Second Account of the Battle of Fort Motte
Fort Motte was the principal depot on the British line of communications between Charleston and the interior of South Carolina. It was located at the point where the Wateree River and the Congaree River merged to form the Santee River. The actual "fort" was the large mansion of Mrs. Rebecca B. Motte. It had been fortified by a stockade, a ditch, and abatis. The fort was garrisoned by 150 British infantry. A small detachment of dragoons had been on a mission of carrying British dispatches to Camden when the Americans attacked. They joined with the garrison for the soon to come battle.
The fort commander was Lt. Col. Donald McPherson. On May 8, Maj. Gen. Francis Marion and Lt. Col. Henry Lee arrived at Fort Motte. They had their force to start regular approaches to the fort. The American headquarters was set up at a nearby farmhouse where mrs. Motte had been using since the British took over her mansion.
On May 10, the call for surrender was sent to the fort and McPherson refused the request. That evening, the Marion and Lee learned that Lt. Col. Francis Rawdon was heading towards Fort Motte from Camden.
On May 11, with beacon fires used during the morning and evening hours, the British were encouraged and they told the Americans that they had better take the fort quickly or abandon their plans. After attempts of regular approaches and with Rawdon approaching, Lee decided to fire flaming arrows onto the fort's shingle roof and burn the British out. When Mrs. Motte was informed of the plan, she not only did not protest, but even offered up an East Indian bow and a set of arrows.
On May 12, during the morning hours, McPherson was given another chance to surrender, which he again refused to do. By noon, the American trenches were close enough for 2 flaming arrows to be fired onto the roof. When McPherson sent a few of his men to the roof to put out the fires, American cannon fire drove them off.
At 1:00 P.M., a white flag had appeared from the fort. Marion accepted the British surrender and let the them go to the roof to put out the fires. After the mansion was emptied of soldiers, Mrs. Motte invited both the American and British officers to a good dinner at her own table. Maj. Gen. nathanael Greene arrived at the fort, having been worried about finishing the operation before Rawdon could arrive and give aid to McPherson.
The British prisoners were paroled and the British officers joined Rawdon at Nelson's Ferry on the Santee River.
Mrs Motte, a Patriot not only accepted Lee's plan, but offered up her own set of bow and arrows. Marion's artillery fire added to the desperation of the British and, by 1:00 that afternoon, Lt. McPherson surrendered the garrison to the Patriots.
Fort Motte, the scene of the occurrence which so strikingly displayed the patriotism of one of South Carolina's daughters, stood on the south side of the Congaree river. The height commands a beautiful view, several miles in extent, of sloping fields, sprinkled with young pines, and green with broom grass or the corn or cotton crops; of sheltered valleys and wooded hills, with the dark pine ridge defined against the sky. The steep overlooks the swamp land through which the river flows; and that may be seen to a great distance, winding, like a bright thread, between the sombre forests.
After the abandonment of Camden to the Americans, Lord Rawdon, anxious to maintain his posts, directed his first effort to relieve Fort Motte, at the time invested by Marion and Lee. This fort, which commanded the river, was the principal depôt of the convoys from Charleston to Camden and the upper districts. It was occupied by a garrison under the command of Captain M'Pherson, of one hundred and sixty-five men, having been increased by a small detachment of dragoons from Charleston, a few hours before the appearance of the Americans. The large new mansion-house belonging to Mrs. Motte, which had been selected for the establishment of the post, was surrounded by a deep trench, along the interior margin of which was raised a strong and lofty parapet. Opposite, and northward, upon another hill, was an old farm-house, to which Mrs. Motte had removed when dismissed from her mansion. On this height Lieutenant Colonel Lee had taken position with his force; while Marion occupied the eastern declivity of the ridge on which the fort stood; the valley running between the two hills permitting the Americans to approach it within four hundred yards.
McPherson was unprovided with artillery, but hoped to be relieved by the arrival of Lord Rawdon to dislodge the assailants before they could push their preparations to maturity. He therefore replied to the summons to surrender, which came on the 20th May, about a year after the victorious British had taken possession of Charleston, that he should hold out to the last moment in his power.
The besiegers had carried on their approaches rapidly, by relays of working parties; and aware of the advance of Rawdon with all his force, had every motive for perseverance. In the night a courier arrived from General Greene, to advise them of Rawdon's retreat from Camden, and urge redoubled activity; and Marion persevered through the hours of darkness in pressing the completion of their works. The following night Lord Rawdon encamped on the highest ground in the country opposite Fort Motte; and the despairing garrison saw with joy the illumination of his fires; while the Americans were convinced that no time was to be lost.
The large house in the centre of the encircling trench left but a few yards of ground within the British works uncovered; burning the mansion, therefore, must compel the surrender of the garrison. This expedient was reluctantly resolved upon by Marion and Lee, who, unwilling under any circumstances to destroy private property, felt the duty to be much more painful in the present case. It was the summer residence of the owner, whose deceased husband had been a firm friend to his country, and whose daughter (Mrs. Pinckney) was the wife of a gallant officer, then a prisoner in the hands of the British. Lee had made Mrs. Motte's dwelling his quarters, at her pressing invitation, and with his officers had shared her liberal hospitality. Not satisfied with polite attention to the officers, while they were entertained at her luxurious table, she had attended with active benevolence to the sick and wounded, soothed the infirm with kind sympathy, and animated the desponding to hope. It was thus not without deep regret that the commanders determined on the sacrifice, and the Lieutenant Colonel found himself compelled to inform Mrs. Motte of the unavoidable necessity of the destruction of her property.
The smile with which the communication was received, gave instant relief to the embarrassed officer. Mrs. Motte not only assented, but declared that she was "gratified with the opportunity of contributing to the good of her country, and should view the approaching scene with delight." Shortly after, seeing by accident the bow and arrows which had been prepared to carry combustible matter, she sent for Lee, and presenting him with a bow and its apparatus, which had been imported from India, requested his substitution of them, as better adapted for the object than those provided.
Every thing was now prepared for the concluding scene. The lines were manned, and an additional force stationed at the battery to meet a desperate assault, if such should be made. The American entrenchments being within arrow shot, M'Pherson was once more summoned, and again more confidently - for help was at hand - asserted his determination to resist to the last.
The scorching rays of the noon-day sun had prepared the shingle roof for the conflagration. The return of the flag was immediately followed by the shooting of the arrows, to which balls of blazing rosin and brimstone were attached. Simms tells us the bow was put into the hands of Nathan Savage, a private in Marion's brigade. The first struck, and set fire; also the second and third, in different quarters of the roof. M'Pherson immediately ordered men to repair to the loft of the house, and check the flames by knocking off the shingles; but they were soon driven down by the fire of the six pounder; and no other effort to stop the burning being practicable, the commandant hung out the white flag, and surrendered the garrison at discretion.
If ever a situation in real life afforded a fit subject for poetry, by filling the mind with a sense of moral grandeur, it was that of Mrs. Motte contemplating the spectacle of her home in flames, and rejoicing in the triumph secured to her countrymen, the benefit to her native land by her surrender of her own interest to the public service. I have stood upon the spot, and felt that it was indeed classic ground, and consecrated by memories which should thrill the heart of every American. But the beauty of such memories would be marred by the least attempt at ornament; and the simple narrative of that memorable occurrence has more effect to stir the feelings than could a tale artistically framed and glowing with the richest hues of imagination.
After the captors had taken possession, M'Pherson and his officers accompanied them to Mrs. Motte's dwelling, where they sat down together to a sumptuous dinner. Again, in the softened picture, our heroine is the principal figure. She showed herself prepared, not only to give up her splendid mansion to ensure victory to the American arms, but to do her part towards soothing the agitation of the conflict just ended. Her dignified, courteous, and affable deportment adorned the hospitality of her table; she did the honors with that unaffected politeness which wins esteem as well as admiration; and by her conversation, marked with ease, vivacity and good sense, and the engaging kindness of her manners, endeavored to obliterate the recollection of the loss she had been called upon to sustain, and at the same time to remove from the minds of the prisoners the sense of their misfortune.
To the effect of this grace and gentle kindness, is doubtless due much of the generosity exercised by the victors towards those who, according to strict rule, had no right to expect mercy. While at the table, "it was whispered in Marion's ear that Colonel Lee's men were even then engaged in hanging certain of the tory prisoners. Marion instantly hurried from the table, seized his sword, and running with all haste, reached the place of execution in time to rescue one poor wretch from the gallows. Two were already beyond rescue or recovery. With drawn sword, and a degree of indignation in his countenance that spoke more than words, Marion threatened to kill the first man that made any further attempt in such diabolical proceedings
Other incidents in the life of Mrs. Motte, illustrate the same rare energy and firmness of character she evinced on this occasion, with the same disinterested devotion to the American cause. When an attack upon Charleston was apprehended, and every man able to render service was summoned to aid in throwing up intrenchments for the defence of the city, Mrs. Motte, who had lost her husband at an early period of the war, and had no son to perform his duty to the country, despatched a messenger to her plantation, and ordered down to Charleston every male slave capable of work. Providing each, at her own expense, with proper implements, and a soldier's rations, she placed them at the disposal of the officer in command. The value of this unexpected aid was enhanced by the spirit which prompted the patriotic offer.
At different times it was her lot to encounter the presence of the enemy. Surprised by the British at one of her country residences on the Santee, her son-in-law, General Pinckney, who happened to be with her at the time, barely escaped capture by taking refuge in the swamps. It was to avoid such annoyances that she removed to "Buckhead," afterwards called Fort Motte, the neighborhood of which in time became the scene of active operations.
When the British took possession of Charleston, the house in which she resided - still one of the finest in the city - was selected as the head-quarters of Colonels Tarleton and Balfour. From this abode she determined not to be driven; and presided daily at the head of her own table, with a company of thirty British officers. The duties forced upon her were discharged with dignity and grace, while she always replied with becoming spirit to the discourteous taunts frequently uttered in her presence, against her "rebel countrymen." In many scenes of danger and disaster was her fortitude put to the test; yet through all, this noble-spirited woman regarded not her own advantage, hesitating at no sacrifice of her convenience or interest, to promote the general good.
Mrs. Motte's arrows, which have become so famous in history, had been given as a curiosity - being poisoned - by an East India captain to her brother, Miles Brewton. After his loss at sea, they were accidentally put among some household articles belonging to Mrs. Motte, and in her several removals for quiet and security, chanced to be taken to "Buckhead" in the hurried transportation of her effects.
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