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The Grand Republican
 
ESSAYS, etc.

The Battle of Fort Watson, South Carolina, April 1781

By C.W. Watson

"Major" and "minor" are adjectives which have special meaning to
composers and professional baseball players. They are also popular with
historians, who like to attach them to such nouns as "event" or "battle."
But they are highly subjective terms at best. Loosely--and, perhaps,
frivolously--defined, a major battle or event is one in which the writer or
observer took part. A minor one involved someone else. The point being that
the observer's own perspective often has much to do with determining the
relative importance, criticality, or historical significance of an event.
The result is that incidents which are important--or even just interesting
--are often lost in the historical shuffle. To pursue the issue, wars are
made up of myriad actions, big and small, involving people who earnestly
believe that the fight they are engaged in at the moment is very important,
indeed. Commonly, many will never take part in another, and to them at least
it was the most important engagement in history, even if it was not so
recognized by anyone else. It may be axiomatic to say that history is
written by the victors. If so, the corollary is that it is also written by
the survivors... who may have had a rather different view of things than the
non-survivors.

The history of the American War for Independence is replete with accounts
of "minor" small-unit actions which often involved extraordinary intrepidity
on one side or the other (and frequently both), in which men died, and
which, taken together, were critical in turning the tide against the British
forces in North America. Such an action was the capture, on 23 April 1781,
of Fort Watson on the Santee River in South Carolina by American forces under
the command of Brigadier General Francis Marion and Lieutenant Colonel Henry
("Light Horse Harry") Lee, father of Robert E. Lee.

The West Point Atlas of American Wars , that Michelin Guide in battle
dress, depicts all of the major engagements fought by Americans since 1639,
and many of the minor ones as well. The fight at Watson's Fort is mentioned
very briefly in the text of the atlas, but it is not depicted at all on the
battle maps, although the location of the fort is shown. Despite this
omission, it is fair to say that the capture of the fort was important to
the war in the South and, in addition, that the battle provided a fine view
in microcosm of the War for Independence; an excellent case study of siege
operations conducted on a shoestring; and an intriguing record of the
appearance of a military innovation, the Maham tower. In tactical terms, it
enabled the Americans to interdict the lines of communication between the
British headquarters at Charleston and their forces in the interior,
especially at Camden, South Carolina (or "Cambden," as Lt Col Lee insisted on
spelling it).

Fort Watson had been built in December 1780 and January 1781 by Colonel
John W.T. Watson to secure British land and river traffic between the coast
and the upcountry of South Carolina. Watson, who had volunteered for duty in
the South, was in command of a battalion of provincial light infantry in the
service of King George III. Upon assuming his post, he was informed by Lt
Col Nisbet Balfour, the British commandant in Charleston, that eastern South
Carolina was his "front," and that he should "consider Camden on his left and
Georgetown on his right" to be his flanks. The straight-line distance
between the two towns is almost exactly one hundred miles, equal to the
distance between Paris and the English Channel or between London and
Birmingham. In modern warfare, several field armies or an army group might
be assigned such a front. Watson had a battalion, later reinforced, as he
noted, with "the 64th Regiment, from its services... reduced in numbers," an
indication, perhaps, of the general condition of the British forces in the
waning months of the war. In any case, he chose a site for his fort which,
though nearly half a mile from the river and slightly farther from the
Charleston-Camden road, was atop a dominant terrain feature commanding the
surrounding region, which he described as "one continual wood... and
universally flat." From it, his three-pounders might control movement on the
river or the road, and his troops could sally forth to patrol the area. "Our
first objective," Watson later wrote, "... was to look... for some spot in
the vicinity of a weak point on the River, which might be rendered secure
for a Time, with a few Men, and having found a place, we scarp'd it,
stockaded it at the top, abattis'd it at bottom, and rendered it as stong as
the materials we could collect and the only utensils we had, our Tomahawks,
would admit." Indeed, Fort Watson, as early legend and recent archaeology
indicate, was built on top of a large Indian burial mound, said by one source
to have been the "sepulchre of the late Indian King of the Santees, a Man of
Great Power... dreaded by the Neighbouring Nations for his great Valour and
Conduct...." The site may have been occupied by the Santees as late as 1701,
but by the time of the war the Indians had long since migrated westward. In
any case, the position was a good one from a military standpoint--looming
thirty to forty feet above the surrounding plain--and the fort might, with
better planning and preparation, have withstood a protracted siege.

As often happens in warfare, however, a combination of circumstanes and
events had doomed the fort before the first shot was fired there on 15 April
1781. For example, Col. Watson found upon assuming comand that he was short
of ammunition and transport, totally without mounted trooops or even horses
(save the one that he had purchased for himself), and surrounded by a
numerically superior enemy whose fortunes were improving daily. As if that
were not enough, Lord Rawdon, British commander in the area, warned Watson
that the irregular forces he could expect to encounter were those of Marion
and Brigadier General Thomas Sumter, two formidable American commanders.
And, as Watson later wrote, "His Lordship added instrucitions that I was to
seek and fight them wherever they were found."

Largely as a result of his own efforts and his appeals to higher
headquarters, Watson was able to add twenty provincial horsemen and a small
cannon to his meager force. And, in time, his command was augmented by the
addition of British regulars. He then was able to fight several skirmishes
in the vicinity of the fort, including one in which he recaptured a shipment
of British stores and the baggage of the 63rd and 64th Regiments of Foot,
which had been seized by Sumter as they were enroute to Camden. In another
colorful "minor" incident, on 27 February a small detachment of Watson's
troops under the command of a young ensign named Cooper was attacked by
Sumter and quickly surrounded. But, as Watson reported with evident
satisfaction, "... Sumpter (sic )... called to him to surrender--but forming
his men in a Circle around the tree nearest him, he replied ' light infantry
never surrender ' and they began firing as hard as they could...." Cooper's
small force was rescued by a relief column hastily sent from the fort and he
was subsequently meniton in dispatches.

In an effort to engage Marion and Sumter, who were operating in the
vicinity, Watson decided to take his augmented force into the field in early
April. Leaving behind forty men "who seemed least qualified for the
severity of our marches," Watson entrusted command of the fort to Lieutenant
James McKay, whom he described as "a very good officer." With him, he took
the fort's two field pieces. Their absence would be pivotal in the events
that followed.

On 14 April, Marion and Lee rendezvoused at the Santee and, on the
following day, attacked Fort Watson. Since there was no source of water in
the fort, and since the sudden advance of the Americans had taken McKay by
surprise, Marion had every reason to expect a short siege. However, McKay
was not prepared to surrender without a fight. When an emissary from the
American commander delivered a surrender demand under flag of truce, McKay
replied to Marion, as though writing for posterity (as, in fact, he was ),
"... that a British officer commanded and they never timidly surrendered
posts--if they wanted it, they must come to take it." The battle, thus
joined, continued indecisively for several days, with the Americans
commencing construction of siege works, an operation greatly hampered by
their lack of entranching tools. Meanwhile, McKay's troops began digging a
well outside the walls of the fort under cover of darkness. By the 19th, the
well was completed and a covered passage constructed which made it possible
to reach the water with minimal risk. The British were also able to bring
some provisions into the fort despite the fact that Marion and Lee had
invested it on the first day of the action.

The siege continued with desultory firing, in which McKay was twice
wounded. It appeared to both sides that neither had the means to force the
issue, though time seemed to be on the side of the defenders, who hoped for
the arrival of a relief force (much as their comrades were to do--with more
success--at Ninety-Six, South Carolina, two months later). Indeed, the
prospects for the American attackers--once so sure of victory--seemed bleak.
As Henry Lee observed in his 1812 reminiscences, Memoirs of the War in the
Southern Department of the United States , "Baffled in their expectation
[of McKay's prompt surrender] and destitute of both artillery and intrenching
tools, Marion and Lee despaired of success." (Note: Lee habitually referred
to himself in the third person)

On 20 April, Lt. Col. Hezekiah Maham, one of Marion's South Carolinians,
suggested that the stalemate could be broken if a tower were constructed from
which the American troops could fire down into the fort. One senses the
relief in Lee's comment that Maham's plan was "not sooner communicated than
gratefully adopted." McKay noted laconically in his journal on the 21st that
the Americans "in the afternoon brought down a Wooden Machine which they had
built, and were busy in raising a Scaffold made of Rails and Mold, nearly
level with the top of our works for their Marksmen to pick off our
Centinels...." His response to the threat was to deepen the interior
trenches of the fort and to erect a traverse, or protective wall, on the
northwest side, facing the tower.

On 23 April, General Nathanael Greene wrote to Sumter communicating his
pessimism about what he apparently viewed as a standoff at Fort Watson:

General Marion and Col Lee are at Nelson's Ferry [Note: the
location of the fort is variously identified as Vance's Ferry,
Nelson's Ferry, Wright's Bluff, and Scott's Lake], they have
closely invested the
fort at that place upon the lake, but for want of cannon I am not
a little afraid they will fail of success, as the Garrison
appears
to be well supplied with provisions, and the situation don't
admit
of storming the works.

Contrary to Greene's gloomy assessment, the battle was, at that very
moment, being won by American troops. Having manned the tower with a
detachment of riflemen, Marion prepared an attack on both the northwest and
southeast walls. However, before launching the final assault he once again
offered McKay the chance to surrender honorably. Faced with a hopeless
tactical situation and what he described as "the Cowardly and Mutinous
behaviour of A majority of the men--having grounded their arms and refused to
defend the Post any longer," McKay agreed to the generous terms offered by
Marion. Under the surrender agreement, McKay and his officers were granted
their parole to await exchange, and the Loyalist irregulars were given the
status of prisoners of war. McKay could scarcely have hoped for better terms
under the circumstances. Casualties on both sides were remarkably light,
with Marion reporting, "...our loss on this occasion, two killed and three
continentals and three militia wounded." After the departure of the
British, Marion's and Lee's troops razed the fort. They then moved on to
other actions, including, in Lee's case, the Siege of Ninety-Six, from 22 May
to 19 June 1781, in which the Maham tower was used again, but with far less
favorable results than at Fort Watson.

Fortunately, owing to its unusual siting and the long-time interest in
the burial mound on which it was built, the remains of the fort survived
almost intact for nearly two hundred years. When scholars from the Institute
of Archaeology and Anthropolgy of the University of South Carolina worked the
site in 1972 and 1973, they found it to be nearly untouched. It is to their
study of the site and the thousands of artifacts found there that we owe much
of our specific knowledge of the fort and the battle which took place there.
Contemporary accounts, for instance, make no reference to the location of the
Maham tower, but the archaeologists have been able to fix its location at
the northwest wall of the fort. Thus, the evidence from the soil, combined
with contemporary source materials, has given us a fairly accurate picture of
one of the many "minor" combats which took place in the South during the War
for Independence. It is a picture of talented, courageous, and dedicated
men fighting a difficult war under the most trying conditions, and in most
cases doing it in such a way that they could, without fear of history's
reproach, write truthfully and frankly of their experiences.