As of November 1780, Francis Marion no longer had the use of his home at Pond’s Bluff on the Santee River. His home, along with the homes of William Moultrie, John Rutledge, Henry Laurens and several of his own brigade members had been seized by the British under authority of Cornwallis.
So after Christmas, Marion had an identical home to the rest of his men on Snows Island, simple lean-to huts that protected them from wind and rain. What Marion did understand, and has since been applied by other guerilla leaders and is also part of US Military Doctrine, is the importance of having the support of the local population. The Whig community in this part of South Carolina, in spite of having most of their men out fighting the British and Loyalists, was able to provide Marion and his men with not only food but Intel as well. Women and slaves kept the local farms going when the men were absent to allow this local support to happen just as harvest season had completed.
The reward for the locals was that Marion refused to plunder them, and also, for what items that were used by the militia, Marion would provide receipts so that these families would be reimbursed after the war. Marion and his men would then target Tory-Loyalist communities when there were resourcing needs such as when Continental officer Greene asked for slave labor to assist him with foraging and cooking needs for his force on the Pee Dee river just inside the South Carolina border. Raids north of Georgetown by Marion and his men also netted hundreds of pounds of precious salt needed to preserve meat, which was subsequently shared within the local Whig community as well.
By New Year’s Day, 1781, Marion found out he had a new title with the South Carolina militia, that of Brig. Gen. Gov. Rutledge also identified Marion’s core territory being that of east of Camden and above the Santee River. Reflecting on 1780, it is apparent that the majority of the conflict now was centered in South Carolina as over 60% of the deaths and 90% of the wounded happened in this state. The fact that South Carolina held on is in and of itself a miracle, it should be noted that 1781 would be bloodier still!
The advantage of taking on a portion of this ‘American Revolutionary War’ conflict, as I was able to do in reviewing John Oller’s book ‘Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Won the American Revolution‘, was that I could get my head around how South Carolina became ripe for revolution, how principled was the conflict and how South Carolina dealt with their freedom from empire.
The disadvantage is that nothing happens in a vacuum or in isolation, and so in reality one needs to back up to the macro (Thirteen Colony Federation view) and even to a global view to understand more holistically how all this came down. This last disadvantage I was able to partially overcome with the assistance of a book Captain1776, Malibu and myself first ran across at the Camden, SC RevWar historical site bookstore called ‘South Carolina and the American Revolution – A Battlefield History‘ by John W. Gordon.
This book helped me to understand the rather complex web of issues, real or imaginary, physical or psychological that helped evolve the love of family, love of community and even into a love of a colony/region towards violence-based actions that risked these very things (family, community and colony/region and even culture).
The writer is a former US Marine officer and professor at the Citadel in South Carolina who is now involved with national security affairs in Quantico, VA. What was refreshing in John W. Gordon’s approach was the eye towards tactics and strategies that either helped or detracted from the efforts of either the rebel-patriots-Whigs or the loyalists-Brit-Tories in the very real civil war that raged in South Carolina from approximately 1775 until 1783.
One aspect realized, was the early attempt on the part of the British to utilize the Cherokee and Creek to their advantage in the southern theater of this war the British brought to regain control of the colonies actually led to ‘blowback’, where unintended consequences would rule as a result of decisions made. This in conjunction with the assumption that Loyalists would rise to greatly assist the British efforts showed how much out of touch London, England was with the thoughts on the minds of those in the low country, midland and rolling hills leading up to the Blue Ridge felt in 1775, 1778 and 1780.
Another aspect that came to light when reading this book was the pivotal moment the French aligned with the colonies which caused this conflict to spread to English colonies around the globe as this became a very real world war that involved Spain and the Dutch as well as the French.
Primary to all of this was the effect this effort to extract the South Carolina people from British Empire control in how this region unified to a degree during the conflict, that pitted father against son and cousin against cousin. The effect was specifically where, during and and especially after the war, the upstate areas obtained more say in the government. The fact that civil government by the people themselves for three years in absence of the British royals, that was then forced into exile in North Carolina for a time after Cornwallis occupied Charlestown and much of the region and then back in late 1781 showed that South Carolinians could rule themselves!
Decades later, praise for this effort across micro-cultures inside this state would emerge from the pen of George Bancroft in 1857 in “History of the United States”:
Left mainly to her own resources, it was through the depths of wretchedness that her sons were to bring her back to her place in the republic .. having suffered more, and dared more, and achieved more than the men of any other state.
This struggle matured a generation of men and women towards principles that will be again used eighty years later when another “empire” would be threatening South Carolina in coercive and violent ways once more.
Hats off to South Carolina’s Revolutionary War generation in their fight for their love of future generations and their way of life.
As I stated in my previous post that had Marion’s militia patrolling the Santee looking for British supply boats and troops heading inland to join Cornwallis in Winnsboro, SC past Camden:
… the British have a “Christmas present” for Marion, on 21DEC1780, Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie arrives in Charlestown with 2000 British regulars. The gloves are coming off in South Carolina as the British desperately desire to move into North Carolina in early spring and take aim at Continental Gen. George Washington in the north.
Marion had since retreated to camp a safe distance away and there receives Intel about this threat (or opportunity, depending on how you look at this) as the British continue to prepare for a North Carolina effort in the spring. These troops no doubt will have the duty of ensuring that Marion and his militia remain neutralized as the British prayed he would be with this kind of news.
Marion and his men were camped north of the Santee up river from Kingstree at Benbow’s Ferry on the Black River. Marion’s Capt. John Milton arrives with a letter from Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene. In the past few months, Marion had written Gen. Gates (previous Continental Southern Command commander) ten times and had received only one letter back.
Marion now writes to Greene and informs him about Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie arriving in Charlestown with a large number of British Regulars. Marion asks for 100 Continentals to come to the Santee and Pee Dee River basins and assist his growing Militia. Marion and his men then depart once again to patrol the “highway” the British use to transfer men and supplies inland, the Santee River and the roads along this river that lead toward Winnsboro. Christmas 1780 finds Marion’s militia on duty one more time.
Nathanael Green, a former Quaker, had formed his own militia in Rhode Island in 1774 and was the most brilliant military mind in the Continental Army, even more so than George Washington. He was a self taught man, with 250 books in his private library. He was promoted from private to major general in the Rhode Island State Army and then was made brigadier in the Continentals at the age of 32. When Gen. George Washington finally received permission from Congress to choose his own leadership, he chose Greene in October 1780 and he finally arrived in North Carolina in early December 1780.
When he arrived to see the condition of the men there in Charlotte, NC, there was a total of 2300, with only 1500 fit for fighting. He commenced to write to Washington and Jefferson about the state of the army in the south. He also caught up on letters from Marion that Gates had failed to respond to.
Greene was not a fan of the militia and stated that it would take the Continental army to retake control of the states from the British forces. Greenes’ immediate request from Marion was to capture Intel about the British plans and movements and relay them to the Continental staff. By this time Marion knew all about the positives and negatives of militia and had made the effort to ensure that the tendency toward pillaging from whites and blacks on plantations under his command was not to be tolerated. Marion valued what both the Continentals and the militias brought to the patriot cause.
It was in this season of seeing the fifth Continental commander take charge in the south, when Marion and his men, after their Christmas Day patrols retreated to the Snow’s Island location on the Great Pee Dee river to settle in for time in their winter’s quarters. It turns out that they would not be able to stay there long as their services would once again be needed before the end of 1780.
Thinking back, it had been two years since Savannah, GA fell and over six months since Charlestown fell to the British. The fact that the British were still in upstate South Carolina was a testament to the passionate effort these volunteers in the militia expended to not allow the British Empire to regain control of the region or be able to reestablish the colonial legislatures in the south as they had expected. The militia kept the Loyalists from having any psychological edge in the very real civil war that South Carolina was facing.
When you can field 700 instead of 20, 40 or 80, you are able to intimidate the enemy without bloodshed to obtain well needed supplies from their supply line. Lord Cornwallis is attempting to supply himself from the South Carolina coast but due to Marion’s streak of wins and his reputation, Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour modifies the normal port of Charlestown to Camden supply route that includes a stretch from the Nelson’s Ferry and the Santee Road over to a “bypass” from Moncks Corner to Friday’s Ferry on the Congaree River. There is one supply boat does not receive this order in time and the Patriots board the vessel at Nelson’s Ferry on 14DEC1780 and Col. Marion’s men remove all supplies of military value, then they apply the torch.
The British 64th Regiment happened to be near Nelson’s Ferry at the time of this raid, but their numbers are not even adequate to pursue Col. Marion’s large number, 700 of them, mounted men.
The British and Loyalists continue their “no quarter ways” as the story comes out in December 1780 that Patriot leader Lt. Roger Gordon wast out with a small force to patrol on Lynches Creek, stopping at a house for provisions and refreshments., is attacked by Capt. Butler with a much larger force of Loyalists and they set the house on fire. Gordon then capitulates on the promise of quarter, but no sooner has his Patriots grounded their muskets than they are all put to death.
In addition to this, the British have a “Christmas present” for Marion, on 21DEC1780, Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie arrives in Charlestown with 2000 British regulars. The gloves are coming off in South Carolina as the British desperately desire to move into North Carolina in early spring and take aim at Continental Gen. George Washington in the north.
Stay tuned for details as to how Marion deals with the swarming British forces that are all after neutralizing him and getting on with routing these farmers with pitchforks!
What prompted Marion and his men to leave Snows Island was two fold. First, word came that a patriot force found two brothers of the Loyalist militia leader Major John Harrison at home ill with smallpox and the patriots murder them in their beds. This action upsets Marion greatly as he desires a revolution that does not stoop to the tactics used by the British Empire. Second, Marion gets Intel that Lt. Col. Samuel Tynes has escaped and so Lt. Col. Peter Horry is sent towards the High Hills of the Santee in a chase. In the mean time Marion and his men ride to Indiantown which he knows will spark Intel back to the British that the “Fox” is out and about.
The British escapee Tynes makes his way to British HQ at Camden fairly shaken along with a small group of his men and decides he has had enough of the war and resigns. This is the psychological effect that Marion’s guerilla force had on the larger British/Loyalist forces that worked in the rebel’s favor.
This month of December 1780 marked a five year anniversary of one of the first actions in South Carolina in the drive to separate from the British Empire. In December 1775, Col. Richardson and his men had been busy in upcountry regions removing Loyalist leadership so that state forces could focus on the areas of the colony that were more aligned to Tory/British leadership, the area below the fall line and the tidewater regions of South Carolina. Toward the end of this late 1775 campaign, the troops faced an intense winter storm that lasted 30 hours or more and dumped over 20 inches of snow in areas of northern South Carolina and neighboring North Carolina. Does this sound familiar? Is this part of a re-enactment?
For Marion and his men, it had been quite a seesaw of emotions over the course of these five years. By summer 1776 it appeared after the British were repulsed at Charlestown that they would leave the southern colonies alone. This lasted until early 1780 when the British sought to roll-up through the southern colonies gaining loyalist men as they went to join British General Clinton in the north and squash this rebellion. Based on the success of their militia in the fall of 1780 I can only imagine that these men has a spark of excitement in their minds as they seemed to actually be able to slow the British advance into North Carolina. The next month would be critical to build on past success and continue to hamper British ops.
On 11DEC1780, more Intel arrives for Marion that alerts him to the British Commandant of Charlestown’s effort to send 200 new recruits to Cornwallis who is inside South Carolina at his winter headquarters at Winnsboro west of Camden. As Marion leaves Indiantown and approaches Nelson’s Ferry his band of freedom fighters swells to 700. A combination of his success and the fact that the harvest is about done allows Marion the opportunity to change things up a bit as how he has the numerical edge.
About 20 miles above the ferry at the Santee River, at the Halfway Swamp, (which is just a mile from Richardson’s plantation where Marion had almost walked into a trap just a month before) he overtakes the Maj. Robert McLeroth, his 64th Regiment of Foot who are escorting the recruits of the 7 th Regiment to Winnsboro. The very reason for the escort was that Cornwallis did not trust these 200 fresh recruits alone out there with the fox on the loose! Marion’s mounted troops made quick work of the British pickets as McLeroth had no cavalry.
[Author’s note: I had the privilege of visiting this site with Captain1776 and Malibu last month. While the road near the swamp had been closed for a while, and we could not get exactly to the site of this battle, it seems that the current swamp has not changed much from 238 years ago as it still is a cypress filled quagmire.]
At this point, Marion was in control of the battlefield. McLeroth sent a message under a flag of truce protesting the shooting of the pickets. Marion’s reply was that the British practice of burning houses was more egregious adding that if the British persisted in the latter that he would continue the former. McLeroth also challenged Marion to come out in the open field and fight like a man.
Marion offered a counter proposal in that each side would pick their 20 best marksmen do this combo duel to decide this battle. This tradition dates back to biblical times! It was agreed that this would happen to the south of a prominent oak tree as the men lined up 100 yards from each other. Marion appointed Maj. John Vanderhorst to lead the patriot team but it seems that Vanderhorst asked Capt. Witherspoon at what range should they choose for firing the opening round of buckshot and Witherspoon said 50 yards. Vanderhorst admitted that he was not good judging distances and asked that Witherspoon tap him on the shoulder when they should commence firing.
As the men got closer, it was the British who fled the field back to the main body of their force. Marion’s men let out a cheer. Once again, psychological edge is a major factor.
It seems by this time it was about nightfall and each force went to their evening campfires. McLeroth actually was able to out fox the fox as he setup camp and kept the campfires lit while he and his men slipped away to Singleton’s Mill 15 miles north. However, the price paid by McLeroth was having to leave supply wagons and heavy baggage that the patriots used for re-supplying themselves.
Marion, once aware of the British slipping away sent Maj. John James in pursuit but he encounters British reinforcements of 50 mounted cavalry and 80 more infantry and even something more threatening than that, the Singleton family had smallpox. Jame’s men got off one round before leaving the property and returned to Marion who decided not to engage the enemy at this time. At least he delayed this force of recruits on their way to Winnsboro. These recuits would remember this encounter (psyche) and it would play a role in the battle of Cowpens about a month later.
December 1780 still has some more action packed in it so stay tuned!