The Battle of the Great Savannah
Perhaps the greatest single order that General Gates gave prior to his ignoble defeat at Camden was to appoint Francis Marion as the Brigadier General of the South Carolina Militia.
Following up on his orders, Marion departed from Gates at Rugeley’s Mill above Camden. He then headed south to raise a Brigade of militia and play havoc on the British supply lines.
Gates was preparing for his appointment with Cornwallis.
While burning boats and raising an army on his way towards the Santee, Marion learned of Gate’s demise on August 16, 1780. He declined to tell his men in his command in the hopes that they would not quit the mission.
After the battle of Camden the British began marching prisoners in groups of 150 to Charleston along the present day Old State Road 261. (The King\’s Highway is the by-way of old that ran from Charleston to Camden. It cut through the High Hills of the Santee, which was a hideout and way-point for Patriots under Sumter and Marion.)
The British decided to stop for the night at Sumter’s plantation before heading on to Charleston (Sumter having fled to Charlotte after his defeat at Fishing Creek).
General Sumter’s plantation, during the Revolution, was across from Nelson’s Ferry on the Santee River in Clarendon County. It now lies at the bottom of the man-made lake and is occupied by all sorts of marine life; including but not limited to the alligators. The closest that one can get to the site of the battle (short of scuba diving) is to explore the Santee National Wildlife Refuge. Fort Watson is nearby and offers the history buff even more to discover and learn.
The Red Coat guard of 38 soldiers rested and stacked their arms for the night, feeling confident in their wins against Gates and Sumter and believing the area was secure so far behind the lines of conflict.
Marion and Major Hugh Horry approached the house on August 25th. A sentry fired a shot and the skirmish commenced with Horry and his men taking the front of the house while Marion and his men rushed the rear. When the smoke cleared and the yelling had stopped, 22 British were killed or captured.
However, these Continental soldiers of the Maryland and Delaware lines were not willing to be freed. Marion and his men must have been dumfounded when these men chose to continue as prisoners. Most of these soldiers, despite the mismanagement of General Gates, had fought bravely under DeKalb at Camden. In a letter to Governor Rutledge, General Otho Williams would write, “Of the 150 men retaken by Marion only about 60 rejoined their corps — some were sick but most of them just departed.\”
For the British, Camden was a gift that kept on giving.
It is a dire situation when the State militia launch a battle to free their fellow Patriots, only to realize they don’t want to be rescued.
These were times that tested men’s souls. Slavery or Liberty. Servitude or Freedom. Serfdom or self-government. These hung in the balance in August of 1780 in South Carolina. Here, high minded speeches and thoughts of Freedom met bullet and blade.
Along the back-roads over grown and passed by, the government that we now take for granted was born in the cauldron of despair. Patriot fervor waned at the fall of Charleston, and was almost snuffed out at the defeat at Camden. All along the frontier (at Ninety Six, Camden, Cheraw, Hanging Rock, and Rocky Mount) loyalists were swooning over the arrival of Cornwallis, Tarleton, Wemyss and Ferguson. Many a Patriot quit and resigned themselves to the fate of the conflict. Merchants in Charleston and Savannah were filling their coffers with English coin from British contracts. The Southern Strategy was working and it would be a matter of time before Britain was master of the colonies once more.
Or so they thought.
Marion was in the field. Sumter had escaped. A secret army was being raised.
A reckoning is coming! Freedom Reigns!
Parker\’s Guide to the American Revolutionary War in South Carolina, John C. Parker Jr.