The real course of human events

July 27, 2000|By Daniel Berger

AFTER the fall of Charleston, S.C., and destruction of the American army on May 12, 1780, Lt. Gen. Earl Cornwallis, an energetic and decisive warrior, was left in command of British forces in the South.

After he smashed a second American army at Camden, S.C., in August, Lt. Col. Francis Marion took a small band of South Carolina Patriot militia to the swamps. It is said that the movie patriot, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) was drawn from Marion.

But there's a big difference between the way history and the movie "The Patriot" relate this revolutionary tale.

Marion was a priggish, disciplined, middle-aged man with a pronounced limp. He had broken an ankle leaping from a second-story dining room to flee from having to drink his host's liquor.

With a band that included at least one runaway slave, Marion led raiding parties that harried the British lines of communication, pinned down troops and dissuaded Loyalist recruitment.

Such fighters were known in the 18th century as partisans.

Cornwallis sent his dashing cavalry officer, Col. Banastre Tarleton, after Marion. He never caught up, but allegedly called him "that damned old fox." From that, Marion's immortality as "the Swamp Fox" descends.

South Carolina broke down into anarchy and civil war, with plunder and murder committed by and against each side. This differed from the niceties of regular armies observing rules of war, but stopped short of the atrocities that Indians, allied to the crown, inflicted on Americans and Americans on Indians, in western New York and the Ohio country.

In South Carolina, two Patriot partisan bands were larger than Marion's, sometimes coming out for pitched battles. One was commanded by Col. Andrew Pickens, the other by Brig. Gen. Thomas Sumter, "the Carolina gamecock." Both took up insurgency after their plantations were burned.

Sumter persuaded Gen. Nathanael Greene to authorize militia to seize property for private gain to spur recruitment. Such loot could include slaves. The ensuing pillage was known as Sumter's Law. Sumter and Marion despised each other, though Marion deferred to Sumter's rank. Marion had no use for Sumter's Law.

Slaves on both sides

Slaves and freemen fought on both sides. Some were in the Massachusetts militia before the war. The Earl of Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, promised freedom to any who deserted Patriot masters in 1776 to join his "Ethiopian legion." After Gen. George Washington recruited blacks for the Continental Army, some masters sent slaves and collected the recruitment bonuses.

Most militia were men of property with a stake in the community. The Continentals, who made more disciplined soldiers in pitched battle, were recruited largely from the dregs of society.

The war in South Carolina that "The Patriot" is about was fought mostly by militia on both sides. Much of Cornwallis' army was recruited in New York and New Jersey. In South Carolina, where propertied whites stayed in healthy enclaves, slaves had advanced professionally more than in other colonies, providing skilled tradesmen, river and coastal pilots and spies.

Tarleton, a small, red-headed young man of 26 in 1780, commanded many a small, horse-borne encounter. After the battle of Waxhaws, "Bloody Ban's" green-coated Loyalists killed Patriots who had surrendered.

In the battle of Cowpens, Jan. 17, 1781, Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan put militia in front to fire two volleys, then retire and regroup behind the regulars. After destroying the Loyalists, his men surrounded their commander, Tarleton.

Bloody Ban cut his way out, in hand-to-hand combat with Col. William Washington, to fight another day. That would make a terrific movie scene. Tarleton surrendered with Cornwallis at Yorktown, returned home to sit in Parliament, married well and made full general.

Marion has excited the admiration of military writers and historians because he was cautious and disciplined, kept within his capabilities, took orders and never got too big for his britches or tactics. He could have gone on with meager resources forever.

One other partisan was his equal. In North Carolina, David Fanning turned Loyalist and was jailed. After the British left, he conducted guerrilla warfare.

His greatest exploit was to attack Hillsborough, seize Patriot Gov. Thomas Burke and defeat pursuers. From July 1781 to March 1782, Fanning's men struck in the night, seizing arms, destroying plantations, hitting court houses. Where there was no place to hide, they hid. Talk about ghosts.

While on the run, Fanning married his sweetheart, took up farming in a truce area, left for Florida and then went to Nova Scotia. He served 10 years in the New Brunswick provincial parliament.

Fanning was 23 years younger than Marion and more dashing. He could be a helluva movie hero. But they don't make Loyalist movies.

Daniel Berger is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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