Return to Chapter 7.
Organization of "Marion's Brigade" -- Surprise of Tories under Gainey -- Defeat of Barfield -- Capture of British Guard with Prisoners at Nelson's Ferry.
The people of Williamsburg, by whom Marion was summoned from the camp of Gates, were sprung generally from Irish parentage. They inherited, in common with all the descendants of the Irish in America, a hearty detestation of the English name and authority. This feeling rendered them excellent patriots and daring soldiers, wherever the British Lion was the object of hostility. Those of whom we are now to speak, the people of Williamsburg, were men generally of fearless courage, powerful frame, well-strung nerves, and an audacious gallantry that led them to delight in dangers, even where the immediate objects by no means justified the risk. They felt that "rapture of the strife", in which the Goth exulted. In addition to these natural endowments for a brave soldiery, they were good riders and famous marksmen -- hunters, that knew the woods almost as well by night as by day -- could wind about and through the camp of an enemy, as free from suspicion as the velvet-footed squirrel, who, from the lateral branches of the pine, looks over their encampment. They possessed resources of knowledge and ingenuity, while in swamp and thicket, not merely to avoid the danger, but, in not unfrequent instances, to convert it to their own advantage. Nothing but the training and direction of such a mind as Marion's was needed to make, of these men, the most efficient of all partisan soldiery. The formation of the brigade of which he now prepared to take command, has a history of its own which is worth telling. The fame which it subsequently acquired in connection with its leader's name, and which the local traditions will not willingly let die, will justify us in the narration. Some few preliminary facts are necessary.
The fall of Charleston, and the dispersion or butchery of those parties which had kept the field after that event, necessarily depressed the spirits and discouraged the attempt of the scattered patriots who still yearned to oppose the invaders. The captivity of many of the leaders to whom they were accustomed to look for counsel and direction, and the flight of others, served still further to dissipate any hopes or purposes which they might have had of concentration. Thousands fled to the North, and embodied themselves under Washington and other American Generals, despairing of the cause at home. Everything appeared to be lost, and a timely proclamation of Sir Henry Clinton, a few days after the surrender of Charleston, tended yet more to subdue the spirit of resistance. The proclamation proffered "pardon to the inhabitants" with some few exceptions, "for their past treasonable offences, and a reinstatement in their rights and immunities heretofore enjoyed, exempt from taxation, except by their own legislature." This specious offer, made at a moment when his power was at its height, everywhere unquestioned and unopposed, indicated a degree of magnanimity, which in the case of those thousands in every such contest, who love repose better than virtue, was everywhere calculated to disarm the inhabitants. To many indeed it seemed to promise all for which they had been contending. It offered security from further injury, protection against the Tories who were using the authority of the British for their own purposes of plunder and revenge, a respite from their calamities, and a restoration of all their rights. With the immunities thus proffered, with the further conviction that further struggle against British power was hopeless, with the assurance, indeed, which was industriously conveyed to them from all quarters, that Congress, not able to assist, had resolved upon yielding the provinces of South Carolina and Georgia to the enemy, as considerations for the independence of the other colonies -- they accepted the terms thus offered them by the British commander, and, in great numbers, signed declarations of allegiance, received protection as subjects of the crown, or, as prisoners of war, were paroled to their plantations. Could the British have persevered in this policy, had they kept faith with the inhabitants, they might much longer have held possession of the country. But, either they were not sincere in their first professions, or their subsequent necessities compelled them to adopt a less rational policy. Twenty days had not elapsed from the publication of the first proclamation when it was followed by another, which so entirely qualified and impaired the character of the former, as to revolt the people whom it had invited, and to impress them with the conviction that they had been imposed upon -- that the first measure was a mere decoy, -- a trap involving their pledges, yet withholding the very securities for which they had been given. This second proclamation, premising that it was necessary for all good citizens to uphold his Majesty's Government, proceeded to discharge from protection and parole all persons to whom such papers had been accorded. All persons not absolutely prisoners of war, taken in arms, were to be reinstated in their former positions as citizens -- but, as citizens of the British Empire. In this relation the farther inferences were inevitable. They were now actually to support his Majesty's Government. The proclamation ended with the usual penalties -- all who neglected to return to their allegiance were to be treated as rebels.
The policy thus adopted by the British commander soon made them so. The object of the Carolinians, in taking protections and paroles, was to avoid further warfare. The second proclamation of the British General required them to take up arms for his Majesty, and against their countrymen. This was a hopeful plan by which to fill the British regiments, to save farther importations of Hessians, farther cost of mercenaries, and, as in the case of the Aborigines, to employ the Anglo-American race against one another. The loyalists of the South were to be used against the patriots of the North, as the loyalists of the latter region had been employed to put down the liberties of the former. It was a short and ingenious process for finishing the rebellion; and, could it have entirely succeeded, as in part it did, it would have entitled Sir Henry Clinton to very far superior laurels, as a civilian, than he ever won as a soldier. The value of the Americans, as soldiers, was very well known to the British General. Some of the most sanguinary battles of the Revolution were those in which the combatants on both sides were chiefly natives of the soil, upon which a portion of them but too freely shed their blood in a sincere desire to bolster up that foreign tyranny that mocked the generous valor which it employed.
The effect of this second proclamation of the British commander was such as he scarcely anticipated. The readiness with which numbers of the people had accepted paroles and protections, declared, at most, nothing but their indifference to the contest -- declared no preference for British domination. In this lay the error of the conqueror. The natural feeling of the people, thus entrapped, was that of indignation. Their determination might have been conjectured by any reasoning mind. Compelled to take up arms -- not permitted to enjoy that repose with their families, for which they sought the offered immunities of the British -- it was more easy to espouse the cause of their countrymen, to which their affections were really given, than that of the invader. They had committed a great and humbling error in the endeavor to escape the conflict -- in taking the proffered protection of a power which had seized with violence upon their native land. It was with some eagerness, therefore, that they threw aside its obligations, and, as opportunity presented itself, girded on their armor, and sallied forth to join their countrymen. Among the first to do so were the men by whom Marion was summoned from the camp of Gates. These brave fellows, occupying a portion of the country stretching from the Santee to the Pedee, including the whole of the present district of Williamsburg, and a part of Marion, were not altogether prepared to understand these British proclamations. They were no great politicians, had no love of blind vassalage, and naturally suspected all liberality of British origin. They wished for certain explanations before they sent in their adhesion. Not that they calculated upon resistance. This, no doubt, seemed to them as hopeless as it appeared in all other parts of the State. But their insulated position, which left them uninformed as to the true condition of things, was, at the same time, a source of their courage and indifference. As yet, the arms of the British had not penetrated into their settlements. They were naturally anxious to prevent their doing so. Under these circumstances, they held a gathering of their best men for the purpose of consulting upon their affairs. The twin proclamations -- how unlike! -- of the British commander, were before them: and, in their primitive assembly, they sat down to discuss their separate merits. These confused rather than enlightened them, and it was resolved to send one of their number, in whom they had most confidence, to the nearest British authority, in order that their difficulties should be explained and their doubts satisfied. There was one sterling family among them of the name of James. Of this family there were five brothers, John, William, Gavin, Robert and James. No men under Marion were braver or truer than these. Fearless, strong and active, they were always ready for the foe; the first in attack, the last in retreat. There were other branches of this family who partook largely of the qualities of the five brothers. Of these, the eldest, Major John James, was chosen the representative of the men of Williamsburg. This gentleman had been their representative in the provincial assembly -- he was in command of them as State militia. They gave him their fullest confidence, and he deserved it.
Under this appointment, Major James repaired to Georgetown, the nearest British
post, which was then under the command of one Captain Ardesoif. Attired as
a plain backwoodsman, James obtained an interview with Ardesoif, and, in
prompt and plain terms, entered at once upon the business for which he came.
But when he demanded the meaning of the British protection, and asked upon
what terms the submission of the citizens was to be made, he was peremptorily
informed that "the submission must be unconditional." To an inquiry, whether
the inhabitants were to be allowed to remain upon their plantations, he was
answered in the negative. "His Majesty," said Ardesoif, "offers you
a free pardon, of which you are undeserving, for you all ought to be hanged;
but it is only on condition that you take up arms in his cause." James, whom
we may suppose to have been very far from relishing the tone and language
in which he was addressed, very coolly replied, that "the people whom he
came to REPRESENT, would scarcely submit on such conditions." The republican
language of the worthy Major provoked the representative of Royalty. The
word `represent', in particular, smote hardly on his ears; something, too,
in the cool, contemptuous manner of the Major, may have contributed to his
vexation. "REPRESENT!" he exclaimed in a fury -- "You d----d rebel, if you
dare speak in such language, I will have you hung up at the yard-arm!" Ardesoif,
it must be known, was a sea captain. The ship which he commanded lay in the
neighboring river. He used only a habitual form of speech when he threatened
the "yard-arm", instead of the tree. Major James gave him no time to make
the correction. He was entirely weaponless, and Ardesoif wore a sword; but
the inequality, in the moment of his anger, was unfelt by the high-spirited
citizen. Suddenly rising, he seized upon the chair on which he had been sitting,
and floored the insolent subordinate at a blow; then hurrying forth without
giving his enemy time to recover, he mounted his horse, and made his escape
to the woods before pursuit could be attempted.
His people were soon assembled to hear his story. The exactions of the British, and the spirit which James had displayed, in resenting the insolence of Ardesoif, at once aroused their own. Required to take the field, it did not need a moment to decide "under which king". The result of their deliberations was the formation of "Marion's Brigade". Four captains were chosen for as many companies. These were, Captains William M`Cottry, Henry Mouzon, John James (of the Lake, a cousin of Major James), and John M`Cauley. These were all under the one command of our representative to Ardesoif. He instantly put them into motion, and, after some petty successes against small parties of British and Tories, he advanced one of the four companies, M`Cottry's, to the pass of Lynch's Creek, at Witherspoon's Ferry. Here M`Cottry heard of Col. Tarleton, and proceeded to encounter him. Tarleton had been apprised of the gatherings at Williamsburg, and, at the head of some seventy men, was pressing forward with the hope of surprising James. M`Cottry, more brave perhaps than prudent, after sending back to James for a reinforcement, set forward to give Tarleton battle. The British Colonel had taken post at Kingstree. M`Cottry approached him at midnight. It happened, perhaps fortunately for the former, that Tarleton had received some very exaggerated accounts of M`Cottry's force, which the boldness of his approach seemed to confirm. Taking the alarm accordingly, he disappeared in season, leaving to M`Cottry the `eclat' which necessarily attended his attempt. The excesses of Tarleton, while on this progress, and the crimes committed in the same neighborhood by other British captains about the same time, completed the movement which the native spirit of patriotism in the men of Williamsburg had so happily begun. The whole country was soon awakened -- individuals and groups everywhere beginning to show themselves in arms, and nothing was needed but an embodied force of the Americans, upon which they could concentrate themselves and rally with effect.
It was on the 10th or 12th of August, some four days before the defeat of Gates, that Marion reached the post at Lynch's Creek, where M`Cottry had taken his position. He was commissioned by Governor Rutledge to take command of the country in this quarter, and we will henceforth distinguish him as General Marion, although it is not so certain at what period he actually received this promotion; -- we find him in possession of it in the following December.
Of his personal appearance at this time we have a brief but striking account from the hands of the venerable Judge James -- a son of the Major -- who had the honor to serve under Marion at the age of fifteen.
"He was a stranger," says the Judge, "to the officers and men, and they flocked about him to obtain a sight of their future commander. He was rather below the middle stature, lean and swarthy. His body was well set, but his knees and ankles were badly formed, and he still limped upon one leg. He had a countenance remarkably steady; his nose was aquiline, his chin projecting; his forehead large and high, and his eyes black and piercing. He was then forty-eight years of age, with a frame capable of enduring fatigue and every privation." Of his dress, by which we may form some idea of that costume which had provoked the laughter of Gates' veterans, we have a description also, furnished us by the same excellent authority. We know not but that this description will provoke the smile of the reader. But, of such persons, in the language of the Judge, "even trifles become important." "He (Marion) was dressed in a close round-bodied crimson jacket, of a coarse texture, and wore a leather cap, part of the uniform of the second regiment, with a silver crescent in front, inscribed with the words, `Liberty or Death!'"
Such regimentals show rather the exigencies than the tastes of our partisan. This scarlet cloth, of which his vest was made, was almost the only kind of color which the Carolinians could procure after the conquest of Charleston. The British seemed to distribute it with the protections and pardons, perhaps as a popular mode of disseminating their principles. Moultrie somewhere tells a ludicrous anecdote of some Americans (prisoners on parole) who were nearly cut to pieces by a party of their countrymen, in consequence of their scarlet jackets. They had taken the precaution to dye them with some native roots, but the dye had disappeared, leaving the original color nearly as vivid as before.
According to Weems, Marion made rather a theatrical display on taking command of his brigade. He swore them in a circle upon their swords, never to yield the contest until they had secured their own and the liberties of their country. There is no authority for this statement, either in the work of James, in the MS. of Horry, or in any of the authorities. There is no doubt that such were his own sentiments, and such the sentiments which he strove to impart to all his followers; but the scene as described by the reverend historian was quite too artificial and theatrical for the tastes of Marion. It does not accord with what we know of his modesty, his unaffected nature, and the general simplicity of his manners. He instilled his lessons by examples rather than by speeches. His words were usually very few. He secured the fidelity of his men by carrying them bravely into action, and bringing them honorably out of it.
Marion's career of activity commenced with his command. Though always prudent, he yet learned that prudence in military life must always imply activity. The insecurity of the encampment, with a militia force, is always greater than that of battle. The Roman captains of celebrity were particularly aware of this truth. But the activity of Marion was necessarily straitened by the condition in which he found his men. They were wretchedly deficient in all the materials of service. His first effort to supply some of their wants, was in sacking the saw-mills. The saws were wrought and hammered by rude blacksmiths into some resemblance to sabres, and thus provided, Marion set his men in motion, two days after taking the command. Crossing the Pedee at Port's Ferry, he advanced upon a large body of Tories commanded by Major Gainey, who held a position upon Britton's Neck. Gainey was considered by the British an excellent partisan officer, but he was caught napping. Marion moved with equal secrecy and celerity. After riding all night, he came upon the enemy at dawn in the morning. The discovery and the attack were one. The surprise was complete. A captain and several privates were slain, and the party dispersed. Marion did not lose a man, and had but two wounded. In this engagement, our representative, Major James, distinguished himself, by singling out Major Gainey for personal combat. But Gainey shrank from his more powerful assailant, and sought safety in flight. James pursued for a distance of half a mile. In the eagerness of the chase he did not perceive that he was alone and unsupported. It was enough that he was gaining upon his enemy, who was almost within reach of his sword, when the chase brought them suddenly upon a body of Tories who had rallied upon the road. There was not a moment to be lost. Hesitation would have been fatal. But our gallant Major was not to be easily intimidated. With great coolness and presence of mind, waving his sword aloft, he cried out, "come on, boys! here they are!" and rushed headlong upon the group of enemies, as if perfectly assured of support. The ruse was successful. The Tories broke once more, and sought safety from their individual enemy in the recesses of Pedee swamp.
Marion did not suffer the courage of his men to cool. In twenty-four hours after this event, he was again in motion. Hearing of the proximity of another body of Tories, under Captain Barfield, he advanced against him with as much celerity and caution as before. But he found Barfield strongly posted, in greater force than he expected; warned of his approach and waiting for him. It was no part of Marion's practice to expose his men unnecessarily. He had too few, to risk the loss of any precious lives, where this was to be avoided. He determined upon a different mode of managing his enemy, and resorted to a stratagem, which, subsequently, he frequently made use of. Putting a select party of his men in ambush near the Blue Savannah, he feigned retreat with another, and thus beguiled his enemy from his strong position. The result accorded with his wishes. Barfield followed and fell into the snare. The defeat was equally complete with that of Gainey.
The conduct and skill, in managing his raw militia-men, which these two achievements displayed, naturally inspired his followers with confidence in themselves and their leader. They produced a corresponding effect upon the people of the country, and were productive of no small annoyance to the Tories, who were thus suddenly reminded that there might be retribution for crime even when sheltered under the dragon folds of England. Another benefit from these occurrences was in better providing the brigade with some of the proper weapons and munitions of war.
Among the recent captures of Marion were two old field-pieces. Returning to Port's Ferry, he threw up a redoubt on the east bank of the Pedee, upon which he mounted them. He seldom troubled himself with such heavy baggage, and probably disposed of them in this way, quite as much to disencumber himself of them, as with any such motive, as was alleged, when placing them in battery, of overawing the Tories by their presence. Movements of so rapid a kind, and so frequently made as his, requiring equal dispatch and secrecy, forbade the use of artillery; and he very well knew, that, to employ men for the maintenance of isolated posts -- such posts as he could establish, -- would have no other effect than to expose his brigade to the chances of being cut up in detail.
On the 17th August, the day following the defeat of Gates, -- of which event he was as yet wholly ignorant -- he dispatched Col. Peter Horry, with orders to take command of four companies, Bonneau's, Mitchell's, Benson's and Lenud's, near Georgetown, on the Santee; to destroy all the boats and canoes on the river from the lower ferry to Lenud's -- to break up and stop all communications with Charleston, and to procure, if possible, supplies of gunpowder, flints and bullets. "Twenty-five weight of gunpowder, ball or buckshot," is the language of his orders. This will show how scanty were the supplies which were to be procured of the material upon which everything depended. Marion frequently went into action with less than three rounds to a man -- half of his men were sometimes lookers on because of the lack of arms and ammunition -- waiting to see the fall of friends or enemies, in order to obtain the necessary means of taking part in the affair. Buck-shot easily satisfied soldiers, who not unfrequently advanced to the combat with nothing but swan-shot in their fowling-pieces.
While Horry proceeded towards Georgetown, Marion marched to the upper Santee. On this march he was advised of the defeat of Gates; but, fearing its effect upon his men, without communicating it, he proceeded immediately toward Nelson's Ferry. This was a well known pass on the great route, the "war-path", from Charleston to Camden. Here his scouts advised him of the approach of a strong British guard, with a large body of prisoners taken from Gates. The guards had stopped at a house on the east side of the river. Informed of all necessary particulars, Marion, a little before daylight, detached Col. Hugh Horry, with sixteen men, to gain possession of the road, at the pass of Horse Creek, in the swamp, while the main body under himself was to attack the enemy's rear. The attempt was made at dawn, and was perfectly successful. A letter from Marion himself, to Col. P. Horry, thus details the event: -- "On the 20th inst. I attacked a guard of the 63d and Prince of Wales' Regiment, with a number of Tories, at the Great Savannah, near Nelson's Ferry; killed and took twenty-two regulars, and two Tories prisoners, and retook one hundred and fifty Continentals of the Maryland line, one wagon and a drum; one captain and a subaltern were also captured. Our loss is one killed, and Captain Benson is slightly wounded on the head."
It will scarcely be believed that, of this hundred and fifty Continentals, but three men consented to join the ranks of their liberator. It may be that they were somewhat loth to be led, even though it were to victory, by the man whose ludicrous equipments and followers, but a few weeks before, had only provoked their merriment. The reason given for their refusal, however, was not deficient in force. "They considered the cause of the country to be hopeless. They were risking life without an adequate object." The defeat of Gates, and his bad generalship, which they had so recently witnessed, were, perhaps, quite sufficient reasons to justify their misgivings.
This disastrous event did not produce like despondency in our partisan or his followers, though it furnished reasons for the greatest circumspection. At this moment Marion's was the only body of American troops in the State, openly opposed to the triumphant progress of the British. The Continentals were dispersed or captured; the Virginia and North Carolina militia scattered to the four winds; Sumter's legion cut up by Tarleton, and he himself a fugitive, fearless and active still, but as yet seeking, rather than commanding, a force. Though small and seemingly insignificant, the force of Marion had shown what might be done, with the spirit and the personnel of the country, under competent leaders. The cruelties of the British, who subjected the vanquished to the worst treatment of war, helped his endeavors. Shortly after the victory over Gates, Lord Cornwallis addressed an order to the British commandants at the several posts throughout the country, of which the following are extracts:
"I have given orders that all of the inhabitants of this province who have subscribed, and have taken part in this revolt, should be punished with the greatest rigor; and also those who will not turn out, that they may be imprisoned and their whole property taken from them or destroyed. . . .
I have ordered in the most positive manner that every militia man, who has borne arms with us, and afterwards joined the enemy, shall be immediately hanged!"
This gentleman has been called, by some of the American writers, the "amiable Cornwallis". It is rather difficult to say for which of his qualities this dulcet epithet was bestowed. The preceding may well justify us in the doubt we venture to express, whether it was not given as much in mockery as compliment. But, lest his commands should not be understood, as not sufficiently explicit, his Lordship proceeded to furnish examples of his meaning, which left his desires beyond reasonable question. Immediately after his return to Camden, he stained the laurels of his recent victory, and celebrated his triumph over Gates, by hanging some twelve or fifteen wretched prisoners, old men and boys, who were only suspected of treachery to the royal cause. Similar barbarities were practised by subordinate officers, emulative of this example of their superior, or in obedience to his orders. But, fortunately for the country, even this brutality, which was intended to alarm the fears of the people, and do that which the arts of their conqueror had failed to effect, was not productive of the desired results. It drove the indignant into the field -- it shamed the unwilling into decision -- it spurred on the inert and inactive to exertion, and armed the doubtful and the timid with resolution. It sent hundreds, whom nothing had moved before, into the ranks of Marion and Sumter. The moment of defeat and greatest despondency -- the dark before the dawn -- was that when the people of the country were preparing to display the most animating signs of life. The very fact that the force of Marion was so insignificant, was something in favor of that courage and patriotism, that confidence in his own resources and his men, which, defying all the inequalities of force, could move him to traverse the very paths of the conqueror, and pluck his prisoners from his very grasp.
The audacity and skill of Marion, exhibited in numerous small achievements of which history furnishes no particulars, extorted a reluctant confession from the enemy, whose unwilling language will suffice for our own. Tarleton writes: "MR. Marion,* by his zeal and abilities, showed himself capable of the trust committed to his charge. He collected his adherents at the shortest notice, and, after making excursions into the friendly districts, or threatening the communications, to avoid pursuit he disbanded his followers. The alarms occasioned by these insurrections, frequently retarded supplies on their way to the army; and a late report of Marion's strength delayed the junction of the recruits who had arrived from New York for the corps in the country."
The 64th Regiment of Infantry was ordered to Nelson's Ferry from Charleston, and directions were given to Lieut. Col. Tarleton to pass the Wateree to awe the insurgents.** Cornwallis writes to Tarleton: "I most sincerely hope that you will get at MR. Marion." In short, to use the further language of the British Colonel, Marion completely overran the lower districts. He cut off supplies from the army, broke up the Tories, destroyed recruiting parties, intercepted and interrupted communications, and, darting to and fro between the British posts, which he had not the power to overcome, showed that nothing but that power was necessary to enable him to challenge with them the possession of the soil. That he should disband his men at one moment, and be able by a word to bring them together when they were again wanted, proves a singular alliance between the chieftain and his followers, which is characteristic only of the most romantic history. Evidently, the personal and patriotic influences were very equally strong, to occasion such prompt fidelity, in his case, on the part of his followers.
-- * The British officers betrayed a singular reluctance to accord to the Americans their military titles. The reader will recollect the letter of General Gage to MR. Washington, which the latter very properly refused to receive. The very attempt here made to sneer away the official, adds to the personal importance of the individual; and we yield to plain Mr. Marion, with his ragged followers, who, untitled, could give such annoyance to His Majesty's officers, a degree of respect which his title might not otherwise have commanded. ** Tarleton's Campaigns, 4to ed. p. 171. --
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