On this day in 1781, Patriot militia prepare to raid Georgetown, South Carolina. That raid should have been a quick in-and-out affair, the type of guerrilla-style warfare that southern militia came to be known for.
Instead, the raid took a somewhat humorous turn.
The British soldiers, as it would turn out, were perfectly happy to lose their commander when he was captured by the Americans. Those soldiers had been on the verge of mutiny anyway.
The raid occurred soon after General Nathanael Greene took command of Patriot forces in the South. Early on, Greene asked Lt. Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee (Continental Army) and Brig. Gen. Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion (militia) to work together.
The two men were complete opposites. “Lee was an educated Virginia gentleman,” one Marion biographer describes, “articulate both orally and in writing, whereas Marion, who had scant formal learning, said little and was at best adequate with the pen.” Moreover, Marion wore “threadbare clothing,” whereas Lee kept his men outfitted in nice uniforms. Yet the men had similarities as well. Both relied on “speed, agility, and bold maneuvers for success; both were strong believers in discipline; and both were solicitous of the lives and safety of their men, gaining their loyalty . . . .”
The partnership would work well overall, despite the bumpy start at Georgetown.
The small town had seemed like an obvious target. It was close to the Pee Dee River, lightly defended by 200 to 300 British soldiers under the command of Lt. Colonel George Campbell. Better yet, the town was a major producer of salt, a much-prized commodity during the war. Marion may have found extra motivation in one other factor: His sister lived there.
Marion and Lee put their plan into motion on January 23.
Lee’s infantry were the first to act. Ninety men under the command of Captains Patrick Carnes and John Rudulph were to travel down the Pee Dee towards Georgetown, with a handful of Marion’s men leading the way. Once there, they would hide in nearby rice fields and wait for the second prong of the attack to arrive.
Lee’s cavalry and the rest of Marion’s men were the second prong, and they planned to follow on horseback the next day. Unfortunately, muddy roads bogged them down and delayed their arrival at Georgetown.
That delay would cause problems.
Lee’s infantry began the attack before Lee and Marion arrived. Americans quickly captured the British commander, still in his bed. They expected other British soldiers to emerge from their lodgings and run for the fort: They would take the soldiers as they emerged. To their astonishment, Lee would later describe, “not a British soldier appeared; not one attempted either to gain the fort, or repair to the commandant.”
Those British soldiers simply barricaded themselves wherever they were. Not a single soldier, it appears, had any interest in defending Campbell. Instead, they simply waited.
When Lee and Marion finally arrived, it was too late to help. They’d wanted a quick, bold operation under cover of darkness. Instead, they were faced with a difficult daytime operation. They withdrew from the area. The British commander was still their captive, but they let him go on parole.
Naturally, this wouldn’t be Americans’ last attempt to reclaim control of Georgetown. The Swamp Fox would finally take the city in May 1781.
Naturally, that is a story for another day.
Bud Hannings, Chronology of the American Revolution: Military and Political Actions Day by Day (2014)
Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (Washington, P. Force 1827)
John Oller, The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution (2016)
Letter from Colonel Henry Lee, Jr. to General Nathanael Greene (Jan. 25, 1781)
Robert D. Bass, Swamp Fox: The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion (1989)
Ryan Cole, Light-Horse Harry Lee: The Rise and Fall of a Revolutionary Hero (2019)
Scott D. Aiken, The Swamp Fox: Lessons in Leadership from the Partisan Campaigns of Francis Marion (2012).