The Swamp Fox and Fort Motte

The Swamp Fox, Francis Marion and Light Horse Harry Lee led a four day siege of Fort Motte. Unable to defeat the defender, it was a local woman’s contribution of a bow and arrows that provided the victory.

Roland Emmerich and Mel Gibson provided us all with one of the best, slightly historical, action movie about the American Revolution: The Patriot. Of course the movie takes plenty of liberties, that’s what adventure movies are for, but there were some measures of truth in the film. Benjamin Martin was inspired by the legendary Swamp Fox, Brigadier General Francis Marion; the American cavalry officer Harry Burwell was inspired by Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee; Colonel Tavington was Colonel Banistre Tarleton, who was himself especially despised by patriots from Virginia to South Carolina. Tarleton had been dispatched in a vain attempt to chase Francis Marion through the swamps. It was even Tarleton who gave Marion the title “the Swamp Fox” to rally loyalists.

At left the Patriot's Benjamin Martin, played by Mel Gibson, courtesy of Columbia Pictures. At right, the historical figure, Francis Marion.
The Patriot’s Colonel Benjamin Martin against the historical Brigadier General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, courtesy of The American Conservative.

But the movie overlooks the ingenuity of the southern patriots. After years of fighting a war of attrition, described by Nathanael Greene’s quote “we rise, get beat, rise, and fight again,” the patriots gained momentum in 1781. By Spring that year, Light Horse Harry and the Swamp Fox were leading successful raids throughout South Carolina. They even commanded the patriot forces in one of the more peculiar battles of the American Revolution: The 1781 Siege of Fort Motte.

Fort Motte

Just as the Swamp Fox was a thorn in the side of the British Army, Fort Motte was thorn in the Americans’ side. It was conveniently located at the centrality between British garrisons Camden, Charleston, and Georgetown in South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia.

Fort Motte was not a military facility. It was first the Motte Plantation, operated by Rebecca Brewton Motte, a patriot woman whose husband had been killed in battle near the start of the war. She had been expelled from her home by the British, but allowed to live in one of the out-buildings to oversee the care of her property.

The British built palisade walls around their fort and kept it well defended through most of the war. It was critical in maintaining the British supply route while Cornwallis, Rawdon, and Clinton all chased Nathanael Greene across the Carolinas.

The Swamp Fox and Light Horse Harry Besiege Fort Motte

Before the start of the siege, the Swamp Fox had 150 men at his command. He was aided by Colonel “Light Horse Harry” Henry Lee (father of Robert E. Lee) and his famous dragoon unit, “Lee’s Legion” of 400 men.

With the British reeling from their “victory” at Guildford Courthouse, North Carolina, Francis Marion and Harry Lee moved to defeat the British garrisons in the Carolina low country. This would divide the British ports at Charleston and Georgetown from Cornwallis’ forces to the northwest. Neither Marion nor Lee had artillery pieces suitable for the job; they had one small cannon, a six-pounder.

The Swamp Fox and Light Horse Harry were guerilla tacticians, not siege warfare commanders. That April, they had defeated a small British stockade, Fort Watson, in just eight days, but that was more of a fluke than a well-planned battle. And unlike Fort Watson, if Motte held out long enough, Lord Rawdon was certain to bring his British Regulars to relieve the fort. Time was not on the patriots’ side.

The first plan to break Fort Motte’s defenses was to build a siege tower. Patriot sharpshooters would then be able to shoot down on the fort. That plan worked at Fort Watson, but it was quickly deemed unfeasible for Motte because the fort had the high ground. For the first few days of the siege, the Americans were simply cutting off British movement around the fort.

While the patriots were unable to defeat the defenses, they occasionally attempted to demand the British surrender. But the plucky British defenders chose instead to mock them in response. On the evening of the 11th, the British lit signal beacons to call for aid from Lord Rawdon’s army. With that, they began to taunt the Patriots and even called for them to surrender before Rawdon’s impending arrival.

The French guard in the British comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail makes taunting gestures.
From flipping the French the middle finger before battle to Fort Motte, and on to Monty Python, the British have a long history of combat mockery

Rebecca Motte Presents a New Plan

The British signal beacons brought new urgency to the patriots. Harry Lee ordered the fort be set ablaze as the final effort for victory, but there were no feasible options to accomplish this. Out from her temporary residence, Mrs. Motte walked to the American lines, armed with a bow and arrows bought for her family from the East Indies as a decorative piece. As she brought the tools for the job, she was certainly the strategist behind the military success at Fort Motte: flaming arrows.

The arrows were packed with flammable resin and one of Marion’s militiamen was elected to be the patriots’ designated archer. Private Nathan Savage fired the flaming arrows at the fort, setting fires to three buildings within the walls, including the plantation house. When the British soldiers came out and formed their bucket brigades, the patriots fired the 6-pounder on them.

Drawing depicts Rebecca Motte presenting Col. "Light Horse Harry" Lee a bow and quiver of arrows for the siege of Fort Motte
Rebecca Motte presents Light Horse Harry Lee with a bow and a quiver of arrows from the East Indies

The Victory at Fort Motte

The combination of medieval and modern warfare did the trick. The British commander of the fort, Captain McPherson surrendered that same day. With the white flag raised, the Americans entered the fort and assisted the British in saving Mrs. Motte’s plantation. To celebrate her rescued plantation and a battle with only two wounded patriots, Mrs. Motte cooked a lovely meal. To show there were no hard feelings, the British officers were invited to dine with her, Francis, and Light Horse Harry.

The patriots were concerned about Lord Rawdon’s troops camp less than a day away. They planned to escort the 140 British prisoners to Georgetown as neither Marion nor Lee had the means to keep the British prisoner. Lee dispatched a company of his men to escort the British. En route, the British soldiers rebelled against their captors at Drowning Creek and escaped to Lord Rawdon’s camp.

After the Siege

With the victory at Fort Motte, the Americans fractured the British capability to safely delivery supplies and communications. Lee’s Legion joined Elijah Clarke and Andrew Pickens for the Siege of Augusta on May 22. Meanwhile, General Nathanael Greene commanded the Siege of Ninety Six. These victories led the way for the Battle Eutaw Springs that September, which finally defeated the British in deep southern theater of the Revolution.

Soon after the Siege of Fort Motte, Francis Marion was elected to the South Carolina State Assembly. Light Horse Harry Lee joined Washington’s army in Virginia and was present at Cornwallis’ surrender. He departed the army soon after. He was a confidant of Washington’s and Greene’s, and had a long line of battlefield victories throughout the war, but ostracized by his fellow officers and became resentful for it. Harry Lee entered politics and was occasionally called back into service by both President Washington and later by President Jefferson when the US was on the brink of another war with Great Britain.

Despite the Americans liberating her plantation, the war bankrupted Rebecca Motte. The year before the siege, she had armed her slaves and sent them to join the patriot forces when the British besieged Charleston. She struggled to keep her plantation in working order and began to incur heavy debts. Undeterred, she managed to pay off her debt and, upon her death in 1815, willed a profitable estate to her family.

*****

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