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Fort Watson, South Carolina

Fort Watson, South Carolina

FORT WATSON, SOUTH CAROLINA. 15-23 April 1781. The taking of Fort Watson marked the first step in Major General Nathanael Greene's plan to retake a string of British outposts in South Carolina. The successful capture of the fort on 23 April was made possible by Major General Charles Lord Cornwallis's decision not to return to South Carolina following his Pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina. Greene initially chose to pursue Cornwallis as the British commander moved toward Wilmington, North Carolina. At length, however, Greene turned from his pursuit of Cornwallis to march instead toward Camden, South Carolina. As he did so, he detached Lieutenant Colonel Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee and his infantry-cavalry forces to screen against a possible movement of Cornwallis from the direction of Wilmington. Should this threat not materialize, Lee was to join forces with Colonel Francis Marion and capture Fort Watson. With Captain Oldham's company of Maryland regulars, and a small piece of artillery, Lee and his "Legion" joined Marion on 14 April. The next evening they invested Fort Watson. Total forces under Lee's overall leadership numbered approximately 300 men.

Fort Watson was a key link in the British line of communications from Charleston, 60 miles to the southeast. It was named after British Lieutenant Colonel John Watson, of the Third Regiment of Foot (The Buffs), who was somewhere in the area with a large Tory force, chasing after Marion. Fort Watson was a small but strong stockade, surrounded by three rings of abatis (fortifications made of felled trees), and located atop an ancient Indian mound. The mound and its British fort were on the edge of Scott's Lake, part of the Santee River, and effectively in command of the surrounding bare plain. It was between 30 and 50 feet high. In Lieutenant Colonel Watson's absence, Lieutenant James McKay commanded its small garrison of 80 regulars and 40 Loyalists.

Lee and Marion opened their effort against Fort Watson with the customary demand for surrender. When this was refused, the rebels seized the fort's water supply point on the lake. The defenders next dug a well and ran a trench that filled it from the lake. The score was then even. Without siege artillery, however, and with the danger that Lieutenant Colonel Watson might return at any moment to relieve McKay, the situation looked bad for the attackers. Major Hezekiah Maham of Marion's partisans then suggested building a type of tower that was thereafter known by his name and used in other sieges. This was a prefabricated log crib, rectangular in plan, on which a protected platform was built from which riflemen could deliver plunging fire into the fort. It took five days to cut, trim, and notch the logs, but on the dark night of 22 April Maham's tower was carried to within range of the fort. By dawn a company of riflemen started delivering a deadly drizzle of aimed shots into the stockade. At the same time two assault parties attacked the abatis, one composed of militia under Ensign Johnson and another of Lee's Legion infantry. Unable to defend the stockade without exposing themselves to fire from Maham's tower, the garrison had to surrender. The rebels were thus able to take the fort before Lieutenant Colonel Watson could arrive with a British relief force. Total rebel losses amounted to two killed and six wounded.

Fort Watson was the first British fort to be captured in South Carolina, and showed the pattern of Greene's plans to take outposts or any other key point along the British lines of communication. The specific advantage gained was that its capture had the effect of isolating Greene's target, Camden. It showed as well the effectiveness of Greene's practice of combining conventional forces (the troopers of Lee's Legion) with irregular forces (the partisans of Marion's band) in order to achieve an effect greater than either kind of force by itself could have achieved. Finally the Americans demonstrated no little ingenuity in the manner of devising and employing a 'Maham's tower" as a tactical expedient.


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

Russell, David L. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. Jefferson, N.C. and London: McFarland & Company, 2000.

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

                              revised by John Gordon

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