Sunday, May 28, 2023

ARP273 Fishdam Ford & Blackstock

Last week, we left the British Army in South Carolina.  They had pulled back out of North Carolina after a hostile reception there, and the defeat at King’s Mountain.  The British spent most of the fall battling malaria and dealing with small parties of partisans who continued to harass them.

Fishdam Ford

I spent the last episode mostly recounting how Francis Marion had been causing trouble for the British.  I wanted to mention Thomas Sumter’s actions as well.  While Colonel Marion had led smaller groups, General Sumter had been able to raise larger armies to challenge British control of the Carolinas.  Sumter had managed to miss the battle of King’s Mountain because he was away from his army meeting with South Carolina Governor John Rutledge to confirm that he had the right to command.  Days before King’s Mountain, Rutledge had given a commission to a Virginia colonel named James Williams.  This forced Sumter to visit Rutledge to confirm his right to command the army.  Sumter did not actually have a formal commission.  Rutledge granted him one, but it meant that Sumter was absent at King’s Mountain.  It might have been just as well.  His rival, James Williams was killed there.

Thomas Sumter

Sumter caught up with the army shortly after the victory at King’s Mountain.  Many men had begun to return home, but Sumter convinced many to stay.  The victory also encouraged more men to join the fight.  By November, 1780, Sumter had a command of over 500 militia.  

The British became aware of Sumter’s position along the Broad River, at a place known as Moore’s Mill, about 25 miles from the main British camp at Winnsboro.  Normally, this would be a mission for British Colonel Banastre Tarleton to take on, but in early November, Tarleton was chasing down Francis Marion.  Instead, General Cornwallis assigned command of the attack to Major James Wemyss.  I’ve mentioned Wemyss before.  He was a Scottish officer in the regular army and had a long combat history by this time.  He had a reputation similar to Tarleton's, as far as brutality.  He believed in hard charging the enemy and treating the locals rather harshly.  He had spent much of the fall burning plantations and hanging traitors.

Major Wemyss led about one hundred of his regulars from the 63rd Regiment, along with forty dragoons that Tarleton had left behind.  The men rode out of Winnsboro on November 8, planning to attack Sumter’s camp the following morning at dawn.  Wemyss had received intelligence about Sumter’s position and numbers from a local Tory who we only know by the last name of “Sealy.”  

Sumter had captured this man and then paroled him after he convinced Sumter that he really believed in the patriot cause.  Upon release, Sealy rushed to the British camp to give his intelligence.  Sealy rode with Major Wemyss as a guide, but also had a special mission, to take a five-man team that would capture or kill General Sumter during the attack.

As the British patrol rode out on the night of November 8, they received new intelligence that Sumter had relocated his camp about five miles to a place known as Fishdam Ford.  At around 1:00 AM on the ninth, Wemyss stumbled across some of Sumter’s pickets, who fired and knocked the major off of his horse.  The second in command, a young lieutenant named John Stark, ordered the regiment to charge into the enemy camp.  The alert patriots had fled into the woods and began firing on the British, who made themselves targets by passing by the enemy campfires.

The British withdrew after taking casualties.  Lieutenant Stark then ordered the men to  dismount and led them in a bayonet charge.  The patriots received the charge by returning a devastating volley at short range, creating more British casualties.

While the battle raged, Sealy led his attack team to General Sumpter’s tent.  Sumter, who had been asleep and was still not dressed, managed to slip out of the tent just ahead of the attack team.  He ran through a briar patch and hid in the creek bed.

The fighting ended rather quickly as Lieutenant Stark withdrew his men.  The British suffered four dead and about twenty wounded. The Americans similarly suffered four dead and ten wounded.  

Among the twenty five captured British soldiers was the wounded Major Wemyss.  When taken, he had a paper that recorded the men he had hanged and the plantation he had burned.  General Sumter, having returned to camp, interrogated Wemyss and found the document.  He threw it into a campfire, knowing that his men would probably hang the major if they saw it.  As it was, Sumter later exchanged Wemyss for a captured American officer.

Blackstock's Plantation

The defeat of British regulars at Fishdam Ford only enhanced Sumter’s reputation.  It also caused Cornwallis to recall Colonel Tarleton from his fruitless attempts to capture Colonel Marion.  Tarleton took command of the effort to defeat Sumter. After receiving his orders, Tarleton rode his legion back to the British camp in a hard three day ride.  Without resting, he collected more of his legion and rode out in pursuit of Sumter with about 500 men on the same day he rode into camp.

Following his victory at Fishdam Ford, locals rushed to volunteer with Sumter.  His ranks swelled to about 1000 men, many of these were overmountain men who were veterans of the King’s Mountain Battle.

Despite having a larger force than Tarleton, Sumter was reluctant to fight.  Tarleton had a reputation for defeating larger numbers of militia with his well trained and ruthless legion. When a British deserter alerted Sumter about Tarleton’s numbers and presence, Sumter called a council of war to decide how to respond.  No one seemed eager to fight Tarleton, but retreating would likely mean that they would be run down by the enemy at some point and forced to fight anyway.  Also, the patriots did not want to cede the territory to the British.  The council decided that they would find a good defensive position and fight Tareleton on ground of their choosing.

Sumter chose an area on a plantation owned by Captain William Blackstock.  Sumter left Captain Patrick Carr between the main American force and the enemy in order to provide warning of the attack.

The British legion under Tarleton lived up to his reputation of hard riding and sniffing out the enemy.  When a scouting party under Tarleton encountered Carr’s patriots, they immediately charged them causing the Americans to scatter and run.  Five men remained and tried to surrender, but they were immediately cut down by Tarleton’s men.  Later it was learned that the men trying to surrender had been loyalists, captured by Carr and were abandoned when the British attacked, but they were killed by their own side before they could make that fact known.

When Tarleton arrived at Blackstock’s farm, he had only about 270 men from his legion with him. The rest were out on extended scouting patrols. Despite being outnumbered and with the enemy on favorable ground, Tarleton opted to attack.

Battle of Blackstock's Farm
Tarleton ordered a young lieutenant named John Money to dismount eighty men from the 63rd Regiment and take out about 100 Georgia riflemen on the American left flank.  General Sumter saw this move and ordered about 400 American reinforcements to support the Georgians.  Despite being outnumbered by about 6-1, the British advanced into the field.  As frequently happened, the American militia lost their nerve, they fired a volley while the enemy was too far away, causing no real harm.  The British then charged in with their bayonets, causing the Americans to run back up the hill, past the main farmhouse where Sumter had set up command.

As the British advanced toward the main buildings, South Carolina sharpshooters under Colonel Henry Hampton took their toll.  About one-third of the advancing regulars fell, including Lieutenant Money.  Despite the fire, the regulars held their ground and returned fire.

As all this was happening, General Sumter had ridden to the American right where he ordered Colonel Edward Lacey to advance on Tarleton and the rest of his legion, who were still mounted on high ground as Tarleton watched Money’s advance.

As Tarleton began taking fire on his left, and saw Money’s division being decimated on his right, he realized he was in trouble.  Still, Tarleton charged his division across the field to support Money’s regulars.  Under fire, Tarleton dismounted, picked up the wounded lieutenant and rode off the field with him.  General Cornwallis was particularly close to Lieutenant Money and thought of him as a son.  Despite Tarleton’s efforts to save him, Money died of his wounds shortly after the battle.

As the British legion withdrew, the apparent results were a lopsided American victory.  The Americans lost three killed and four wounded. The British lost 92 killed and 76 wounded - about two-thirds of those engaged.  Some accounts put British losses even higher.

One of the American wounded was General Sumter himself.  The battle had raged for several hours before Sumter was the recipient of a British volley that hit him in the chest and shoulder.  Despite his wound, Sumter remained mounted and continued to command forces still engaged in the battle.

After the British withdrew, Sumter returned to the main house and called for a doctor, his blood loss had greatly weakened him to the point where he was barely conscious. A doctor performed battlefield surgery, removing the balls without any anesthetic.

Meanwhile, Tarleton, despite his loss, withdrew only about two miles away and prepared for a second attack the following day. He soon discovered, however, that the Americans had withdrawn.  In his reports to Cornwallis, Tarleton tried to cover the mistake he made by attacking a superior force on ground of their choosing by claiming the Americans had attacked first and that he had to defend himself. He also claimed to have taken only about fifty casualties.

Sumter, despite his injuries and the need to recuperate, called on General Gates to launch a final attack on Cornwallis at Winsboro.

Lynches Creek Massacre

Of course, Marion was also still actively fighting in December.   Many incidents did not really rise to the level of a battle, but still showed the intense violence between Tories and patriots. Colonel Francis Marion noted that he had sent Lieutenant Roger Gordon and a few men on a scouting expedition.  The party stopped at a local tavern along Lynches Creek when a larger group of loyalists under an officer named only as Captain Butler attacked them. 

According to Marion’s report, the loyalists set fire to the tavern.  Rather than be burned alive, the patriots agreed to quarter, exited the building and grounded their arms.  Once disarmed, Butler’s loyalists cut the patriots to pieces, killing all of them.  The event became known as the “Lynches Creek Massacre” and only fueled the burning hatred between the two sides.  

Around this same time, the patriots discovered the two brothers of a loyalist officer Major John Harrison, both sick and in bed with smallpox.  The patriots murdered the two loyalists in their sickbeds.

Rugeley’s Mills

Gordon’s scouting mission that ended in his death had been to seek out the position of bands of loyalists who were in the area.  The loyalists where trying to intercept patriot supply trains along Lynches Creek.  

William Washington

On December 4, the day after General Greene took command of the southern army, General Morgan deployed his cavalry under Colonel William Washington to take out a group of loyalists who were working out of a local mill owned by a loyalist Colonel Henry Rugeley.  Washington arrived at the mill with 80 Continental cavalrymen.  It appears Washington’s numbers were supplemented by several companies of local militia.

Inside the mill Colonel Rugeley had 112 loyalists.  The loyalists had fortified the mill to face an attack and dug a ditch to prevent attackers from rushing the mill.  The American cavalry opened fire on the mill, while the loyalists inside returned fire.

Washington really needed a cannon to take the mill.  Since he did not have one, he had his men cut down a pine tree and posed it to look like a cannon. Then, under a flag of truce, he informed the loyalists that they could surrender or the American artillery would blow up the mill with them in it.  Cologne Rugeley agreed to surrender and his loyalists were taken prisoner.  Washington offered parole to the surrendering loyalists and burned down the mill.

Halfway Swamp

Patriots, of course, were not the only ones who knew how to bluff in order to win a battle.

About a week later, Colonel Marion intercepted a group of loyalist recruits marching to Camden who were trying to cross at the Catawba River at a spot known as Halfway Swamp.  The recruits were being taken by British Major Robert McLeroth and a detachment of regulars from the 64th regiment.  

The American militia drove in the British pickets and began skirmishing with the main force.  Most of the loyalist recruits were inexperienced, and likely not even armed.

Major McLeroth stalled for time by sending out a flag of truce.  He complained that shooting at his pickets was contrary to the laws of war.  Marion thought it crazy that someone would argue that shooting at the enemy violated the laws of war.  That pretty much was the point of war.

McLeroth then offered to settle the dispute with a duel of sorts.  He suggested that each side choose twenty sharpshooters to fire at each other and settle the matter.  The two sides discussed the terms, such as the distance from which the two sides would fire and who would volunteer for the duel.  

Of course, McLeroth did not believe the nonsense he was spouting.  His complaints were designed to keep the Americans talking rather than attacking his force.  As soon as he had become aware of the presence of Marion’s advance guard, he sent a messenger to a group of 140 loyalists on horseback who were nearby.

As McLeroth dragged out the discussions with the enemy.  When the loyalist cavalry arrived, Marion’s militia beat a hasty retreat.

Marion, however, was not done.  After Marion’s men retreated, the cavalry once again left McLeroth to march his men to Camden on their own.  Marion set up another ambush down the road the following day.

McLeroth, fearing another attack, set up camp for the night.  He built up his campfires and made lots of noise, but sometime after midnight, the British abandoned their camp and baggage and slipped away.

Marion then rushed some of his men on horseback to get in front of McLeroth’s retreating party.  Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Horry took his men to Singleton Hill, where they set up defenses to fire on the approaching British column.  The Americans began to fire, but then immediately stopped and ran away.  It turned out that the Americans discovered that the home they were using to launch their attack was filled with a family recovering from smallpox. The patriots quickly departed.

McLeroth did finally reach Camden with his recruits.  However, rather than being praised for his clever ruse, Lord Rawdon criticized him for his failure to engage with the patriot militia, and for his failure to burn down the plantations of patriots that he passed along the way.  McLeroth decided he had enough of military life.  He resigned his commission and left for Charleston.

Long Canes

Marion, of course, was one of several partisan bands causing trouble for the British. Another British outpost near Fort Ninety-Six in western South Carolina, near the Georgia border, also remained on alert.

Elijah Clarke

On December, 12, about the same time Marion and McLeroth were dueling at Halfway Swamp, Colonel Elijah Clarke was causing problems for the British about a hundred miles to the west.  Clarke had been active in the fall, fighting at Kings Mountain and Blackstocks, but afterwards returned home to Georgia.  By December, he was back out on the march with a combined force of about 500 Georgia and South Carolina militia.  Although they were near the British outpost of Fort Ninety-Six, their goal was to recruit more militia to continue the fight.

A loyalist officer in the region, General Robert Cunningham, became aware of Clarke’s recruiting efforts and requested that Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger send a force from fort Ninety-Six to disperse the rebels.  Cruger deployed loyalist Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Allen at the head of 200 battle hardened New Jersey loyalists, another 200 local loyalist militia and 50 dragoons.

As the loyalists force set out after Clarke, the Americans planned an ambush.  Clarke personally led an attack with about 100 patriot militia, forcing the loyalists to retreat despite having a larger force.  Once Allen realized the size of the attacking force, he rallied his loyalists and turned the battle back against the patriots.  The two sides clashed in a heated battle, during which Clarke was badly wounded.  His men then retreated.  During the battle and the loyalist pursuit, the Americans lost 14 killed, 7 sounded, and 9 captured.  The loyalists took lighter casualties of two killed and nine wounded.

The wounded Colonel Clarke managed to escape, but it was feared his wounds would prove mortal.  He would survive, but the popular militia colonel would be out of commission and recuperating for the next three months.

The skirmish did not end the fighting in the region.  Two days later, on December 14, patriot Colonel Joseph Hayes clashed with loyalist major Moses Buffington.  The loyalist force of about 25 men occupied a plantation along Indian Creek.  Hayes’ patriots attacked the defenders with about 50 men.  In the skirmish, Buffington and three other loyalists were wounded, and seven or eight of them were captured.

- - -

Next Episode 274 Green Takes Command (Available June 11, 2023)

Previous Episode 272 Chasing the Swamp Fox

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Further Reading


Fishdam Ford:

Fishdam Ford:

Blackstock’s Plantation:


Lynches Creek Massacre:

Rugeley Mills:

Halfway Swamp:

Long Canes:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Coleraine, George (ed) The Life, Adventures, and Opinions of Col. George Hanger, Picadilly: J. Debrett, 1801.

Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978. 

Gregorie, Anne King Thomas Sumter, Columbia, SC: E.L. Bryan Co. 1931 (borrow only)  

Landrum, John Belton O'Neall Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina, Greenville, S.C., Shannon & Co., 1897. 

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

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

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bass, Robert D. Gamecock: The Life And Campaigns Of General Thomas Sumter, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1961 (Read on 

Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999. 

Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict That Turned the Tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (borrow on

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Piecuch, Jim South Carolina Provincials: Loyalists in British Service During the American Revolution,  Westholme Publishing, 2023. 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000 (borrow on 

Swisher, James K., The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Bountry, Pelican Publishing, 2008 (borrow on 

Wickwire, Franklin B. Cornwallis and the War of Independence, Houghton Mifflin, 1971 (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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.

- - -

Next Episode 273 Skirmishing South Carolina 

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.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

ARP271 Advancing on Detroit

 In the fall of 1780, most forces on both sides of the struggle were settling into winter quarters.  The Americans were preparing for another winter in Morristown, New Jersey.  The French were still in Newport, Rhode Island, not having gone anywhere since their arrival in America.  The loyalists, who I discussed last time in their raids on New York, had returned back to Canada for the winter. The British southern army under Cornwallis had pulled out of North Carolina to take a defensive posture in South Carolina.

One man, however, opted to take one additional action that fall.  Colonel Augustin Mottin de la Balme was determined to take Detroit.

Augustin Mottin de la Balme

While there were a handful of French officers who received commission as generals in the Continental army, there were also dozens of officers who traveled to America to accept lesser commissions.  Agustin Mottin de La Balme was one of these men.

La Balme was born in France to a family that could trace its ancestry back to nobility.  But somewhere along the way, one of his ancestors had been unfortunate enough not to be born first, so the family title passed to an older brother, and Mottin did not inherit any title of nobility.  In his youth, he was simply known as Augustin Mottin.  His father worked as a tanner, a respectable profession, but absolutely not nobility.  Even so, his family background would get him a commission as an officer in the French Army.  As such Mottin sought a military career beginning in 1757 when the Seven Years War began.

Illustration from Mottin's
book on Horsemanship
Mottin’s introduction to war was the Battle of Minden, a major land battle where the British and Prussians defeated the French.  It was the same battle where Lafayette’s father was killed and where General Sackville, later known as Lord Germain ended his military career by a failure to follow orders.  Sackvlle’s failure allowed much of the French army, including the 21 year old Lieutenant Mottin, to escape capture or death.

Mottin later served in the Gendarmerie, which was a military company responsible for law enforcement among civilians.  When the French Army seized a town the Gendarmerie would maintain law and order until a civilian force could be set up.  By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of captain in the cavalry and also served as a quartermaster.  A few years later, he received another promotion to major. 

In 1773, as part of the French Army’s efforts to cut costs, it began to reduce the size of its army.  Mottin, by this time in his mid-30s, accepted a retirement offer. He spent some time writing two different books on horsemanship and cavalry tactics.  It was also around that time that he added “de La Balme” to his name at this time.  Presumably, La Balme was his hometown, a small village in eastern France, between Lyon and Geneva Switzerland.

When Silas Deane came to Paris after the Revolution began, Le Balme was one of the first French officers to meet with him about the possibility of a commission in the new Continental Army.  Deane wrote La Balme a letter of recommendation in 1776, but La Balme could not find a way to leave France and make his way to America.  After Benjamin Franklin arrived in late 1776, La Balme also received a letter of introduction from him, recommending him to Congress as a capable cavalry officer who might be helpful in establishing a Continental Cavalry.

In February of 1777, La Balme, pretending to be a doctor, managed to secure passage on a ship leaving Bordeaux for America with two other French officers.  He made it to Philadelphia where, in May, the Continental Congress commissioned him a lieutenant colonel of cavalry in the Continental Army.  La Balme remained in Philadelphia, lobbying members of Congress and trying to promote himself.  By July, he received a promotion to full colonel and the title of inspector general of cavalry.

Gen. Casimir Pulaski

It’s not clear if La Balme ever really took up his position with the army, or if he participated in any way in the Philadelphia Campaign where General Howe’s British Army pushed up from Maryland into Philadelphia.  After the battle of Brandywine in September of that year, Congress granted another officer, Casimir Pulaski, command of the Continental Cavalry based on his performance at Brandywine.  Upset at being passed over, La Balme submitted his resignation to Congress.

Over the next winter, the Continental Army was trying to survive at Valley Forge, while Congress was focused on what became known as the Conway Cabal, that is whether to replace General Washington with the Hero of Saratoga, Horatio Gates.  After Gates became the new head of the Board of War, La Balme approached Gates with a proposal to invade Canada.  Gates liked the idea, but ultimately gave command of the project to General Lafayette.  The plan later fell apart because Congress did not have the men or resources to launch the invasion.

In February of 1778, Congress finally accepted the resignation that La Balme had submitted in October saying it had “no further occasion for his services.”  Losing his military commission did not seem to deter La Balme from his attempts to make a name for himself.  He received approval from General Gates to take part in operations around Albany, New York.  After France signed a Treaty of Alliance with America, La Balme was convinced that he could rally the French-Canadians to the American cause. He tried his luck at writing, issuing several leaflets written in French, German, and English, calling for volunteers among the French Quebecois.

By 1779 he was in Boston.  His new goal was to establish contact with the Indians in what is today Maine and to enlist their support of the cause based on their prior alliances with the King of France before the French and Indian War.  He moved to Machias, and seemed to be making some progress with the local tribes.  But when the British launched their Penobscot Expedition in July, things fell apart.  La Balme attempted to bring a force of Indian warriors to Penobscot. He ended up in a skirmish with British or loyalist forces and was defeated.  La Balme was apparently captured in the skirmish.  It’s not clear if he later escaped or was exchanged.

In the spring of 1780 Le Balme was frustrated that he had been unable to accomplish anything after three years in America.  He wrote to General Washington asking for a certificate of service, but Washington refused, saying he did not have any record of La Balme actually serving in his position as inspector general of cavalry.  La Balme did manage to get back his letters of recommendation from Congress, but really didn't have much else going for him.

He still could not give up on efforts to rouse French Canadians to overthrow the British in Canada.  By June of 1780, he was in Pittsburgh, trying to recruit volunteers for an effort to take Canada via the western frontier.

Detroit Offensive

La Balme realized that he could not recruit an army large enough to conquer Canada.  But he believed that the French Canadians would be willing to rise up if a French leader such as himself could make a credible attempt to organize an overthrow.  La Balme spent much of the summer trying to recruit a small cadre of men who would serve as the core of such a force.  

Their initial goal would be to take the frontier town of Detroit.  The Americans had made several attempts to take Detroit, but each time were turned back, mostly due to the efforts of hostile Indian tribes, still allied with Britain, and mostly not wanting any outsiders marching through their territory.

George Rogers Clark

La Balme began his efforts along the frontier, including Vincennes, Cahokia, and Kaskaskia.  These were towns primarily inhabited by French speaking trappers and traders.  The region had been under contention, but by 1780 was solidly under Virginia’s control thanks mostly to the leadership of George Rogers Clark and his men.

It does not appear that La Balme attempted to recruit Clark or his men as part of his effort.  The French officer saw the frontiersmen as undisciplined.  He also recognized that the Indians between Vincennes and Detroit were already pretty hostile to the Americans, so bringing them into the campaign would probably only increase the chances that they all would be massacred by the local tribes.

Instead, La Balme focused on raising support among the French-speaking population.  Since the Virginians had secured the region, the French locals had not been particularly happy with American rule.  The Americans stole their property and broke into their homes.  Soldiers forced the citizens to accept worthless Continental dollars in exchange for their goods.  Many French locals ended up losing their lands to Virginians, often moving across the Mississippi into Spanish territory.

La Balme’s recruiting efforts tried to benefit from these hard feelings.  He at least implied that his efforts would eventually restore French control of the region.  Although La Balme had corresponded with the French Minister, Luzerne in Philadelphia, there is no evidence that France had any expectations of reasserting any French control of the region.  Even so, many locals were willing to take the chance.

As part of  his efforts La Balme partnered with Godefroy de Linctot, a local trader who was well connected with several local tribes, spoke several tribal languages, and maintained an ongoing grudge against British rule.  Linctot did hold a commission from Virginia, but like La Balme, seemed much more interested in returning French rule to the region than American rule.

Their words found a willing audience among many French speaking locals.  Richard Winston, a Virginia officer stationed at Kaskaskia noted that the locals received La Balme as “the Hebrews would have received the Messiah.”  Many of the town leaders provided La Balme with money and supplies for his expedition to Detroit.  The vague promises of returning French authority, and the more immediate promise of taking plunder from Kekionga and Detroit encouraged a few dozen locals to join the effort.

Among his promises, Le Balme said he would capture Charles Beaubien and take him to Fort Pitt for trial. Beaubien was another French-speaking Canadian, but one who had definitively backed British rule.  He served as the British agent for the Miami Indians in Ohio.  Beaubien had married into the tribe and had led several Indian raids against settlements along the Ohio River.  Beaubien had led a force of Miami to support British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton when he led a force from Detroit to attack Vincennes and other towns in 1778.  Linctot was convinced that if they could take out Beaubien, the Miami would drop the British alliance and would support their efforts.  

Cover page from Mottin's
book on cavalry tactics
In the fall of 1780 La Balme and about one hundred French-speaking volunteers left Kaskaskia headed for British-controlled Kekionga, or modern day Fort Wayne, Indiana.  The expedition managed to travel nearly 300 miles without encountering much opposition.  However, the expedition also appeared to be disorganized.  This led to some division within the ranks.  On October 20, when the boats reached Fort Ouiatanon on the Wabash river in modern-day Indiana, about 40 of the men left the expedition and returned home.

The remaining force of about 60 men pushed on to Kekionga, arriving four days later.  La Balme expected Linctot to meet up with him there with a force of Indian allies.  The party paused there, waiting for Linctot’s arrival.  Fortunately, for the expedition, they also had not encountered any hostile Miami Indians thus far.  Kekionga was a sizable town for the Miami, but most of the warriors were not there.  Speculation was that they were away on a hunting party, Kekionga was a key to control of the region, as it controlled an important portage between the Wabash and Maumee Rivers.  It was a key link to trade or to moving military forces between the St. Lawrence in Canada and the Mississippi River.

Le Balme and his men spent nearly two weeks in Kekionga, waiting for Indian reinforcements under Linctot.  They found Baubein’s house, but he and his family were long gone.  They looted his house, finding a large quantity of arms, blankets, and clothing, as well as a great many horses. Much of these supplies were probably meant to be gifts for the Miami or other local tribes friendly to the British cause.  Several French-speaking locals at Kekionga also joined up with Le Balme’s forces.

With no sign of his allies, or the enemy, Le Balme packed up his expedition in early November and prepared for the nearly 300 mile march to Detroit.  After a day’s march, the expedition camped at a site a few miles northwest of Kekionga.

While the expedition had not yet encountered any hostile Miami, the locals were well aware of the expedition by that time.  Many women and children had likely fled Kekionga when the expedition arrived and word quickly spread among local tribal leaders.

Little Turtle

Among those who heard of the invaders was a local Miami Indian named Little Turtle (or Michikinikwa).  In 1780 Little Turtle was in his late twenties.  We don’t know much about his early life, although it is believed that he was born and raised in the area near Kekionga. By some accounts, his father was a Miami Chief, but his mother was a Mahican.  As a result, Little Turtle could not inherit his father’s position as a tribal chief.

Chief Little Turtle
The Miami had a well earned reputation of defending their lands pretty ferociously.  They had fought for decades against the Iroquois, who were unable to dominate them.  They were generally allied with the British, perhaps thanks to Baubien, but probably also because the British had not really made any attempts to impose on their territory.

There is no good record of the engagement, but Little Turtle assembled a force of local Miami to confront the expedition that had looted Kekionga as it was moving toward Detroit.  Little Turtle led the attack.  By some accounts a man named Paccanne, who was Beaubien’s brother in law also participated.  Paccanne ran a local trading post that La Balme’s expedition might have attacked. 

The Miami war party led by Little Turtle caught up with La Balme’s men, leading to an intense battle.  The Miami apparently got the upper hand.  They killed at least thirty members of the expedition, including La Balme.  The Miami suffered only five deaths.  

For the French survivors, death might have been preferable. By some accounts three of them were burned at the stake.  Some were scalped while still alive.  One had his hands and feet cut off before being killed with a tomahawk to the face.  Only four prisoners were released to warn the rest of the French against any further attempts to move into Miami territory.

About a week later, word of the battle reached Detroit.  The military commander there, Captain Arent Schuyler de Peyster, made a note of the report: 

A detachment of Canadians from the Illinois and Post Vincennes arrive [at Kekionga] about 10 days ago, and enter the village, took the horses, destroyed the horned cattle, and plundered a store I allowed to be kept there for the convenience of the Indians, soon after assembled and attacked the Canadians, led by a French colonel.

According to the British account, the La Balme Expedition had initiated the attack:  “The Miami resisting the fire of the enemy, had five of their party killed, being, however, more resolute than savages are in general, they beat off the enemy, killed 30.”

Arent DePeyster
With that the La Balme Expedition, and La Balme’s life, came to an abrupt end. Following the battle, the Miami returned Beaubien’s looted supplies to his house at Kekionga.

The results of the unsuccessful expedition were not very significant.  The small British outpost in Detroit was on higher alert.  The British rounded up some French in reaction to the incursion.  They suspected these Frenchmen could be potentially treasonous and sent them to Montreal.  Detroit’s military commander De Peyster, ordered all French traders in the region, other than Beaubien, to move to Detroit so that they could not assist in any future expeditions.  De Peyster also sent British rangers to maintain control of the portage at Kekionga.

For the French in Vincennes, the loss was a disaster.  Many leading citizens had joined the expedition and never returned.  Many of them had also carried legal documents with them, planning to go to Philadelphia to assert legal claims against Virginians who had taken their land.  With the loss of these documents, many of the Virginia squatters were able to obtain title to the disputed land.

The Miami even more solidly allied themselves with the British, offering sanctuary to anyone who suffered from treatment by the French or the Americans to their south and west.  The Miami also planned an attack on Vincennes, seeking approval from the British and also some assistance for the attack.  The British approved the attack, but did not provide any assistance.  The Miami never followed through on their attack, but their actions did deter any further French or American attempts to move into Indiana during the remainder of the war.

Next week: We return to the south, where the Swamp Fox, Col. Francis Marion, continues to frustrate British efforts to rule South Carolina.

- - -

Next Episode 272 Chasing the Swamp Fox

Previous Episode 270 Stone Arabia & Klock's Field 

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Further Reading


Augustin de la Balme

Mottin De La Balme, Augustin

Birzer, Bradley J. “French Imperial Remnants on the Middle Ground: The Strange Case of August de La Balme and Charles Beaubien.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-), vol. 93, no. 2, 2000, pp. 132–54. JSTOR, also available here:

“To George Washington from Major General William Heath, 23 April 1777,” (introducing the arrival of La Balme in America) Founders Online, National Archives,

“From Benjamin Franklin to John Hancock, 20 January 1777,” (recommending La Balme) Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from August 1780 from Mottin de La Balme, 5 March 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Sterner, Eric Augustin Mottin De La Balme’s Disastrous Detroit Campaign, Autumn 1780 Sept. 15, 2020:

La Balme's Defeat:

La Balme’s Massacre Site:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Little Turtle: Chief of the Miami, Public Library of Fort Wayne and Allen County Indiana, 1954.

Burton, Clarence "Augustine Mottin de La Balme" Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for the Year 1909, pp. 104-134.

Mottin, de la Balme Élémens de tactique pour la cavalerie, Paris: Chez Jombert, fils aîné, Ruault, 1776. 

Potterf, Rex M. Little Turtle: 1752-1812, Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society, 1960. 

Young, Calvin M. Little Turtle (Me-she-kin-no-quah): the great chief of the Miami Indian nation, Public Library of Fort Wayne and Allen County, 1917 (1956 reprint).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Carter, Harvey L. The Life and Times of Little Turtle: First Sagamore of the Wabash, Univ. of Ill. Press, 1986.