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Francis Marion, Chapter III, Campaign of 1781, part 2

Col. Watson was considered by the British one of their best partisans; yet we have seen how he was foiled. Had his regiment attempted, as was no doubt intended, to ford the river at the lower bridge, they would have found the passage narrow, and the river at that time deep; or had he undertaken to repair the bridge, in either case he must have lost a great portion of his men. He was, however, a better officer than historian or civilian, otherwise he would not have justified the practice of burning houses, in the face of the universal censure cast upon Lewis XIV. for adopting the same measure in the Palatinate. But when Watson, Balfour, and other British officers, professing to know the laws of war and nations, burnt houses and hanged those citizens who had taken deceptive paroles upon their authority, certainly it may be affirmed that Marion, who was self-taught, and had no book of the law of nations, or perhaps any other book in his camp, was justifiable as a matter of retaliation, to shoot down their pickets and cut off their sentinels wherever he could find them; and always to fight such invaders in their own barbarian manner. Nothing ever showed, in such a strong light, the plain good sense of Marion. Col. Watson had orders to burn houses, but did not however appear to wish to carry them rigourously into effect. It is believed he burnt but two; one was the house of Lieut. Dickson, who was with Marion; the other belonged to Nathaniel Dwight, of Waccamaw neck. Upon a retrospection, Col. Watson’s character appears in a favourable point of view; and, as far as was consistent with orders, his humanity is undoubted.

On the 18th of April, Col. William Harden, acting under the orders of Marion, took the British fort at Pocotaligo, with one militia colonel, one major, three captains, three lieutenants, sixty privates and twenty-two dragoons, prisoners. He writes, “I wish you would send some commissions, with your orders. It seems they wait for Col. Hayne, and he says he cannot act without a commission, and I am sure, if he turns out, at least two hundred will join him. If so, I am very certain that this part of the country may be held.” Every one has either read or heard of the subsequent melancholy fate of Col. Hayne; but more of that in the sequel.

Major John Postell had been pitched upon as the first victim. After distinguishing himself, as related, he obtained leave from his general to go with a flag to Georgetown, to obtain the release of his father, (who was still a prisoner) and of some others. Capt. Saunders, now the commandant, detained him, and threw him also into gaol, on the plea of his having broken his parole;10 and, in a long correspondence with Gen. Marion, he and Col. Balfour, the commandant of Charleston, vindicated the measure, as consistent with the laws of war and nations. It appears Balfour was the civilian of the British while here in power. He was just such a minion as would have suited the purposes of Tiberius Caesar. He had several hundreds of Americans pining in want and misery in loathsome prison-ships, and in dungeons under the Exchange, damp and noisome, which he called his provost.

He writes thus to Saunders, concerning Major Postell, “send him by water,” (by land was not safe) “by a fast sailer — under a guard — be so good as to let him have no chance of escaping.” Be so good here, meant to clap him in irons. This royal tiger, secure in his jungle, was now crouching to spring upon what he deemed defenceless prey; but, while reasoning about the law of nations, Saunders had the folly to send out Capt. Merrett with a flag. Marion immediately detained him, and swore a bitter oath, that if they touched a hair of Postell’s head he would hang Merrett. Major Postell lost all further opportunity of distinguishing himself, and underwent a long and rigourous imprisonment; but this had become a common case, and the British knew Marion too well to carry matters further. On the 25th of April,11 Gen. Greene lay at Hobkirk hill, at that time a mile out of Camden, but now partly in the town. His army consisted of only about seven hundred continentals, and as many militia; his left rested on Pinetree creek, and his right extended across the road leading to Lancaster, uncovered by any obstructions. Having just received a comfortable supply of provisions, which they much wanted, his men were employed in cooking and washing. At this juncture, Rawdon sallied out of Camden, at the head of nine hundred men, his whole disposable force. Between him and Greene, along Pinetree creek, were thick woods and shrubbery, and he preferred this route for concealment. His advance was not suspected, until he was fired upon by the American pickets; but these received him bravely, and during the contest with them, Greene formed his army. The Virginia brigade, under Gen. Huger, took the right; the Maryland brigade, under Col. Williams, the left. The continentals were thus disposed in one line, and the artillery, under Col. Harrison, were in the centre. The reserve were the cavalry, under Col. Washington, and two hundred and fifty North Carolina militia, under Col. Reade. Rawdon advanced with the King’s American regiment on the right, the New York volunteers in the centre, and the 63d on the left; his right supported by Robertson’s corps, and his left by the volunteers of Ireland. Greene discovering his narrow front, ordered Col. Campbell, of the Virginia, and Col. Ford, of the Maryland line, to turn his flanks; the centre regiments to advance with fixed bayonets, and Washington to gain his rear. Rawdon perceiving his danger, brought up the volunteers of Ireland into line. The battle opened with vigour, and Huger evidently gained ground. Washington in the rear, was carrying all before him, and Col. Hawes in the centre, was descending the hill with fixed bayonets. At this flattering moment, the veteran regiment of Gunby, the 1st Maryland, fired contrary to orders; while Capt. Armstrong, with two sections, was moving ahead upon the enemy. Gunby, being anxious to lead his regiment into battle thoroughly compacted, ordered Armstrong back, instead of making him the point of view in forming. Retrograde being the consequence of this order, the British shouted and pressed forward, and the regiment of Gunby, considered the bulwark of the army, never recovered from its panic. Williams, Gunby, and Howard, all strove in vain to bring it to order. The Virginia brigade and second Maryland regiment maintained the contest bravely; but the 2d Maryland, feeling the effect of the retreat of the 1st, became somewhat deranged, and its commander, Lieut. Col. Ford, being wounded in repressing it, this corps also fell back. Rawdon’s right having now gained the summit, and flanking Hawes, Gen. Greene ordered a retreat, which was covered by Hawes. Col. Washington having gained his point of attack, and taken two hundred prisoners, was confident of victory; but seeing the retreat, he paroled the officers on the field, and relinquished all the prisoners but fifty. These he brought off, and made good his retreat, with the loss of only three men. Greene’s field pieces were now likely to fall into the hands of the enemy, and seeing Capt. John Smith,12 with his company of picked light infantry, marching off the field in good order, he rode up and called to him, “Smith, my brave fellow, save the field pieces.” He immediately fell in the rear, and executed his orders, with the loss of his whole company. All were killed but one man and Smith, and they were made prisoners. Gen. Greene rallied his army at the pass of Sanders’ creek, six miles from Camden, and soon after occupied the position Gates had intended to take, at Gum swamp. The British lost between sixty and seventy, and Greene two hundred men. This affair shows upon how small an incident the fate of war generally depends.

Upon Watson’s arrival in Camden, Lord Rawdon being now reinforced, marched out to attack Gen. Greene, at Sawney’s creek, on the west side of the Wateree. Greene did not like his position for a general engagement, and took a new one at Cornal’s creek, leaving the horse, light infantry and pickets, at his old encampment. The enemy approached and drew up on the opposite side of the creek, but did not attempt to cross; and retired into Camden before night. Early in the morning of the next day (10th of May, 1781,) Lord Rawdon burnt the mill at Camden, the gaol, his stores, and many private houses, and evacuating it, retreated towards Nelson’s ferry. Thus was Camden evacuated in less than a year after the British obtained possession of it; but during that short period it had become the scene of innumerable spoliations, and other atrocities. While they held it, the loss of property, and being reduced to poverty, were the least considerable incidents, which happened to the inhabitants. To form an accurate idea, as well of the wretched situation of the people of that town and its vicinity, during this period, as to elucidate a part of history not yet explained, let the reader take the following narrative, partly in and partly out of its due order. Gen. Greene, having traversed that part of North Carolina from Guilford to Pedee, and passed through nearly one half the breadth of South Carolina, by the way of Cheraw hill, and Lynch’s creek, arrived at Town creek, four miles below Camden, about the middle of April. Except at the Pedee, the country through which he had marched was destitute of provisions, and no where, unless he had impressed salt provisions, could he find any thing better than beef driven out of the woods; which in April is well known to be lean and nauseating. For the last fifty miles, his route had been across the sand hills, between Pedee and the Wateree; here his guide deserted him, and when he arrived at Town creek, he and his men were at a loss which way to proceed, and were literally starving. The fine low grounds of the Wateree now lay before him, where he expected an abundance of provisions, but he was most grievously disappointed. The British had swept away every thing of the kind that could be found, and what little subsistence was left to the planters was hid in small parcels, and in different places in the swamps. Scarcely any thing fit to eat, was visible, where prior to this period, and subsequently, every kind of provisions had been so abundant. But Gen. Greene, in his distress, happily13 met with a young man, whom, while he had been at Hick’s creek in January last, he had appointed assistant commissary general; and who had served him with zeal and ability in that department. This young man, (the present Gen. Cantey, of Camden,) had but just returned from Dan river, where he had supplied Gen. Greene, with fifteen waggon loads of flour, and nearly one thousand head of hogs, which he had driven from the Pedee, by private ways, with so much skill and address, as to avoid Lord Cornwallis, and the numerous tories by whom he was surrounded; and Cantey was still zealous to serve his country. After gaining some intelligence of the enemy, Gen. Greene requested his commissary to endeavour to get them some provisions, for they were famishing. Cantey’s father lived not far off, and recollecting he had some bacon and corn meal hid in a swamp, he immediately went and brought enough for the general’s mess, and in a short time after, drove in beeves, such as they were, sufficient for a supper for the men; but so destitute was the neighbourhood, that Cantey recommended it to Gen. Greene to move above Camden, where provisions might be collected from the upper country, and it was more probable he would receive aid from the militia. But for this explanation, the good judgment of Gen. Greene, in taking post above Camden, might well be questioned; since his wisest, and hitherto favoured plan, had been to strike at the posts below. It is thought, if he could have taken a position at Town creek, or Swift creek below, all surprise might have been prevented. At this time, Gen. Greene sent Cantey to Gen. Sumter, distant more than one hundred miles, to request him to join him; but Sumter, who was meditating an attack on fort Granby, declined any further cooperation except in that way. When this answer was communicated to Gen. Greene, by Cantey, he was exceedingly angry, and said he had a great mind to leave them to defend the country as well as they could, without his assistance. Could he have concentrated his force, and had not regarded Ninety-Six, he might have driven the British into Charleston, before the sickly season commenced. But the system of leaving fortresses behind an invading army, so strongly recommended by Machiavelli, and so much followed by Bonaparte, had not yet been adopted in tactics. But we are anticipating our narrative.

Although so weak after the affair at Hobkirk, Gen. Greene, had sent a reinforcement to Marion under Major Eaton with a six-pounder, and on the 8th of May, Marion and Lee commenced firing upon Fort Motte. As soon as Gen. Greene heard of the retreat of Lord Rawdon from Camden, he decamped from Cornal’s creek, and moving down on the west bank of the Wateree, took a position near M`Cord’s ferry, so as to cover the besiegers. Fort Motte stood on a high hill called Buckhead, a little on the right of the Charleston road, where it leaves the Congaree below M`Cord’s. Within its walls was included the house of Mrs. Motte, who had retired to that of her overseer. — When told it was necessary to burn the house, in order to take the fort expeditiously, she at once requested it should be done, and, as the means of effecting it, furnished an Indian bow and arrows. On the night of the 10th, the fires of Lord Rawdon’s camp were seen on the Santee hills, in his retreat from Camden, and encouraged the garrison for a while; but on the 12th the house was set on fire, and the commander Lieut. M`Pherson, and one hundred and sixty-five men, surrendered. This deed of Mrs. Motte has been deservedly celebrated. Her intention to sacrifice her valuable property was patriotic; but the house was not burnt, as is stated by historians, nor was it fired by an arrow from an African bow, as sung by the poet. — Nathan Savage, a private in Marion’s brigade, made up a ball of rosin and brimstone, to which he set fire, slung it on the roof of the house. The British surrendered before much mischief was done to it, and Marion had the fire put out. At the commencement of this siege, Serjt. M`Donald, now advanced to a lieutenancy, was killed. He was a native of Cross creek, in North Carolina, and his father and other relations had espoused the opposite side of the cause. Lieut. Cryer, who had often emulated M`Donald, shared a similar fate. On the 25th Nov. last [November 20th?], we have seen Gen. Sumter severely wounded at Black Stocks; but on the 20th Feb. just three months after, he sat down before Fort Granby, to besiege it, and wrote to Marion, who was his junior officer, to move in such a direction as to attract the attention of Lord Rawdon; but at that time the fort was relieved.

On the same day that Fort Motte surrendered, Gen. Sumter took the British fort at Orangeburgh, with a garrison consisting of seventy tories and twelve British; and in three days after, on the 15th May, he took Fort Granby; long the object of his wishes. This fort was surrendered to him by Major Maxwell, of the British, with nineteen officers, three hundred and twenty-nine men, mostly royalists, and five pieces of ordnance.14