14APR-22APR1781: Tough Times Can Produce Innovations that Matter

In my last American Revolutionary War post, I suggested that after some darkness, that change was in the air, and that a new course might be upon the efforts in South Carolina to exit the British Empire. Time to hoist the sails, capture that wind and move forward:

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.

Marion and Lee wasted no time in embarking on some new tactics toward controlling most of South Carolina and Georgia for the cause. It is interesting that the great military minds that do adapt to new strategies sometimes, when they have a second chance, they can then secure a region militarily. In this case, General Greene of the Continental Army was about to adopt the “war of posts” strategy that he had dissed before.

What had allowed the freedom to operate was that Cornwallis was so impacted by the Guilford Court House battle in North Carolina that he decided to move his troops to Wilmington NC on the coast to recover. After this his plan was to then invade Virginia never again to enter South Carolina. Greene used this opportunity to secure South Carolina and Georgia land so that if a peace treaty were to be achieved, the colonies would have these territories.

With Cornwallis’ exit from the deep south colonies, the various Tory elements in South Carolina started to melt away into the countryside as news spread of Cornwallis’ departure from the region. The British left only significant forces at Camden, Georgetown and Charleston along with other troops at various posts across the colony numbering 8,000 in total. These posts were along the supply line that kept forces 800 strong supplied in Camden which is over one hundred miles away from the coast and ports.

Greene’s army numbered only 1,400 but was on the move now deep into South Carolina. In this scenario, Watson gave up chasing Marion and dumped his artillery and heavy baggage into a creek and sped toward Camden to join forces with British officer Rawdon and then circled back steering clear of the rebel forces going back to the coast at Georgetown.

“Lighthorse” Harry Lee arrived at Marion’s camp on April 14th, 1781 and filled in Marion on the details of Guilford CH, a bloody battle that the British technically won but having outrun their own supply line, Cornwallis’ troops were a mess. British cavalry officer Tarleton himself had several finger amputated from wounds he suffered in the conflict.

Lee articulated how his troops would now focus on the larger garrisons at Camden and Ninety-Six while the militia (Pickens, Sumter and Marion) work away on the smaller posts in SC. However, it was another target that Lee had in mind that Marion did not see “eye-to-eye” on. Lee wanted to lay siege to Fort Watson WITH Marion, while Marion wanted to continue his chase of British office Watson. Marion had seen first hand both the disastrous Savannah siege in 1779 and also Thomas Sumter’s attempted siege in which he got impatient and lost a lot of his men.

While the 49 year old Marion was technically in charge and 25 year old Lee was second in command, the fact that Lee had 300 troops to Marion’s 80 at this time probably led to Marion acquiescing.

Fort Watson was surrounded on April 15th, however, all the trees around the fort were gone so there was no way sharpshooters could be utilized. The British had learned much from previous militia encounters. Cutting off the water supply was also attempted but the the well right outside the fort could be used at night through a covered passage had been built. After the siege had started, the 120 defenders started digging a well inside the fort and struck water on the fourth day of the siege.

The rebels had requested a six-pounder from Greene which would have made quick work of this fort since it had no cannon of its own, but the men bringing the cannon got lost and returned to Greene’s location outside Camden.

The bottom line was that Marion’s men were not prepared for a siege and were not experienced at it. This was not their strong suite. Morale was sinking and Marion was corresponding with various militia’s around the state about some significant issues that distracted Marion from a situation he was not comfortable in:

  1. Militia Capt. Snipes was free-lancing/looting around the state and bad-mouthing Marion suggesting that people should not send supplies to him
  2. “Sumter’s Law”, which paid ten months of service to men with plunder from local Tories (horses, clothing and slaves), was causing many potential militia members to join Sumter instead of Marion’s militia. Marion did not agree with the plunder reward, but was in the minority opinion on this one.
  3. Rumor was out that Marion’s men killed three prisoners in their care according to the Brit commander in Charleston and Marion’s mentor suggested in a letter that he half-believed it.

The siege was taking its toll on the ones facilitating the siege until an innovative spirit emerged in militia leader Lt. Col. Hezekiah Maham. A tower would be built out of range from the Brits in the fort, but tall enough for sharpshooters to do their work. The fort walls were 7 foot on top of a 23 foot mound so the tower would have to be very, very high. Geometry as well as ballistics played a part in this experiment.

By April 22nd it was ready with a perch at the top with openings for the long rifles. The rebels sharpshooters rained down fire into the fort and simultaneously a patriot unit was taking down the stockade section of the fort itself. A surrender request was made and the commander McKay put up the white flag. In his journal it seemed the British inside the fort refused to fight any longer. Generous terms were offered and the British troops made their way to Charleston.

Lee and Marion reaped a bounty of ammunition and public praise was awarded to Maham and his innovation. Lee, whose ego usually precedes himself, actually came to praise Marion publicly and asked to be formally placed under Marion’s leadership “in some degree”. Greene wrote Marion and said praise would travel to General Washington and the world.

With Fort Watson out of the picture, it would be the first of many dominoes to fall for the British in South Carolina as the summer heat started returning to the region.