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

From a part of the correspondence of Gen. Marion with Capt. Saunders, now commandant of Georgetown, it appears that he had either soon after the 17th Jan. or before that, imprisoned Mr. John Postell, the father of the major; Gen. Marion offers “to exchange him, and hopes humanity will induce Capt. Saunders to treat him like a gentleman.”2 Mr. John Postell was at least seventy years of age, and much afflicted with disease, but possessed the spirit of a Cato.

Soon after this, Col. Peter Horry had a conflict with Major Ganey at White’s bridge, near Georgetown, which had a more decisive effect than could have been expected at the time. Early in the morning he made a charge upon a party who were killing beeves at the camp near that place. They fled and were pursued through the woods on the left towards Georgetown, with some disorder on the side of Horry. In the mean time the firing was heard in the town, and their tory friends came out to their assistance. A kind of savage warfare now took place in the woods, between the Sampit and Black river roads, during the whole morning. A party of Horry’s was at one time seen advancing, and the tories retreating; then again the tories were advancing, and a party of Horry’s retreating. At one time the commander was left as he thought alone, and Capt. Lewis at the head of a party was rushing on to shoot him down, when suddenly from behind a tree off went the gun of a boy by the name of Gwyn, and shot Lewis, whose party thinking more guns were behind trees ran away. As Lewis fell his gun went off and killed Horry’s horse. Finally the tories were routed. In this affair Serjt. M`Donald performed essential service; he had singled out Ganey as his object of attack, and the latter fled from him. — In going at full speed down the Black river road, at the corner of Richmond fence, M`Donald shot one of Ganey’s men, and overtaking him soon after thrust a bayonet up to the hilt in his back; the bayonet separated from the gun, and Ganey carried it into Georgetown; he recovered, but tired of a garrison life, after a few months he and his men deserted the British.

As the navigation of the Wateree river was at that time imperfect, the British were obliged to have most of their stores of rum, salt, ammunition and clothing sent over land, across Nelson’s ferry, to Camden, and as the Americans were destitute of these articles, constant conflicts took place upon that road to obtain them from the enemy. To secure these, they had established a line of posts, at Biggen, at Nelson’s, and at Scott’s lake. Besides this protection, their supplies were always attended by escorts, which, since the enterprizes of the two Postells, seldom consisted of less than three or four hundred men. About the middle of February, Major M’Ilraith was marching from Nelson’s ferry at the head of one of these escorts, and Marion with about an equal force assailed him near Halfway swamp, on the road; he first cut off two pickets in his rear in succession, then wheeling round his main body, attacked him in flank and in front. As M’Ilraith had no cavalry, his situation became perilous in the extreme. By a forced march, and constant skirmishing, he at length gained a field upon the road, now belonging to Mr. Matthew James; and as it was open and enclosed, he posted himself on the west of the road, within the enclosure. On the east, skirting the road, there is a large cypress pond stretching towards Halfway swamp, and on the verge of this Marion pitched his camp. Here M’Ilraith sent him a flag, reproaching him with shooting his pickets, contrary, as he alleged, to all the laws of civilized warfare, and defying him to a combat in the open field. Marion replied, that the practice of the British in burning the houses of all who would not submit and join them, was more indefensible than that of shooting pickets, and that as long as they persisted in the one he would persevere in the other. That as to his defiance, he considered it that of a man in desperate circumstances; but if he wished to witness a combat between twenty picked men on each side, he was ready to gratify him. The offer was accepted, and a place pitched upon to the south of an oak tree, which still stands in the field. Accordingly, Gen. Marion appointed Maj. John Vanderhorst, then a supernumerary officer, to take command of this band, and Capt. Samuel Price, of All Saints, to be second in command. The names of the men were written on slips of paper, and presented to them individually, and the first slip was handed to Gavin Witherspoon. Not one refused. Vanderhorst formed in Indian file, and they proceeded to the fence, where Gen. Marion met and harangued them to the following effect: “My brave soldiers! you are twenty men picked this day out of my whole brigade. I know you all, and have often witnessed your bravery. In the name of your country, I call upon you once more to show it. My confidence in you is great, and I am sure it will not be disappointed. Fight like men, fight as you have always done, and you are sure of the victory.” This short speech was received with applause by the combatants. Vanderhorst now asked Witherspoon, “What distance would you choose as the surest to strike with buck shot?” “Fifty yards for the first fire,” was the reply. Then, said the commander, “when we get within fifty yards, my boys, as I am not a good judge of distances, Mr. Witherspoon will tap me on the shoulder. I will then give the word, and you will form on my left opposite those fellows. As you form, each man will fire at the one directly opposite him, and my word for it, few will be left for a second shot.” The British had now formed in a single line in front of the oak, and Vanderhorst advanced boldly on within one hundred yards. At this juncture, an officer was seen to pass swiftly on toward the oak, and the enemy shouldered their muskets and retreated with a quick step towards the main body. Vanderhorst and his men gave them three huzzas! but did not at that distance fire a shot. Thus a British officer was met on his own boasted ground and proved recreant. The next morning Major M`Ilraith abandoned his heavy baggage, left his fires burning, and retired silently from the ground, along the river road towards Singelton’s mill, distant ten miles. Near day Marion discovered his movement, and detached Col. Hugh Horry with one hundred men to get ahead of him, before he should reach the mill. The colonel made all possible speed, but finding he could not overtake him, detached Major James at the head of a party mounted on the swiftest horses, to cross the mill pond above, and take possession of Singelton’s houses, which stood on a high hill, commanding a narrow defile on the road, between the hill and Wateree swamp. Major James reached the houses as the British advanced to the foot of the hill; but found Singelton’s family down with the small pox. This was more dreaded than the enemy. He gave them one fire, by which a captain was killed, and retired. As M`Ilraith was now in a strong hold, Marion pursued him no further.

The character of Major M`Ilraith has been constantly represented by the inhabitants of this state, among whom he passed as the most humane of all the officers of the British army. To those in their power even forbearance was at that time a virtue, but his virtues were active. It has been currently reported that he carried his dislike to house burning so far, that he neglected to carry into effect the orders of his commander in chief on that point to such an extent, as to gain his ill will and that of many other British officers. — How much it is to be regretted that the rigid rules of warfare should have arrayed such a man in opposition to Marion, when both professed the same humane principles.

We come now to the most interesting part of the warfare of Gen. Marion, which, bringing into action all the energies of his officers and men, at the same time developed all the skill and patience of their commander.

At the juncture of the retreat of Gen. Greene before Cornwallis, Sumter and Marion were left alone in South Carolina; Sumter on the Catawba, in York district, and Marion on the Pedee, at Snow’s island, about two hundred miles apart, and Lord Rawdon directly between them, with a much superior force. Thus situated his lordship laid a well digested plan to crush Marion. Col. Watson with a British regiment, and Harrison’s regiment of tories, amounting in the whole to more than five hundred men, was ordered to march down the Santee, towards Snow’s island; and he commenced his expedition from Fort Watson about the first of March.

Shortly after Col. Doyle with another British regiment, was directed to proceed by the way of M`Callum’s ferry on Lynch’s creek, and down Jeffer’s creek, to the Pedee road to the same point, where they were to form a junction. Doyle had to open a road from M`Callum’s to Pedee, and his approach, though slow, was unexpected; but Marion’s scouts placed from Camden down, with relays of horses, soon informed him of Watson’s movement. By one of his rapid marches he met him at Wiboo, about midway between Nelson’s and Murray’s ferry, and at this swamp commenced his arduous contest with Watson. Col. Peter Horry was placed in advance at the swamp, while the general with the cavalry, and remainder of the brigade, amounting to about four hundred men, lay in reserve. Horry made considerable impression upon the tories in advance; but Watson with two field pieces, and at the head of his column of regulars, dislodged him from the swamp, and the tory cavalry under Harrison pursued. As they advanced, Gavin James, a private of gigantic size and spirit, mounted on a strong grey horse, and armed with a musket and bayonet, threw himself in their way. He first deliberately fired upon the column and one man fell. The causeway was narrow and this occasioned a pause, in which a volley was fired at him without effect. One dragoon advanced and was struck off his horse by the bayonet. A second came to his aid and shared a like fate; in falling he laid hold of the musket near the muzzle to jerk it away, and James dragged him forty or fifty paces. This bold action produced a considerable effect, and was soon followed by many others, not so well recollected, and too numerous to be inserted. — Harrison had not pursued far, when Marion ordered the cavalry to charge; Capts. M`Cauley and Conyers, met him, and soon dispersed his force; whilst Conyers killed one of his officers, said to be Major Harrison, with his own hands. Thus were the tories intimidated at the outset.

On the 9th of March, Col. Watson encamped at Cantey’s plantation, and wrote a letter to Gen. Marion, in which he justifies (what the other had complained of by a previous communication,3) the burning of houses and the hanging of those citizens who had taken paroles, and afterwards joined the Americans, upon the principles of the laws of war and nations. — It seems the colonel had reference to the code of barbarous nations. Marion made him no reply, but gave orders to his nightly patroles, to shoot his sentinels and cut off his pickets. Such a retaliation was to be expected; and thus raged the civil warfare.

Watson marched down the river, and at Mount Hope had to build up the bridges, and to sustain a second conflict with Col. Hugh Horry, at the head of Marion’s advance. By dint of his field pieces, and the strength of his column, he at length made good his way. Near Murray’s ferry he passed the Kingstree road to his left, and when he came to the Black river road, which crosses at the lower bridge, he made a feint of still continuing down the Santee; but soon after wheeling took that road on which the lower bridge was, distant twelve miles. His manoeuvre did not long deceive Marion. He detached Major James at the head of seventy men, thirty of whom were riflemen under M`Cottry, to destroy the remnant of the bridge, which had been partially broken, and to take post there, while the general kept an eye on Watson.

The pass of the lower bridge was now to decide the fate of Williamsburgh, and seventy of her sons, under her most approved leaders, were gone forth to defend it. Maj. James proceeded with great expedition, and crossing the river by a shorter route than the road, arrived at the bridge in time to throw down two of the middle arches, and to fire the string pieces at the eastern end. At this place the west bank of the river is considerably elevated, the east low and somewhat swampy, and on the west the road passes to the bridge through a ravine; the river is forty or fifty yards wide, and though deep, was fordable below the bridge. As soon as the breach in it was effected, Maj. James drew up M’Cottry’s riflemen on each side of the ford and end of the bridge, so as to have a fair view of the ravine, and disposed the rest of his little band on the flanks. Not long after, Marion arriving, took post in the rear, and sent Capt. Thomas Potts, with his Pedee company, to reinforce Maj. James; and this had scarcely been effected, when Watson’s field pieces opened their fire, from the opposite bank to clear his way, for a passage at the ford. These field pieces could not be brought to bear on the low grounds to the east without exposing his artillerists on the hill to the fire of the riflemen. His balls hit the pines across the river, about midway their trunks, or passed over disregarded. This attempt not succeeding, Watson drew up his columns in the old field over the river, and his advance was now seen approaching the ford with an officer at its head, waving his sword. M`Cottry fired the signal gun, and the officer clapped his hand to his breast and fell to the ground. The riflemen and musketeers next poured in a well directed and deadly fire, and the British advance fled in disorder; nor did the reserve move forward to its support. Four men returned to bear off their officer, but all four shared his fate. In the evening, Watson succeeded in removing his dead and wounded, and took up his head quarters at John Witherspoon’s, a mile above the bridge. Here he was overheard to say, “that he never saw such shooting in his life.” To men fighting for their homes, wives, families, and their very existence, “nothing appeared difficult;” and good shooting, if not a virtue in them, was highly commendable. Gen. Marion took a position on a ridge below the ford of the river, which is still called the general’s island. Next day he pushed M`Cottry and Conyers over the river, and recommenced shooting Watson’s pickets and sentinels. Watson posted himself a little farther up the river, at Blakely’s plantation, where he pitched his camp in the most open place he could find, but still Marion kept him in a bad humour, (as his letters from that place indicate,) and his regulars in a constant panic. Here he remained for more than a week4 in inactivity and irresolution; perhaps he waited for Doyle to make an impression at Snow’s island; but if Marion heard of Doyle, he kept it a profound secret. While Blakely’s and Witherspoon’s provisions lasted, his present plan answered pretty well; but when they failed, it became necessary to have more at a greater distance, and these could not be obtained, but by daily skirmishes. In these Capt. Conyers was greatly distinguished. He was most daring, and sat and managed his horse so remarkably well, that as was the case with the centaur of old, they might have been taken for one animal. Conyers was at this time fighting under the auspicious eye of a young lady,5 to whom his faith had been plighted, and beneath her alternate smiles and fears, he presented himself daily before the lines of the enemy, either as a single champion, or at the head of his troop. Often did she hear them repeat, “Take care! there is Capt. Conyers!” It was a ray of chivalry athwart the gloom of unrelenting warfare.