The British propose Terms of Pacification -- Rejected by the Civil Authorities -- They penetrate the Combahee with their Fleet -- Death of Col. Laurens -- Anecdote of Marion -- Death of Wilmot -- The British evacuate Charleston -- Marion separates from his Brigade at Watboo -- His Military Genius.
Though the war in Carolina was understood to be nearly at an end, and the toils and dangers of the conflict well nigh over, yet motives for vigilance still continued. There was ample room for vicissitudes. The British still held possession of Charleston and its harbor, but they were confined to these narrow limits. Here, watched on all sides by the impatient Americans, they made their preparations for a reluctant departure. The sole remaining contest between the opposing armies lay, in the desire of the one to bear with them as much of the spoils of war as possible, and of the other to prevent them. The greater motives for the war on both sides were at an end. The mother country had declared her willingness to forego the exercise of her ancient authority, and the Colonies were admitted to the freedom which they sought. In this state of things neither army attempted enterprises, the result of which could not affect the objects of either nation. Thus was spared the unnecessary shedding of blood. The forces under Greene continued gradually to contract their limits; while those of General Leslie remained comparatively quiescent. The British officer was governed by a proper wisdom. As the evacuation of Charleston was determined on, there was little use in keeping up the appearances of a struggle which had virtually ceased to exist. He suggested accordingly to Greene, that an intercourse should be established between town and country, by which the troops in the former might procure their necessary supplies in barter with the people. To provision his fleet and army was his object. For this he proposed a cessation of hostilities. It is to be regretted that this pacific proposition was not entertained. Some valuable lives might have been saved to the country -- we may instance that of Col. Laurens. General Greene was not adverse to the proposition, but the civil authorities objected. Their reasons for opposing this humane suggestion are scarcely satisfactory. They believed that Leslie only aimed to accumulate provisions for the support of the British forces in the West Indies, and thus enable them to prosecute the war more vigorously against our French allies. This was an objection rather urged than felt. There was probably some feeling, some impatience of temper at the bottom, which prompted them to dispute, at the point of the sword, rather than yield to any suggestions of an enemy at whose hands they had suffered such protracted injuries. A little more coolness and reflection might have shown them, that, by refusing the application of Leslie, they only rendered it necessary that the British should pay in blood for those supplies for which they were not unwilling to pay in money. And blood usually calls for blood. The combat is never wholly on one side. It was virtually saying we can spare a few more citizens. The concession might have been made to the wishes of the British commander not only without any detriment to the service, but with absolute benefit to the people and the army. The provisions which the enemy required would have found a good market in Charleston, and the clothing, in lack of which the army was suffering severely, might have been procured for them at the same place on the most reasonable terms. Besides, the rejection of the overture was not necessarily a prevention of the purpose of the British. The American army was quite too feeble either to expel them from the country, or to arrest their foraging parties. The only effect of the rejection of the humane and pacific proposition of the British commander, was to compel the preparation of that fleet of small craft, which, under the guns of his galleys, was now penetrating the rivers, and rifling the grain from the wealthy plantations. We have seen Marion opposing himself to this fleet at Georgetown, and have witnessed their success upon the South Santee. The prompt return of our partisan to the head waters of Cooper river, in all probability, preserved that neighborhood from the foragers. With the tidings of their progress up the Combahee, the American light brigade, under General Gist, was ordered to oppose them. It was here that one of those events took place which furnished a conclusive commentary upon the ill-judged resolution by which the cessation of hostilities was rejected, and the British denied the privilege of procuring supplies in a pacific manner. Hearing of the movement of Gist, Col. Laurens, who was attached to his brigade, and was always eager for occasions of distinction, rose from a sick bed to resume the command of his division. He overtook the brigade on the north bank of the Combahee river, near the ferry. Twelve miles below, the extreme end of Chehaw neck protrudes into the bed of the river, which, between these points, is bounded by extensive swamps and rice fields. At this point a redoubt had been thrown up by General Gist. The enemy was already above, on the opposite side of the stream. Laurens solicited the command of this post for the purpose of annoying them in their retreat. Meanwhile, the American cavalry under Major Call, had been ordered round by Salkehatchie bridge, to join with the militia collected in that quarter for the purpose of striking at the enemy. With a howitzer, some matrosses and fifty infantry, Laurens moved down the river, and on the evening of the 26th reached the place of Mrs. Stock, sufficiently near to Chehaw Point to take post there by daylight the next morning. But the British were there before him. Baffled by the light brigade of Gist, in procuring provisions on the south side of the river, they had crossed it, and, apprised of the movements of Laurens, placed an ambush for him on his road to the Point. That night was spent by Laurens among the ladies of the place where he lingered. It is recorded that the company did not separate until a couple of hours before the time when the detachment was set in motion. The prospect of his encounter was the topic of conversation, and with the cheery, elastic spirit of youth, he gaily offered the ladies a conspicuous place from which they might enjoy a sight of the action without incurring its dangers. Before sunrise his voice was hushed for ever. Unsuspicious of an enemy, he rode at the head of his command. The British were posted in a place thickly covered with fennel and high grass. With the advance guard when they were discovered, he promptly ordered a charge, gallantly leading which, he fell at the first fire. Laurens was one of those brave and ardent spirits, generous, high-souled, and immaculate, which, in times of sordid calculation and drilled soldiership, recall to our minds the better days of chivalry. He was the Bayard of the southern youth in the war of the revolution, uniting all the qualities of the famous chevalier, `sans peur et sans reproche'. That he should have fallen, unnecessarily, at the close of the war, when nothing was to be gained, and nothing to be saved, by valor, -- and in an obscure encounter on a field of mere predatory warfare, doubles the mortification of such a close to a noble and admirable career. A lesson from the pure and correct code of Marion's military morals would have saved this precious blood, and preserved this gallant youth for nobler fortunes. The following anecdote will illustrate the admirable character of his mode of thinking on such subjects. While he held his position at Watboo, after he had beaten Frasier, he was advised that a British party, which had been dispatched to procure water at Lempriere's Point, could be cut off with little difficulty. The British were then preparing for embarkation. A parting blow was recommended, as calculated to hurry their movements, as well as to add something to the measure of patriot revenge for the wrongs and resentments of the past. But Marion resolutely refused to sanction the enterprise. His answer proves equally the excellence of his judgment and the benevolence of his heart. "My brigade," said he, "is composed of citizens, enough of whose blood has been shed already. If ordered to attack the enemy, I shall obey; but with my consent, not another life shall be lost, though the event should procure me the highest honors of the soldier. Knowing, as we do, that the enemy are on the eve of departure, so far from offering to molest, I would rather send a party to protect them."
This noble feeling would have saved the lives of Laurens, Wilmot, Moore, and other gallant young men, who were sacrificed at the last hour when all provocations to strife had ceased -- when the battle was already won -- when the great object of the war had been attained by the one party, and yielded, however reluctantly, by the other. Capt. Wilmot, with a small command, was stationed to cover John's Island, and to watch the passage by Stono. Fond of enterprise he was tempted occasionally to cross the river and harass the enemy on James' Island. In one of these adventures, undertaken in conjunction with the celebrated Kosciusko, against an armed party of the enemy's wood-cutters, he fell into an ambuscade, was himself slain, while his second in command, Lieut. Moore, severely wounded, fell into the hands of the British. This was the last blood shed in the American revolution. It need not to have been shed. The denouement of the protracted drama had already taken place. The conquest of the Indians by Pickens was complete; the Tories no longer appeared in bodies, though, for some time after, individuals of the scattered bands occasionally continued the habits of outlawry which the war had taught them, and dealt in deeds of midnight robbery and crime; -- and the British armies were simply preparing to depart. On the 14th of December, while the American columns entered the city from the neck, those of the British retired to their ships; the movements of which, as their white sails distended to the breeze, presented, in the language of Moultrie, "a grand and pleasing sight." It was a sight, however, which the militia, always undervalued, always misunderstood and misrepresented, were not permitted to behold. They had fought the battle, it was true, "but the civil authority" conceived their uses to be over, and "they were excluded as dangerous spectators;" an unworthy and most ungrateful decision, in which, we are pleased to learn from a self-exculpatory letter of General Greene, he had no participation, and which he did not approve.
The forces of the British withdrawn from the shores of Carolina, the country, exhausted of resources, and filled with malcontents and mourners, was left to recover slowly from the hurts and losses of foreign and intestine strife. Wounds were to be healed which required the assuasive hand of time, which were destined to rankle even in the bosoms of another generation, and the painful memory of which is keenly treasured even now. But the civil authority takes the place of the military, and with the disappearance of the invader, the warrior lays aside his sword, -- satisfied if he may still retain the laurels which his valor has won. Our partisan, yielding himself at the call of his country, was not the man to linger unnecessarily long upon the stage. The duties which had called him into the field were faithfully performed; how faithfully it has been the effort of this humble narrative to show. The time was come when he was to part with his brigade forever -- when he was to take leave of those brave fellows, whom he had so frequently led to victory, never to dishonor. The separation was touching, but without parade. On this occasion his deportment was as modest as it had been through the whole period of their connection. Gathered around him among the cedars at his Watboo encampment, his followers were assembled to receive his last farewell. The simplicity which had marked his whole career, distinguished its conclusion. His address was brief but not without its eloquence -- such eloquence as belongs to the language of unaffected and unadulterated truth. He acknowledged, with thanks, the services of the officers and men; dwelt passingly upon particular events of which they had reason to be proud, and bade them a friendly and affectionate farewell. The brief review which he made of their campaigns was well calculated to awaken the most touching recollections. He had been their father and protector. No commander had ever been more solicitous of the safety and comfort of his men. It was this which had rendered him so sure of their fidelity, which had enabled him to extract from them such admirable service. His simple entreaty stayed their quarrels; and the confidence which they yielded to his love of justice, made them always willing to abide the decisions of his judgment. Officers and men equally yielded to the authority of his opinion, as they did to that which he exercised in the capacity of their commander. No duel took place among his officers during the whole of his command.
The province which was assigned to his control by Governor Rutledge, was the constant theatre of war. He was required to cover an immense extent of country. With a force constantly unequal and constantly fluctuating, he contrived to supply its deficiencies by the resources of his own vigilance and skill. His personal bravery was frequently shown, and the fact that he himself conducted an enterprise, was enough to convince his men that they were certain to be led to victory. In due degree with their conviction of his care and consideration for themselves, was their readiness to follow where he commanded. He had no lives to waste, and the game he played was that which enabled him to secure the greatest results, with the smallest amount of hazard. Yet, when the occasion seemed to require it, he could advance and strike with an audacity, which, in the ordinary relations of the leader with the soldier, might well be thought inexcusable rashness. We have, already, in the opening of this biography, adverted to the melancholy baldness of the memorials upon which the historian is compelled to rely for the materials of his narrative. The reader will perceive a singular discrepancy between the actual events detailed in the life of every popular hero, and the peculiar fame which he holds in the minds of his countrymen. Thus, while Marion is everywhere regarded as the peculiar representative in the southern States, of the genius of partisan warfare, we are surprised, when we would trace, in the pages of the annalist, the sources of this fame, to find the details so meagre and so unsatisfactory. Tradition mumbles over his broken memories, which we vainly strive to pluck from his lips and bind together in coherent and satisfactory records. The spirited surprise, the happy ambush, the daring onslaught, the fortunate escape, -- these, as they involve no monstrous slaughter -- no murderous strife of masses, -- no rending of walled towns and sack of cities, the ordinary historian disdains. The military reputation of Marion consists in the frequent performance of deeds, unexpectedly, with inferior means, by which the enemy was annoyed and dispirited, and the hearts and courage of his countrymen warmed into corresponding exertions with his own. To him we owe that the fires of patriotism were never extinguished, even in the most disastrous hours, in the low country of South Carolina. He made our swamps and forests sacred, as well because of the refuge which they gave to the fugitive patriot, as for the frequent sacrifices which they enabled him to make, on the altars of liberty and a becoming vengeance. We are in possession of but few of the numerous enterprises in which he was engaged; imperfect memories of the aged give us glimpses of deeds for the particulars of which we turn in vain to the dusty pages of the chronicler. But we need not generalize farther upon the traits of his military character. We have endeavored to make these speak for themselves, page by page, in the narration of the events, so far as we know them, by which his reputation was acquired. It is enough that his fame has entered largely into that of his country, forming a valuable portion of its sectional stock of character. His memory is in the very hearts of our people. Of the estimation in which he was held by contemporaries more might be said, but these pages bear ample testimony of the consideration which he commanded from friend and foe. The testimonials of Moultrie, Greene, Lee and others, are conclusive of that rare worth and excellence -- that combination of military and civil virtues -- which biography cannot easily be found to excel.
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