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Battleground of Freedom During the American Revolution

During the American Revolution in Moncks Corner, S.C., there was a wooden bridge crossing what was then Biggin Creek, where Gilligan’s at the Dock restaurant now stands on the Tailrace Canal. The bridge crossed over the creek near the Biggin Church ruins and can still be seen today off S.C. Highway 402.

This site was the scene of an April 14, 1780, nighttime British surprise attack against Patriot forces guarding the bridge. Leading the Redcoats, stealthily making their way up the Cooper River, was Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and his green-jacketed dragoons, soldiers on horseback. The British and Loyalist forces totaled around 650 men, as opposed to the 500 Patriots camped near Biggin Church.  

Sentries guarding the bridge were completely surprised and were quickly forced across the bridge. Twenty Patriots were killed or wounded, and at least 60 men were captured. The British were able to seize for their use 42 wagons, 102 wagon horses and 83 dragoon horses from the engagement.

Santee Cooper Country, the five counties encompassing lakes Marion and Moultrie, is perhaps best known today for South Carolina natural resources including lake-centered recreation and fishing and hunting enthusiasts. The area is also well-dotted with sites of Revolutionary War battles (many covered by the lakes) where our ancestors, both white and black, fought hard to claim a way of life we enjoy today. As this narrative shows, the Patriots didn’t always win. But in the long war that began in 1775 and ended in 1783, the American partisans eventually prevailed.

“The victory at Moncks Corner gave (British Gen. Sir Henry) Clinton a passage to the country across the Cooper River from Charleston,” wrote Henry Lumpkin in his 1981 book, “From Savannah to Yorktown, the American Revolution in the South.”

At the time of this battle, Clinton was in Charleston. He had returned with a vengeance following the embarrassing British defeat on June 28, 1776, at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island at the half-completed fort (now called Fort Moultrie) made of some of the most famous natural resources in South Carolina including palmetto logs cut from nearby Dewees Island. News of this improbable American victory, only six days before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, spurred Patriot fervor throughout the colonies, now in the throes of birthing a nation.

Clinton’s defeat drove the British from Charleston, and largely from South Carolina, for nearly four years. The American Revolution, which began on April 19, 1775, when British and American forces exchanged fire in Lexington and Concord, Mass., was largely fought in New England and the North for the next two years. By 1780, the war had become somewhat of a stalemate in those locations.

But on May 12, 1780, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln surrendered Charleston to the British. It was a low point for American independence in the South, in that 5,000 Continental Army troops put down their weapons against the Crown. Historians have consistently stated that the U.S. Army did not endure another defeat of this magnitude until the First Philippines Campaign during the early dark days of World War II.

The British had subdued, defeated and humiliated the partisan hopes and dreams of a people who had the words of liberty on their lips and in their hearts. Lumpkin summed up the end of 1780 thusly: “This period was the nadir of American military hopes in the South. With no regular organized forces opposing them, the British established chains of forts and outposts in Georgia and South Carolina from the coast to the foothills, an interlocking, mutually supporting network of garrisoned strong points to control and pacify the vast territory.

“At this time, with Savannah and Charleston in British hands, the two main American armies in the area captured or routed, and the Loyalists rallying to the royal standard, the great Southern partisans took the field…”

Lumpkin is referring to four men, including two South Carolinians: Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter.

Rise of the Swamp Fox and the Gamecock
At the onset of the Revolution, the 43-year-old Francis Marion lived at Pond Bluff, a modest estate near present day Eutaw Springs. He was an experienced militia man, having fought in two Cherokee Wars in 1759 and 1761. His commanding officer was Capt. William Moultrie, later a general, and the man for whom Fort Moultrie and Lake Moultrie are named. Both Marion and Moultrie were present at the June 28, 1776, Battle of Sullivan’s Island, often referred to now as the Battle of Fort Moultrie.

Marion, born in Berkeley County near Cordesville, is credited with being the father of modern guerilla warfare, swift but short hit and run attacks, and then retreating into the swamps he knew so well. The Brig. Gen. Marion was a cautious but effective partisan fighter, fielding an army that came and went with the planting seasons and need for battle. His theater of operations was primarily present day Berkeley, Clarendon, Orangeburg and Sumter counties, and the Pee Dee section of South Carolina.

Sumter was an entirely different soldier than the “Swamp Fox.” His approach to fighting the British was consistently simple: “Attack, attack, attack.” This bold approach unnecessarily put his men in peril, but to Sumter’s credit, he put himself personally in harm’s way as much as his men. It was a miracle he was never captured. He endured a serious wound that might have proved fatal to a lesser man.

His theater of operations was similar to Marion’s, although the Gamecock ventured farther north with his forces. Sumter, who was born near Charlottesville, Va., lent his surname at Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began in April 1861. He ran a store near Eutaw Springs and for a time lived only about five miles from Marion’s home. He lived to the ripe old age of 97, dying at Stateburg in Sumter County, the area known at the “High Hills of the Santee.” Sumter was the last surviving American general of the Revolution. Like Marion, Sumter was a militia man before venturing South to seek his fortune along the Santee River.

Skirmishes and Battles In Santee Cooper Country, 1780–1781
The bridge across the Santee River on U.S. Highway 17-A was the scene of a battle when it was Lenud’s Ferry, just north of Jamestown. On May 6, 1780, Tarleton, still the hard charger, had the element of surprise again in his favor when his force of 150 defeated and scattered Col. Anthony White’s cavalry and Lt. Col. William Washington’s contingent of 350. Between 20 and 30 Patriots were killed or wounded, and another 67 were captured along with 100 horses.

Located on the Santee River north of today’s Eutawville, the Battle of Nelson’s Ferry (or Great Savannah) occurred on Aug. 25, 1780. Brig. Gen. Francis Marion was camped at the ferry and got word that Patriot prisoners captured at Camden were camping at Great Savannah, Sumter’s home. Twenty-four British soldiers perished as a result of Marion’s attack. Marion became frustrated because the liberated partisans, all Marylanders, declined to join the Swamp Fox. They journeyed on to Charleston to become British prisoners of war.

On March 6, 1781, the Battle of Wyboo Swamp was the first of a series of engagements, called the Bridges Campaign, between Francis Marion and British Col. John Watson, whose base of operations was the Indian mound at the edge of the Santee River near Summerton. It was then called Fort Watson, and today is the site of the Santee National Wildlife Refuge.

At this battle, about 250 Patriots fought off at least 400 British cavalry, foot soldiers and artillery in a delaying action around the quarter-mile wide wooden causeway traversing Wyboo Creek, about nine miles south of present-day Manning. The creek drained into the Santee River prior to the building of the lakes. Three British soldiers and six Americans were killed.

“One of  Marion’s men, Gavin James, personally killed three Tory dragoons on the causeway,” says local historian George Summers. “He shot one and then bayoneted two from his horse.”

The Battle of Fort Watson (April 15–23, 1781) was a frustrating siege for the Americans, but it ended in a Patriot victory. Francis Marion teamed up with Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a Virginian and the father of Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee. The British forces numbered about 115, the Patriot contingent 350. The Americans won this battle because of ingenuity of Maj. Hezekiah Maham, one of Marion’s men. He suggested building a log tower by felling nearby trees, so the Patriot sharpshooters could climb up and fire from inside the tower. This was done and instead of being slaughtered, Lt. James McKay surrendered the fort. There were two American deaths and none for the British.

The Battle of Fort Motte was another siege and another Patriot victory, occurring from May 8–12, 1781, at a British fort that was the mansion home of Rebecca Brewton Motte. Her home, located near the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree rivers (below this forms the Santee River), was occupied by about 150 British solders commanded by Lt. Daniel McPherson. The defense structure included a ditch, earthworks and stockade. The Americans carried the day when Marion and “Light Horse Harry” Lee received permission from Mrs. Motte to set her home afire. The redcoats surrendered, and the fire was put out. There were no Patriot casualties, but three British soldiers died.

Occurring on Sept. 8, 1781, the Battle of Eutaw Springs was a huge engagement and the last major Revolutionary War battle in the Carolinas. It ended in a draw, although the British abandoned the field. American  Gen. Nathanael Green’s army won the battle’s initial phase, but the British regrouped under Lt. Col. Alexander Stuart. American forces totaled 2,200, with the British fielding 2,000. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war. About 250 Patriots were killed and 367 were wounded. The number of British killed totaled 85, with 297 wounded, and the Americans captured 430 redcoats. After this battle, the British were never able to muster such a large force against Patriot forces.

Two minor battles near Moncks Corner ended 1782 and essentially the Revolution in Santee Cooper Country. The first was the Battle of Fair Lawn on Aug. 28. The Battle of Wadboo the following day was Francis Marion’s last engagement of the war and a defeat.

Thus ended the battle days of the Swamp Fox, whom Lumpkin describes as, “…unquestionably the most distinguished of the partisan leaders on either side of the Revolutionary War.”