Sunday, May 14, 2023

ARP272 Chasing the Swamp Fox

We’ve been away from the southern command for the last few episodes.  We last checked in on the southern command in Episode 268 when Patriot militia, primarily Overmountain men from the frontier defeated a large group of Loyalist militia under the command of British Major Patrick Ferguson.  

Francis Marion
After losing his loyalist fighters, British commander in the south General Charles Cornwallis, pulled out of North Carolina - abandoning his occupation of Charlotte to regroup in South Carolina.  Cornwallis was awaiting the arrival of reinforcements under the Command of General Alexander Leslie.  General Clinton had sent Leslie to conduct raids in Virginia.  But after the loss of the loyalists, Cornwallis requested that Leslie bring his 1500 men by sea to Charleston so that the larger force could make another push into North Carolina.

At the time, though, the Continental army in the south was more theoretical than threatening.  The southern army under General Horatio Gates was almost completely eliminated at the Battle of Camden in August.  Almost all of the Continental soldiers at the battle were killed or captured.  The militia, many from out of state, simply fled back to their homes and no longer existed as a fighting unit.  Gates, himself, abandoned the army and fled nearly two hundred miles in a matter of days to Hillsboro, North Carolina.

Despite the absence of an enemy army in his front, General Cornwallis had to spend much of his time paying attention to his rear.  Much of that was thanks to the efforts of Colonel Francis Marion. Even before the battle of Camden, General Horatio Gates had sent off Marion to harass the enemy in guerilla fighting, apart from the main army.  With the dissolution of the army after Camden, Marion was largely on his own.  He wrote to Gates regularly, hoping to get more men or supplies, but heard back nothing.  At one point, following Camden, Marion had no more than a dozen men with him.  He almost never had more than 60 or 70 at this time.  In some cases, men who had served under him had joined loyalist regiments, trying to get on the winning team.

Marion’s desperate task was to keep the rebellion alive in South Carolina and deny undisputed British control of the state.  Marion made it his goal to be the biggest headache for the British in the south following the American loss at Camden.  His focus was on disrupting travel and communications between Camden and Charleston in eastern South Carolina.

Blue Savannah

Marion was not at Camden because General Gates considered him more valuable operating in enemy territory and disrupting whatever he could.  Over the summer and fall of 1780, Marion’s men were sowing chaos among British control of South Carolina.  

Marion Rescues Prisoners
Marion began his post-Camden campaign by capturing a British detail escorting American prisoners from Camden.  In late August of 1780, Marion received word that a British force of 90 regulars were escorting 150 prisoners from the Maryland and Delaware lines who were captured at Camden to a POW camp.  Marion’s men attacked the party at night, capturing 23 of the enemy and freeing all of the prisoners.  

For some reason I don’t entirely understand, a majority of the freed prisoners expressed a desire to continue their march to Charleston, where they would be held as prisoners of war.  Marion tried to get the remainder to join his militia force, but almost all of the men dropped away over the next few days.  In the end, only three of the 150 liberated prisoners remained with Marion for any length of time.  Another 60 made their way back and rejoined their corps back in North Carolina.  

Shortly after Marion’s raid to free the prisoners, a  loyalist militia officer named Micajah Ganey attempted to capture Marion, who he learned was camped near Port’s Ferry.  Ganey raised about 250 loyalist militia and rode out to capture Marion and the 50 or so partisans that were camped with him at the time.

Marion learned about the enemy coming at him.  He could have retreated further west, but did not want to cede control of the region to the loyalists.  He also could have found good defensive ground and met the enemy on the ground of his choosing.  But Marion was most comfortable when moving.  Instead, he decided to ride toward the larger force in early September, in hopes of catching them by surprise.

Marion sent an advance guard under local Kingstree militia Major John James to locate the enemy.  When one of James’ scouts located the enemy, the major spurred his horse forward to attack.  James spotted the enemy commander among the small group of loyalist militia, and charged directly at the commander.

Just before reaching the enemy, James looked back to find out that none of his men had charged along with him, and that he was galloping at the enemy on his own.  Thinking quickly, he turned around and shouted at no one: “come on boys, here they are!” That was enough to spook Major Ganey and the loyalists with him into thinking a larger enemy force would be upon them in seconds.  They wheeled their horses and galloped away.

From a captured prisoner, Marion learned that the main contingent of loyalists was on the march about three miles away, in an area known as Blue Savannah, about 10 miles southeast of the modern town of Marion, South Carolina.  There, Marion’s forces ran into the main loyalist force. 

Since Major Ganey was not with the main force, second in command Captain Jesse Barefield was in command.  Barefield had learned how to fight as an officer serving under Marion earlier in the war.  But after receiving some slight from another officer, and getting no resolution from Marion, Barefield has resigned his commission and returned home.  He later signed up with the loyalist militia and was now facing his old commander in battle.

Barefield drew his 200 militia into a line of battle and prepared to meet Marion’s charge of about 50 horsemen.  Seeing a charge across that distance as a deadly mistake, Marion pulled up and called for a retreat.  Seeing his advantage, Barefield marched his men forward after the fleeing enemy.  Marion, however, as soon as his men were in the woods and out of sight, circled around and ambushed the enemy.  Marion’s 50 horsemen charged the enemy line, which stood and delivered volley, knocking three of Marion’s men off their horses.  The charge continued.  Marion later reported killing or wounding 30 of the enemy, while suffering for wounded among his own men.  The remainder of the loyalists fled into a nearby swamp where the horsemen did not follow.

Marion had successfully dispersed the Tory militia and had restored some hope that British control of the region was not final.  About sixty local militia soon joined with Marion, doubling the size of his force.

Black Mingo

Even before the attack at Blue Savannah, Cornwallis realized he needed to deal with Marion.  Recall back in Episode 267, in September of 1780, Cornwallis was still focused on moving his army into North Carolina and capturing Charlotte.  He deployed loyalist Major James Wemyss to take care of Marion.  Wemyss took with him a regiment of British regulars and called on any loyalist forces to provide support to rooting out Marion and his partisans.

Wemyss had to march his men 150 miles to reach Marion.  To accomplish this, he decided to mount his infantry.  Horses were difficult to come by, so Wemyss ordered all local farmers to meet with him.  When they complied, Wemyss went on a long and rambling speech about how the British were there to rescue them and that they were not doing enough to help.  The speech was not really meant to do anything.  While he spoke Wemyss had sent his men to travel to all of the farms and confiscate any horses that they found.  The farmers soon learned what had happened, but the British now had their horses and there was nothing they could do about it.

As Major Wemyss rode his mounted infantry toward Kingstree, Major James, the same officer who had tried to charge an enemy line by himself, managed to capture the rearguard of the mounted infantry.  He brought his prisoners back to Marion who interrogated them.  Marion learned that the British had assembled a force of about 800 loyalist militia and regulars in the region, while Marion had a force of only about 100 militia.  

He held a council of war with his top officers, who could not decide what to do.  Some wanted to attack despite the numbers.  Others called for them to disperse and go into hiding until the enemy also returned to other duties.  In the end, Marion agreed it was best to lay low for a while.  He dismissed most of his men, retaining a local contingent of about fifteen men to collect intelligence, and leading another 60 northward into the swamps and eventually into North Carolina.  So that he could march faster, he spiked his captured cannons and dumped them in the swamp.

With Marion’s men out of the way Major Wemyss began a campaign of destruction, burning homes, churches, and destroying whatever he could among the rebellious population.  His men shot cows, burned farming equipment and mills, and even hanged anyone they believed had participated in the rebellion, including a number of Marion’s men who he had sent home until the heat was off.

Advance on Black Mingo
By late September, Marion and his men returned to South Carolina.  By this time the loyalist militia was scattered throughout the region, camped in small groups.  Although Marion’s men had been resting for the last two weeks, they had fought another deadly enemy.  Swarms of mosquitoes had left much of his force sick with malaria.

Marion learned that loyalist Colonel John Coming Ball was camped with a few dozen loyalist militia near Dollar’s Tavern on Black Mingo Creek.  The loyalists did not realize that Marion had returned to the region, and were mostly sleeping in camp or drinking in the tavern.  Marion’s men approached the tavern after dark on September 25.  An alert loyalist picket fired an alarm shot, at which point Marion and his men charged the tavern.  

Marion figured that the British would mount a defense from the tavern. But Colonel Ball heard the alarm and led his men into a dark field to the west of the tavern.  A contingent of Marion’s force under militia Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Horry was marching toward the tavern when they unknowingly marched in front of Ball’s hidden loyalists.  The loyalists fired a deadly volley from 30 yards away, taking down three of Horry’s officers.  The rest of Marion’s force quickly realized the enemy was in the woods near the tavern and moved to intercept them.  A short fight ensued, as the loyalists retreated into nearby Black Mingo swamp.  The patriots had managed to kill or wound three of the enemy and captured or wounded another 13, taking two killed and eight wounded themselves.  Most of the loyalists had escaped, but lost their guns, horses, and supplies to the enemy.

Georgetown Parade

Following the victory at Black Mingo Creek, many of Marion’s men wanted to return home and check on their farms.  The loyalists had burned so many homes that the men needed to see to their families.  Once again, Marion’s force dwindled to about 60 men.

About a week later, in early October, Marion’s men moved on Georgetown, a coastal town which, at the time, had the second largest population in the state, behind only Charleston.  A few days earlier the British had a contingent of about 250 regulars and militia at Georgetown.  But almost the entire force had marched off for Camden in late September, just a few days after Marion had attacked the loyalists at Black Mingo.  This was when Cornwallis was still trying to secure North Carolina by taking Charlotte and just about the same time that the Overmountain men were attacking the loyalists at King’s Mountain.

The British had left a small garrison at Georgetown.  While Marion’s attacking force was larger, the garrison held a good defensive position that Marion could not take without cannon.  Marion also knew that if he hung around too long that reinforcements would arrive for the enemy and drive him out.

Instead of attacking, Marion paraded his men down main street, just to show that the British were not in control.  He captured several prominent loyalists in town, who he immediately paroled and allowed to return home.  His men then rode off with some of the horses and supplies they captured from the garrison.

Tearcoat Swamp

A few weeks later, Marion learned of a Tory militia group commanded by Colonel Samuel Tynes, about 50 miles to his west, at a place called Tearcoat Swamp.  Tynes had once been a part of the patriot militia, but had switched sides and had become a local leader for the loyalists.

Tearcoat Swamp
Along the way, Marion managed to recruit militia for the action, bringing his numbers up to around 150 men, still smaller than the 200 man Tory force that he planned to attack.  Despite their numbers, on October 25 Marion’s attackers managed to surprise the loyalist militia camped at Tearcoat swamp.  Marion’s men approached the camp through the forest at night, avoiding enemy pickets along the main road.  Marion divided his men, who attacked the camp from three directions in a night attack.  The enemy was completely unaware of the attack until after it began.  Few of them even mounted a defense.

Marion’s militia killed six of the enemy, wounded fourteen, and captured another 23. Perhaps more importantly for Marion, his men captured about 80 horses and saddles, as well as a cache of badly needed muskets.  Marion did not lose any of his men in the fight.

The bulk of the surprised enemy, including Colonel Tynes, managed to escape into the nearby woods.  Marion’s men spent the next few days tracking down the enemy.  They managed to capture Tynes at one point, but he escaped his captors and fled once again.

Tarleton Unleashed

By the time that Marion launched his attack at Tearcoat Swamp in late October, the British were reeling from their loss at Kings Mountain and Cornwallis was pulling his forces out of North Carolina and back into South Carolina for the winter. This focused even more British attention on Marion.  On top of all the military setbacks, much of the British army including Cornwallis himself was suffering from malaria.   

Banastre Tarleton

Marion’s attacks had made it almost impossible to recruit more loyalist militia or move supplies between towns without being captured.  With Cornwallis still on his sick bed, some of his junior officers took a more active role. Colonel George Turnbull had been a captain in the regular army before the war.  He had resigned his commission and settled in New York.  When the Revolution began, Turnbull raised the Loyal American Regiment of New York and soon rose to lieutenant colonel.  He took his regiment of New York loyalists to the south when Clinton took Charleston and took an ever increasingly important role under Cornwallis’ effort to subdue the south.

Turnbull requested that it was time to bring in the A-team to take out Marion’s partisans once and for all.  Everyone had come to believe that the man who could make this happen was Colonel Banastre Tarleton.  For the prior few months, Tarleton had been laid out with a bad case of malaria. A great many British officers and men were sick from the mosquito borne disease.  By November, Tarleton was ready to get back into the saddle.

The first thing Tarleton wanted to do was get more horses.  He had a combination of cavalry and infantry under his command.  He constantly had to wait for his infantry to catch up, blunting the power of his speedy advances on the enemy.  Tarleton’s men began confiscating every horse that they could find.  Soon, he had a force of 400 men, all mounted.  He also carried with him two pieces of field artillery.

By November 7, Tarleton’s force was in the field, camped at the plantation of General Richard Richardson, a patriot militia officer who had been captured at the fall of Charleston.  He was released to go home after getting sick, but died a short time after returning home. 

Tarleton knew that Marion was in the area.  He concealed most of his legion in the woods, and spread the word that they had left the area.  A few men built up large campfires to make their position obvious.  Marion received word of the loyalist encampment and led an assault force to ambush them in a night attack. He was about two miles from the plantation when he came across a rider, Captain Richard Richardson, the son of the deceased general.

Tarleton attacks a plantation
Richardson informed Marion that his force was riding into a trap, that he would find Tarleton’s full legion ready and waiting from him, and that they were backed up by artillery.  With this warning, Marion’s men retreated about six miles before dawn.  As they retreated, a loyalist prisoner that they had taken managed to escape Marion’s men.  He rode to Tarleton’s camp and informed the colonel that Marion had discovered the trap and had fled.

When Marion became aware that the prisoner had escaped, he assumed that Tarleton would learn of his whereabouts.  Instead of resting, Marion and his men continued their retreat.  The chase was on.  Tarleton’s men pursued Marion’s smaller force.  After trying to ride down the retreating patriots all day, Tarleton finally gave up and announced that “as for this old damned fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.”  It is generally believed that this resulted in Marion gaining his nickname, the “Swamp Fox.”

An exasperated Tarleton returned to the Richardson plantation where he took out his frustration on Richardson’s widow.  He dug up the general’s body to torment the family, and ordered Richardson’s widow to be flogged.  He also had his men put all of the plantation’s livestock into the barn and then set it on fire, killing all of them.  His men then burned another thirty plantations in the region, to punish the locals for providing support to Marion’s militia.

A few days later, Cornwallis recalled Tarleton.  As soon as the legion left the area, Marion and his men returned.

Next week: Despite the absence of a Continental Army in the region, the British under Cornwallis remain frustrated in their efforts to control South Carolina as General Thomas Sumter and others continue to defy British control of the state.

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Next Episode 273 Fishdam Ford & Blackstock

Previous Episode 271 Advancing on Detroit

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Further Reading


Blue Savannah:

Battle of Blue Savannah:

Micajah Ganey:

Black Mingo

Death of the Cardplayer at Tearcoat Swamp

Tearcoat Swamp

The Fox and the Hound: Francis Marion & Micajah Ganey

Disney's Swamp Fox (VIDEO):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Holbrook, Stewart Hall The Swamp Fox of the Revolution, Random House 1959. (borrow only) 

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.

Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785.

Simms, William G. The Life of Francis Marion, New York, Derby, 1854. 

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 1970 (borrow only). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bass, Robert D. Swamp Fox: The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion, Henry Holt And Company, Inc. 1959.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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