In 1778 it was clear to the British that three years of fighting in New England and the Mid-Atlantic had settled nothing. Loyalist uprisings that were expected in places like New York and Pennsylvania had not materialized. France had intervened on the side of the United States, convincing the British to hunker down in the North while focusing their naval efforts in the West Indies and probing for American weaknesses elsewhere. They thought the soft underbelly would prove to be in the South, where loyalist sentiments were strong and patriot military forces were weak and scattered. They didn’t count on people like Rebecca Motte, whose show of courage during a standoff at her South Carolina home in the spring of 1781 offered a lesson in patriotism and resolve.
In December 1778 a British expedition captured Savannah, Ga. It was to be the first step in a campaign to conquer the entire region. Instead, it touched of America’s first civil war, as patriot and loyalist militias, sometimes fighting beside soldiers of the American and British armies, squared off against each other in a fierce contest for control of the South. Militiamen rarely wore uniforms, and their rationales for fighting could be obscure. True, many fought because they disagreed over whether to form a new nation independent from Great Britain. But some fought because they had personal, social or economic grievances or because they had private scores to settle. Others sought to protect their families and homes. More than a few probably just aimed for plunder. Whatever the motivation, the results were tragic. Hollywood storytelling aside, British redcoats weren’t the worst perpetrators of violence in the Southern war. Most atrocities there were committed by Americans against Americans.
Between 1778 and 1783 the South was torn apart by its own people. Villages were destroyed, farms torched, crops ruined and families dislocated. Starvation and disease claimed many victims. Slaves, caught between the warring factions, perhaps suffered more than anyone, but their hardships went little noticed. Women and children faced not just the loss of male breadwinners but also the constant menace of roving bands of armed men who might or might not be friendly.
Legend has it that the Southern war was a contest of rich versus poor—of arrogant, wealthy coastal planters (loyalists) seeking to crush hardy backwoodsmen (patriots) who fought for freedom and self-determination. Like many legends, this is an over-generalization with some basis in truth. Many of the Low-country elites, such as the “Rice Kings” of Charleston, S.C., who had prospered within the colonial system, had no desire for independence. Many of the patriot gentry who opposed them, however, were also quite wealthy by the standards of their time. And they in turn were resented by poor folk, both Low-country and backcountry, who cast their lot with the king. Frontiersmen and settlers in the rough expanse west of Columbia, especially in Appalachia, certainly resented British policies such as the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that prevented them from invading Indian lands beyond the mountains. But they generally avoided taking sides until their own homes came under threat. Overall, there were plenty of rich, poor and middling folk on both sides.
Fighting near Savannah continued for months as the armies and militias vied for control of the city and surrounding region, including northeast Florida. In autumn 1779 combined French and American forces tried to retake Savannah. The attack ended in disaster, with more than 1,000 French and Americans killed—and proved a boon for Southern loyalists. Americans who had previously hesitated to take sides now flocked to the king’s standard. British authorities urged them to crush discontent in the Southern backcountry and restore royal authority. The loyalists did so with zeal, pushing inland and inflicting a series of small but sharp defeats on patriot militia forces.
Encouraged by these developments, which seemed to promise a possibility of rolling up the entire Eastern Seaboard from the south, British general Henry Clinton now began his campaign to secure the Carolinas and Virginia. He was crowned with success in May 1780, when he captured the city of Charleston and about 5,000 American troops. Loyalists thereupon rampaged into the South Carolina backcountry. Patriot governments in Georgia and South Carolina collapsed, but instead of a peaceful reassertion of royal authority, anarchy ensued. Fighting was constant and civilian suffering immense. The total defeat of General Horatio Gates’ American army by Lord Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden on August 16 sealed the disaster. Far to the north at West Point, N.Y., General George Washington watched in horror as the United States began crumbling before his eyes.
Cornwallis led the main British-loyalist army into North Carolina in the autumn of 1780. As guerrilla warfare raged across hundreds of miles of pine barrens and swamps, dashing and colorful leaders emerged. Among the patriots were General Daniel Morgan with his famed Virginia riflemen; the “Swamp Fox,” General Francis Marion; and Lt. Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, father of future Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Their adversaries included British colonel Banastre Tarleton, commander of the British Legion (also known as Tarleton’s Raiders), and British major Patrick Ferguson, who had invented one of the first breech-loading rifles. Both recruited and led American loyalists. All of these men were talented soldiers. Often they were ruthless. Lee had previously ordered the beheading of American deserters. Tarleton, derided by Americans as a butcher, allegedly slaughtered dozens of surrendering Continentals in the Waxhaws region of South Carolina in May 1780—an incident dubbed the “Waxhaws Massacre.” While it was not always clear whether patriots or loyalists were culpable, such atrocities were widespread, and a vicious circle of rumor, reprisal and counter-reprisal intensified the bloodshed.
Ferguson flanked Cornwallis with a steadily increasing force of loyalists. Brash and confident, Ferguson pushed into the mountains, promising patriots he would “lay waste to their country with fire and sword” if they resisted the king. These threats, in addition to stories of loyalist rapine and plunder, provoked Virginia and North Carolina militia and more than 1,000 backwoodsmen from what is now East Tennessee to oppose him. At the Battle of Kings Mountain, S.C., on October 7, Ferguson’s force was surrounded and crushed. Ferguson was killed, as were hundreds of his men, including some who asked for quarter. Ten, wrote one young patriot soldier, “the scene became really distressing; the wives and children of the poor Tories came in, in great numbers. Their husbands, fathers and brothers lay dead in heaps, while others lay wounded or dying—a melancholy sight indeed!”
Kings Mountain was a stunning reversal of fortune for the king’s supporters. Worse came on January 17, 1781, when Daniel Morgan’s troops delivered a crushing defeat to Tarleton’s Raiders—regulars and loyalists—at Cowpens, S.C., killing 110 and capturing 712 (200 of them wounded) of Tarleton’s men. Cornwallis nevertheless continued to push farther into North Carolina, where he met an American army, reconstituted with Morgan’s men, under General Nathanael Greene. A superb tactician, Greene inflicted terrible losses on Cornwallis at the Battle of Guilford Court House on March 15. Although Cornwallis forced the Americans from the field, after the battle he led his exhausted army east on a road that would eventually end with his surrender at Yorktown.
With Cornwallis departing the scene, American patriots set their sights on restoring obedience to Congress throughout the South. It did not promise to be an easy task. The patriots would have to contend with large numbers of battletested and zealous loyalists in addition to a system of enemy fortifications across the Carolinas and Georgia. These not only maintained royal control of important settlements but served to protect supply depots and lines of communication. Sometimes the forts were integrated into or surrounded by civilian homes—whether the occupants liked it or not.
One such place was Fort Motte, S.C. It stood on an eminence called Buckhead Hill along the Congaree River and took its name from the proprietor of the plantation that the fort surrounded: Rebecca Brewton Motte. Her experiences were typical of many Southern women during the war. Born into a moderately well-to-do South Carolina family in 1737, she had married Jacob Motte when she was 21 and bore seven children in the years that followed. Only three, all daughters, lived to adulthood. She inherited the plantation, then called Mount Joseph, from her late brother, Miles Brewton. She also inherited Brewton’s house in Charleston, and it was there that she and her family dwelt during the grueling siege and subsequent British capture of the city in May 1780.
The Mottes strongly supported the revolutionary cause, providing the patriots with supplies and lending slaves to assist in the fortification of Charleston before its capture. Their consternation can well be imagined, then, when General Clinton decided to make the couple’s home—a two-story “double house”—his Charleston headquarters. Flight was not an option. British forces had surrounded the city, and after its capture refugees could leave the city only with express permission. For months Motte cared for her daughters and sick husband— weakening from the illness that would soon kill him—in the small rooms that the British general allowed them to retain. Finally, in the autumn of 1780 Clinton allowed the Mottes to leave the city for their estate on the Congaree. Rebecca Motte surely hoped that she and her family would find peace there, but it was not to be.
The Motte plantation was beautifully situated, with fine views over the Congaree and surrounding country and cool breezes that made the place habitable during the brutal South Carolina summers. It was also strategically located between Charleston and Columbia and on the road to British posts at Camden and Fort Ninety-Six. With Morgan, Marion and Lee bearing down on them, Buckhead Hill looked to the British like a prime site for a fort: It could protect the routes to those outposts and serve as a supply depot. In the spring of 1781 British officers were again knocking at Rebecca Motte’s door. They had decided to build their fort around her home.
Their timing was cruel. Jacob Motte had died in January, and Rebecca now had sole responsibility for raising her young daughters as well as managing her estate. After trying to squeeze into the plantation house alongside the family, the British finally ordered the Mottes to move into a ramshackle farmhouse on an adjoining hill. There they made shift while the soldiers dug a trench around the main house and constructed a parapet and rough-hewn log palisades. Into this structure moved more than 150 men, including red-coated Scottish Highlanders and a few dozen loyalist militiamen. The garrison’s commander was a young lieutenant named Donald McPherson.
On May 7, just after a detachment of German light dragoons joined the troops in the fort, the Americans arrived. There were several hundred of them, cavalry and militia, in a combined force led by Lee and Marion. The two men had much in common, although in appearance they could not have been more different. A moody and sensitive South Carolinian, Marion was diminutive—as a baby, he was supposedly “not larger than a New England lobster, and might easily enough have been put in a quart pot”—and suffered from deformed ankles and knees. Lee was also moody and sensitive, but he was a handsome, blond young scion of the Virginia gentry. Lee was also only 25 years old; Marion was nearly 50. Tough they were superb commanders, both men had experienced years of war and brutality. Lee was already exhibiting signs of what today might have been diagnosed as posttraumatic stress disorder. They were both on edge.
The Americans heavily outnumbered McPherson’s meager force. The defenders were strongly entrenched, however, and equipped to stoutly resist any assault. Under other circumstances, the Americans might have simply invested the fort and starved out its occupants. But they had much campaigning ahead as they pursued their mission to dismantle royal outposts in the Carolinas, and there were reports of approaching enemy reinforcements. They had an artillery piece, so they resolved to batter down the walls of the fort and take it by storm. Slaves from nearby plantations were commandeered to dig trenches that would bring the Americans to within firing range of the fort and to construct an earthen platform on which to position the single cannon. By May 10 the American preparations were complete. Lee summoned McPherson to surrender. The young lieutenant curtly refused, and the attack looked set to begin. Blasting the fort to ruins might take days, but Marion and Lee were prepared to persevere as long as it took.
At that moment scouts sighted British soldiers approaching in the distance. They would arrive at Fort Motte, the scouts told Lee and Marion, within a few days. There was no time to lose. If fresh troops arrived while the siege was still underway, they would at least rescue Fort Motte and perhaps even give the Americans a drubbing. Marion then made a painful decision: To forestall the reinforcement, his men would smoke out the defenders by burning the plantation. First, though, he ordered Lee to communicate the plan to Rebecca Motte.
Few of his wartime missions upset Lee more than this one. Since the Americans’ arrival, he and his officers had made their headquarters in the farmhouse at Motte’s request. The bereaved widow’s humanity deeply impressed the warwizened young officer. “While her richly-spread table presented with taste and fashion all the luxuries of her opulent country,” Lee later wrote in his memoirs, “and her sideboard offered without reserve the best wines of Europe—antiquated relics of happier days—her active benevolence found its way to the sick and to the wounded; cherishing with softest kindness infirmity and misfortune, converting despair into hope, and nursing debility into strength.”
Lee approached Motte with trepidation and a litany of apologies before telling her of Marion’s plan to burn her home. He was shocked when she replied with a smile that she was happy to make the sacrifice for the good of her country. According to Lee, she presented him with a bow and arrow set that she had purchased from India, and suggested that his troops start the house fire with flaming arrows. Lee, who later claimed to have prepared his men with their own crude set of like weapons for the same purpose, received her offer with “silent delight.”
McPherson was given a second chance to surrender but again refused. On May 12 when the sun was at its height, making the house’s roof shingles more flammable, Lee ordered the burning to commence. According to Lee and legend, a red rain of flaming arrows poured down to set the building ablaze. Another, more prosaic account claims that a humble private “made up a ball of rosin and brimstone, to which he set fire and slung it on the roof of the house.” Whatever method was used, the shingles quickly ignited. McPherson sent men to rip out the burning shingles, but they came under fire from the American cannon and had to scramble of the roof. Tough the results of the plantation fire would have been horrific, many of the besiegers might have welcomed the prospect, such was the hatred that they bore toward McPherson’s loyalists. Several of them were said to have committed arson and even rape and murder against patriots and their families.
Facing almost certain death, McPherson put up the white fag. Marion immediately dispatched an emissary to accept the surrender, even though Lee thought that “policy commanded death, and the obstinacy of McPherson”—in twice refusing to capitulate—“warranted it.” But there was no time for bickering. Marion let the defenders flee quickly out of the fort and lay down their arms while he sent men to put out the blaze on Motte’s roof. The plantation was saved.
For all the niceties of wartime ritual that had been carried out during the siege, the defenders had no guarantee that their lives would be spared. Lee, whose already mercurial temper was growing steadily more volatile as the war progressed, strode up to McPherson and pointedly reminded him that he and his men deserved no quarter under the rules of war. McPherson in turn straightforwardly declared, according to Lee, “his readiness to meet any consequence which the discharge of his duty, conformably to his own conviction of right, might produce.” For all Lee’s bluster, though—and whatever his true intentions—Marion was adamantly opposed to any executions. To the contrary, he granted generous surrender terms that would soon parole British and German prisoners or send them to Charleston to be exchanged. Te status of loyalist prisoners—always nebulous during the Revolutionary War, as was the status of patriot militiamen and civilians captured by loyalists—was to be determined separately.
Motte did her part to reduce tensions. At her request British, German and American officers assembled in her farmhouse that evening to enjoy an elaborate dinner together, according to Lee, “soothing in the sweets of social intercourse the ire which the preceding conflict had engendered.” With her charm and compassion Motte broke down the divisions that had so long set men at each other’s throats in this savage theater of war. Remembered Lee: “Conversing with ease, vivacity, and good sense, she obliterated our recollection of the injury she had received; and though warmly attached to the defenders of her country, the engaging amiability of her manners, left it doubtful which set of officers constituted these defenders.”
Outside the farmhouse, it was a different story. While the officers dined, patriot militia and their loyalist prisoners glared balefully at each other. Among the latter was Levi Smith, who was reported to have rampaged through the local countryside burning the houses of the king’s enemies. Far from showing any fear or humility, Smith swaggered in such a way that the patriot militiamen were soon loudly calling for his head. During the day, Lee had remarked with evident bitterness that “the humanity of Marion could not be overcome”; but with the officers retired for dinner in the evening, some patriots took matters into their own hands. The instigator was one of Lee’s own junior officers, who ordered four loyalists, including Smith, to be dragged of and hanged.
The first victim was a 19yearold loyalist, Lieutenant Fulker. Accused by some patriot militiamen of having turned an ailing woman out of her home—a charge the terrified boy tearfully denied—he was stripped naked and hanged from Motte’s gate. Next came John Jackson, accused of killing a patriot prisoner, who was likewise stripped and hanged. Hugh McKelly suffered the same fate. Finally, Smith was dragged beneath the dangling bodies of his comrades and stripped before a noose was placed around his neck. His wife and children appeared, begging for mercy, but were gruffy ordered away. At that moment, however, an enraged Marion burst upon the scene, brandishing a drawn sword—he had been called from Motte’s dinner table by an American who feared retaliation on his brother, who was held prisoner by the British.
“In the name of God!” shouted Marion. “What are you about, what are you about here?” A militiaman laconically replied, “We are hanging them people, sir.” Marion furiously demanded to know who had given the order and was told that it came from Lee. To which he responded: “I will let you know, damn you, that I command here, and not Colonel Lee.” Smith was brought to safety while Marion swore that any man who harmed more prisoners would die by the general’s own hand. Or so, at least, did some former prisoners recount the exchange. While Marion had certainly intervened to save lives, Lee’s involvement in issuing the order has never been proved. He did not mention the incident in his memoirs.
The siege and surrender of Fort Motte epitomized the Revolutionary War in the South. After it ended, Lee and Marion continued their paths, under Greene’s overall command, to dismantle British rule in the Carolinas and Georgia. In this they mostly succeeded by the time the war formally ended in 1783. Rebecca Motte was honored for the rest of her life, and after her death in 1815 she was buried in Charleston. But wounds and divisions remained. Just as many soldiers—including Lee—never truly recovered from their war experiences, so too did civilians struggle to readjust. Loyalists sought exile across the mountains or abroad, leaving behind vacant estates, and even the victorious patriots who remained had to restore shattered families and rebuild ruined farms. Perhaps memories of occasional moments of kindness and hope—such as Rebecca Motte’s dinner of reconciliation on the evening of May 12, 1781—helped to see them through.
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.