01-13APR1781 – Marion’s Militia Targets British Regulars and Loyalist Militias

In my previous post, it was said that Francis Marion might have responded to the British destruction of his winter quarters:

“It ain’t winter anymore”

For the British it was again about “too little, too late”. The arrogance (“British Exceptionalism” maybe?) …

… as this attitude would dog them as underestimating a guerrilla leader operating in decentralized command structure is never a good idea, ask the US political and military leaders about Vietnam.

On 03APR1781, Marion’s 100 militia catch up with the British force of 300 after Brig. Gen. Francis Marion ordered Lt. Col. Hugh Horry to take his mounted infantry and find Lt. Col. Welbore Ellis Doyle.

At Witherspoon’s Plantation, Lt. Col. Doyle has some foragers there collecting food for his troops. When Lt. Col. Horry arrives at the plantation, they engage the Provincials, killing nine men and capturing sixteen. The Patriots pursue the fleeing enemy to Witherspoon’s Ferry and catch the British rear guard scuttling a ferryboat. The Patriots fire.

Lt. Col. Doyle quickly forms his men along the bank of Lynches Creek and delivers a volley of musket fire in return. After this, the British gather up their belongings and head towards the Pee Dee River no longer being able to forage for food. This daily task, still tough because it is springtime, will have to wait for another opportunity. Marion’s edge is the psychological warfare he uses that make the enemy always assume that behind ever tree, in every swamp, is Marion and his men.

By 08APR1781, Marion and his growing army crosses the Pee Dee River at
Mars Bluff and camps on the other side at Wahee Neck. He now has
nearly 500 men but their ammunition is very low, down to only two rounds per man. 500 men is impressive, however about the same time Lt. Col. John Watson Tadwell-Watson nears Marion’s location and he encamps along Catfish Creek with over 900 men.

Marion hears about the amassed troops and he calls a “Council of War” with his key officers, Lt. Col. John Baxter, Lt. Col. Alexander Swinton, Lt. Col. Hugh Horry, Lt. Col. Peter Horry, Lt. Col. John Ervin, Lt. Col. James
Postell, and Maj. John James. Francis Marion believes it is time to slip away into North Carolina to preserve their numbers in light of the nearby British force bent on Marion’s destruction. On this night, a detachment from Lt. Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, part of the Continental Army, arrives and all talk of slipping away is put aside. The rest of Lee’s Legion is on their way. Not only that, news was delivered that Gen Greene had stopped Corwallis at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina.

The cat (British/Loyalist Militia) and mouse (Militia) quickly becomes the cat (Continentals/Militia) and mouse (British/Loyalist Militia).

With the news that Continentals have joined with Marion’s militia at Wahee Neck, the nearby enemy is soon panicked. Maj. Micajah Gainey
slips away quietly. Lt. Col. John Watson Tadwell-Watson realizing
that his position is now tenuous at best, burns his baggage and dumps
two small field pieces into Catfish Creek and marches double-time
back to the safety of Georgetown on the coast.

Another aspect of this phase of the American colonial war against the British Empire was the fact that in March 1781, the Articles of Confederation was signed by all the colonies and it did not give the Continentals, or the politicians in Philadelphia, clear power and control over these militia units. When Lee’s Continentals arrived in South Carolina, they in fact partnered with Marion’s militia who was under the guidance of the South Carolina governor, in exile in North Carolina, John Rutledge. Further confusing the chain of command was that Francis Marion still held his Continental commission as an officer. But with the tide changing, these leaders were about to target British outposts in South Carolina toward restoring trust in the cause of freedom and liberty in the southern colonies.



05MAR1781: Spring Emerges as Both the British and Patriots Make Their Moves

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.


11FEB1781 – 01MAR1781: With Cornwallis Chasing Nathaniel Greene in NC …

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.

– SF1

05FEB1781 Brig. Gen. Marion Captures 30 British Redcoats, Including Officers

Brig. Gen. Francis Marion starts off February 1781 with an effort many miles south of their normal area of operations. With a group of mounted militiamen, he left the Pee Dee region to head to the Dorchester area which is much closer to CharlesTown itself.

In route they destroy or utilize large quantities of enemy stores and provisions and even proceeded damaged the Redcoat quarters at Wando Landing, about 15 miles from CharlesTown. Francis Marion and his men surprised the British troops and captured 30 prisoners, including officers, before continuing towards Dorchester.

Beyond this there is not much action the first half of February 1781, but spring is coming to South Carolina, and the actions is about to ramp up!


30DEC1780: Marion’s Home at Snows Island – Winter Quarters

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!