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Francis Marion, Chapter IV, Campaign of 1782

During Gen. Marion’s absence, Gen. Greene appears, from the correspondence, to have been very anxious for his return. After the adjournment of the Jacksonborough assembly, he had crossed the Edisto and encamped on the west side of Ashley river, sixteen miles from Charleston, and here the sufferings of his men had risen to the utmost extremity. They were often without rations, and when served, it was generally with lean meat without bread or rice, or bread or rice without the lean meat. They had as yet received no pay, and their clothes were so worn and broken, that they were as naked as the Caffres of Africa. Here, in a state of inaction, they became mutinous, and were plotting to deliver up their commander to the enemy. But it is surprising, that when mischief of any kind began to brew in such a situation, that only twelve should have been concerned in it, and it is honourable that none of those were native Americans.

About the 9th of July, Gen. Marion had returned to the Santee, and received orders from Gen. Greene to remain between that and Cooper river, as heretofore. The militia were now so far relieved, that, by law, they were obliged to turn out only one month in three; but were ordered, as we have mentioned above, to be dismounted, which discouraged them, and rendered their movements less rapid. The experience derived both from the history of the revolutionary and the late war, fully shows that the militia are effective only when mounted.

On the 25th of August, in this year, Lieut. Col. John Laurens was killed in a skirmish at Page’s point, on Combahee river. He fell in the flower of his youth, and yet had long been the admiration of both the contending armies. In history the parallel to his character is perhaps to be found only in that of the Chevalier Bayard: the knight without fear and without reproach.

During the remainder of the summer of 1782, Gen. Marion frequently changed his encampments from place to place, between Cooper and Santee rivers, with three objects constantly in view; to cut off supplies from the enemy, to prevent all surprises from their sudden irruptions, and to provide for his own men. — His scouting parties still penetrated into St. Thomas’ parish as far as Daniel’s island and Clement’s ferry. At the head of one of these Capt. G. S. Capers performed a gallant action. Having the command of only twelve men, he encountered a party of twenty-six of the British black dragoons, and cut them to pieces. They had at the time two or three of his neighbours in handcuffs as prisoners.

About the 25th of August in that year, Marion lay for some time at the plantation of Sir John Colleton, the first above Watboo bridge, on the south side of that creek. This with him appeared to be a favourite place of encampment. It had been deserted by the owner, who was attached to the enemy, and the mansion and two extensive ranges of negro and other outhouses were left open for himself and men. He occupied the mansion and his men the outhouses, on the west towards the bridge; on the back of the outhouses to the east, and directly in front of the dwelling, there stretched towards the road an extensive avenue of old cedar trees, the trimming of which had been neglected for some years; and their long boughs now descended nearly to the ground. While encamped in this situation, Gen. Marion heard of the approach of Major Fraser with the British cavalry, towards the Santee, in his rear. On this side there was nothing but an open old field for a mile. None but the officers now had horses, and he immediately ordered out a party of these, under Capt. Gavin Witherspoon, to reconnoitre the enemy. They had advanced but little way in the woods beyond the old field, when the reconnoitring party were met by Major Fraser at the head of his corps of cavalry, and were immediately charged. A long chase commenced, which was soon observed by Marion, and he drew up his men under the thick boughs of the cedar trees. As the chase advanced towards him it became more and more interesting. — When in full view, either Witherspoon’s horse had failed him, or he fell purposely in the rear to bring up his party, and a British dragoon was detached to cut him down. He advanced until nearly within his sword’s length, and was rising in his stirrups to make sure of his blow, but Witherspoon had eyed him well, and at the instant, Parthian like, he fired the contents of his gun into his breast. The good omen excited much animation, and the British, still advancing, attempted to charge upon the left, but were received on that side with a well directed fire, which caused them to break and fly in great disorder. Had Gen. Marion’s cavalry been present they might now have been cut to pieces; but scarcity of forage had induced him to quarter them at the distance of six miles. The enemy rallied and manoeuvred about in the old field for an hour, making several different feints of charging, but never coming in reach of Marion’s fire, whose men stood firm at their post. Capt. Gillies of the British, and nine men and five horses were killed. The number of wounded could not be accurately ascertained; but as the firing was only at the distance of thirty paces, and was made with the usual charge of heavy buckshot, the proportion of these must have been greater than that of the killed on the usual computation. (29th Aug.) On the next day, Gen. Marion called out Capt. Witherspoon in front of the brigade, and gave him thanks for his many public services, but more particularly for the deed of yesterday.

Here ended the warfare of Marion. Its close was as the last ray of the setting sun; in his progress through the day, at times shining brightly; at others clouded with darkness: but at eventide descending with cheerful brilliancy. Should the exploits performed, or the number of the enemy cut off, not equal the expectation of the reader, he is requested to recollect the lapse of time which has intervened, and how many circumstances must have escaped the memory of the writer, and particularly, that the loss of Col. Watson, with whom Marion had the most arduous of all his conflicts, could never be known. He will also bear in mind the patroles which went out nightly, and seldom failed to do some execution, which like a perpetual dripping corroded deeply into the force of the enemy. If the late Guerilla warfare in Spain cut off so many thousands of the French in detail, in a comparatively open country, how much more effect would such a warfare have in woods upon an enemy more weak in proportion and more slowly reinforced. Such a warfare is the one most fitted for militia and the most dreaded by regular troops. But on the other hand, should it be thought by some that the present narrative is too highly coloured, the eulogy of Gen. Greene, certainly the best judge of Gen. Marion’s merit, is here inserted, of which it may be remarked, that it was written before the latter had performed half of what is here related.

Extract of a letter from Gen. Greene to Gen. Marion.

Camp, before Camden, April 24, 1781.

Dear Sir,

Your favour of the 21st has just come to hand. When I consider how much you have done and suffered, and under what disadvantage you have maintained your ground, I am at a loss which to admire most, your courage and fortitude, or your address and management. Certain it is, no man has a better claim to the public thanks than you. History affords no instance wherein an officer has kept possession of a country under so many disadvantages as you have. Surrounded on every side with a superior force, hunted from every quarter with veteran troops; you have found means to elude their attempts and to keep alive the expiring hopes of an oppressed militia, when all succour seemed to be cut off. To fight the enemy bravely with the prospect of victory is nothing, but to fight with intrepidity under the constant impression of a defeat, and inspire irregular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself. Nothing will give me greater pleasure than to do justice to your merit, and I shall miss no opportunity of declaring to congress, the commander in chief of the American army, and to the world, the great sense I have of your merit and services.

The letters of Gen. Greene show that he was an agreeable polished gentleman. Their style is easy, simple and correct; there is no search after ornament; they come at once to the point and show him to be much in earnest. His commands are always requests, and when he might well have used the language of reprehension, it is only that of persuasion and friendly admonition. His privations here were great, perhaps he had not even the comforts of a common soldier in the British army; yet he states them fairly, without uttering a word of complaint; hopes they will soon be remedied, and declares his unalterable perseverance in gaining the glorious prize constantly in his view — the independence of his country.

In reviewing the transactions of the present year, two things passed which are well worth notice. Gen. Alexander Leslie, now commander in chief of the British army, a gentleman of enlarged views and humane feelings, had before this time, as it appears, submitted certain papers to Gen. Greene, through Capt. Skelly, for his inspection, preparatory to a proposal for a cessation of hostilities; and on the 23d of May, writes again to Greene in substance as follows: “Believing that a treaty for terminating the war is now carrying on, I have therefore to inform you, that those papers were transmitted to him (Gen. Leslie) by his excellency Sir Henry Clinton. That such was the manner in which those important papers had reached him, that he held it a duty he owed the rights of humanity, the welfare of this country, and the sentiments of the legislature of his own, to propose a cessation of hostilities.” Again, on the 13th of August, Leslie proposed, “That the garrison of Charleston should be permitted to receive rice and other provisions, for which a compensation should be made on terms of mutual advantage.” Both these propositions were at once rejected by the civil authority of the state; because it was supposed that Leslie only intended to amass provisions for the support of the British forces in the West Indies, to carry on war to advantage with our allies the French. But this matter might easily have been adjusted by treaty, and the rejection of the offer was certainly another piece of blind policy in the civil authority. They had now no means of taking the town, and by acceding to the proposals, Greene’s army might have been clothed, the wants of the citizens sooner supplied, and much effusion of blood prevented.

Early in the month of January, in this year, the Jacksonborough assembly commenced its session. As might have been expected, it was entirely composed of those, who either in a civil or military capacity, had distinguished themselves in the late contest. In the senate we have seen there were but thirteen members, which was a bare quorum; and Gen. Marion could not be spared, for it would have broken up the house. In the house of representatives, there were but seventy-four members, of whom sixty formed a quorum. Both houses were therefore remarkably thin; but what they lacked in numbers they made up in spirit. They passed the well known confiscation law, avowedly to retaliate on the British for having acted in like manner to those who had adhered to the Americans; but privately with a view to enable the state to raise its quota of continental troops; for Gen. Marion, in a letter to Col. Peter Horry, of the 10th of February, states, that “Two regiments are to be raised, as our continental quota, giving each man a negro per year, which is to be taken from the confiscated estates. A number of large estates are down on this list, and others are amerced, which will give us at least a million sterling as a fund.” And a clause in the act passed, enacts, “that there shall be set apart a sufficient number of slaves to raise the quota of continental troops required of this state.” How far this law might be justified, on the plea of necessity and self-defence, is quite a different ground from that of retaliation. In the preamble to the law, the reason given for enacting it is retaliation upon tories for the injuries done to the property of the whigs by confiscations; but there appears to be no sound reason for passing the law as a retaliatory measure. Between rulers and subjects, or citizens, the duties of subjection and protection are reciprocal; but, in this case, the rulers were unable to protect the citizens, and therefore ought not to have expected from them such implicit subjection. It was only by a few daring spirits, and that generally in places remote from the enemy, that resistance was kept up; yet, under existing circumstances, it was not to be looked for from the timid more immediately in their power. But, as a measure of self-defence, the law was justifiable.

The governor and council, armed with the supreme power of the state, had impressed the horses, provisions and indigo of the whigs, for public services, and that proceeding had scarcely excited a murmur. These resources had now failed, and the war was to be carried on without money; then what good reason could be given for exempting from requisition the negroes and other property of the tories. In this point of view the case against them becomes the strongest of the two. Yet the clamour raised against the law at the time and after, was great; in the legislature their friends became numerous, and as each particular case was brought forward and considered, it was made an exception, and the act became a nullity. John Matthews was elected governor of the state, after Gen. Gadsden, for whom a majority of votes was first given, had declined serving. A bill was brought in to indemnify several militia officers who had been concerned in impressing indigo and other property necessary for public service. Gen. Marion’s name was at first inserted on the list, but when it came to be read in the senate, he rose and moved to strike it out; saying, if he had taken the property of any man improperly or unnecessarily, he was willing to make restitution. The bill passed into a law without the general’s name. Before the adjournment, the powers left with the governor and council, were as extensive as usual. Gov. Matthews appears to consider them in a letter to Gen. Leslie, (12th April) as equal to dispensing with parts of the confiscation act. The evacuation of Charleston took place on the 14th of December, 1782, but the militia were not permitted to be witnesses of the ceremony. The civil authority had interposed to exclude them as dangerous spectators, and Gen. Greene in his letter of the 22d of November, was so much hurt at it, that he takes particular pains to exculpate himself from any participation in that order. In this treatment, the militia shared the fate usually attending humble friends, who are seldom caressed by the great any longer than they can be subservient to their views or interests. Gen. Marion and his brigade were now to part forever. But as its movements had always been directed without pomp or parade, so its discharge was conducted with republican simplicity. In his favourite encampment at Watboo, and on the side of the cedar trees, he thanked his officers and men for their many and useful services, and bid them a friendly and affectionate farewell. Two years and a half had now elapsed since Gen. Marion first assumed his command; his appearance was not prepossessing, his manners were distant, but not repulsive, yet few leaders have ever been so popular among their men; none ever had more of their confidence. He had so much influence as to settle amicably many disputes among his officers, and even private men; and never was a duel fought by any of them while under his immediate command. His stratagems appeared intuitive. Did Gen. Marion march in person to the attack?4 then the common conclusion was, the enemy is taken by surprise, or we shall fight them on advantageous ground.