One might think that South Carolina would be out of the limelight with Lord Cornwallis giving chase to the Continentals (Greene and Lee) in North Carolina, but this means all the more that the remaining rebel forces in this colony needs to keep the British hold there in doubt.
It was 11FEB1781 when Francis Marion received a letter that said Thomas Sumter, fellow militia leader in South Carolina, was back in action and that the “Gamecock” was the highest ranking officer in the state/colony. Thomas Sumter was not happy that Daniel Morgan had been given permission by the Continental Army to operate in the Catawba region of SC and made it look easy by what he pulled off at Cowpens, SC in JAN1781:
.. a huge patriot victory at Cowpens, South Carolina on January 17th where Daniel Morgan achieved a double pincer movement that utilized militia in the front lines to supply 2-3 volleys and then retreat which then brought Tarleton’s dragoons into a trap (remember that from the movie ‘The Patriot’?) and resulting of 85% loss in the dragoon’s 1050 man force (100 dead, 230 wounded and 600 captured). Also captured was two field cannon, 800 muskets and 100 horses.
What has to be remembered is that the united States (emphasizing the thirteen sovereign “states” and not necessarily the united or union component) under the Articles of Confederation which was to be formally ratified the next month (March 1781) did NOT give the federation’s government power over the state’s armed forces. Sumter was technically senior to Marion in the SC State militia even though Marion still held a commission in the Continental Army and Sumter had resigned his in 1778. At this point, recently promoted SC militia leader Andrew Pickens and Francis Marion would be reporting to Thomas Sumter who then reported to the SC governor, John Rutledge, who was in exile in North Carolina.
So with Cornwallis chasing Greene and Lee in NC, Sumter directed Marion to assist him in attacking smaller British outposts in SC. Sumter had just laid siege to Fort Granby on the Congaree River on Feb 19th. Sumter desired Marion’s actions to distract Rawdon, the British officer in charge at Camden, SC.
Unknown to Sumter was that Rowden was on the move and had forced Marion to retreat 20 miles right after Marion had tried to recruit more men west of the Santee. Marion’s recruiting was not going well because a rogue Whig militia leader named Snipes had been plundering the civilian areas telling people he was under orders from Marion! Marion countered by re-emphasizing his philosophy of no looting and no taking provisions from plantations without direct orders from himself. He also published a proclamation that said unidentified parties not associated with his militia would be identified by name and at that time all would be free to put them to death without prosecution. It had come to that.
Marion then moved back to Snow’s Island with Rowden in pursuit of him. The “Swamp Fox” was almost caught when Rowden was directed to go after Sumter who was threatening Ninety-Six. In Rowden’s reports he lists Marion’s strength at 300 and all mounted.
It wasn’t until Feb 26th that Marion received Sumter’s orders from a letter dated Feb 20th. In the mean time Sumter had given up a siege of Fort Granby which he attempted without artillery and also an aborted effort to storm a stockade at Belleville SC. Marion responded that the British pressure was too great to his west at this time but would venture out at the next opportunity. Marion was definitely not enthusiastic about Sumter, considered him a “showboater” and word of his recent attacks seemed like a fools errand. Marion knew his men did not like being at large distances from home but Marion saw this as an order and moved somewhat slowly 100 miles west toward Sumter, to give the appearance that he was attempting to follow orders.
Thomas Sumter was impatient and therefore struck at Fort Watson on Feb 28th, but called off action after 18 of his men were killed. Sumter again penned a letter emphasizing that Marion needed to connect with him but then on March 1st, Sumter heard of a British unit heading his way so he retreated to the High Hills region above the Santee, grabbed his paralytic wife and their son and rode another 40 miles to Black River at Bradley’s Plantation. More than likely Sumter and Marion passed each other in the night and did not know it.
These actions, although small on paper, demonstrated that South Carolina could not be counted on by the British as a reconquered province. Marion and the other militia leaders would continue to harass the British in their rear .. no pun intended!
March1781 would be a HUGE month for the rebel cause against the British Empire in the American Colonies.