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Fort Motte, South Carolina

Fort Motte, South Carolina

FORT MOTTE, SOUTH CAROLINA. 12 May 1781. Fort Mott was a key British outpost in South Carolina that was captured through the cooperative efforts of Lieutenant Colonel Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee's legion of cavalry and infantry and Colonel Francis Marion's band of South Carolina partisans. Recognizing the importance of the back-country guerrilla war to American hopes for victory, the commander in the South, Major General Nathanael Greene, had sent Lee—father of Civil War Confederate general Robert E. Lee—to reinforce Marion. Fort Motte was a strategic point because it was located where the Congaree and Wateree Rivers join to form the Santee River. The fort served as the principal depot on the British line of communications between Charleston and the interior. The position comprised the large mansion of a widow, Mrs. Rebecca Brewton Motte, which had been commandeered by the British against her will. The mansion's defenses were strengthened by the addition of a stockade, ditch, and abatis (a fortification made of felled brush and trees). It was held by British Lieutenant Donald McPherson with 150 British and Hessian infantry and a small detachment of dragoons who had been passing through from Charleston with dispatches destined for Camden.

Lee and Marion had just successfully completed their maneuvers against Fort Watson and, on 8 May, started regular approaches against Fort Motte. Lee's forces numbered 100 cavalry and nearly the same number of infantry. Marion's partisan force amounted to just over 100 men. A surrender summons sent to the fort's commander on 10 May was refused. That evening the rebels received information that Colonel Francis, Lord Rawdon was retreating toward Fort Motte from Camden. British beacon fires spotted during the morning and evening of 11 May encouraged the defenders and told the attackers they would have to take the place quickly or abandon the operation.

Lee conceived the idea of setting fire to the Motte mansion by firing flaming arrows onto the shingle roof, which was dry after a period of sunny weather. Mrs. Motte, who had been displaced by the British when they took over her home, was now living in the nearby farmhouse from which Lee and Marion were directing their siege. When she was informed that this decision had reluctantly been made, she not only accepted the fact but produced a fine Indian bow and bundle of arrows. The morning of 12 May, Dr. Irvine of Lee's Legion advanced with a flag to inform McPherson that Rawdon was not yet across the Santee River and to request his surrender. The British commander again refused. By noon the rebel trench was within range and Private Nathan Savage of Marion's Brigade dropped two flaming arrows onto the roof of the mansion. When enemy soldiers tried to extinguish the flames, they were driven off the roof by the Americans' artillery and rifle fire. The British showed a white flag, the fire was put out, and the garrison surrendered at 1 p.m. Only Marion's partisan forces suffered losses during the siege: a Lieutenant Cruger and a Sergeant McDonald. No others were killed on either side of the confrontation.

Mrs. Motte, ever the lady of the plantation, provided a splendid dinner for the officers of both sides. Greene arrived on the evening of the surrender, having been worried about completing this operation before Rawdon could intervene. He returned to his camp after ordering Lee to go on to take Fort Granby and sending Marion to take Georgetown.

The capture of Fort Motte showed the ability of the rebels to capture British outposts or any key point along the lines of communications. It also showed the wisdom of Greene's strategy of combining conventional forces (the Continental troopers of Lee's Legion) with irregular forces (Marion's partisans) in order to achieve an effect greater than either kind of force by itself could have achieved.

SEE ALSO African Arrows; Greene, Nathanael; Lee, Henry ("Light-Horse Harry"); Marion, Francis.


Gordon, John W. South Carolina and the American Revolution: A BattlefieldHistory. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina, 2003.

Weigley, Russell F. The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780–1782. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina, 1970.

Wright, Robert K. The Continental Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U. S. Army, 2000.

                         revised by John Gordon

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