The lull in the tempest of war was brief. To aid the Southern patriots, Washington had sent the Baron De Kalb, with Maryland and Delaware troops, to help Lincoln at Charleston. He was a brave but slow moving French officer, about sixty years of age, who accompanied Lafayette to this country, and was commissioned a major-general by the Congress, in September, 1777. He was yet in Virginia, whose leading men were making noble sacrifices to strengthen him, when he heard of the surrender of Charleston, and it was late in June when he entered North Carolina. By the capture of Lincoln, De Kalb became commander-in-chief of the army in the South, a position which he was not competent to fill with efficiency. Washington desired to have General Greene succeed Lincoln, but the Congress, yielding to the importunities of the friends of Gates, procured his appointment to that difficult position. That body gave the favorite orders to act independently, and to report directly to them. He was gratified by the trust reposed in him, and joined De Kalb on the 25th of July. The prospect before him was far from flattering. An army without strength; a military chest without money; an inefficient commissary department; a climate unfavorable to health; the spirit of the republicans cast down; loyalists and timid patriots swarming in every direction, and a victorious enemy pressing on to spread his legions over the territory Gates had come to defend, were the grave obstacles to success before him. But the approach of the "conqueror of Burgoyne," who was yet surrounded by the glory of that event, inspirited the republicans of the South. Sumter, Marion, Pickens and Clarke, brave and skillful, true and persistent partisan leaders in Carolina and Georgia, summoned their fellow-patriots to the field. Seeing how lightly the invaders regarded their solemn pledges, the republicans, renouncing their "paroles" and "protections," flocked to the standards of these brave partisans, and prepared the way for Gates. They swept over the country with celerity, in small bands, striking British detachments here or a company of Tories there, such unexpected, sharp, quick and decisive blows that the enemy, alarmed and perplexed, was checked in their invading march into the interior.
General Thomas Sumter now first appeared in power on the borders of the Catawba River. The Whigs, following local leaders, had already assailed the enemy at different points between the Catawba and Broad rivers. Sumter, meanwhile, had gathered a considerable force, and on the 30th of July (1780) he attacked a British post at Rocky Mount, on the right bank of the Catawba, where he was repulsed but not disheartened. He crossed the river and fell upon another British post under Major Careen at Hanging Rock, a few miles eastward, on the 6th of August. A large body of British and Tories were there. They were at first dispersed; but Sumter's men, seeking plunder, and drinking the liquors found in the camp after they had secured it, lost the victory through separation and intoxication. The ranks of the patriots became disordered. The enemy rallied, and a very severe contest ensued. The British were reinforced, and Sumter was compelled to retreat. But he had handled his enemy so severely, that he did not attempt to follow. In the meantime Colonel Francis Marion (soon afterward a brigadier-general), a soldier of the French and Indian war, a hero at Fort Sullivan in 1776, a brave combatant at Savannah in 1779, and an active partisan leader in his native State (South Carolina) afterward, was smiting the enemy with sudden and fierce blows among the swamps in the low country, on the borders of the Pewee. So brave and wily were these partisans, that the British called Sumter "The Carolina Game-Cock," and Marion "The Swamp Fox." The latter was one of the most noted and beloved of the partisan leaders in that struggle, and was more feared by the British and Tories in the South than any other, for they never knew where he was until they felt his blows. He was
"A moment in the British camp-- A moment--and away Back to the pathless forest, Before the break of day."
At the same time Colonel Andrew Pickens was annoying Cruger in the neighborhood of Ninety-Six and the waters of the Saluda, and Colonel Elijah Clarke was calling for the patriots of the country along the Savannah, Gouache, and Alabama, to drive Brown from Augusta.
On the morning of the 27th of July, General Gates, after sending Marion toward the interior of South Carolina, put his "grand army," as he called his forces, in motion, by the shortest route toward Camden. He was speedily joined by Colonel Porterfield with Virginians, and by North Carolinians under Colonel Caswell in the east, and Rutherford in the west. The British officers were perplexed. Clinton had left Cornwallis in chief command in the south, and the latter had entrusted the leadership of his troops on the Santee to Lord Rawdon, an active and meritorious officer. With these gathering legions in the north and the active Sumter and Marion on their flanks, the British were certainly in a perilous position. Major McArthur, who was on the Cheraw Hills to encourage the Loyalists, called in his detachments, and with his whole force hastened to join Rawdon at Camden. Cornwallis, perceiving the gathering storm on the borders of South Carolina, hastened to Camden to join Rawdon, and reached that village on the same day (August 14) when Gates advanced and took post at Clermont. There the latter was joined by seven hundred Virginia militia under General Stevens; and he felt so sure of victory, that he did not prepare for a retreat by appointing a place of rendezvous. It was a fatal blunder. On the same day Gates weakened his army by sending to Sumter a detachment to assist in intercepting a convoy of supplies on their way from Ninety-Six, to Rawdon; and on the evening of the 15th he marched to attack the latter with a little more than three thousand men. He would listen to no advice from his officers, but began his march, confidently, before a proper disposition of his baggage in the rear had been made. Cornwallis had left Camden to meet Gates, at about the same time. The road was very sandy, and foot-falls could not be easily heard. The vanguards of the belligerents met, between two and three o'clock in the morning, on a gentle slope a little north of Sanders's Creek, that runs through a swamp, nearly eight miles from Camden. It was a mutual surprise, for neither party knew that the other had struck his tents. Both began firing at the same time. Some of Colonel Armand's troops, who led the van, were killed, and the remainder fell back in disorder upon the first Maryland brigade, and broke its line. The whole army were filled with consternation, and would have fled but for the wisdom and skill of Porterfield, who, in rallying them, was mortally wounded. Both armies halted, when it was perceived that the British had the advantage, having crossed the small creek, and being protected by an impenetrable swamp on their flanks and rear.
Both parties anxiously awaited the dawn, and prepared for battle. The right of the British line was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Webster, and the left by Lord Rawdon. De Kalb commanded the American right, and General Stevens the left, and the centre was composed of North Carolinians under Colonel Caswell. A second line was formed by the first Maryland brigade led by General Smallwood.
The battle was opened by American artillery. The war of cannon was followed by an advance to the attack by some volunteers under Colonel Otho H. Williams and Stevens's militia. The latter had been given bayonets only the day before, and were now ordered to rely upon them chiefly. They did not know how to use them. The veteran British troops, led by Webster, fell upon these raw recruits, when the latter threw down their muskets and fled to the woods for shelter. Then Webster attacked the Maryland Continentals, who fought gallantly until they were outflanked, when they, also, gave way. Twice they were rallied, but finally retreated, when the brunt of the battle fell upon the Maryland and Delaware troops, led by DeKalb, assisted by General Gist, Colonel Howard, and Captain Kirkwood. They fought desperately and were almost in possession of victory, when Cornwallis sent against them some fresh dragoons and infantry that turned the tide. De Kalb was so badly wounded that he died three days afterward.
Gates's whole army was utterly routed and dispersed, and he was the most expert of the fugitives in running away. He abandoned his army, and with Caswell fled to Clermont in advance of any of his flying troops. Thence he hastened to Charlotte where he left Caswell, and then hurried on to Hills-borough. In this ignoble flight, he rode about two hundred miles in three days and a half. He had lost about a thousand men in killed, wounded, and prisoners; the British loss was less than five hundred. In the meantime, Sumter had been successful in capturing the convoy alluded to, with about forty wagons and their contents. He was now at the head of the largest body of republican troops in South Carolina. On hearing of Gates's defeat, he marched up the Wateree to the mouth of the Fishing Creek and encamped; and there at mid-day, on the 18th of August (1780), he was surprised by some of Tarleton's cavalry. About three hundred and fifty of his men were killed or made prisoners, and the British captives and wagons were retaken. Sumter escaped in such haste that he rode into Charlotte without hat or saddle.
The defeat of Sumter's band made the victory of Cornwallis complete. The hopes of the patriots were almost extinguished. Within the space of three months, two republican armies had been almost annihilated by capture or dispersion; and the earl, regarding the full and final subjugation of South Carolina as accomplished, moved toward the North State accompanied by Martin, a former royal governor of North Carolina, who assured him that the people there would rise to welcome him. Had Cornwallis been guided by good judgment and humanity, the conquest of South Carolina, and the restoration of North Carolina to a loyal condition, might have been permanent; for the former State swarmed with Tories, and the republicans were weary of the unequal contest. But following the wicked suggestions of Martin and the sanguinary Tarleton, and animated by the cruel instructions from Germain, he proposed to establish a system of revolting terrorism. He put military despotism in place of civil law, and treated the people as slaves having no rights which he was bound to respect. He ordered all militiamen who had served in Loyalist corps and were afterward found in arms against the king, to be hanged without mercy. He gave full license to Tories to execute these orders. Private rights were everywhere trampled under-foot. Property was wantonly destroyed by fire and violence; the chastity of women was set at naught; plunder was universal; and Whigs, both men and women, cultivated and tenderly reared, were hunted by the ravenous Tory wolves as legitimate prey to their worst passions. These ruthless measures created the most intense hatred. The people revolted and thirsted for vengeance. They only awaited the appearance of good leaders, to fly to arms and rid the country of their oppressors. Only Marion was then in the field, untrammeled by any parole. Governor Rutledge had commissioned him a brigadier, and with his famous brigade of ragged followers, he performed those deeds for the redemption of South Carolina which have made his name immortal.
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