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Francis Marion, Chapter III, Campaign of 1781, part 1

The year 1781 commenced under auspices more propitious than those of the last year. The British had exercised so much oppression and rapacity over all those who would not join them, and so much insolence over those who did, and were in the least suspected, that the people of South Carolina found there was no alternative but between a state of downright vassalage and warfare. Most of the men of principle already had, or were prepared to take up arms against the enemy, and in general the unprincipled only remained with them in the expectation of plunder. Their army too, being divided into different cantonments over the country, while it extended their oppression, exposed their weakness. The history of all ages shows that a country may be overrun with more facility than kept in a state of subjection, and that a partisan warfare is the best that can be carried on against an enemy of superior force and discipline.

During the present winter Lord Cornwallis formed a design of conquering the upper counties of North Carolina, and marched by the way of Charlotte towards Salisbury, for that purpose. This part of the country was thickly covered with underwood, and settled by a hardy race of industrious yeomanry, all friends of their country. He was fired upon from behind bushes and fences, trees and rocks, by companies in ambush, and individuals on foot and on horseback, and was so much annoyed that he was obliged to retreat back to Winnsborough. The news of this expedition was industriously spread abroad, and encouraged the people of South Carolina to follow the example. In the mean time, Gen. Gates had been superceded in the command of the southern army by Gen. Greene.

With the character of this leader it is intended to make the reader better acquainted than he has been heretofore. His command begun with a good omen, which in all times has had its effect. In a few hours after his arrival in camp at Charlotte, he received the news that Col. Washington had taken Rugely and one hundred men, by the well known stratagem of mounting a pine log over against his block house, which he mistook for a field piece.1 Gen. Greene had not only no more than one thousand continentals and about as many militia, but was also bare of ammunition and clothing, and had no money to pay them. With this force he marched down to Pedee, in South Carolina, and took a position near Hick’s creek, on the east side of the river, not many miles from Chatham. From this place his first despatch to Gen. Marion is dated, the 19th Jan. 1781, in which he says, “by the last accounts, Lieut. Col. Tarleton was in motion, with about one thousand troops, towards Gen. Morgan.” On the 23d Jan. Gen. Greene congratulates Marion on Morgan’s victory over Tarleton, and writes him the particulars. On the 25th he says, “before this I hope you have received the agreeable news of the defeat of Lieut. Col. Tarleton. After this nothing will appear difficult.”

As the defeat of Tarleton at the Cowpens has been related by many American writers, whose works are generally read, the account of the renowned chief himself, who was unexpectedly foiled, and which is now out of print, will be extracted for the amusement of the historical reader. “Near the end of the last year, (1780) information had been received by Lord Cornwallis, that Gen. Greene had made a division of his troops, which did not exceed fourteen hundred men, exclusive of militia, and that he had committed the light infantry and Col. Washington’s cavalry to Gen. Morgan, with directions to pass the Catawba and Broad rivers, to collect the militia, and threaten Ninety-Six. It is not to be supposed Gen. Greene would have adopted the hazardous plan of dividing his forces, if he had received information of Gen. Leslie’s command being withdrawn from Virginia, and united to the force in South Carolina; because such an accession of strength would produce a movement from Winnsborough (where Cornwallis then lay,) and might separate the two divisions of the American army, and endanger their safety. To attain this object, (the separation of the two divisions of the American army,) Col. Tarleton was now detached from the main army of Lord Cornwallis, and was to be supported by his lordship, and Gen. Leslie as soon as he arrived; with orders to push Morgan to the utmost. Tarleton’s force was his corps of cavalry and infantry of five hundred and fifty men; the first battalion of the 71st, of two hundred men; two hundred men of the 7th regiment, new recruits; and fifty dragoons of the 17th regiment — total one thousand men. Morgan retreated before Tarleton till the commanding officer in front of the British reported the American troops were halted and forming. (17th Jan.) Lieut. Col. Tarleton, having obtained a position he certainly might deem advantageous, did not hesitate to undertake the measures his commander and his own judgment recommended. He ordered the legion dragoons to drive in the militia, that Morgan’s disposition might be inspected. The American commander had formed a front line of about one thousand militia; his reserve of five hundred continental infantry, one hundred and twenty of Washington’s cavalry, and three hundred back woodsmen. Tarleton ordered his infantry to disencumber themselves of every thing except arms and ammunition, to file to the right, till they became equal to the flank of the American front line; the legion infantry were added to their left, and under the fire of a three pounder they were to advance within three hundred yards of the enemy. This situation being acquired, the 7th regiment was commanded to form on the left of the legion infantry, and the other three pounder was given to its right. A captain with fifty dragoons, was placed on each flank. The first battalion of the 71st extended to the left of the 7th, one hundred and fifty yards in the rear, and composed, with two hundred cavalry, the reserve. The animation of the officers and soldiers promised assurances of success. The troops moved in as good line as troops could move, at open files. The militia, after a short contest, were dislodged. The British approached the continentals, and the fire on both sides produced much slaughter. The cavalry on the right were ordered to charge the enemy’s left, and executed the order with great gallantry, but were driven back by the reserve and Col. Washington’s cavalry. As the contest between the British infantry and continentals was equally balanced, Tarleton brought the 71st into line, and ordered a movement in reserve to threaten the enemy’s right flank. Upon the advance of the 71st all the infantry again moved on; the continentals and back woodsmen gave ground; the British rushed forwards; an order was despatched to the cavalry to charge; an unexpected fire at this instant from the Americans who came about, stopped the British and threw them into confusion. Exertions to make them advance were useless. The part of the cavalry which had not been engaged, fell likewise into disorder, and an unaccountable panic extended along the whole line. The Americans advanced and augmented their astonishment. A general flight ensued. Neither promises nor threats could gain attention. All attempts to restore order, recollection or courage proved fruitless. Two hundred dragoons forsook their leader, fourteen officers and forty horsemen were, however, not unmindful of their own reputation, or their commanding officer. Col. Washington’s cavalry were charged and driven back into the continental infantry by this handful of brave men. Another party who had seized upon the baggage were dispersed, and this detachment retired towards Broad river unmolested. The number of the killed and wounded at the Cowpens, amounted to near three hundred on both sides, officers and men inclusive; this loss was almost equally shared. But the Americans took two pieces of cannon, the colours of the 7th regiment, and near four hundred prisoners.” Thus far Col. Tarleton. Gen. Moultrie received his account of this action of the Cowpens “from an officer of great veracity and high rank, who was conspicuous on that day;” supposed to be Col. Washington. The substance of his account shall now be given; that the two may be compared. Gen. Morgan drew up his men in an open pine barren, the militia of about four hundred men, under Col. Pickens, formed the first line. The continentals of about five hundred men, two hundred of whom were raw troops, formed the second line, under Col. Howard, two hundred yards in the rear. Col. Washington, with seventy-five continental cavalry, and forty-five militia under Capt. M`Call, in the rear. Pickens ordered his men to reserve their fire till the enemy came within fifty yards, which they did, and fired with great success; but they were soon obliged to give way and retreat behind the second line, which received them warmly; at length the second line began to give way. Col. Washington, perceiving this, rode up to their rear with his cavalry, and told Howard, “if he would rally his men and charge the enemy’s line, he would charge the cavalry who were cutting down the militia.” His riding so close to the rear stopped the British, and Howard rallied his men in the mean time, and charged with fixed bayonets. Col. Washington charged the cavalry and routed them; the militia at the same time recovered themselves and began to fire, and the whole threw the enemy into the utmost confusion. Howard called out to them, “to lay down their arms and they should have good quarters.” Upwards of five hundred men threw down their arms and surrendered. Two hundred were left dead on the field, and a great number wounded. Besides the two field pieces mentioned by Tarleton, six hundred men, eight hundred stand of arms, and thirty-five baggage waggons, fell into the hands of the Americans. Col. Washington pursued the British cavalry twenty-five miles.

By this last account the disparity in numbers was not great, and as one half the Americans were either militia or new levies, the superiority was on the side of Tarleton, whose men, except two hundred, were veterans, and he had two field pieces. The ground too he acknowledges was advantageous; so that every thing was in his favour, but an agency which he could not control. But in the last account we can find no place where he and his handful of brave men could encounter Col. Washington. In his bewildered fancy perhaps it was some other object he encountered, since for the space of five and twenty miles, not their faces, but only their backs were to be seen. The fact is, that never was victory more complete, never was vanity more humbled, nor cruelty more justly requited than in the defeat of this tyrannical man. Its first effect was to raise the spirits of the people; its ultimate consequence was the downfall of Cornwallis and peace to the country. But most severe trials are yet to be surmounted, and patriotism the most exemplary remains yet to be recorded.

On the day the last letter of Greene, of the 23d Jan. was written, Gen. Marion and Col. Lee projected a joint expedition to surprise Georgetown. Capts. Carnes and Rudulph, with ninety men, dropped down the Pedee from Snow’s island in a boat, to fall in on the back of the town by Winyaw bay, while Marion and Lee were to come down with the main body by land. — Carnes with his party went ashore at Mitchell’s landing, and marched over his rice-field bank into the town at day light. The surprise would have been complete, had they pushed up directly to the redoubt, but they delayed too long on the Bay. They took the commandant, Col. Campbell, out of his bed, and killed Major Irvine and some others; but Marion and Lee could not arrive in time to cooperate. The redoubt was alarmed and placed in a state of defence, and Carnes was obliged to retreat. The great cause of delay was the inclination to take the commandant, by which they lost the fort and the town. Lieut. Cryer killed Irvine, by whose orders he had received five hundred lashes some time before, for attempting to take away his horse from Georgetown.

On the 28th Jan. Gen. Huger transmitted an order from Greene to Marion, to strike at the posts beyond Santee. But this Gen. Marion had anticipated. — From Cordes’ plantation, in advance, at the distance of one hundred miles from Greene, and on the 29th Jan. he had detached Col. Postell and Major Postell on this important service. The latter had but thirty-eight men, and it is presumed from circumstances, the colonel had about an equal number. The colonel burnt a great quantity of valuable stores at Manigault’s ferry, and the major a great many more in its vicinity. — Thence the latter posted to Keithfield, near Monk’s corner, and burnt fourteen waggons loaded with soldiers’ clothing, baggage and other valuable stores, and took prisoners about forty British regulars, without losing a man. To the Postells “nothing indeed appeared difficult.” They received the thanks of Gen. Greene.

About the beginning of this year, Gen. Marion appointed two aids, Thomas Elliott and Lewis Ogier, the first of whom conducted the most of his correspondence. He formed a mess of which Col. Hugh Horry and Col. James Postell were inmates, and apparently his principal counsellors; Serjt. Davis was his caterer, and supplied his dinners, such as they were: heretofore he had seldom any thing but meat and sweet potatoes, and often not both of these at a time, but now he had the luxury of rice. He did what was of more consequence than this, he put in requisition all the saws in the country, and all the blacksmiths, and made swords for four troops of militia cavalry. — He had so little ammunition this expedient was necessary. He gave the command of this corps to Col. Peter Horry, who had been a captain with him in the second regiment and had been an excellent infantry officer. — His major was Benson, and his captains John Baxter, John Postell, Daniel Conyers and James M`Cauley; John T. Greene soon after succeeded Baxter, who was appointed colonel on the resignation of Ervine. Hugh Horry had command of M`Donald’s regiment, who was a prisoner on parole, and his officers have been mentioned. Capt. Wm. M`Cottry commanded a company of riflemen who were the dread of the enemy. As the brigade was not strong enough for this corps of horse to act in conjunction, single troops were commonly detached by the general. At the head of a party of this cavalry Col. Peter Horry had soon an opportunity to make a trial of his skill in cavalry evolutions. He met and charged a troop of British horse on Waccamaw neck, but by his own account he appears to have been rather worsted, for he was unhorsed himself and his life saved by Serjt. M`Donald; however he brought off some prisoners. Major John Postell, who was mentioned before, was stationed to guard the lower part of Pedee, had better fortune. On the 18th Jan. Capt. James Depeyster, with twenty-nine grenadiers of the British army, had posted himself in the dwelling house of the major’s father, and Postell commanded but twenty-eight militia men. Towards day on the morning after, the major, by knowing well the ground and avoiding the sentinels, got possession of the kitchen, and summoned Depeyster to surrender; this was at first refused, and the major set fire to the kitchen. He then summoned him a second time, with the positive declaration if he did not surrender he would burn the house; the British being intimidated, laid down their arms and surrendered unconditionally.