The last time I posted about Francis Marion in February 1781, Lord Cornwallis had left the state of South Carolina, however, this was not typical occupied and subdued territory. As spring emerges, both Marion and British Lt. Col. John Watson start their positioning.
Watson had been ordered to bring his troops, the British 3rd Regiment of Guards and Loyalist/Provincial troops numbering about 400 from Ft. Watson to Georgetown on the coast while Marion had 300-500 troops starting to move to the center of the state to join up with the “Gamecock”, Brig. Gen Thomas Sumter.
Typical of the yet to be called “Swamp Fox”, Marion had his sources of Intel and was aware of Watson’s movements to the southeast and was waiting in the Wiboo Swamp for an opportunity. The chosen site is a marshy passageway located on the main Santee Road between Nelson’s and Murry’s Ferry.
J.D. Lewis (from http://www.carolana.com/home.html ) paints the scene:
Lt. Col. John Watson’s advance force of Loyalist Militia dragoons under Lt. Col. Henry Richbourg first clash with some of Brig. Gen. Marion’s cavalry under Lt. Col. Peter Horry, after which both fall back.
When Brig. Gen. Marion tries to send forth Lt. Col. Horry once more, Lt. Col. Watson’s infantry and artillery hold the Patriots back.
The Loyalists of the SC Rangers under Maj. Samuel Harrison then come up to charge the Patriots, but are arrested in their movement momentarily by one of Lt. Col. Horry’s horsemen, Gavin James, apparently a mighty individual, who single-handedly slews three of them before retiring.
Brig. Gen. Marion then orders in his horsemen under Capt. Daniel Conyers and Capt. John McCauley who drive the SC Rangers back, killing Maj. Samuel Harrison.
Right after this action, Marion learns in a letter from Capt. John Saunders, British Commandant of Georgetown, that he had seized Capt. John Postell under a flag of truce. Since this is 1781 (and not 1864 or 1944 or 2003, etc), there is in place a gentleman’s war to wage war, and Marion explains this in a letter that is sent in return with a copy to the Commandant of Charlestown:
March 7 th , 1781
By my orders, Lt. Col. Ervin sent Capt. John Postell with a flag to exchange the men you agreed to, and am greatly
surprised to find you not only refused to make the exchange, but have violated my flag by taking Capt. Postell
prisoner, contrary to the laws of nations. I shall immediately acquaint the commandant of Charles Town, and, if
satisfaction is not given, I will take it in every instance that may fall in my power. I have ever used all the officers and
men taken by me with humanity; but your conduct in closely confining Capt. Clarke in a place where he cannot stand
up, nor have his length, and not giving him half rations, will oblige me to retaliate on the officers and men which are, or
may fall in my hands, which nothing will prevent but your releasing Capt. Postell immediately, and using my officers as
gentlemen and your prisoners as customary in all civilized nations.
I am, sir, your obedient servant,
Francis Marion, BG Militia
Lt. Col. John Watson himself weighs in on his view of the “laws of nations”:
“It is with less surprise that I find a letter sent by you in all the apparent forms of a flag of truce, attended by an
armed party who concealed themselves within a certain distance of a place that pointed itself out for the delivery
of it, than to see the contents of it exhibit a complaint from you against us for violating the law of nations. I believe,
sir, it would be as difficult for you to name an instance of breach of it in his Majesty’s troops, as it would for them
to discover one where the law of arms or nations has been properly attended to by any of your party… You say it
was agreed that an exchange of prisoners should take place at George Town, and that Capt. Postell went by a flag
for that purpose, in consequence of that agreement. But I conceive it was not agreed that a man on parole to us
should become our enemy. Capt. Postell was, I understand, taken at Charles Town, and admitted to the country on
parole, if so, his detention, with all its consequences, is justifiable.”
An eyewitness remembered Marion’s response:
“Marion made him no reply, but gave orders to his nightly patrols to shoot his sentinels and cut off his pickets.” – William Dobein James.
It is about to get real.
Marion then takes out a bridge in Watson’s path to Georgetown and so Watson starts chasing the “Swamp Fox”, but the fox gets away, again and again.
By 12-13MAR1781, Watson stops at Witherspoon’s Plantation in an attempt to get Brig. Gen. Francis Marion to attack him, but to no avail. While he is camped here, patriot Col. Archibald McDonald climbs a tree and shoots Loyalist Lt. George Torriano in the knee from 300 yards with a rifle with open sights. Epic shot, and a great way to keep the British humble around patriot sharpshooters!
This daily skirmish between Marion and Watson would continue in March 1781 but as planting season is upon the land, Marion’s volunteer force will continue to dwindle from 300 to 500 men to now number under 75 men, but not before Watson writes in his journal the following:
“ They will not sleep and fight like gentlemen, but like savages are eternally firing and whooping around us by night, and by day waylaying and popping us from behind every tree!”
The psychological edge in warfare is a thing!
Lt. Col. Watson has yet to arrive in Georgetown, SC and the patriot militia is the only reason for this delay. March 1781 is proving to be a feisty month in the American Revolutionary War.