General Greene assumes Command of the Southern Army -- His Correspondence with Marion -- Condition of the Country -- Marion and Lee surprise Georgetown -- Col. Horry defeats Gainey -- Marion pursues McIlraith -- Proposed Pitched Battle between Picked Men.
The year 1781 opened, with new interest, the great drama of war in South Carolina. In that State, as we have seen, deprived of a large portion of her military effectives, opposition had never entirely ceased to the progress of the invader. New and more strenuous exertions, on the part of Congress, were made to give her the necessary assistance. Without this, the war, prolonged with whatever spirit by the partisans, was not likely, because of their deficient materiel and resources, to reach any decisive results. We may yield thus much, though we are unwilling to admit the justice of those opinions, on the part of General Greene and other officers of the regular army, by which the influence of the native militia, on the events of the war, was quite too much disparaged. But for this militia, and the great spirit and conduct manifested by the partisan leaders in Carolina, no regular force which Congress would or could have sent into the field, would have sufficed for the recovery of the two almost isolated States of South Carolina and Georgia. Indeed, we are inclined to think that, but for the native spirit which they had shown in the conquest, no attempt would have been made for their recovery. We should be at a loss, unless we recognized the value of this native spirit, and the importance of its achievements, however small individually, to determine by what means these States were finally recovered to the American confederacy. In no single pitched battle between the two grand armies did the Americans obtain a decided victory. The fruits of victory enured to them, quite as much in consequence of the active combination of the partisan captains, as by the vigor of their own arms. By these the enemy were harassed with unparalleled audacity -- their supplies and convoys cut off, their detachments captured or cut to pieces, their movements watched, and their whole influence so narrowed and restrained, as to be confined almost entirely to those places where they remained in strength. It is not meant by this, to lessen in any degree the value of the services rendered by the Continental forces. These were very great, and contributed in large measure to bring the war to an early and a happy issue. It is only intended to insist upon those claims of the partisans, which, unasserted by themselves, have been a little too irreverently dismissed by others. But for these leaders, Marion, Sumter, Pickens, Davie, Hampton, and some fifty more well endowed and gallant spirits, the Continental forces sent to Carolina would have vainly flung themselves upon the impenetrable masses of the British.
It was the vitality thus exhibited by the country, by the native captains and people, that persuaded Congress, though sadly deficient in materials and men, to make another attempt to afford to the South, the succor which it asked. The wreck of the army under Gates had been collected by that unfortunate commander at Charlotte, North Carolina. He was superseded in its command by General Greene, a soldier of great firmness and discretion, great prudence and forethought -- qualities the very opposite of those by which his predecessor seems to have been distinguished. New hopes were awakened by this change of command, which, though slow of fruition, were not finally to be disappointed. Greene's assumption of command was distinguished by a happy augury. In a few hours after reaching camp Charlotte, he received intelligence of the success of Lt.-Col. Washington, against the British post held at Clermont, South Carolina, by the British Colonel Rugely. Rugely was well posted in a redoubt, which was tenable except against artillery. Washington's force consisted only of cavalry. A pleasant `ruse de guerre' of the latter, which produced some little merriment among the Americans at the expense of the British colonel, enabled Washington to succeed. A pine log was rudely hewn into the appearance of a cannon, and, mounted upon wagon wheels, was advanced with solemnity to the attack. The affair looked sufficiently serious, and Rugely, to avoid any unnecessary effusion of blood, yielded the post. Cornwallis, drily commenting on the transaction, in a letter to Tarleton, remarks, "Rugely will not be made a brigadier."
Greene proceeded in the duties of his command with characteristic vigilance and vigor. He soon put his army under marching orders for the Pedee, which river he reached on the 26th of December. He took post near Hicks' Creek, on the east side of the river. Before leaving camp Charlotte, he had judiciously made up an independent brigade for General Morgan, composed of his most efficient soldiers. It consisted of a corps of light infantry, detached from the Maryland line, of 320 men; a body of Virginia militia of 200 men, and Washington's cavalry, perhaps one hundred more. Morgan was to be joined, on reaching the tract of country assigned to his operations in South Carolina, by the militia lately under Sumter; that gallant leader being still `hors de combat', in consequence of the severe wound received at Blackstock's. The force of Morgan was expected to be still farther increased by volunteer militia from North Carolina; and he received a powerful support in the cooperation of Col. Pickens, with the well exercised militia under his command.
The object of this detachment was to give confidence and encouragement to the country, to inspirit the patriots, overawe the Tories, and facilitate the accumulation of the necessary provisions. The main army at Hicks' Creek, meanwhile, formed a camp of repose. This was necessary, as well as time and training, to its usefulness. It was sadly deficient in all the munitions and materials of war -- the mere skeleton of an army, thin in numbers, and in a melancholy state of nakedness. "Were you to arrive," says Greene, in a letter to Lafayette, dated December 29, "you would find a few ragged, half-starved troops in the wilderness, destitute of everything necessary for either the comfort or convenience of soldiers." The department was not only in a deplorable condition, but the country was laid waste. Such a warfare as had been pursued among the inhabitants, beggars description. The whole body of the population seems to have been in arms, at one time or another, and, unhappily, from causes already discussed, in opposite ranks. A civil war, as history teaches, is like no other. Like a religious war, the elements of a fanatical passion seem to work the mind up to a degree of ferocity, which is not common among the usual provocations of hate in ordinary warfare. "The inhabitants," says Greene, "pursue each other with savage fury. . . . The Whigs and the Tories are butchering one another hourly. The war here is upon a very different scale from what it is to the northward. It is a plain business there. The geography of the country reduces its operations to two or three points. But here, it is everywhere; and the country is so full of deep rivers and impassable creeks and swamps, that you are always liable to misfortunes of a capital nature."
The geographical character of the country, as described by Greene, is at once suggestive of the partisan warfare. It is the true sort of warfare for such a country. The sparseness of its settlements, and the extent of its plains, indicate the employment of cavalry -- the intricate woods and swamps as strikingly denote the uses and importance of riflemen. The brigade of Marion combined the qualities of both.
General Greene, unlike his predecessor, knew the value of such services as those of Marion. On taking command at Charlotte, the very day after his arrival, he thus writes to our partisan: "I have not," says he, "the honor of your acquaintance, but am no stranger to your character and merit. Your services in the lower part of South Carolina, in awing the Tories and preventing the enemy from extending their limits, have been very important. And it is my earnest desire that you continue where you are until farther advice from me. Your letter of the 22d of last month to General Gates, is before me. I am fully sensible your service is hard and sufferings great, but how great the prize for which we contend! I like your plan of frequently shifting your ground. It frequently prevents a surprise and perhaps a total loss of your party. Until a more permanent army can be collected than is in the field at present, we must endeavor to keep up a partisan war, and preserve the tide of sentiment among the people in our favor as much as possible. Spies are the eyes of an army, and without them a general is always groping in the dark, and can neither secure himself, nor annoy his enemy. At present, I am badly off for intelligence. It is of the highest importance that I get the earliest intelligence of any reinforcement which may arrive at Charleston. I wish you, therefore, to fix some plan for procuring such information and conveying it to me with all possible dispatch. The spy should be taught to be particular in his inquiries and get the names of the corps, strength and commanding officer's name -- place from whence they came and where they are going. It will be best to fix upon somebody in town to do this, and have a runner between you and him to give you the intelligence; as a person who lives out of town cannot make the inquiries without being suspected. The utmost secrecy will be necessary in the business."
This letter found Marion at one of his lurking places on Black river. It was properly addressed to him. He was the man who, of all others, was not only best acquainted with the importance of good information, furnished promptly, but who had never been without his spies and runners, from the first moment when he took the field. He readily assumed the duty, and upon him Greene wholly relied for his intelligence of every sort. Every occurrence in Charleston, Georgetown, and the whole low country, was promptly furnished to the commander, to whom, however, Marion complains generally of the embarrassment in procuring intelligence, arising from the want of a little hard money -- but this want was quite as great in the camp of Greene as in that of the partisan.
It is probable that Marion had communicated to General Gates a desire to strengthen his militia with a small force of regular troops. With such a force, it was expected that something of a more decisive nature could be effected. His eye was upon Georgetown. The capture of that post was particularly desirable on many accounts; and if his views and wishes were not communicated to Gates, they were to Greene, who subsequently made his dispositions for promoting them. While the latter was moving down to his camp at Hicks' Creek, Marion was engaged in some very active movements against a party under McArthur and Coffin, and between that and the High Hills of the Santee. To cut off his retreat by the Pedee, a strong detachment had been pushed on from Charleston to Georgetown, intended to intercept him by ascending the north bank of the Pedee river. But Marion, informed of the movement, readily divined its object, and, retiring across the country, took a strong position on Lynch's Creek, in the vicinity of his favorite retreat at Snow's Island, where he always kept a force to guard his boats and overawe the Tories. The moment his pursuers had left the ground, Marion resumed offensive operations upon it. In a short time, his parties were pushed down to the immediate neighborhood of Georgetown, on all the rivers that flow into the bay of Winyaw. His smaller parties were actively busy in collecting boats and transferring provisions to Snow's Island. This was with the twofold purpose of straitening the enemy, and supplying the Continental army. In the meantime, with a respectable force of mounted infantry, he himself pressed closely upon the town, watching an opportunity when he might attempt something with a prospect of success. But the British confined themselves to their redoubts. Marion had neither bayonets nor artillery. With one hundred Continental troops -- he writes with his usual modesty to Greene -- he should be able to render important services. While thus employed, he received intelligence that the loyalists were embodying above him, in great force, under Hector McNeill. They were at Amy's Mill on Drowning Creek, and were emboldened by a knowledge of the fact that the main army was entirely destitute of cavalry. Marion was not able to detach a force sufficient for their dispersion, and it would have been fatal to his safety to suffer them to descend upon him while his detachments were abroad. His first measures were to call in his scattered parties. He then communicated to Greene the necessity of reinforcing him against his increasing enemies, and, in particular, of addressing himself to the movements of McNeill, as he supposed them to be directed, in part, against the country between the Waccamaw and the sea-coast, which had never been ravaged, and which, at this time, held abundance of provisions. To this communication Greene replies: "I have detached Major Anderson with one thousand regulars, and one hundred Virginia militia, to attack and disperse the Tories at Amy's Mill, on Drowning Creek. The party marched yesterday with orders to endeavor to surprise them; perhaps you might be able to make some detachment that would contribute to their success. . . . I wish your answer respecting the practicability of surprising the party near Nelson's; the route, and force you will be able to detach. This inquiry is a matter that requires great secrecy." Another letter of Greene's, three days after (January 22d), refers to some "skirmishes between your people and the enemy, which," says Greene, "do them honor," -- but of which we have no particulars. The same letter begs for a supply of horses. "Get as many as you can, and let us have fifteen or twenty sent to camp without loss of time, they being wanted for immediate service." By another letter, dated the day after the preceding, Greene communicates to Marion the defeat of Tarleton by Morgan, at the celebrated battle of the Cowpens. "On the 17th at daybreak, the enemy, consisting of eleven hundred and fifty British troops and fifty militia, attacked General Morgan, who was at the Cowpens, between Pacolet and Broad rivers, with 290 infantry, eighty cavalry and about six hundred militia. The action lasted fifty minutes and was remarkably severe. Our brave troops charged the enemy with bayonets and entirely routed them, killing nearly one hundred and fifty, wounding upwards of two hundred, and taking more than five hundred prisoners, exclusive of the prisoners with two pieces of artillery, thirty-five wagons, upwards of one hundred dragoon horses, and with the loss of only ten men killed and fifty-five wounded. Our intrepid party pursued the enemy upwards of twenty miles. About thirty commissioned officers are among the prisoners. Col. Tarleton had his horse killed and was wounded, but made his escape with two hundred of his troops."
Before receiving this grateful intelligence Marion had been joined by Lieut.-Col. Lee, at the head of a legion which acquired high reputation for its spirit and activity during the war. Lee tells us that it was no easy matter to find our partisan. "An officer, with a small party, preceded Lee a few days' march to find out Marion, who was known to vary his position in the swamps of the Pedee; sometimes in South Carolina, sometimes in North Carolina, and sometimes on the Black river. With the greatest difficulty did this officer learn how to communicate with the brigadier; and that by the accident of hearing among our friends on the south side of the Pedee, of a small provision party of Marion's being on the same side of the river. Making himself known to this party he was conveyed to the general, who had changed his ground since his party left him, which occasioned many hours' search even before his own men could find him."*
-- * Lee's Memoirs, vol. 1, p. 164. [Note: This Lieut.-Col. Henry Lee -- "Light-Horse Harry" -- later became the father of Gen. Robert Edward Lee. -- A. L., 1996.] --
This anecdote illustrates the wary habits of our partisan, and one of the modes by which he so successfully baffled the numerous and superior parties who were dispatched in his pursuit. We have given, elsewhere, from Col. Lee's memoirs, a brief description of Marion and his mode of warfare, taken from the appendix to that work. But another occurs, in the text before us, which, as it is brief, differing somewhat in phrase, and somewhat more comprehensive, than the former, will no doubt contribute to the value and interest of our narrative. "Marion," says Lee, "was about forty-eight years of age, small in stature, hard in visage, healthy, abstemious and taciturn. Enthusiastically wedded to the cause of liberty, he deeply deplored the doleful condition of his beloved country. The common weal was his sole object; nothing selfish, nothing mercenary soiled his ermine character. Fertile in stratagem, he struck unperceived, and retiring to those hidden retreats selected by himself, in the morasses of Pedee and Black rivers, he placed his corps, not only out of the reach of his foe, but often out of the discovery of his friends. A rigid disciplinarian, he reduced to practice the justice of his heart; and during the difficult course of warfare through which he passed calumny itself never charged him with molesting the rights of person, property or humanity. Never avoiding danger, he never rashly sought it; and, acting for all around him as he did for himself, he risked the lives of his troops only when it was necessary. Never elated with prosperity, nor depressed by adversity, he preserved an equanimity which won the admiration of his friends and exalted the respect of his enemies."*
-- * Lee's Memoirs, vol. 2 p. 164. --
Such were Lee's opinions of the partisan, to whose assistance he was dispatched by Greene, with his legion, consisting of near three hundred men, horse and foot.
The junction of Lee's troops with those of Marion led to the enterprise which the other had long since had at heart, the capture of the British garrison at Georgetown. Georgetown was a small village, the situation and importance of which have already been described. The garrison consisted of two hundred men commanded by Colonel Campbell. His defences in front were slight, and not calculated to resist artillery. "Between these defences and the town, and contiguous to each, was an enclosed work with a frieze and palisade, which constituted his chief protection."* It was held by a subaltern guard. "The rest of the troops were dispersed in light parties in and near the town, and looking towards the country." It was planned by the assailants to convey a portion of their force secretly down the Pedee, and land them in the water suburb of the town, which, being deemed secure, was left unguarded. This body was then to move in two divisions. The first was to force the commandant's quarters -- the place of parade -- to secure him, and all others who might flock thither on the alarm. The second was designed to intercept such of the garrison as might endeavor to gain the fort. The partisan militia, and the cavalry of the legion, led by Marion and Lee in person, were to approach the place in the night, to lie concealed, and when the entrance of the other parties into the town should be announced, they were to penetrate to their assistance, and put the finishing stroke to the affair.
-- * Lee, vol. 1 p. 249. --
The plan promised well, but the attempt was only partially successful. Captain Carnes, with the infantry of the legion, in boats, dropped down the Pedee, sheltered from discovery by the deep swamps and dense forests which lined its banks, until he reached an island at its mouth within a few miles of Georgetown. Here he landed, and lay concealed during the day. The night after, Marion and Lee proceeded to their place of destination, which they reached by twelve o'clock, when, hearing the expected signal, they rushed into the town, Marion leading his militia, and Lee his dragoons, prepared to bear down all opposition; but they found all the work already over which it was in the power of the present assailants to attempt. The two parties of infantry, the one led by Carnes the other by Rudolph, had reached their places, but perhaps not in good season. The surprise was incomplete. They delayed too long upon the way, instead of pushing up directly upon the redoubt. They were also delayed by the desire of securing the person of the commandant -- an unimportant consideration, in comparison with the stronghold of the garrison, which, assailed vigorously at the first alarm, must have fallen into their hands. The commandant was secured, and Carnes judiciously posted his division for seizing such parties of the garrison as might flock to the parade-ground. Rudolph had also gained his appointed station in the vicinity of the fort, and so distributed his corps as to prevent all communication with it. But this was not probably achieved with sufficient rapidity, and the garrison was strengthening itself while the Americans were busy in catching Campbell, and cutting down the fugitives. When Marion and Lee appeared, there was nothing to be done -- no enemy to be seen. Not a British soldier appeared on parade -- no one attempted either to gain the fort or repair to the commandant. The troops of the garrison simply hugged their respective quarters, and barricaded the doors. The assailants were unprovided with the necessary implements for battering or bombarding. The fort was in possession of the British, and daylight was approaching. And thus this bold and brilliant attempt was baffled -- it is difficult, at this time of day, to say how. Lee was dissatisfied with the result. Marion, more modestly, in a letter to Greene, says: "Col. Lee informed you yesterday, by express, of our little success on Georgetown, which could not be greater without artillery." Lee says: "If, instead of placing Rudolph's division to intercept the fugitives, it had been ordered to carry the fort by the bayonet, our success would have been complete. The fort taken, and the commandant a prisoner, we might have availed ourselves of the cannon, and have readily demolished every obstacle and shelter." There were probably several causes combined, which baffled the perfect success of the enterprise: the guides are said to have blundered; there was too much time lost in capturing Campbell, and probably in the prosecution of some private revenges. A circuitous route was taken by Carnes, when a direct one might have been had, by which his entrance into the town was delayed until near daylight; and, by one account, the advance of Marion and Lee was not in season. The simple secret of failure was probably a want of concert between the parties, by which the British had time to recover from their alarm, and put themselves in a state of preparation. Many of the British were killed, few taken; among the former was Major Irvine, who was slain by Lieut. Cryer, whom, on a former occasion, he had subjected to a cruel punishment of five hundred lashes. Lieut.-Col. Campbell was suffered to remain on parole.
Though failing of its object, yet the audacity which marked the enterprise, and the partial success of the attempt, were calculated to have their effect upon the fears of the enemy. It was the first of a series of movements against their several fortified posts, by which their power was to be broken up in detail. Its present effect was to discourage the removal of forces from the seaboard to the interior, to prevent any accession of strength to the army of Cornwallis, who now, roused by the defeat of Tarleton, was rapidly pressing, with all his array, upon the heels of Morgan. The American plan of operations, of which this `coup de main' constituted a particular of some importance, had for its object to keep Cornwallis from Virginia -- to detain him in South Carolina until an army of sufficient strength could be collected for his overthrow. This plan had been the subject of much earnest correspondence between Greene, Marion, and others of the American officers. That part of it which contemplated the conquest of Georgetown harmonized immediately with the long cherished objects of our partisan.
Halting but a few hours to rest their troops, Marion and Lee, after the attempt on Georgetown, moved the same day directly up the north bank of the Santee towards Nelson's Ferry. Their object was the surprise of Col. Watson, who had taken post there. But, though the march was conducted with equal caution and celerity, it became known to the threatened party. Watson, consulting his fears, did not wait to receive them; but, throwing a garrison of about eighty men into Fort Watson, five miles above the ferry, hurried off to Camden.
Upon the defeat of Tarleton by Morgan, General Greene hastened to put himself at the head of the force conducted by the latter, which was then in full flight before the superior army of Cornwallis. Orders from Greene to Lee found him preparing for further cooperations with Marion, which they arrested. Lee was summoned to join the commander-in-chief with his whole legion, and Marion was thus deprived of the further use, which he so much coveted, of the Continentals. But this diminution of force did not lessen the activity of the latter. On the 29th January, he sent out two small detachments of thirty men each, under Colonel and Major Postelle, to strike at the smaller British posts beyond the Santee. These parties were successful in several affairs. A great quantity of valuable stores were burnt at Manigault's Ferry, and in the vicinity. At Keithfield, near Monk's Corner, Major Postelle captured forty of the British regulars without the loss of a man. Here also fourteen baggage wagons, with all their stores, were committed to the flames. The proceedings of these parties, conducted with caution and celerity, were exceedingly successful. In giving his instructions to the officers entrusted with these duties, Marion writes -- "You will consider provisions of all kinds British property. The destruction of all the British stores in the above-mentioned places, is of the greatest consequence to us, and only requires boldness and expedition."
About this time Marion organized four new companies of cavalry. This proceeding was prompted by the scarcity of ammunition. His rifles were comparatively useless, and the want of powder and ball rendered it necessary that he should rely upon some other weapons. To provide broadswords for his troops, he was compelled once more to put in requisition the mill saws of the country, and his blacksmiths were busy in manufacturing blades, which, as we are told by a contemporary, were sufficiently keen and massy to hew a man down at a blow. This body of cavalry he assigned to the command of Col. P. Horry. Horry was an admirable infantry officer. His ability to manage a squadron of cavalry was yet to be ascertained. He labored under one disqualification, as he plainly tells us in his own manuscript. He was not much of a horseman. But he had several excellent officers under him. As the brigade was not strong enough to allow of the employment, in body, of his whole command, its operations were commonly by detachment. The colonel, at the head of one of his parties consisting of sixty men, had soon an opportunity of testing his capacity and fortune in this new command. We glean the adventure from his own manuscript. He was sent to the Waccamaw to reconnoitre and drive off some cattle. After crossing Socastee swamp, a famous resort for the Tories, he heard of a party of British dragoons under Colonel Campbell. Horry's men had found a fine English charger hid in a swamp. This he was prevailed upon to mount, in order to spare his own. It so happened, somewhat unfortunately for him, that he did so with an enemy at hand. With his own horse he was sufficiently familiar to escape ordinary accidents. It will be seen that he incurred some risks with the more spirited quadruped. His patrol had brought in a negro, whom he placed under guard. He had in his command a Captain Clarke, who, knowing the negro, set him free during the night. "Reader," says our colonel, with a serenity that is delightful, "behold a militia captain releasing a prisoner confined by his colonel commandant, and see the consequence!" The negro fell into the hands of the British, and conducted them upon the steps of our partisan. It so happened that the same Captain Clarke, who seems to have been a sad simpleton, and something of a poltroon, had been sent in front with five horsemen as an advanced guard. Near the great Waccamaw road, the bugles of the British were heard sounding the charge. Horry was fortunately prepared for the enemy, but such was not the case with Clarke. He confounded the martial tones of the bugle with the sylvan notes of the horn. "Stop," says our militia captain, to his men -- "stop, and you will see the deer, dogs and huntsmen, as they cross the road." He himself happened to be the silly deer. The huntsmen were upon him in a few moments, and he discovered his mistake only when their broadswords were about his ears. He was taken, but escaped. A short encounter followed between Campbell and Horry, in which the former was worsted. Six of his men fell at the first fire, three slain, and as many wounded. Horry's pieces were common shot guns, and the only shot that he had were swan shot, or the mischief would have been greater. Campbell's horse was killed under him, and he narrowly escaped. Horry was dismounted in the encounter, -- in what manner we are not told, -- and would have been cut down by a British sergeant, but for his wearing a uniform that resembled that of a British colonel. He was helped to a horse at a most fortunate moment. He did not know, in consequence of the blunder of Clarke, that the dragoons whom he had fought and beaten, were only an advanced guard of a body of infantry. Horses and men were in his hands, and, dividing his force, he sent off one party of his men in charge of the prisoners and trophies. A sudden attack of the British infantry took the small party which remained with him totally by surprise. They broke and left him almost alone, with nothing but his small sword in his hand. It was at this moment that a brave fellow of the second regiment, named McDonald, yielded his own pony to his commander, by which he escaped. McDonald saved himself by darting into the neighboring swamp. The British, dreading an ambuscade, did not pursue, and Horry rallied his men, and returned, with a reinforcement sent by Marion, to the scene of battle; but the enemy had left it and retired to Georgetown. Horry proceeded to Sand Hill, where, finding himself in good quarters, among some rich and friendly Whigs, living well on their supplies, he proceeded to entrench himself in a regular redoubt. But from this imposing situation Marion soon and sensibly recalled him. "He wrote me," says Horry, "that the open field was our play -- that the enemy knew better how to defend forts and entrenched places than we did, and that if we attempted it, we should soon fall into their hands." Marion's farther instructions were to join him immediately, with every man that he could bring, for that it was his purpose to attack the enemy as soon as possible. Horry admits that he quitted his redoubt and good fare very reluctantly. He set out with eighty men, but when he joined his commander in Lynch's Creek Swamp, they were reduced to eighteen. It seems that his force had been made up in part of new recruits, who had but lately joined themselves to Marion. Horry calls them "wild Tories or half-made new Whigs -- volunteers, assuredly, not to fight, but plunder, -- who would run at the sight of the enemy." His recent surprise and danger had rendered the colonel sore. It was on this occasion, that, as we have already related, he was nearly drowned, and only saved by clinging to the impending branches of a tree.
While Horry was skirmishing with Campbell, Major John Postelle, who was stationed to guard the lower part of the Pedee, succeeded in capturing Captain Depeyster, with twenty-nine grenadiers. Depeyster had taken post in the dwelling-house of Postelle's father. The latter had with him but twenty-eight militia, but he knew the grounds, and gaining possession of the kitchen, fired it, and was preparing to burn the house also, when Depeyster submitted.
We find, at this time, a correspondence of Marion with two of the British officers, in relation to the detention, as a prisoner, of Captain Postelle, who, it seems, though bearing a flag, was detained for trial by the enemy. Portions of these letters, in which Marion asserts his own humanity in the treatment of prisoners, we quote as exhibiting his own sense, at least, of what was the true character of his conduct in such matters. The reader will not have forgotten the charges made against him, in this respect, in an earlier part of this volume by Lt.-Col. Balfour, in a letter to General Moultrie. One of the present letters of Marion is addressed to Balfour.
"I am sorry to complain of the ill treatment my officers and men meet with from Captain Saunders. The officers are closely confined in a small place where they can neither stand nor lie at length, nor have they more than half rations. I have treated your officers and men who have fallen into my hands, in a different manner. Should these evils not be prevented in future, it will not be in my power to prevent retaliation. Lord Rawdon and Col. Watson have hanged three men of my brigade for supposed crimes, which will make as many of your men, in my hands, suffer."
Again, on the same subject, in a letter to Col. Watson -- "The hanging of
prisoners and the violation of my flag, will be retaliated if a stop is not
put to such proceedings, which are disgraceful to all civilized nations.
All of your officers and men, who have fallen into my hands, have been treated
with humanity and tenderness, and I wish sincerely that I may not be obliged
to act contrary to my inclination."
The British officers thus addressed, alleged against Postelle that he had broken his parole. If this were so, it was a just cause of detention; but it will be remembered that the British themselves revoked these paroles on the assumption that the province was conquered, and when, as citizens, they wished to exact military service from the people. In these circumstances the virtue of the obligation was lost, and ceased on the part of the citizen, because of the violation on the part of the conqueror, of the immunities which he promised. Marion took decisive measures for compelling the necessary respect to his flag, by seizing upon Captain Merritt, the bearer of a British flag, and putting him in close keeping as a security for Postelle. We do not know that he retaliated upon the British soldiers the cruel murders, by hanging, which had been practised upon his own. His nature would probably recoil from carrying his own threat into execution. In answer to one of Marion's reproaches, we are told by Col. Watson, that "the burning of houses and the property of the inhabitants, who are our enemies, is customary in all civilized nations." The code of civilisation is certainly susceptible of liberal constructions. Its elasticity is not the least of its many merits.
Cornwallis pursued Greene into North Carolina, and after much manoeuvering between the armies, they met at Guilford on the 15th of March, 1781. The honors of the victory, small as it was, lay with the British. Their loss, however, was such, that the advantages of the field enured to the Americans. From this field, Cornwallis took his way to Virginia, and his career as a commander in America was finally arrested at the siege of York. During the absence of Greene from South Carolina, Marion's was the only force in active operation against the British. An opportunity so favorable for harassing and distressing the enemy, as that afforded by the absence of their main army in North Carolina, was not neglected; and, calling in his detachments, he once more carried dismay into the heart of the Tory settlements, on both sides of the Santee. His incursions, and those of his officers, were extended as far as the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree, and as low down as Monk's Corner, -- thus breaking up the line of communication between Charleston and the grand army, and intercepting detachments and supplies, sent from that place to the line of posts established through the country. This sort of warfare, which seldom reaches events such as those which mark epochs in the progress of great bodies of men, is yet one which calls for constant activity. We have details of but few of the numerous conflicts which took place between our partisan and the Tory leaders. These were scattered over the country, living by plunder, and indulging in every species of ferocity. Greene writes, "The Whigs and Tories are continually out in small parties, and all the middle country is so disaffected, that you cannot lay in the most trifling magazine or send a wagon through the country with the least article of stores without a guard." In addressing himself to this sort of warfare, Marion was pursuing a course of the largest benefit to the country. In overawing these plunderers, subduing the savage spirit, and confining the British to their strong places, he was acquiring an importance, which, if we are to estimate the merits of a leader only by the magnitude of his victories, will leave us wholly at a loss to know by what means his great reputation was acquired. But the value of his services is best gathered from the effect which they had upon the enemy. The insults and vexations which he unceasingly occasioned to the British, were not to be borne; and Col. Watson was dispatched with a select force of five hundred men to hunt him up and destroy him. We have seen Tarleton and others engaged in the pursuit, but without success. Watson was destined to be less fortunate. In the meanwhile, and before Watson came upon his trail, Col. Peter Horry had been engaged in a series of petty but rather amusing skirmishes, in the neighborhood of Georgetown. A party of the British were engaged in killing beeves at White's bridge near Georgetown. Horry's men charged them while at this employment, and killing some, pursued the rest towards that place. The firing was heard in the town, and the facts of the case conjectured. This brought out a reinforcement, before which the detachment of Horry was compelled to retreat. But, on gaining the woods, they were joined also by their friends; and the fight was resumed between the Sampit and Black river roads, with a dogged fierceness on both sides, that made it particularly bloody. In the course of the struggle, Horry at one moment found himself alone. His men were more or less individually engaged, and scattered through the woods around him. His only weapon was his small sword. In this situation he was suddenly assailed by a Tory captain, named Lewis, at the head of a small party. Lewis was armed with a musket, and in the act of firing, when a sudden shot from the woods tumbled him from his horse, in the very moment when his own gun was discharged. The bullet of Lewis took effect on Horry's horse. The shot which so seasonably slew the Tory, had been sent by the hands of a boy named Gwin. The party of Lewis, apprehending an ambush, immediately fell back and put themselves in cover. The conflict lasted through the better part of the day, one side gaining ground, and now the other. It closed in the final defeat of the enemy, who were pursued with a savage and unsparing spirit. One half of their number were left dead upon the ground. Their leader was Major Gainey. Great expectations were formed of his ability to cope with Marion. On this occasion, though he made his escape, his mode of doing so was characterized by a peculiar circumstance, which rendered it particularly amusing to one side and annoying to the other. He was singled out in the chase by Sergeant McDonald, a fierce young fellow, who was admirably mounted. Gainey was fortunate in being well mounted also. McDonald, regarding but the one enemy, passed all others. He himself said that he could have slain several in the chase. But he wished for no meaner object than their leader. One man alone who threw himself in the way of the pursuit became its victim. Him he shot down, and, as they went at full speed down the Black river road, at the corner of Richmond fence, the sergeant had gained so far upon his enemy, as to be able to plunge his bayonet into his back. The steel separated from his gun, and, with no time to extricate it, Gainey rushed into Georgetown, with the weapon still conspicuously showing how close and eager had been the chase, and how narrow the escape. The wound was not fatal.
The next affair was with Col. Tynes, who had been defeated by Marion some time before, made prisoner and sent to North Carolina. But the North Carolina jailors seem to have been pretty generally Tories, for we find Horry complaining that they discharged the prisoners quite as fast as they were sent there; and it was the complaint of some of Marion's officers that they had to fight the same persons in some instances, not less than three or four times. Tynes had collected a second force, and, penetrating the forests of Black river, was approaching the camp of our partisan. Marion went against him, fell upon him suddenly, completely routed him, taking himself and almost his whole party prisoners. He made his escape a second time from North Carolina, and with a third and larger force than ever, reappeared in the neighborhood of Marion's camp. Horry was sent against him with forty chosen horsemen. He travelled all night, and stopped the next day at the house of a Tory, where he obtained refreshments. His men succeeded in obtaining something more. The Tory most liberally filled their canteens with apple-brandy; and when the Colonel got within striking distance of Tynes and his Tories, scarcely one of his troops was fit for action. He prudently retreated, very much mortified with the transaction. Marion captured a part of Tynes' force a few days after, and this luckless loyalist seems to have disappeared from the field from that moment.
Watson's march against Marion was conducted with great caution. The operations of the partisan, meanwhile, were continued without interruption. About the middle of February, he was apprised of the march of Major McIlraith from Nelson's Ferry, at the head of a force fully equal to his own. This British officer seems to have been singularly unlike his brethren in some remarkable particulars. He took no pleasure in burning houses, the hospitality of which he had enjoyed; he destroyed no cattle wantonly, and hung no unhappy prisoner. The story goes that while Marion was pressing upon the steps of the enemy, he paused at the house of a venerable lady who had been always a friend to the Whigs, and who now declared her unhappiness at seeing him. Her reason being asked, she declared that she conjectured his purpose -- that he was pursuing McIlraith, and that so honorable and gentle had been the conduct of that officer, on his march, that she was really quite unwilling that he should suffer harm, though an enemy. What he heard did not impair Marion's activity, but it tended somewhat to subdue those fiercer feelings which ordinarily governed the partisans in that sanguinary warfare. He encountered and assailed McIlraith on the road near Half-way Swamp, first cutting off two picquets in his rear in succession, then wheeling round his main body, attacked him at the same moment in flank and front. McIlraith was without cavalry, and his situation was perilous in the extreme. But he was a brave fellow, and Marion had few bayonets. By forced marches and constant skirmishing, the British major gained an open field upon the road. He posted himself within the enclosure upon the west of the road. Marion pitched his camp on the edge of a large cypress pond, which lay on the east, and closely skirted the highway. Here McIlraith sent him a flag, reproaching him with shooting his picquets, contrary, as he alleged, to all the laws of civilized warfare, and concluded with defying him to combat in the open field. The arguments of military men, on the subject of the laws of civilized warfare, are sometimes equally absurd and impertinent. Warfare itself is against all the laws of civilisation, and there is something ludicrous in the stronger reproaching the feebler power, that it should resort to such means as are in its possession, for reconciling the inequalities of force between them. Marion's reply to McIlraith was sufficiently to the purpose. He said that the practice of the British in burning the property of those who would not submit and join them, was much more indefensible than that of shooting picquets, and that while they persisted in the one practice, he should certainly persevere in the other. As to the challenge of McIlraith, he said that he considered it that of a man whose condition was desperate; but concluded with saying that if he, McIlraith, wished to witness a combat between twenty picked soldiers on each side, he was not unwilling to gratify him.
Here was a proposal that savored something of chivalry. McIlraith agreed to the suggestion, and an arrangement was made for a meeting. The place chosen for the combat was in a part of a field, which is very well known, south of an old oak tree, which was still, up to the year 1821, pointed out to the stranger. It may be standing to this day, for the oak outlasts many generations of brave men. Marion chose for the leader of his band, Major John Vanderhorst, then a supernumerary officer in his brigade. The second in command was Capt. Samuel Price, of All Saints. The names of the men were written on slips of paper and handed to them severally. Gavin Witherspoon received the first. The names of the others are not preserved. Not one of them refused. When they were separated from their comrades, they were paraded near the fence, and Marion addressed them in the following language:
"My brave soldiers! you are twenty men picked this day out of my whole brigade. I know you all, and have often witnessed your bravery. In the name of your country, I call upon you once more to show it. My confidence in you is great. I am sure it will not be disappointed. Fight like men, as you have always done -- and you are sure of the victory."
The speech was short, but it was effectual. It was, perhaps, a long one for Marion. His words were usually few, but they were always to the purpose. More words were unnecessary here. The combatants heard him with pride, and hailed his exhortations with applause. While their cheers were loudest, Marion transferred them to their leader.
Vanderhorst now asked Witherspoon, "at what distance he would prefer, as the most sure to strike with buckshot?"
"Fifty yards, for the first fire," was the answer.
"Then," said Vanderhorst, "when we get within fifty yards, as I am not a good judge of distances, Mr. Witherspoon will tap me on the shoulder. I will then give the word, my lads, and you will form on my left opposite these fellows. As you form, each man will fire at the one directly opposite, and my word for it, few will need a second shot."
Nothing, indeed, was more certain than this; and how McIlraith proposed to fight with any hope of the result, knowing how deadly was the aim of the Americans, is beyond conjecture. If he relied upon the bayonet, as perhaps he did, his hope must have rested only upon those who survived the first fire; and with these, it was only necessary for the Americans to practise the game of the survivor of the Horatii, in order to gain as complete a victory. They had but to scatter and re-load -- change their ground, avoid the push of the bayonet, till they could secure a second shot, and that certainly would have finished the business. But McIlraith had already reconsidered the proceeding. His men were formed in a straight line in front of the oak. Vanderhorst was advancing and had got within one hundred yards, when a British officer was seen to pass hurriedly to the detachment, and the next moment the men retreated, with a quick step, towards the main body. Vanderhorst and his party gave three huzzas, but not a shot was fired.
McIlraith committed two errors. He should not have made the arrangement, but, once made, he should have suffered it to go on at all hazards. The effect was discreditable to himself, and detrimental to the efficiency of his men. Marion would have fought his enemy all day on the same terms. His followers were on their own ground, with a familiar weapon, while the soldiers of the British were deprived of all their usual advantages -- the assurance of support after the fire of the enemy was drawn. The militia seldom stood the encounter of the bayonet, but they as seldom failed to do famous execution with the first two or three discharges.
That night McIlraith abandoned his heavy baggage, left fires burning, and retreating silently from the ground, hurried, with all dispatch, along the river road towards Singleton's Mills, distant ten miles. Marion discovered the retreat before daylight, and sent Col. Hugh Horry forward with one hundred men, to get in advance of him before he should reach the mill. But Horry soon found this to be impossible, and he detached Major James, at the head of a select party, well mounted on the swiftest horses, with instructions to cross the mill-pond above, and take possession of Singleton's houses. These standing on a high hill, commanded a narrow defile on the road between the hill and the Wateree swamp. James reached the house as the British advanced to the foot of the hill. But here he found a new enemy, which his foresters dreaded much more than the British or Tories -- the small-pox. Singleton's family were down with it, and James shrank from availing himself of any advantage offered by the situation. But before he retired, one of his men, resting his rifle against a tree, shot the commander of the British advance. He was mortally wounded, and died the next day. Marion was displeased with this achievement. The forbearance of McIlraith, while passing through the country, had touched his heart. He withdrew his forces, not displeased that his enemy had secured a stronghold in Singleton's Mill. The conscientiousness of the British officer is said to have incurred the displeasure of his commander, and that of his brother officers. When he reached Charleston he was put into coventry. Our authorities ascribe this to his gratuitous humanity, his reluctance to burn and plunder, with such excellent examples before him, as Cornwallis and Tarleton. We rather suspect, however, that it was in consequence of the unfortunate issue of the pitched battle, as agreed upon between himself and Marion; a more probable cause of odium among his comrades, than any reluctance, which he might express, to violate the common laws of humanity.
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