On this day in 1781, a female hero makes a little-known sacrifice for the Patriot cause. A widow, Rebecca Motte, gave Brigadier General Francis Marion (“the Swamp Fox”) and Lt. Colonel “Light Horse Harry” Lee permission to burn down her home.
At the time, her plantation was occupied by nearly 200 British, Loyalist and Hessian soldiers. Marion, Lee, and Motte hoped to drive them out before British reinforcements could arrive.
It worked! The Siege of Fort Motte ended with a British surrender.
Motte owned a plantation situated on a high hill near the Congaree and Wateree Rivers. In early 1781, the British took over her home and fortified it. They used it as a depot for supply convoys moving between Charleston and Camden. Not too long afterwards, however, the commander of the American army in the South, Nathanael Greene, ordered Lee and Marion to attack British outposts between Charleston and Camden.
On April 23, they captured Fort Watson. The two soon moved on to Fort Motte, arriving there in early May. At that time, the home-turned-fort was defended by nearly 200 British regulars, Loyalists, and Hessians. Marion and Lee settled in for a siege.
On May 10, the Americans gave the fort’s commander, Lt. Donald McPherson, the opportunity to surrender. McPherson declined. Both sides soon learned that British reinforcements were coming. On the night of May 11, they could even see campfires for the approaching British in the distance! Marion knew that he would have to act fast. He and Lee agreed that setting fire to the house would be the fastest way to get the British out. Reportedly, poor Lee was given the task of telling Motte. His memoirs note that she “gave instant relief to his agitated feelings, by declaring, that she was gratified with the opportunity of contributing to the good of her country.”
Most likely, Americans set fire to the house with bows and flaming arrows aimed at the roof. According to Lee, Motte even provided the bows and arrows needed to perform the deed.
What a woman.
Either way, the British surrendered pretty quickly once the roof was on fire. And, fortunately for Motte, the fire was extinguished before her home was destroyed. Amazingly, she hosted a dinner for the British and American officers that evening.
The British surrender that day was just one of a series of events that would cause them to lose their foothold in South Carolina. The surrender at Yorktown was mere months away.
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Brig. Gen. P. Horry & M. L. Weems, The Life of General Francis Marion: A Celebrated Partisan Officer, in the Revolutionary War (Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott & Co. 1860)
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)
Scott D. Aiken, The Swamp Fox: Lessons in Leadership from the Partisan Campaigns of Francis Marion (2012).