Battle of Fort Motte
On the morning of the twelfth [May, 1781.], Lee sent Dr. Irvine, of his cavalry, with a flag, to state truly the relative position of the belligerents; that Rawdon had not yet crossed the Santee, and that immediate surrender would save many lives. M‘Pherson still refused compliance and at meridian, when the ditch was advanced within bow-shot of the fort, several arrows from the hand of Nathan Savage, a private in Marion's brigade, winged their way, with lighted torches, toward the house. Two struck the dry shingles, and instantly a bright flame crept along the roof. Soldiers were ordered up to knock off the shingles and put out the fire, when one or two shots from Marion's battery, raking the loft, drove them below. M‘Pherson hung out a white flag, the firing ceased, the flames were extinguished, and at one o'clock the garrison surrendered themselves prisoners of war.
Fort Motte, where the brave Marion exhibited his skill and courage, was the principal depôt of the convoys between Charleston and Camden, and also for those destined for Granby and Ninety-Six. The British had taken possession of the fine large mansion of Mrs. Rebecca Motte, a widow of fortune, which occupied a commanding position. They surrounded it with a deep trench (a part of which is yet visible), and along the interior margin of it erected a high parapet.
Mrs. Motte and her family, known to be inimical to the British, were driven to her farm-house, upon a hill north of the mansion, and their place was supplied by a garrison of one hundred and fifty men, under Captain M‘Pherson, a brave British officer.
After Colonel Watson eluded the pursuit of Marion and Lee, and crossed the Congaree (see page 474), those indefatigable partisans moved upon Fort Motte. A few hours before their arrival at that place, M‘Pherson was re-enforced by a small detachment of dragoons sent from Charleston with dispatches for Lord Rawdon. They were on the point of leaving, when Marion and Lee appeared upon the height at the farm-house where Mrs. Motte was residing.
After cautiously reconnoitering, Lee took position at the farm-house, and his men, with the field-piece sent to them by Greene, occupied the eastern declivity of the high plain on which Fort Motte stood. This gentle declivity is a little southwest of the rail-way station, in full view of passengers upon the road. Marion immediately cast up a mound (see page 477), upon which he planted the six-pounder, in a position to rake the northern face of the parapet of the fort, against which Lee prepared to approach. M‘Pherson had no artillery, and his safety depended upon timely extraneous aid, either from Camden or Ninety-Six.
Between the height on which Lee was posted and Fort Motte is a narrow vale, which allowed the assailants to approach within four hundred yards of the fort. From that vale they began to advance by a parallel, which, by the assistance of some negroes from neighboring plantations, was sufficiently advanced by the tenth [May, 1781.] to warrant the Americans in demanding a surrender. A flag was accordingly dispatched, with a formal summons, but M‘Pherson gallantly refused compliance.
That evening, intelligence of Rawdon's retreat from Camden toward Nelson's Ferry was communicated to the Americans, and in the course of the night a courier from Greene confirmed the report. Delay would be dangerous, for Rawdon, with his superior force, could easily repulse them. Early on the morning of the eleventh, the light of his beacon-fires were seen on the high hills of Santee, and that night their gleamings upon the highest ground of the country, opposite Fort Motte, gave great joy to the beleagured garrison. To batter down the enemy's works with the field-piece, or to approach by a trench, was too slow for the exigency of the case. The fertile mind of Lee, full of expedients, suggested a quicker plan for dislodging the garrison.
The mansion of Mrs. Motte, in the center of the enemy's works, was covered with shingles, now very dry, for no rain had fallen for several days, and the rays of the sun were powerful. To communicate fire to this mansion was Lee's expedient. That officer had enjoyed the hospitality of Mrs. Motte during the siege, and her only marriageable daughter was then the wife of his friend, Major Thomas Pinckney. These circumstances made it a painful duty for him to propose the destruction of her property. Her cheerful acquiescence, and even patriotic desire to be able to serve her country by such a sacrifice, gave him joy and, communicating his plan to Marion, they hastened to execute it. It was proposed to hurl ignited combustibles upon the roof of the house, by arrows. These were prepared, when Mrs. Motte, observing their inferiority, brought out a fine bow and a bundle of arrows which had been brought from the East Indies, and presented them to Lee.
On the morning of the twelfth [May, 1781.], Lee sent Dr. Irvine, of his cavalry, with a flag, to state truly the relative position of the belligerents; that Rawdon had not yet crossed the Santee, and that immediate surrender would save many lives. M‘Pherson still refused compliance and at meridian, when the ditch was advanced within bow-shot of the fort, several arrows from the hand of Nathan Savage, a private in Marion's brigade, winged their way, with lighted torches, toward the house. Two struck the dry shingles, and instantly a bright flame crept along the roof. Soldiers were ordered up to knock off the shingles and put out the fire, when one or two shots from Marion's battery, raking the loft, drove them below. M‘Pherson hung out a white flag, the firing ceased, the flames were extinguished, and at one o'clock the garrison surrendered themselves prisoners of war. By invitation of Mrs. Motte, both the victorious and the captive officers partook of a sumptuous dinner from her table, while she presided with all the coolness and easy politeness for which she was remarkable when surrounded by friends in the enjoyment of peace.
The prisoners were treated with great humanity, notwithstanding some of them were Tories of a most obnoxious stamp. As soon as paroled, they were sent off to Lord Rawdon, then crossing the Santee at Nelson's Ferry, near Eutaw Springs. The fall of Fort Motte greatly alarmed that officer, and two days afterward [May 14.], he blew up the fortifications at Nelson's Ferry, and hastened toward Charleston. During the day of the capitulation, Greene arrived with a small troop of cavalry, being anxious to know the result of the siege, for he was aware Rawdon was hastening to the relief of the garrison. 9 Finding every thing secure, he returned to his camp, then on the north side of the Congaree, after ordering Marion to proceed against Georgetown, toward the head of Winyaw Bay, near the coast, and directing Lee with his legion, and Captain Finley with his six pounder, to attack Fort Granby, thirty-two miles above Fort Motte, near the present city of Columbia. Thither we will presently proceed
Before receiving this grateful intelligence Marion had been joined by Lieut. Col. Lee, at the head of a legion which acquired high reputation for its spirit and activity during the war. Lee tells us that it was no easy matter to find our partisan. "An officer, with a small party, preceded Lee a few days' march to find out Marion, who was known to vary his position in the swamps of the PeeDee; sometimes in South Carolina, sometimes in North Carolina, and sometimes on the Black river. With the greatest difficulty did this officer learn how to communicate with the brigadier; and that by the accident of hearing among our friends on the south side of the PeeDee, of a small provision party of Marion's being on the same side of the river. Making himself known to this party he was conveyed to the general, who had changed his ground since his party left him, which occasioned many hours' search even before his own men could find him."
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