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Francis Marion, Chapter II, Campaign of 1780

On the second or third day after his arrival, General Marion ordered his men to mount white cockades, to distinguish themselves from the tories, and crossed the Pedee, at Port’s ferry, to disperse a large body of tories, under Major Ganey, stationed on Britton’s neck, between great and little Pedee. He surprised them at dawn in the morning, killed one of their captains and several privates, and had two men wounded. Major James was detached at the head of a volunteer troop of horse, to attack their horse; he came up with them, charged, and drove them before him. In this affair, Major James singled out Major Ganey, (as he supposed) as the object of his single attack. At his approach Ganey fled, and he pursued him closely, and nearly within the reach of his sword, for half a mile; when behind a thicket, he came upon a party of tories, who had rallied. Not at all intimidated, but with great presence of mind, Major James called out, “Come on my boys! — Here they are! — Here they are!” And the whole body of tories broke again, and rushed into little Pedee swamp. Another party of tories lay higher up the river, under the command of Capt. Barefield; who had been a soldier in one of the South Carolina regiments. These stood to their ranks, so well, and appeared to be so resolute, that Gen. Marion did not wish to expose his men, by an attack on equal terms; he therefore feigned a retreat, and led them into an ambuscade, near the Blue Savannah, where they were defeated. This was the first manoeuvre of the kind, for which he afterwards became so conspicuous.

Thus Gen. Marion, at once, fell upon employment, as the true way to encourage and to command militia; and their spirits began to revive. He returned to Port’s ferry, and threw up a redoubt on the east bank of the Pedee, on which he mounted two old iron field pieces, to awe the tories. On the 17th of August, he detached Col. Peter Horry, with orders to take command of four companies, Bonneau’s, Mitchell’s, Benson’s, and Lenud’s, near Georgetown, and on the Santee; to destroy all the boats and canoes on the river, from the lower ferry to Lenud’s; to post guards, so as to prevent all communication with Charleston, and to procure him twenty-five weight of gunpowder, ball or buck shot, and flints in proportion. This order was made in pursuance of a plan he afterwards carried into effect; to leave no approach for the enemy into the district of which he had taken the command.

The latter part of the order, shows how scanty were the means of his defence. There were few men, even in those days of enthusiasm, who would not have shrunk from such an undertaking. Gen. Marion himself marched to the upper part of Santee, it is believed, with the same object in view with which he had entrusted Horry. On his way he received intelligence of the defeat of Gates at Camden, and, without communicating it, he proceeded immediately towards Nelson’s ferry. (16th August.)

Near Nelson’s, he was informed, by his scouts, that a guard, with a party of prisoners, were on their way to Charleston; and had stopped at the house, at the great Savannah, on the main road, east of the river. (20th of August.) It was night, and the general, a little before daylight next morning, gave the command of sixteen men to Col. Hugh Horry. He was ordered to gain possession of the road, at the pass of Horse creek, in the swamp, while the main body, under himself, was to attack in the rear. In taking his position, in the dark, Col. Horry advanced too near to a sentinel, who fired upon him. In a moment he rushed up to the house, found the British arms piled before the door, and seized upon them. Twenty-two British regulars, of the 63d regiment, two tories, one captain, and a subaltern were taken, and one hundred and fifty of the Maryland line, liberated. In his account of this affair Gen. Marion says he had one man killed, and Maj. Benson wounded. But the man, Josiah Cockfield, who was shot through the breast; lived to fight bravely again, and to be again wounded.

In the account given of this action by Col. Tarleton, he says, contemptuously, the guard was taken by “a Mr. Horry”; but Gen. Marion, as commanding officer, is entitled to the credit of it. The news of the defeat of Gen. Gates now became public, and repressed all joy upon this occasion; no event which had yet happened, was considered so calamitous. An account of it will be given in his own words. Extract of a letter, from Gen. Gates, to the president of congress, dated Hillsborough, 20th August, 1780:

Sir,
In the deepest distress and anxiety of mind, I am obliged to acquaint your excellency with the defeat of the troops under my command. I arrived with the Maryland line, the artillery, and the North Carolina militia, on the 13th inst. at Rugely’s, thirteen miles from Camden; took post there, and was the next day joined by Gen. Stevens, with 700 militia from Virginia. The 15th, at daylight, I reinforced Colonel Sumter, with 300 North Carolina militia, 100 of the Maryland line, and two three-pounders from the artillery: having previously ordered him down from the Waxhaws, opposite to Camden, to intercept any stores coming to the enemy, and particularly troops coming from Ninety-Six. This was well executed by Col. Sumter. Having communicated my plan to the general officers in the afternoon of the 15th, it was resolved to march at ten at night, to take post in a very advantageous situation, with a deep creek in front, (Gum Swamp7) seven miles from Camden. At ten the army began to march, and having moved about five miles, the legion was charged by the enemy’s cavalry, and well supported by Col. Porterfield, who beat back the enemy’s horse, and was himself unfortunately wounded, (mortally) but the enemy’s infantry advancing with a heavy fire, the troops in front gave way to the first Maryland brigade, and a confusion ensued which took some time to regulate. At length the army was ranged in line of battle. Gen. Gists’ brigade on the right, close to a swamp; the North Carolina militia in the centre; the Virginia militia, the light infantry, and Porterfield’s corps, on the left; the artillery divided to the brigades. The first Maryland brigade as a corps de reserve on the road. Col. Armand’s corps was ordered to support the left flank. At daylight, they attacked and drove in our light party in front, when I ordered the left to advance and attack the enemy; but, to my astonishment, the left wing and North Carolina militia gave way. Gen. Caswell and myself, assisted by a number of officers, did all in our power to rally them; but the enemy’s cavalry harassing their rear, they ran like a torrent, and bore all before them.

This is all the general seemed to know of the action.

Part of the brigade of North Carolina militia, commanded by Gen. Gregory, behaved well. They formed on the left of the continentals, and kept the field while their cartridges lasted. In bringing off his men, Gen. Gregory was thrice wounded by a bayonet, and several of his brigade, made prisoners, had no wounds but from the bayonet. The continental troops, under De Kalb and Gist, with inferior numbers, stood their ground and maintained the unequal conflict with great firmness. At one time they had taken a considerable body of prisoners; but at length, overpowered by numbers, they were compelled to leave the field. Tarleton’s legion pursued the fugitives to the Hanging rock, fifteen miles, and glutted themselves with blood. Baron De Kalb, the second in command, an officer of great spirit, and long experience, was taken prisoner, after receiving eleven wounds, and died. Congress resolved that a monument should be erected to him at Annapolis. The gratitude of the people of Camden, has erected another in that town, and named a street De Kalb, after him.8

Capts. Williams and Duval, of the Maryland troops, were killed; and Gen. Rutherford, of North Carolina, and Maj. Thomas Pinckney, of South Carolina, were wounded, and taken prisoners. Du Buysson, aid to Baron De Kalb, generously exposing himself to save his general, received several wounds and was taken. Lord Cornwallis states the force of Gates to have been six thousand men, and his own at near two thousand: a great disparity indeed. The loss of the Americans he calculates at between eight and nine hundred killed, and one thousand prisoners, many of whom were wounded; a number of colours, seven pieces of brass cannon, all the military stores and baggage, and one hundred and fifty waggons. His Lordship no doubt obtained a splendid victory; but tarnished it by his orders, issued soon after. Extract from the orders of Lord Cornwallis:

“I have given orders, that the inhabitants of the province, who have taken part in this revolt, should be punished with the greatest rigour; and also those who will not turn out, that they may be imprisoned, and their property taken from them, or destroyed. I have likewise ordered, that compensation be made out of their estates, to the persons who have been injured or oppressed by them. I have ordered, in the most positive manner, that every militia man who has borne arms with us, and afterwards joined the army, shall be immediately hanged. I desire you will take the most rigourous measures to punish the rebels in the district in which you command; and that you obey in the strictest manner the directions I have given in this letter, relative to the inhabitants of this country.”

And wherever the British had garrisons or power these orders were carried into effect. Under them, at, or near Camden, Samuel Andrews, Richard Tucker, John Miles, Josiah Gayle, Eleazar Smith, —- Sones, and many others, were hanged. Under them also, Cols. John Chesnut and Joseph Kershaw, Mr. James Brown, Mr. Strother, Mr. James Bradley, and a multitude of others, languished in irons, while their property was destroyed, and their families were starving. Yet Tarleton says of Lord Cornwallis, “He endeavoured so to conduct himself as to give offence to no party, and the consequence was that he was able entirely to please none.” Of what kind of stuff must this man’s heart have been made? But let us inquire a little further into the nature of these orders; which, in their extent, would have condemned to death, imprisonment and confiscation three fourths of the militia, who at that time, or afterwards, acted under the American standard in South Carolina.

The proclamation of the British commanders of the 1st of June, 1780, before noticed, was either a snare to entrap the people into allegiance, and, as a necessary consequence, into recruits for their army; or it was terms of capitulation, fairly offered by the British commanders, to all such people as would submit to them. In other words, it was a solemn covenant.9 If the proclamation was a snare, to bring the people to fight against their countrymen, as it has been generally thought, it was a breach of faith in those commanders, and not binding upon the people;10 and the sooner they could avoid the treachery the better. Then, upon this view of the case, the more wicked were the orders of Lord Cornwallis, issued on the unsound principle of a faithless proclamation. Again, if it was intended as a covenant; as the paroles issued under it made them prisoners; the people, from the terms and the nature of it, ought to have been suffered to remain at home, in peace and quiet; for being prisoners, they could not, consistent with reason or principle, serve under those who held them in imprisonment. Further, the second proclamation declaring all paroles, after the 20th June, to be null and void, was an arbitrary change of what had been agreed upon by one party, the strongest, without the consent of the other; which, in the language of civilians, is odious.11 Then the British commanders, having broken their covenant and declared it void, upon what principle could the people be punished by a breach of it? Upon none; for it did not exist. But further, the taking up arms in favour of the British, in nine cases out of ten, was compulsory; and could have no binding effect, either legally or morally speaking.

In addition to the enormity of the principle, upon which such men were to suffer, was the uncertainty of the law; for Lord Cornwallis’ orders are so confusedly drawn, they will admit, as against the accused, of any latitude of construction: yet they denounce confiscation, imprisonment and death. Under the circumstances stated, the confiscations of Lord Cornwallis were robberies, his imprisonments were unjust and cruel, and his executions, always upon the gibbet, were military murders. And if, to gain his point, he did not, like the Duke of Alva, (employed in a similar vocation) make use of the rack, the stake, and the faggot, yet Lord Cornwallis resorted to every other mode of punishment, a more improved civilization had left him, to suppress civil liberty. Such was the character of the commander in chief of the British forces in South Carolina.

Now, we hold a generous foe entitled to favour and respect, and we shall hereafter bestow it, wherever due; but the interest of humanity requires, and it is a sacred trust, in the historian, that cruel domineering spirits should be fully exposed.

Soon after the affair at Nelson’s, Gen. Marion marched back to Port’s ferry. On the way, many of the militia, and all the liberated continentals, except three, deserted him. Two of these were Sergeants M`Donald and Davis, who were afterwards noted, the first for his daring spirit and address in single combat; the second, for his patient services, after being crippled by a wound. It is a real pleasure to record the virtues of men, who, serving in a subordinate capacity, never expected such virtues should be known. By the exertions of Gen. Marion and his officers, the spirits of the drooping militia began to revive. But about the 27th day of August, when, having the command of only one hundred and fifty men, he heard of the approach of Major Wemyss, above Kingstree, at the head of the 63d regiment, and a body of tories, under Maj. Harrison.