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Francis Marion, Chapter II, Campaign of 1780

From Benbow’s ferry, Gen. Marion’s first expedition was planned against Georgetown. The formidable enemy he had nearly encountered, had not diminished his energies. Georgetown, at that period, and afterwards, was often the point to which his views were directed; since it was there only he expected to take the supplies of ammunition, clothing and salt, which he sorely wanted. To expedite his scheme he crossed Black river, at Potato ferry, a retired place, and proceeded on towards Georgetown by the Gap way. — Three miles from the town there is a swamp called White’s bay,14 which discharges itself by two mouths, the one into Black river, the other into Sampit, thus insulating the town. Over the one, which empties itself into Sampit, there is a bridge, two miles from Georgetown, called White’s bridge. Back of these swamps, Gen. Marion took his stand, near a place called the Camp, above the bridge. Here he despatched Col. P. Horry towards the Black river, and Capt. John Melton to the Sampit road, both leading into the town, to reconnoitre. At White’s plantation, Horry fell in with Capt. Merritt, who, with a few dragoons, was escorting a couple of ladies from Georgetown; Merritt, after defending himself bravely, escaped and gave the alarm. Melton, unfortunately, came in contact with a party of tories, under Barefield, much larger than his own, who were patroling near the bridge. A few shots were exchanged, and Melton was compelled to retreat. But in this short affair Gabriel Marion, nephew of the general, had his horse killed under him, and was taken prisoner; but as soon as his name was announced, he was inhumanely shot. The instrument of death was planted so near that it burnt his linen at the breast. He had been a lieutenant in the second regiment, was a young gentleman of good education, of whom high expectations were formed, and who was much beloved in the brigade. As the general had no children, he mourned over this nephew, as would a father over an only son; but he soon recollected that he had an example to set, and shortly after publicly expressed this consolation for himself — that his nephew was a virtuous young man — that he had fallen in the cause of his country, and he would mourn over him no more. At the same time Mr. Swaineau, a worthy man, was killed. Ere this, he had exercised the peaceful profession of a schoolmaster; but finding there was no employment for him in these perilous times, he had boldly shouldered the musket, and died a soldier. But so prone are mankind to pass over the merits of this most useful class of men, that had he not fallen by the side of a Marion, perhaps his memory would have been forgotten. About the same time, Mr. Bentley, another schoolmaster, was killed in action. The suspension of all public education, which led to the fate of such men, and the discontinuance of all religious worship, hereafter more particularly noticed, are striking instances of the calamitous state of the country during this period.

The British in Georgetown being now alarmed, Gen. Marion’s wise scheme to surprise them was frustrated; and he retired to Snow’s island. This island became henceforth the most constant place of his encampment; a secure retreat, a depot for his arms and ammunition; and, under similar pressures, a second Athelney, from which he might sally out upon the modern, but no less ferocious plunderers than their ancestors, the Danes. Snow’s island, not quite so marshy as was the retreat of the great Alfred, lies at the confluence of Lynch’s creek and the Pedee. On the east flows the Pedee; on the west Clark’s creek, a navigable stream, issuing from Lynch’s creek above; and on the north lies Lynch’s creek, nearly choked up by rafts of logs, but wide and deep. The island is high river swamp, and large, of itself affording much provision and live stock, as did all the Pedee river swamp at that day. In places, there were open cultivated lands on the island; but it was much covered by thick woods and cane brakes; it was also near to Ganey’s party of tories; and by crossing the river, and marching two or three hours, Marion could forage in an enemy’s country. All these advantages were well suited to the views of such a leader as Gen. Marion; and the reader is to bear in mind that such was the kind of swamps he commonly occupied. Reinforcements were now coming in to him daily, and his party began at this time to assume the appearance and force of a brigade. He lay here to receive them, and to repose his men, and horses; which, from the time he left the White marsh until he halted at Snow’s island, had passed over at least three hundred and sixty miles, in rapid marches and counter marches, made principally in the night. Marion now kept out a strict watch upon the enemy. About this time, Lieut. Roger Gordon was sent out with a party, to patrole on Lynch’s creek, and stopped at a house for provisions and refreshments. While there, he was attacked by Capt. Butler with a much larger party of tories, who having succeeded in making good his approaches to the house, set it on fire. Gordon then capitulated on a promise of quarters; but no sooner had his party grounded their arms, than they were all put to death. Not long after, Col. Kalb, Mr. Thomas Evans and some others, were murdered by Gibson, a coloured man, and his party of tories, in a manner still more shocking to humanity. In the dead of night, Kalb’s own house was surrounded, and set on fire; he, his wife, and family, and some neighbours were in it, and in bed, when awaking, they sued for quarters. Gibson promised that they should not be hurt, if they surrendered; but as soon as the men had passed out into the light of the conflagration, they were all shot. We have some time since mentioned the murder of the two Bradleys, and others, on Lynch’s Creek, and lately that of Gabriel Marion. Such provocations were no longer to be borne. Henceforth, there commenced such a bloody warfare between the whigs and tories, as is seldom recorded in the annals of even civil commotion.15 Besides the provocations mentioned, when a tory was taken prisoner, there were no means of securing him, and he commonly soon made his escape, and thereafter became a guide to his associates. It was not so with whigs who were made prisoners, for they could be sent to Georgetown or Camden. But now, seldom were prisoners made on either side, and if made, that was no security for their lives: they were sure to be put to death, either openly or privately, by a few infuriated men, who could be subjected to no subordination. Enough is said. Let the rest be buried in oblivion.

At and near Snow’s island, Gen. Marion secured what boats he wanted; and burnt those more remote. To prevent the approach of an enemy, he fell upon a plan of insulating as much as possible the country under his command. For this purpose he broke down bridges, and felled trees across causeways and difficult passes. As there was no market in that day, and the vicinity of a road was dangerous, the inhabitants aided him much in this design. History furnishes innumerable instances of the good effect of such a system of defensive warfare. His scouting parties moved principally in the night, and in all directions, and to whatever course they turned an enemy was easily found. The British had posts at Nelson’s ferry, Scott’s lake, and Georgetown; and the tories on Lynch’s creek, and Little Pedee, were more numerous, but not so well directed as Marion’s party.

Col. P. Horry and Maj. John Postell, with detachments, were posted, the first on Waccamaw creek, the second on the neck between Black and Pedee rivers, with orders to take all boats and canoes, and all horses, from friends or foes; to impress negroes as boat hands and pioneers, to seize all arms and ammunition, to prevent provisions from being sent to the enemy in Georgetown, and to send up as much rice and salt to Snow’s island, as possible. (30th Dec. 1780.) All who would not join them were to be taken prisoners, and all who supplied the enemy with stock, or grain, were to be treated as traitors. Thus martial law was fully established, and, for self defence, never was it more necessary. When Gen. Marion himself, or any of his parties, left the island on an expedition, they almost invariably struck into the woods towards the heads of the larger water courses, and crossed them near their source; and if in haste, they swam over them. Many of the general’s trails remained for a long time after, and some are now roads. When it is said hereafter that Gen. Marion crossed a river, for instance the Santee, it is not to be understood that he stopped, like Caesar at the Rhine, to build a bridge over it; or that he was provided with the convenient modern apparatus of pontoons, or oftentimes with a common flat; even the last would have been too slow for the usual rapidity of his motions. He seldom waited for more than a single canoe, along side of which his sorrel horse Ball,16 was usually led into the river, and he floated over like an amphibious animal. The rest of the horses soon learned to follow instinctively. Where a canoe was not to be had, the general swam over frequently on the back of this uncommon horse. No leader, in ancient or modern times, ever passed rivers with more rapidity. His plans were laid, and his movements conducted, with the most uncommon secrecy. After making a movement, his most confidential officers and men have had to search for him for days together, perhaps without finding him. His scouts, when returning, and at a loss, used a loud and shrill whistle, as a signal; which could be heard in the night to an astonishing distance. It is well described in Scott’s Lady of the Lake:

“He whistled shrill, And he was answered from the hill; Wild as the scream of the curlew, From crag to crag, the signal flew.”

As an instance of the secrecy with which Gen. Marion’s plans were always adopted and conducted, the following may be regarded as a specimen in his progress throughout. His men having been several times unexpectedly led out upon long expeditions, without preparation, and suffering for the want of food on such occasions, after some time, were in the habit of watching his cook, and if they saw him unusually busied in preparing any of the frugal fare then in use, they prepared accordingly. The general’s favourite time for moving was at the sitting sun, and then it was expected the march would continue all night. But the present time, and afterwards, before striking any sudden blow, he has been known to march sixty or seventy miles, without taking any other refreshment, than a meal of cold potatoes and a drink of cold water, in twenty-four hours. During this period men were but badly clothed in homespun, which afforded little warmth. They slept in the open air, according to their means, either with or without a blanket. They had nothing but water to drink. They fed chiefly upon sweet potatoes, either with or without fresh beef. And they submitted to this without a murmur; but all sighed for salt! for salt! that first article of necessity for the human race. Little do the luxurious of the present day know of the pressure of such a want. Salt was now ten silver dollars the bushel, when brought more than thirty miles from the Waccamaw sea shore, where it was coarsely manufactured. It was harder to get one silver dollar then, than ten now; so that on a low calculation, a bushel of coarse bay salt, sold at that time for one hundred dollars value of the present day. As soon as Gen. Marion could collect a sufficient quantity of this desirable article at Snow’s island, he distributed it out in quantities, not exceeding a bushel to each whig family; and thus endeared himself the more to his followers.

Thus closed the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty, over the head of Gen. Marion. We will leave him for a moment, to such repose as the island afforded, and state some matters to carry on the chain of events.

On the 12th July, General Sumter commenced his brilliant career. On the west of the Catawba, he defeated a large party of tories, and a party of British, and killed Col. Ferguson, who commanded the former, and Capt. Huck, at the head of the latter. This man had shocked the good Presbyterians in that part of the country by his profanity; he burnt their church, their parsonage, and their bibles, and treated them with insult and cruelty. About the 30th July, Gen. Sumter nearly annihilated the Prince of Wales’ regiment, and routed a large body of tories at the Hanging rock. — Soon after the defeat of Gates, the enemy was left at liberty to turn a greater force upon Sumter, and his men, being worn down by fatigue and want of sleep, he was surprised and defeated at Fishing creek, by Tarleton, but with little loss, for he rallied his forces in three days after.17 On the 12th Nov. Major Wemyss attempted to surprise him near the Fishdam ford, on Broad river, at the head of a corps of infantry and dragoons. Col. Thomas Taylor, with his regiment, was posted in advance, and his men lay securely at their fires, thinking the enemy at a distance. But the colonel, from what has been termed a presentiment, was uneasy and could not rest; he got up, and hearing the barking of dogs and some other unusual noises, he woke up his men, and removed them back from their fires. Soon after, the British appeared at them, and thus offered themselves to the aim of experienced marksmen. In the mean time Sumter came up to their aid, and the enemy was totally defeated. Major Wemyss was severely wounded and taken. He had in his pocket a list of the houses he had burnt at Williamsburgh and Pedee; with great trepidation he showed it to Sumter, and begged he would protect him from the militia. — Notwithstanding his atrocities he was treated with indulgence; but became a cripple for life. On the 20th of the same month Sumter was attacked by Col. Tarleton, at Black Stocks. The action was severe, and of the British officers, Major Money, and Lieuts. Gibson and Cape, were killed. Sumter lost few men, but he was himself wounded. The ball passed through the shoulder and carried away a small portion of the backbone. He was placed in a raw bullock’s hide, fastened between two horses, and thus carried with a guard of five men to the mountains.

Tarleton, as usual, sent an account of his victory, much exaggerated, to Lord Cornwallis, who writes to him on the 22d of the same month: “I most heartily wish you joy of your success, but wish it had not cost you so much.” And again, on the next day: “I shall be very glad to hear that Sumter is in a condition to give us no further trouble; he certainly has been our greatest plague in this country.” The inhabitants of the New Acquisition, now York district, were among the warm friends of Gen. Sumter; it was among these people he generally recruited his forces. They never submitted to the British nor took protection. The most distinguished leaders, under Sumter, were Colonels Niel, Hill, Lacey, Winn, Bratton, Brandon, and Majors Davie and Winn. Davie commanded a corps of cavalry, which was never surprised nor dispersed during the war.

In the summer of 1780, Col. Ferguson, of the British 71st, had undertaken to visit the tory settlements in the upper country, and train up the young men to arms. Among these several unprincipled people had joined him, and acted with their usual propensity for rapine and murder. Many Americans, fleeing before them, passed over into the state of Tennessee, then beginning to be settled. By their warm representations, they roused the spirit of the people of that country, which has since become so often conspicuous. Although safe from any enemy but the savages of their cane brakes, they left their families, and generously marched to the assistance of their friends. Nine hundred of them mounted, under the command of Col. Campbell, poured down from the Allegany, like the torrents from its summit. Gunpowder they had already learnt to prepare from the saltpetre in their caves, and lead they dug out of their mines. Dried venison satisfied their hunger, pure water slaked their thirst, and at the side of a rock they enjoyed comfortable repose. Armed with rifles, sure to the white speck on the target, at the distance of one hundred paces, or to decapitate the wild turkey on the top of the tallest pine — these were indeed a formidable band. Their other leaders were Shelby, Sevier, Williams and Cleveland, all inured to the pursuit of the savage or the wild beast of the forest. Thus equipped and commanded, and with such few wants, they moved rapidly on to attack Ferguson, a no less formidable foe, and on the 7th of October, 1780, reached him, strongly posted on King’s mountain. Campbell divided his men into three bands, one under himself, one under Cleveland, and the other under Shelby. — Cleveland commenced the attack, and fired until Ferguson, advancing sufficiently near, ordered the British to charge with bayonets; before these he retired. By this time Shelby had ascended the mountain, and gave an unexpected and deadly fire. The bayonet had scarcely been again successful, when Campbell reached the summit and fired in another and more destructive volley. Ferguson presented a new front, and the bayonet again prevailed. But Cleveland had rallied his men and poured in the fourth fire: and now as often as one American party was driven back, another returned to the attack, and as victory was becoming sure, with more determined resolution. The unconquerable spirit of Ferguson still refused to submit, but baited thus, as he was on all sides, resistance became vain. At length this distinguished officer received a mortal wound, and falling upon the field, his second in command, Capt. Abraham De Peyster, sued for quarters. Eleven hundred of the enemy were killed, wounded or taken, of which one hundred were British. The Americans lost but few men, but among these were Col. Williams and Major Chronicle. Thus, through the successes of Sumter and Marion, and this brilliant achievement, towards the close of this memorable year the drooping spirits of the people began to revive, and men flocked on all sides to the standard of their country.