Patriot parable of perseverance: Hobkirk’s Hill and Fort Motte
By David Paul Reuwer
Rendering of the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill by Charles Vallancey, 1794. Image from Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
“I assure you that I am very serious in my intention of relinquishing my Militia Command, not that I wish to shrink from fatigue or trouble, or any private interest but because I found little is to be done with such men as I have, who leave me very often at the very point of executing a plan,” wrote Brig. Gen. Francis Marion to Major Gen. Nathanael Greene, commander of the Southern Department. Dark, dispirited days enveloped the American army from April through early May of 1781, the seventh year of warfare. Marion thought Greene had logistically slighted his militia. Greene thought Marion was not sending him captured British horses. Continental Lt. Col. Henry Lee told Greene that Marion had plenty of horses and was keeping the best for his own men. Knowing that Greene wanted their horses, many militiamen episodically deserted.
Switching sides greatly troubled Greene as the southern campaigns dragged on and on: “Soldiers being long in service become more indifferent which side they serve, & having such a plausible pretense to engage in the enemy’s service, enter in great numbers; and are found in arms against us: indeed one third of the force employed in the southern States, if we are to form a judgment from the prisoners we take, are deserters from our Army, & prisoners enlisted from our captives.”
The British control of the interior of South Carolina depended on their major bases at Georgetown, Cheraw, Camden, Ninety Six and Augusta, Georgia, and intermittent posts like Fort Motte. On April 23, Greene repositioned his 1,250-man Continental Army in battle order to the well-chosen crest of Hobkirk’s Hill, a sandy, wooded eminence flanked on the east by springs. British-occupied Camden was a mile and a half south. Midmorning on April 25, the Patriots were dissembled for their morning meal. Col. Francis Lord Rawdon’s 950 British troops marched north along Little Pine Tree Creek to the right of the Americans. Rawdon opened fire, driving the American pickets into their lines. Greene’s Continentals formed into one line. Two Virginia regiments formed west of the road. Lt. Col. Benjamin Ford’s Maryland regiment occupied the far left and the left center was held by that of Col. John Gunby, both on the road’s east side. Three cannons were placed in the Waxhaw Road.
Greene ordered the far left and far right to wheel in respectively on their flanks, while the center regiments advanced down the hill with bayonets. Lt. Col. William Washington’s cavalry circled wide around to attack the enemy’s rear. Lord Rawdon, seeing himself about to be flanked, extended his front by swiftly ordering up his reserves. A severe combat wound disabled Ford, and the right of Gunby’s regiment, Capt. William Beatty fell mortally wounded, causing his company to waver, and this in turn affected the adjacent company. The Marylanders backed up so that they might reform in straight line again. The British charged up the hill, breaking through the American center, advancing to the summit of Hobkirk’s ridge. Both forces engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat, dividing Greene’s army, and forced the Americans to retreat. The Patriots lost 21 killed, 113 wounded, 47 captured and 89 missing (21 percent); British casualties were 39 killed, 210 wounded and 12 missing (27 percent), not counting prisoners.
“We fight, get beat, rise and fight again,” wrote Greene on April 28, 1781, to the French Chevalier de La Luzerne. “The conflict was short and seemed once to promise us advantage, but we were obliged to retire,” Greene wrote to Marion. To President Samuel Huntington of Congress: “Our Army is in good spirits, and this little repulse will make no alteration in our general plan of operation.” However, he was not without doubts: “We have so much to do and so little to do it with,” reported Greene on May 1 to Gen. George Washington, “that I am much afraid these States must fall never to rise again.”
For the British, Hobkirk’s Hill “was perhaps the most important victory of the whole war, for defeat would have occasioned the loss of Charleston, the Carolinas and Georgia,” postulated Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, British commander-in-chief. Col. John Tadwell-Watson’s 500 men reinforced Lord Rawdon as the British crossed the Wateree River in pursuit of Greene, who selected strong defensive ground, keeping his enemy at bay.
Yet despite this demoralizing defeat, Greene’s rousing words to de La Luzerne were proven true ten days later when Brig. Gen. Francis Marion and Lt. Col. Henry Lee began their siege of Fort Motte on May 8, only four hours after a British supply convoy had arrived. Mrs. Rebecca Motte’s mansion on Mount Joseph Plantation, overlooking the Congaree River near McCord’s Ferry, had been fortified by the British. This key depot served convoys moving supplies and men from Charleston to Camden. The British 84th Regiment of Foot, under the command of Lt. Donald McPherson, along with Hessian dragoons and Loyalist militia, garrisoned Fort Motte. The mansion, situated on Buckhead Hill, was surrounded by abatis, a deep ditch around the house, along which had been raised a solid earth-and-wooden parapet. An older farmhouse stood on an adjoining hill.
Lee emplaced his 6-pounder cannon so as to rake the face of the enemy’s defensive works. Soldiers and slaves from local plantations, working in four-hour relays, dug approach trenches toward the fort, zigzagging to the fort’s surrounding abatis. The vale between the two hills admitted some safety. On May 10, Lee summoned McPherson demanding surrender. The lieutenant rejected this, hoping that a British relief column would come in his aid.
Meanwhile, safe passage between Camden and Charleston was continually broken by American disruption, and Camden became untenable for the British. Rawdon abandoned Camden on May 10, destroying public buildings, stores and many private houses. The British, retrograding toward Charleston, moved to lift the siege of Fort Motte. Their army’s campfires could be seen in the distant northeastern High Hills of the Santee on the night of May 11, and Marion calculated that Rawdon would reach Fort Motte within 48 hours.
At this point, Rebecca Motte gave permission to burn her home. Lee wrote, “Orders were instantly issued to prepare bows and arrows, with missive combustible matter” to fire the hot and dry cedar roof. Mason Weems, Marion’s biographer, wrote that Mrs. Motte lent the Patriots a bow and African arrows. Another account states that muskets fired “arrows” onto the roof. “The house was not … fired by an arrow from an African bow. Nathan Savage ... made up a ball of rosin and brimstone, to which he set fire, slung it on the roof of the house,” wrote eyewitness William Dobein James. Modern archaeology evidenced a ramrod shaped for fire at the fort.
McPherson sent a detail aloft to rip off the burning shingles. Americans fired grapeshot from the 6-pounder cannon upon the British defenders as they jumped away from the burning house. Finally McPherson raised the white flag in capitulation, and Marion’s men helped extinguish the house fire. Friction between the Continentals and militia had become so strong that when the British marched out, Lee accepted the surrender of the British regulars and Hessians, and Marion accepted the surrender of the Loyalist militia.
Both Patriot and British officers dined together that same night after the capitulation with Mrs. Motte hosting. Continental Cornet William Butler Harrison had ordered three Loyalists to be hanged. Marion stormed out of the house to find two dead Loyalists on the ground and one swinging from a noose. Marion ordered that man saved. He told Lee’s men that he was in charge and that he would kill the next man who harmed any British prisoners.
Greene reported to Congress that great credit is due Marion’s militia in the reduction of this strong post. Lee’s legion and the detachments serving with him under Maj. Pinketham Eaton, Cpts. Ebenezer Finley, Edward Oldham and John Smith, “were indefatigable in prosecuting the Siege.” Many arms, salt, provisions and other stores were taken. Greene, obsessed with the reduction of British strongholds in S.C., ordered Gen. Andrew Pickens to lay siege to Ninety Six and Augusta. Marion moved against Georgetown on the coast. Lee was sent up the Congaree River to reduce Fort Granby. The British occupational force failed to hold the central-most backcountry of S.C.
Patriot perseverance was the continuing course of resistance and fighting, no matter the desperate circumstances. Their attitude was obstinate, their spirit and activity exceptional, their result of bloodying the British profound. Liberty’s lifeblood is neither fully lost nor truly won. Despite fatigue, trouble or private interest, the battle needs to be engaged, the troops arisen, the enemy renewed and the cause restated. Marion did; Lee did; Greene did. Their small Patriot armies stood firmly amidst the overwhelming difficulties throughout this Carolina crisis. In this current day’s popular query of “what can the government give me?” we should remind ourselves of General William Moultrie’s succinct exclamation: “What I can do for my country, I will do.”
David Paul Reuwer is plenipotentiary of the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust.