Our story takes us back to the summer of 1780, a summer of war, suffering, and outrage in the States of the South. General Gates, at the head of the army of the South, was marching towards Camden, South Carolina, filled with inflated hopes of meeting and defeating Cornwallis. How this hopeful general was himself defeated, and how, in consequence, the whole country south of Virginia fell under British control, history relates; we are not here concerned with it.
Gates's army had crossed the Pedee River and was pushing southward. During its march a circumstance occurred which gave great amusement to the trim soldiery. There joined the army a volunteer detachment of about twenty men, such a heterogeneous and woe-begone corps that Falstaff himself might have hesitated before enlisting them. They were a mosaic of whites and blacks, men and boys, their clothes tatters, their equipments burlesques on military array, their horses—for they were all mounted—parodies on the noble war-charger. At the head of this motley array was a small-sized, thin-faced, modest-looking man, his uniform superior to that of his men, but no model of neatness, yet with a flashing spirit in his eye that admonished the amused soldiers not to laugh at his men in his presence. Behind his back they laughed enough. The Pedee volunteers were a source of ridicule to the well-clad Continentals that might have caused trouble had not the officers used every effort to repress it.
As for Gates, he offered no welcome to this ragged squad. The leader modestly offered him some advice about the military condition of the South, but the general in command was clothed in too dense an armor of conceit to be open to advice from any quarter, certainly not from the leader of such a Falstaffian company, and he was glad enough to get rid of him by sending him on a scouting expedition in advance of the army, to watch the enemy and report his movements.
This service precisely suited him to whom it was given, for this small, non-intrusive personage was no less a man than Francis Marion, then but little known, but destined to become the Robin Hood of partisan warriors, the celebrated "Swamp-Fox" of historical romance and romantic history.
Marion had appeared with the title of colonel. He left the army with the rank of general. Governor Rutledge, who was present, knew him and his worth, gave him a brigadier's commission, and authorized him to enlist a brigade for guerilla work in the swamps and forests of the State.
Thus raised in rank, Marion marched away with his motley crew of followers, they doubtless greatly elevated in dignity to feel that they had a general at their head. The army indulged in a broad laugh, after they had gone, at Marion's miniature brigade of scarecrows. They laughed at the wrong man, for after their proud array was broken and scattered to the winds, and the region they had marched to relieve had become the prey of the enemy, that modest partisan alone was to keep alive the fire of liberty in South Carolina, and so annoy the victors that in the end they hardly dared show their faces out of the forts. The Swamp-Fox was to pave the way for the reconquest of the South by the brave General Greene.
No long time elapsed before Marion increased his disreputable score to a brigade of more respectable proportions, with which he struck such quick and telling blows from all sides on the British and Tories, that no nest of hornets could have more dismayed a marauding party of boys. The swamps of the Pedee were his head-quarters. In their interminable and thicket-hidden depths he found hiding-places in abundance, and from them he made rapid darts, north, south, east, and west, making his presence felt wherever he appeared, and flying back to shelter before his pursuers could overtake him. His corps was constantly changing, now swelling, now shrinking, now little larger than his original ragged score, now grown to a company of a hundred or more in dimensions. It was always small. The swamps could not furnish shelter and food for any large body of men.
Marion's head-quarters were at Snow's Island, at the point where Lynch's Creek joins the Pedee River. This was a region of high river-swamp, thickly forested, and abundantly supplied with game. The camp was on dry land, but around it spread broad reaches of wet thicket and canebrake, whose paths were known only to the partisans, and their secrets sedulously preserved. As regards the mode of life here of Marion and his men, there is an anecdote which will picture it better than pages of description.
A young British officer was sent from Georgetown to treat with Marion for an exchange of prisoners. The Swamp-Fox fully approved of the interview, being ready enough to rid himself of his captives, who were a burden on his hands. But he was too shrewd to lay bare the ways that led to his camp. The officer was blindfolded, and led by devious paths through canebrake, thicket, and forest to the hidden camp. On the removal of the bandage from his eyes he looked about him with admiration and surprise. He found himself in a scene worthy of Robin Hood's woodland band. Above him spread the boughs of magnificent trees, laden with drooping moss, and hardly letting a ray of sunlight through their crowding foliage. Around him rose their massive trunks, like the columns of some vast cathedral. On the grassy or moss-clad ground sat or lay groups of hardy-looking men, no two of them dressed alike, and with none of the neat appearance of uniformed soldiers. More remote were their horses, cropping the short herbage in equine contentment. It looked like a camp of forest outlaws, jovial tenants of the merry greenwood.
The surprise of the officer was not lessened when his eyes fell on Marion, whom he had never seen before. It may be that he expected to gaze on a burly giant. As it was, he could scarcely believe that this diminutive, quiet-looking man, and this handful of ill-dressed and lounging followers, were the celebrated band who had thrown the whole British power in the South into alarm.
Marion addressed him, and a conference ensued in which their business was quickly arranged to their mutual satisfaction.
"And now, my dear sir," said Marion, "I should be glad to have you dine with me. You have fasted during your journey, and will be the better for a woodland repast."
"With pleasure," replied the officer. "It will be a new and pleasant experience."
He looked around him. Where was the dining-room? where, at least, the table, on which their mid-day repast was to be spread? Where were the dishes and the other paraphernalia which civilization demands as the essentials of a modern dinner?—Where? His eyes found no answer to this mental question. Marion looked at him with a smile.
"We dine here in simple style, captain," he remarked. "Pray be seated."
He took his seat on a mossy log, and pointed to an opposite one for the officer. A minute or two afterwards the camp purveyor made his appearance, bearing a large piece of bark, on which smoked some roasted sweet potatoes. They came from a fire of brushwood blazing at a distance.
"Help yourself, captain," said Marion, taking a swollen and brown-coated potato from the impromptu platter, breaking it in half, and beginning to eat with a forest appetite.
The officer looked at the viands and at his host with eyes of wonder.
"Surely, general," he exclaimed, "this cannot be your ordinary fare?"
"Indeed it is," said Marion. "And we are fortunate, on this occasion, having company to entertain, to have more than our usual allowance."
The officer had little more to say. He helped himself to the rural viands, which he ate with thought for salt. On returning to Georgetown he gave in his report, and then tendered his commission to his superior officer, saying that a people who could fight on roots for fare could not be, and ought not to be, subdued, and that he, for one, would not serve against them.
Of the exploits of Marion we can but speak briefly; they were too many to be given in detail. His blows were so sharply dealt, in such quick succession, and at such remote points, that his foes were puzzled, and could hardly believe that a single band was giving them all this trouble. Their annoyance culminated in their sending one of their best cavalry leaders, Colonel Wemyss, to surprise and crush the Swamp-Fox, then far from his hiding-place. Wemyss got on Marion's trail, and pursued him with impetuous haste. But the wary patriot was not to be easily surprised, nor would he fight where he had no chance to win. Northward he swiftly made his way, through swamps and across deep streams, into North Carolina. Wemyss lost his trail, found it, lost it again, and finally, discouraged and revengeful, turned back and desolated the country from which he had driven its active defender, and which was looked on as the hot-bed of rebellion.
Marion, who had but sixty men in his band, halted the moment pursuit ceased, sent out scouts for information, and in a very short time was back in the desolated district. The people rushed, with horse and rifle, to his ranks. Swiftly he sped to the Black Mingo, below Georgetown, and here fell at midnight on a large body of Tories, with such vigor and success that the foe were almost annihilated, while Marion lost but a single man.
The devoted band now had a short period of rest, the British being discouraged and depressed. Then Tarleton, the celebrated hard-riding marauder, took upon himself the difficult task of crushing the Swamp-Fox. He scoured the country, spreading ruin as he went, but all his skill and impetuosity were useless in the effort to overtake Marion. The patriot leader was not even to be driven from his chosen region of operations, and he managed to give his pursuer some unwelcome reminders of his presence. At times Tarleton would be within a few miles of him, and full of hope of overtaking him before the next day's dawn. But, while he was thus lulled to security, Marion would be watching him from the shadows of some dark morass, and at midnight the British rear or flank would feel the sharp bite of the Swamp-Fox's teeth. In the end, Tarleton withdrew discomfited from the pursuit, with more hard words against this fellow, who "would not fight like a gentleman or a Christian," than he had ever been able to give him hard blows.
Tarleton withdrawn, Marion resumed all his old activity, his audacity reaching the extent of making an attack on the British garrison at Georgetown. This was performed in conjunction with Major Lee, who had been sent by General Greene to Marion's aid. Lee had no little trouble to find him. The active partisan was so constantly moving about, now in deep swamps, now far from his lurking-places, that friend and foe alike were puzzled to trace his movements. They met at last, however, and made a midnight attack on Georgetown, unsuccessful, as it proved, yet sufficient to redouble the alarm of the enemy.
In the spring of 1781 we find Colonel Watson, with a force of five hundred men, engaged in the difficult task of "crushing Marion." He found him,—unlike the predecessors,—but, as it proved, to his own cost. Marion was now at Snow's Island, whence he emerged to strike a quick succession of heavy blows at such different points that he appeared to be ubiquitous. His force met that of Watson unexpectedly, and a fight ensued. Watson had the advantage of field-pieces, and Marion was obliged to fall back. Reaching a bridge over the Black River, he checked his pursuers with telling volleys long enough to burn the bridge. Then a peculiar contest took place. The two forces marched down the stream, one on each side, for ten miles, skirmishing across the water all the way. Darkness ended the fight. The two camps were pitched near together. For ten days Watson remained there, not able to get at Marion, and so annoyed by the constant raids of his active foe that in the end he made a midnight flight to escape destruction in detail. Marion pursued, and did him no small damage in the flight. Watson's only solace was the remark, already quoted, that his troublesome foe would not "fight like a gentleman or a Christian."
Major Lee tells an amusing story of an incident that happened to himself, on his march in search of Marion. He had encamped for the night on Drowning Creek, a branch of the Pedee. As morning approached, word was brought to the officer of the day that noises were heard in front of the pickets, in the direction of the creek. They seemed like the stealthy movements of men. Now a sentinel fired, the bugles sounded for the horse patrols to come in, and the whole force was quickly got ready for the coming enemy. But no enemy appeared. Soon after another sentinel fired, and word came that an unseen foe was moving in the swamp. The troops faced in this direction, and waited anxiously for the coming of dawn. Suddenly the line of sentinels in their rear fire in succession. The enemy had undoubtedly gained the road behind them, and were marching on them from that direction. The line again faced round. Lee went along it, telling his men that there was nothing left but to fight, and bidding them to sustain the high reputation which they had long since won. The cavalry were ordered not to pursue a flying force, for the country was well suited for concealment, and they might be tempted into an ambuscade.
When day broke the whole column advanced with great caution, infantry in front, baggage in centre, cavalry in rear. Where was the foe? None appeared. The van officer carefully examined the road for an enemy's trail. To his surprise and amusement, he found only the tracks of a large pack of wolves.
These animals had been attempting to pass the camp at point after point, turned from each point by the fire of the sentinels, and trying the line on all sides. Great merriment followed, in which pickets, patrols, and the officer of the day were made the butt of the ridicule of the whole force.
We shall close with one interesting story in which Marion played the leading part, but which is distinguished by an example of womanly patriotism worthy of the highest praise. The mansion of Mrs. Rebecca Motte, a rich widow of South Carolina, had been taken possession of by the British authorities, she being obliged to take up her residence in a farm-house on her lands. The large mansion was converted into a fort, and surrounded by a deep ditch and a high parapet. A garrison of one hundred and fifty men, under Captain McPherson, was stationed here, the place being re-named Fort Motte.
This stronghold was attacked, in May, 1781, by Marion and Lee, then in conjunction. Lee took position at the farm-house, and posted his men on the declivity of the plain on which the fort stood. Marion cast up a mound, placed on it the six-pounder they had brought with them, and prepared to assail the parapet while Lee made his approaches. McPherson had no artillery.
Their approaches were made by a trench from an adjacent ravine. In a few days they were near enough to be justified in demanding a surrender. McPherson refused. The same evening word reached the Americans that Lord Rawdon was approaching. On the following night the light of his camp-fires could be seen on the neighboring hills of the Santee. The garrison saw them as well as the assailants, and were filled with renewed hope.
What was to be done? The besiegers must succeed quickly or retreat. Lee was not long in devising an expedient. The mansion of Mrs. Motte was shingled and the shingles very dry. There had been no rain for several days, and the sun had poured its rays warmly upon them. They might be set on fire. Lee suggested this to Mrs. Motte, with much dread as to how she would receive it. Her acquiescence was so cheerful that his mind was relieved. The patriotic woman expressed herself as ready to make any sacrifice for her country.
Lee told his plan to Marion, who warmly approved it. It was proposed to do the work by means of arrows carrying flaming combustibles. As it proved, however, the only bows and arrows they could find in the camp were very inferior articles.
"They will never do," said Mrs. Motte. "I can provide you with much better. I have in the house an excellent bow and a bundle of arrows, which came from the East Indies. They are at your service."
She hastened from the room, and quickly returned with the weapons, which she handed to Lee as cheerfully as though she looked for some special benefit to herself from their use. Word was sent to McPherson of what was intended, and that Rawdon had not yet crossed the Santee. Immediate surrender would save many lives. The bold commandant still refused.
At midday, from the shelter of the ditch, Nathan Savage, one of Marion's men, shot several flaming arrows at the roof. Two of them struck the dry shingles. Almost instantly these were in a flame. The fire crept along the roof. Soldiers were sent up to extinguish it, but a shot or two from the field-piece drove them down.
There was no longer hope for McPherson. He must surrender, or have his men burned in the fort, or decimated if they should leave it. He hung out the white flag of surrender. The firing ceased; the flames were extinguished; at one o'clock the garrison yielded themselves prisoners. An hour afterwards the victorious and the captive officers were seated at an ample repast at Mrs. Motte's table, presided over by that lady with as much urbanity and grace as though these guests were her especial friends. Since that day Mrs. Motte has been classed among the most patriotic heroines of the Revolution.
This is, perhaps, enough in prose, but the fame of Marion and his men has been fitly enshrined in poetry, and it will not be amiss to quote a verse or two, in conclusion, from Bryant's stirring poem entitled "Song of Marion's Men."
"Our band is few, but true and tried
Our leader frank and bold:
The British soldier trembles
When Marion's name is told.
Our fortress is the good greenwood,
Our tent the cypress-tree;
We know the forest round us,
As seamen know the sea.
We know its walls of thorny vines,
Its glades of reedy grass;
Its safe and silent islands
Within the dark morass.
"Well knows the fair and friendly moon
The band that Marion leads,—
The glitter of their rifles,
The scampering of their steeds.
'Tis life to guide the fiery barb
Across the moonlit plain;
'Tis life to feel the night wind
That lifts his tossing mane.
A moment in the British camp,—
A moment,—and away
Back to the pathless forest
Before the peep of day.
"Grave men there are by broad Santee,
Grave men with hoary hairs;
Their hearts are all with Marion,
For Marion are their prayers.
And lovely ladies greet our band
With kindliest welcoming,
With smiles like those of summer,
And tears like those of spring.
For them we wear these trusty arms,
And lay them down no more
Till we have driven the Briton
Forever from our shore."