty miles of wooded backcountry. Upon receiving his wife’s letter, Colonel Bratton notified his superior, General Thomas “the Gamecock” Sumter, commander of the Carolina Patriot forces, about the information. Sumter authorized Bratton to launch a surprise attack against the enemy at dawn.
Bratton assembled a militia of 140 men and devised a plan of attack. One column of the Patriot force (commanded by Bratton, Colonel Andrew Neel, and Captain James Reed) would attack from the west while another detachment (under Colonel Edward Lacey and Captain John McClure) would attack from the east, effectively surrounding the British forces. The small army left Sumter’s camp the night of July 11, guided by a bright moon and rare aurora borealis phenomenon. The spectacle of lights in the midnight sky ensured many Patriot soldiers that God was on their side.
The Whig militia reached Williamson’s Plantation shortly before daybreak and tactfully maneuvered into position. The British sentries who were supposed to be guarding Huck’s encampment were found asleep at their posts and bayonetted before they could wake. Once his men were in position, Bratton launched the attack. He and Colonel Neel led the assault on the loyalist militia, many of whom were still asleep in their tents. The Tories had little time to react to the onslaught. Their commander, Colonel Matthew Floyd, fled the scene while his second-in-command, Colonel James Ferguson, was killed while trying to rally the troops. Within a few minutes, the loyalist militia was overrun and decimated.
The Patriots quickly descended upon the British Legion and Infantry camps surrounding Williamson’s plantation house. Colonel Lacey and Captain McClure joined the attack from the east, barraging the vulnerable British forces with a deadly crossfire. The New York Infantry surrendered almost immediately after their commander, Lieutenant William Adamson, was killed in action.
Upon hearing the commotion, Huck emerged from the plantation house to find his forces wiped out. He ran to his horse and attempted to organize a counterattack with the remaining dragoons. The Patriot militia, however, were well-protected from the cavalry charges behind the trees and fence posts that lined the road.
Realizing defeat was inevitable, Huck and some of his men tried to escape down a wagon trail. Several Patriot riflemen fired from the woods as the Provincials retreated. Christian Huck was shot in the back of the head and fell from his horse, dead before he hit the ground. Militiaman John Carroll was credited with the fatal shot.
The entire battle lasted fifteen minutes. In that time, thirty British troops were killed while another fifty were wounded or captured. The Patriot forces suffered only one fatality. The Battle of Williamson’s Plantation (or Huck’s Defeat as many like to call it) was a pivotal victory for the backcountry militia. It boosted morale across the colonies and inspired more volunteers to join the Patriot armies in the southern theater of war. For the British, it was a crushing defeat. Their campaign to crush Patriot morale had backfired. Huck’s Defeat ultimately turned the tide of the war and started a chain of events that led to American victories at King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Yorktown.
THE VILLAGE OF BRATTONSVILLE
William Bratton returned to South Carolina as a distinguished veteran of the American Revolution. He resumed a life of cultivation and expanded operations on his plantation considerably. In 1785, Bratton became a district judge and representative to the South Carolina State Legislature. In 1791, he was elected to the state senate and served one term before returning to York County as acting district sheriff until 1798. William Bratton died on February 9, 1815. His wife, Martha, died a year later.
The Bratton Plantation was inherited by William and Martha’s son, Dr. John Simpson Bratton. Under his direction, the estate experienced a period of profound prosperity. Dr. Bratton expanded his family’s landholdings to over 6,000 acres and oversaw one of the largest and most lucrative cotton plantations in York County, with nearly 140 slaves to tend its fields. Bratton also promoted numerous small businesses on his property—including his medical practice—all of which helped develop the plantation into the unincorporated town of Brattonsville. After Dr. Bratton’s unexpected death in 1843, his son, John Simpson Bratton Jr., the eldest of his fourteen children, inherited the estate.
As a historian, I am tasked with providing a comprehensive analysis of factual events, no matter how obscene or atrocious they may be. Unspeakable truths must be spoken. Reprehensible acts must be acknowledged. In my research of the Bratton family, I came across some absolutely disturbing information that exfoliates the dark side of United States history. As an American, it’s a hard pill to swallow and rather difficult to admit. But slavery and racism are two irrefutable flaws ascribed to our nation’s past, and their effects are still echoed today. From a historian’s perspective, these stories must be told in order to fully understand the context of the American narrative.
James Rufus Bratton was the younger brother of John Simpson Bratton Jr. He was a physician who found mediocre success in his practice. At the start of the Civil War, Rufus (as he was called) enlisted as an assistant surgeon in the 5th South Carolina Volunteers. By 1863, he was full-fledged surgeon and treated the Confederate wounded at hospitals in Richmond, Virginia, and Milledgeville, Georgia. Bratton was captured by Union forced in November 1864 during Sherman’s March to the Sea. He was later furloughed and sent back to Yorkville, South Carolina.
Following the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, Bratton struggled financially in both his plantation and medical practice. Spiteful of the newly freed black community, Rufus joined the York County Ku Klux Klan in the summer of 1870.
On March 6, 1871, Bratton and seventy white men attacked the home of Jim Williams, leader of the local Union League—a black militia organization for the equal rights of African Americans—and former slave of John S. Bratton. The mob forcibly removed Williams from his home and viciously beat him. He was then dragged to a nearby tree where Rufus Bratton reportedly placed a noose around his neck. Williams was forced to climb to the edge of a limb and subsequently lynched. The mob further mutilated Williams’ body as they used guns and knives to inflict postmortem wounds.
Shortly after the lynching, Bratton was placed on the U.S. government’s most wanted list. He went into hiding and fled to London, Ontario, Canada. Federal agents apprehended Bratton, but due to a documenting error, he was released back into the custody of the Canadian government. He remained in Ontario for a few more years before returning to York County, South Carolina, in 1878. He was never prosecuted for the murder of Jim Williams. Bratton served as President of the South Carolina Medical Association from 1891 – 1892 and was elected Chairman to the Executive Committee of the State Board of Health from 1888 until his death in 1897.
The life of Rufus Bratton and his deplorable actions inspired Thomas Dixon Jr. to write The Clansman (1905), a romanticized theatrical drama of the Ku Klux Klan. A screenplay was later adapted by D.W. Griffith and implemented in his controversial film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Both of these media productions were audacious attempts to promote racial segregation in America and portray a convoluted reality of the Reconstruction Era.
James Rufus Bratton was a despicable man who epitomized all the negative characteristics and attitudes of the Jim Crow South. Although he never lived at Brattonsville past childhood, he is still associated with the property by blood. While his story may only highlight the stains on the shroud of American history, it is history nonetheless. We must be objective, not subjective, in our analyses in order to fully understand our nation’s past and better appreciate its progress.
Members of the Bratton family continued to live in Brattonsville until the early 1900s. Between 1910 and 1950, the Bratton land was parceled off and developed into tenant farms. Many of its buildings falling into disrepair during this time. In the 1960s, the York County Historical Commission acquired and re-aggregated the original Bratton land, refurbished its dilapidated structures, and created the community of Historic Brattonsville. The current site spans over 800 acres and includes 30 historic structures on its property.
My visit to Historic Brattonsville started at the Visitor Center, where I watched a fifteen minute documentary on Huck’s Defeat (see the link below the slideshow) and observed some colonial relics on display from the battle site. I then obtained a site map for the self-guided tour and made my way to the Battlefield Trail. This short 0.3-mile loop follows the old colonial roadbed of Williamson’s Lane and provides visitors with interpretive panels on the sequence of the skirmish.
After walking around the battlefield and nature trails, I made my way back to the 18th Century portion of the historic site. There are numerous structures from the late-colonial and post-colonial periods open for exploration, including the original Bratton home. This structure was constructed around 1766 and operated as a tavern and country store shortly after the Revolution. In 1839, Dr. John S. Bratton Sr. remodeled the home to accommodate the Brattonsville Female Seminary School—used to educate his seven daughters and girls from the surrounding community.
Across the street in the 19th Century portion of the park is the Homestead, another original building constructed between 1823 and 1826 by Dr. John S. Bratton. The house was originally fashioned in a Federal style, but was remodeled extensively in its early years to reflect more Greek revival architecture, a popular trend in the Antebellum South. Two side wings, an assembly hall, and double-decker porch are just a few of additions the Brattons built on. Many of the rooms in the house were used in the filming of The Patriot (2000).
Outside the Homestead are a couple of small brick buildings currently under restoration. The two structures, the Slave House and Dairy, are the only surviving slave buildings on the property out of the original twenty listed in the 1860 census. Both buildings are circa 1828 and may have housed highly skilled laborers due to their close proximity to the main house. Historians and archaeologists alike have pondered why the Brattons constructed slave quarters using brick instead of wood. Perhaps it was a way for the Brattons to display their wealth, or maybe a response to abolitionist reports of maltreatment among the enslaved populations. To this day, the motives remain unknown.
Adjacent to the Homestead are the Brick House and Bratton Store ruins. The Brick House was constructed in 1845 and operated as a store, post office, and residence for Napoleon Bonaparte Bratton, his wife Minnie, and their three children. The foundation of the Bratton Store (circa 1885, burned down in 2004) is located to the left of Brick House.
At the very back of the property is the Gin House. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin—a revolutionary piece of machinery that effortlessly separated cotton seeds from its fibers and shaped the cultivation of the South. In the late 1790s, William Bratton transitioned his plantation’s cash crop from wheat to cotton and constructed a two-story cotton gin complex on his estate. The existing structure depicts what a 19th century cotton gin would have looked like. Work horses and mules were used to turn the turbines of the gin on the ground floor while freshly-picked cotton was loaded from the second floor. Once the cotton was cleaned, it was pressed into 400-pound bales and taken to market. Bratton’s plantation produced over 100 bales per year in the 1850s and undoubtedly increased the family’s reliance on slave labor. The number of Bratton slaves increased from twelve in 1793 to one hundred thirty-nine in 1843.
Brattonsville is not just a self-guided historical site, but also an active farm and living history museum! Reenactors can be found all around the property performing various duties vital to the farm’s operation. They cultivate and harvest fields, cure their own meats, make their own soap, and tend to livestock, among other things. Brattonsville’s livestock program is very intriguing, since they preserve heritage breeds—traditional farm animals that were raised by early American settlers. I spent some time talking with Brattonsville’s workers and learned a great deal about their roles on the farm and how their duties change with the seasons.
Another fascinating program at Historic Brattonsville is “By the Sweat of Our Brows.” Descendants of the Bratton slaves assemble on the grounds of the former plantation and lead interactive events that describe Brattonsville’s African American heritage. The volunteers follow in their ancestors’ footsteps and provide visitors with insightful perceptions about the history of York County’s black community.
My time at Historic Brattonsville was quite remarkable. I learned so much about early American life, both its struggles and successes. Brattonsville’s contemplative and comprehensive histories, interactive exhibits, and accurate portrayal of antebellum society created an experience I won’t soon forget.
Visit Brattonsville's Official Website for more information on the historic site!
Check out the South Carolina Picture Project to see how Brattonsville progressed through restoration!
Visit KnowItAll.org for an interactive video and virtual reality experience of the property!
Check out the following resource on Google Books: Scoggins, Michael C. The Day it Rained Militia: Huck's Defeat and the Revolution in the South Carolina Backcountry May-July 1780. Arcadia Publishing. 2005