08NOV1780: Tarleton Can’t Catch Francis Marion – Inadvertently Calls Him a Fox

When I last updated y’all on Marion’s activities in the fall of 1780, Cornwallis had “green lighted” Tarleton via his commander at Camden, George Turnball.

From Camden on November 1 Turnbull wrote to Tarleton at Winnsboro, imploring him to gather up his Legion to hunt down Marion. Tarleton rarely paid any compliments to his rebel adversaries, but he respected Marion, later writing that “Mr. Marion, by his zeal and abilities, shewed himself capable of the trust committed to his charge.” … He [Tarleton] welcomed the opportunity to pursue him, and Cornwallis approved the operation, telling Tarleton, “I … most sincerely hope you will get at Mr. Marion.”

Oller, John. The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution

The reason for the “green-light” to Cornwallis’ favorite field commander was the impact, both physical and psychological, that Francis Marion and his militia had in South Carolina and in the Southern Theatre of Operations of the Revolutionary War just since August 1780:

Cornwallis was desperate to end Marion’s dominance in the country between the Santee and Pee Dee Rivers. Nisbet Balfour, the commandant at Charleston, worried that unless further measures were taken, all communication between Charleston and Cornwallis’s army would be “at an end.” Marion was bleeding the British to death by a thousand cuts.

Oller, John. The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution

By now, Banistre Tarleton had the name “Bloody Ban” based on reports from how his men at the conclusion of their 150 mile / 54 hour pursuit of Col. Abraham Buford who was late to reinforce Charleston in May 1780 so Buford and his 350 Virginia Continentals were on the run toward North Carolina. This event was called “Buford’s Massacre” and set the stage for a reversal of alliances for the people of the colony of South Carolina over the coming months! The words “Tarleton’s quarter” (meaning take no prisoners) became legend and his character traits were woven into the person called “Colonel Tavington” in the movie ‘The Patriot'[2000].

Tarleton and his Green Dragoons along with a force of Tories called Harrison’s Rangers set out from Camden on 05NOV1780 moving south based on Intel they received that had Marion’s militian in the High Hills of the Santee. They did not find Marion there as he was but but thirty miles farther south near Nelson’s Ferry with two hundred men on the evening of 05NOV1780.

By 07NOV, Tarleton and his forces moved to the plantation of the recently widowed Dorothy Richardson, whose late husband, Brigadier General Richard Richardson, had been the victorious Whig commander in the Snow Campaign in 1775. This was no coincidence to camp right at a famous patriot’s home. Intel continued to play an important role as Tarleton learned that Marion was camped now just sixteen miles south. Marion too heard reports of Tarleton’s presence.

Marion and his men laid an ambush at Nelson’s Ferry and waited until night expecting Tarleton to cross there but was disappointed as Tarleton backtracked as though he himself sensed a trap. Marion then maneuvered to within three miles of Tarleton’s camp, intending to surprise him. Both of these leaders possessed a high level of intelligence in the ways of military strategy.

Tarleton was crafty as well: he spread the rumor that his main body had returned to Camden and sent out small patrols with instructions to show little signs of fear by leaving camps abruptly with food still cooking in order to draw Marion to attack. He lit bonfires at Richardson’s Plantation designed to give the impression that he was burning the home of a revered patriot family. In the meantime he wheeled out two small artillery pieces capable of a kind of firepower Marion’s men were not used to facing. Then, knowing Marion’s penchant for making surprise attacks at night, Tarleton hid in the woods with his force of four hundred and waited for Marion to come to him.

Oller, John. The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution

It is about to get real at this point. Knowing that the smoke from the fires would be good bait to draw Marion’s militia forces into this trap, all Tarleton had to do was wait.

At this critical point, the widow of Gen. Richard Richardson prompted her son, the 39 year old Richard Richardson Jr. to escape the plantation’s main home undetected and warn the militia of this trap. Major Richardson’s Intel was that  Tarleton had 100 cavalry and 300 dragoons plus two artillery pieces and that one of Marion’s men deserted to the British/Tory forces and was now Tarleton’s guide in the area.

In light of this brush with death for his men and himself, Marion decided to separate himself from this force by taking his men in the dark on a ride through the swamps toward safety near Jack’s Creek.

The next morning, Tarleton is surprised that the trap was not sprung. This “cat-n-mouse” game was getting real and getting intense!

… he [Tarleton] sent a few men to find out why. They brought back a prisoner who had managed to escape from Marion’s brigade during the previous night’s mad dash. He informed them that Marion would have attacked him had some “treacherous women” (the widow Richardson and others) not smuggled out an emissary to warn Marion of Tarleton’s actual number. Tarleton immediately ordered his men to their arms and mounts, but they soon discovered that Marion had already flown from his camp at Jack’s Creek in the direction of Kingstree.

Oller, John. The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution

This started a day of adventure for both of these forces as Tarleton moved his men 26 miles through swamps in seven hours while Marion’s men racked up 35 miles in staying out of range of their pursuers.

As Tarleton reported to Cornwallis, due to Marion’s head start and “the difficulties of the country,” he was unable to catch him. He abandoned the chase at Ox Swamp, outside of present-day Manning, which was wide, mucky, and without roads for passage. It was there Tarleton is said to have uttered the words that gave Marion his immortal nickname. “Come my boys! Let us go back, and we will soon find the Gamecock [Thomas Sumter]. But as for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.”

Oller, John. The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution

Now you might think that Tarleton would just move on back toward Camden and try to capture militia leader Thomas Sumter, however, a man of Tarelton’s character would ensure that his frustration would be felt on the innocent people and homes along the path toward Camden:

Tarleton’s frustration was evident from his actions immediately afterward. As he told Cornwallis, he “laid… waste” to all the houses and plantations of the rebels around Richardson’s Plantation and Jack’s Creek. (As usual, Cornwallis turned a blind eye to such depredations.)

Tarleton paid a visit back to the widow Richardson’s home and, as Marion reported to Gates, “beat” her to “make her tell where I was.” Doing what he had earlier pretended to do in order to lure Marion to battle, Tarleton then burned Mrs. Richardson’s home and some of her cattle, destroyed all her corn, and left her without so much as a change of clothes.

From Nelson’s Ferry to Camden he destroyed the homes and grain of thirty plantation owners.

Worst of all, Marion reported, Tarleton had “behaved to the poor women he has distressed with great barbarity.… It is beyond measure distressing to see the women and children sitting in the open air round a fire without a blanket, or any clothing but what they had on, and women of family, and that had ample fortunes; for he spares neither Whig nor Tory.” *

Oller, John. The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution

So we see here that Tarleton had two points of weakness, pride and revenge. The trait of revenge, especially on innocent women and children would help turn the tide of the “civil war” inside South Carolina itself, drying up Tory sympathies, and for many generations instilling the thought that war taken to the civilian population itself was not only uncivilized, but also brought “blowback”.

The empire of today (United States) could learn well from this lesson of the past. That thought though will have to be captured in yet another future post. As we leave November 1780, we find the British’s top performing field commander frustrated by militia whose leader now has a new name. Although the name Swamp Fox will not emerge until decades after the conclusion of this war, there is something to be said for this moment in time when guerrilla fighting techniques would be the deciding factor as to why the American Revolution did not end in 1780.

As a result, are we thankful today on Thanksgiving Day 2018? I know I am. Thank you Francis Marion and your faithful men in your stand against the empire of your day. You have given the generations that follow hope in the love, liberty and life that your efforts inspired. Amen.


2018 Visit to Camden Battlefield and Efforts to Restore It Holistically

Continentals and British forces meet in the night on the Great Wagon Road north of Camden, SC

Another spot myself (SF1), Captain1776 and Malibu were able to visit was the American Revolutionary War battlefield of Camden located about 7 miles north of the existing city.

What we learned at a spot just south of modern Camden at the educational center that shares what happened here in 1780 was that the non-profit organization called Historic Camden Foundation, whose mission:

.. is to protect, preserve, and celebrate Camden’s extraordinary Colonial and Revolutionary War history.

Our 107 acres sit atop the original 18th-century property of the city’s founder Joseph Kershaw and the fortified Revolutionary War-era town occupied by British General Cornwallis and Lord Rawdon’s men from 1780-81. Visit the site to learn about the prolific Kershaw, Camden’s importance to the war’s Southern Campaigns, and Colonial life in the backcountry. Explore the reconstructed Kershaw-Cornwallis House and recently rehabilitated c. 1800 McCaa’s Tavern, as well as exhibits in other period structures.

We learned from a trustee of that organization (who was cleaning up from RevWar Weekend, complete with re-enactors that is held the first weekend of each November) is the multi-generational effort to restore the battlefield holistically, down to having exactly the same species of trees that this battle was fought under on that hot August day back in 1780:

Camden Battlefield and Longleaf Pine Preserve:

“Historic Camden is excited to announce that we have recently assumed ownership of 476 acres of the Battlefield of Camden. The Battlefield is hallowed ground for the hundreds of men who died in this significant battle that took place August 16, 1780. Historic Camden is dedicated to telling the story of this fascinating battle, preserving and studying the archaeological evidence of the site, restoring the Longleaf Pine forest that existed during the 18th century, and providing a space for a variety of outdoor recreational activities…”

We saw first hand the progress to date as we hiked though a small part of the battlefield:

The long needle pines will take many years to exceed 100 foot plus height that was the case back in 1780 that made for a canopy over the men who fought for liberty and freedom back then:

What a special effort toward remembering how two armies along the Great Wagon Road happened to stumble on each other, and how humbling it is to know that this low-point of the American Colony’s (all 13 of them) effort to drive away the British Empire from oppressing them and their lively-hood gave way to other efforts in the South Carolina colony by Marion and other militia units later that fall of 1780 to shine brightly in restoring the patriotic spirit in this region, as well as throughout the colonies.


02NOV1780 – British Lt. Gen Charles, Lord Cornwallis Green Lights Lt. Col. Tarleton

The context for this decision by Corwallis to “green light” Tarleton is essential toward understanding the gravity of this moment in the confederation’s (thirteen colonies joined together for this cause) war for independence from the British Empire.

My previous post showed how Francis Marion’s winning streak was turning society away from leaning toward an inevitable “Loyalist” South Carolina and swelled the ranks of the patriots. From the bookSwamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution“:

Marion’s victory at Tearcoat Swamp left the British high command in a state of panic. With no effective enemy force in the field, Marion now had the ability to strike at will throughout the entire area of South Carolina east of the Wateree River and north of the Santee.

As a result it had become almost impossible for the British to safely send supplies or communications from the coast to Cornwallis’s army. The Santee, the major navigable river flowing through the heart of the state, did not connect directly to either Georgetown or Charleston. Therefore, to move supplies from the coast to Camden and Winnsboro, it was necessary to use both roads and waterways. Typically the British traveled either overland or by boat to Nelson’s Ferry, where they crossed the Santee, then by wagon to Camden. But because of the threat Marion posed, the British were afraid to cross at Nelson’s and began taking a longer, more circuitous route to the northwest over more difficult roads to Friday’s Ferry on the Congaree River. From there they crossed the Congaree and traveled overland to Camden and Winnsboro.

Desperate times calls for desperate measures apparently. Lord Cornwallis, who prided himself publicly as a man who fought with honor decided to give in to Banastre Tarleton’s pleas to go after the guerrilla militia leader Marion. This was not just Cornwallis granting just any staff officer their desire, it was a calculated move based on Tarleton’s history, character and reputation. Cornwallis was brilliant in strategy, however, it seems that his assumption that American colonial society would quickly forget atrocities (underestimating “blowback”) may well have been one of his weaknesses, along with pride.

From the movie “The Patriot” (2000):

  • Benjamin Martin: I’ve just read into the mind of a genius. Cornwallis knows more about war then any of us could ever hope to learn in a dozen lifetimes. His victories at Camden and Charleston were perfect, perfect. The thing is, he knows that… and perhaps that’s his weakness.
  • Gabriel Martin: Sir?
  • Benjamin Martin: Pride. Pride’s a weakness.
  • Major Jean Villeneuve: Personally, I would prefer stupidity.
  • Benjamin Martin: Pride will do.

Basically, the man Cornwallis chose is the antithesis of Francis Marion. Read the following from John Oller’s words and see for yourself:

Young (twenty-six in 1780), boyishly handsome, athletically built, a drinker, gambler, and womanizer, he cut the sort of dashing figure that some have mistakenly ascribed to Marion. His stock in trade was his ruthless pursuit of his quarry followed by a headlong, frontal cavalry attack, with sabers flashing and slashing when he inevitably caught up with them. Son of a wealthy Liverpool slave-trading merchant, Tarleton attended Oxford and studied law at London’s prestigious Middle Temple before quitting to follow his friend and fellow Oxfordian, Francis Rawdon, into the military.

He purchased a “cornet,” or commission, in the British cavalry in 1775 and voluntarily sailed to America to fight with the king’s men. He was part of Clinton’s first, unsuccessful attack on Charleston, saw action at Brandywine, and helped capture Charles Lee, the Continental commander, in a raid on a tavern in late 1776. During the British occupation of Philadelphia he gambled away his salary, nearly dueled an officer whose mistress he dallied with, ..

Next, let us add in the 1780MAY actions of Tarleton as a follow-up to the British capturing Charlestown:

.. In late May, Cornwallis had dispatched Tarleton and his Legion of 230, along with a company of 40 British army dragoons, to pursue Colonel Abraham Buford. Having arrived too late to reinforce Charleston, Buford and his 350 Virginia Continentals were then on the run toward North Carolina. With them were Governor John Rutledge and some members of his council, who had fled Charleston before it fell.

Although the Americans had a ten-day head start on him, Tarleton drove his men relentlessly forward, covering 150 miles in fifty-four hours to catch up with them. Rutledge barely avoided capture by veering off from the main force hours ahead of the pursuers, but Tarleton overtook Buford just shy of the North Carolina border at a place called the Waxhaws. There, in Tarleton’s own words, “slaughter was commenced.”

Some historians think this is shear propaganda, however, there have been many direct sources that relay some rather harsh orders that this 28 year old gave to his men.  Here is some more detail from the claims that emerged after this event:

The patriot side claimed that after the fighting stopped, Tarleton’s men were guilty of outright massacre, hacking Buford’s men to death even as they lay down their arms and begged for quarter. “Tarleton’s Quarter” (meaning take no prisoners) and “Buford’s Massacre” became rallying cries for the patriots in later battles, notably King’s Mountain. What is sometimes overlooked is that although the commander of the king’s troops at both King’s Mountain and the Waxhaws was a Briton, virtually all the slaughtering was done by Americans against Americans.

This man had no long-term appreciation for what America would be like after his assumption of British subjection of the rebel spirit. This man is very much unlike Francis Marion in almost every way.

In the six months Tarleton had been in the colony of South Carolina, he bested the likes of William Washington, Issac Huger, A. Buford and even Thomas Sumter, all of senior rank to Tarleton. With a reputation like this, Corwallis was hoping for a quick win from someone who could get things done, even if it was done ruthlessly. Cornwallis had already spent more time than he would have liked in this southern colony and was anxious to maneuver north to bring a quick end to this conflict and bring the colonies back under the British wing.

With the “green light”, Tarleton moves out of Winnsboro which is 30 miles west of Camden and will take several days ride to arrive in the area Marion and his militia might be. Tarleton will be leading what is called a British Legion, which is actually a loyalist cavalry (American Tories) unit that was recruited from both New York and Pennsylvania. Legions consisted of traditional saber carrying cavalry and dragoons which are infantry who traveled on horses who had pistols and muskets.  Tarleton’s men wore green coats to set them from the redcoat British regulars.

The hunt is on, for this “fox” that has interrupted British operations in the region.

Stay tuned.



Summer 1780 South Carolina: British Empire Occupation

1780 Charles Town Siege Map

What a difference four years makes, from the ability to repel the British Navy in Charleston Harbor in June 1776 to the ability to repel the British Army in May/June 1779 from entering Charleston, May 1780 would see a very different and sobering picture.

The British were quickly establishing forts and posts throughout the land and accepting surrender of Patriot forces from the Georgia border towns of Savannah and Augusta arching up to Ninety-Six in northwest South Carolina arching back down through Camden and on to Georgetown on the coast for well over 100 miles.

With power shifting back to the Loyalists / Tories in the state,  Whigs began accepting parole. Military men the likes of  Andrew Pickens and Andrew Williamson also were paroled while generals and politicians who surrendered at Charleston were taken out of action. William Moultrie became a POW in Charleston and Benjamin Lincoln was forced to retire to his farm in New England. Christopher Gadsden was placed in solitary confinement in St. Augustine, Florida while Henry Laurens was taken to London, England and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

August 1780 saw the twin defeats at Camden (Gates) and Fishing Creek  (Sumter) leaving only Francis Marion, age 48, available, should he choose it. Would he like others go back to their way of living and let the British back into power?

The abundance of POWs (Prisoners of War) in the region as a result of General Gates’ defeat at Camden left an opportunity that most men would have missed. A deserter shared information of over 150 Maryland Continental POWs being housed in Thomas Sumter’s abandoned home on the north savanna of the Santee River about 6 miles from Nelson’s Ferry where Francis Marion and his men are camped. This was a major river crossing north of Charleston:

This intel delivered on 24AUG1780 was NOT shared with the 60 men under Francis Marion. This was his M.O. (Mode of Operation) that he would use time and again. A surprise attack needed to be a surprise to succeed!

Stay tuned ..


August 16, 1780 – British Empire vs. Continentals/Militia : Battle of Camden

The darkest hour of the War for Independence from the British Empire in South Carolina was on this day 238 years ago. As mentioned in my previous post, the 4000 Continentals led by Horatio Gates, hero of Saratoga, and Major General Johann DeKalb faced Lord Cornwallis and Lt. Colonel James Webster and other British leadership on the fields just south and west of present day DeKalb, SC which is north and west of Camden, SC.  More in depth information on the Battle of Camden can be researched here.

The mismatch in the troops was apparent from the first shots as volunteers from Virginia were ordered to march within 50 yards of the British and hesitated at that command. Facing the best of the British army, the 23rd and 33rd regiments, is an unnerving experience. The Virginians saw the expertise being aimed at them and broke. The ripple effect of this continued past the Virginia militia, to the North Carolina militia and even to the Maryland Continentals.

This alone was all it took to have Major General Horatio Gates mount a fast horse and ride hard and long for 60 miles, about 2-3 hours, leaving any further damage control and subsequent retreat to other officers on the field.

The 1st Maryland Brigade put up a heroic fight against the British as things were coming apart at the seams, keeping this event from being a rout. This delay helped other units on the field but ultimately the troops had to flee into the nearby swamps that kept Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s horse from pursuing them in this terrain allowing them to live to fight another day.

The 2nd Maryland, Delaware Continentals and North Carolina militia (one unit) remained on the field but were outnumbered 600 to 2000. Major General Baron Johann DeKalb led many bayonet charges for over an hour and had his horse shot out from under him.  In his final assault he killed a British soldier and then went down to bayonet and bullet wounds. His troops protectively closed around him and opposed another bayonet charge from the overwhelming British forces.

Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton returned from his pursuit of the 1st Maryland in the swamps and chased the rear of the balance of the American troops. This battle was over.

The type of warfare typical to the 18th Century had Lord Cornwallis taking Baron DeKalb back to Camden and had him seen by his personal physician. Unfortunately Baron DeKalb died in Camden and is buried in Camden with a monument that has been erected to his memory on the old battlefield.

The final tally was about 700 American troops killed or taken prisoner out of 3000 troops that actually engaged in fighting, that Gates had abandoned, while the British lost 300 troops who were wounded or killed (68) out of 2200 engaged in this fight.

This fight effectively left a huge power vacuum in South Carolina that would take the Americans months to recover from. It is into this vacuum that men like Francis Marion would step up and into for the cause they had on their hearts.

August 1780 was a time when men of this region had to put into action, the words they had on their lips for the previous four years. Effectively, the resulted in an internal civil war in South Carolina. The method that men chose to fight would be known for generations to come and the legacy of the Swamp Fox would be born.