On this day in 1780, a group of Patriots crosses the Pee Dee River and camps in the swamps of eastern South Carolina. They’d just routed a group of Loyalists at the Battle of Black Mingo Creek. It was the Swamp Fox’s third victory since mid-August!
He’d won the battle in a mere 15 minutes.
The victories were badly needed. They served as morale boosters in the wake of General Horatio Gate’s disastrous defeat at the Battle of Camden.
The “Swamp Fox” had a real name, of course. Francis Marion had won a battle at Horse Creek in August and at Blue Savannah in early September. The British had been trying to find the Swamp Fox ever since. Unfortunately, the British did more than just look for Marion. They were also destroying land and harassing local families. The harassment was intended to discourage Patriots from fighting.
Marion and his men soon had enough. The British were messing with their neck of the woods. They had been recuperating in the Great White Marsh in North Carolina, but in late September, Marion’s partisans headed south across the Pee Dee River, back into South Carolina.
They soon discovered a good opportunity to attack one band of Loyalists under Colonel John Coming Ball. The Loyalist force was then stationed at the Red House Tavern, near Black Mingo Creek. Ball’s group consisted of less than 50 men. It was a golden opportunity! Legend has it that Marion’s men were unanimous in their desire to seek battle.
The Swamp Fox swung into action!
Late on the night of September 28/29, the Patriots arrived near the Tavern. Marion was hoping to surprise the Loyalists, but it didn’t quite work out. As his men were crossing a nearby bridge, their horses’ hooves made a terrible clatter. The alarm was sounded and Ball’s men rushed to arms.
Naturally, Marion’s men rushed the tavern anyway.
Then Ball’s men did something unexpected. Instead of hunkering down inside the tavern, they launched a frontal attack on the Patriots. Undeterred, a small detachment of Patriots snuck around the side of the tavern and opened another front in the attack. Now the Loyalists were stuck between two sides of a Patriot attack. They fled and took refuge in the Black Mingo swamp.
In only 15 minutes, Marion’s men had routed the Loyalists and seized their guns, ammunition, supplies and horses. Marion even captured Ball’s personal horse! He renamed the horse “Ball” and used it for the rest of the war.
Ball lost three men, with thirteen left wounded on the field of battle. Other Loyalist bodies were later found in the swamp. Would you believe that five of the captured Loyalists renounced the British and took oaths of allegiance to the Patriot cause?
Marion’s casualties were lighter, but still significant for such a short battle: two men killed and eight wounded.
Apparently, Marion learned a lesson from this short escapade. Noting that his element of surprise had been ruined by a few horses’ hooves, he reportedly never again let his men cross a bridge without first putting blankets across it, to prevent noise.
Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown (1981)
R.L. Barbour, South Carolina's Revolutionary War Battlefields: A Tour Guide (2002)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)