This Day in History: Robert Barnwell, (almost) forgotten Patriot
On this day in 1761, South Carolina patriot Robert Barnwell is born. He’s one of those guys whose life is a little lost to history. We mostly just have a sense of what he sacrificed.
Isn’t that true of so many Patriots, who suffered—even died—so that we might have freedom?
Barnwell volunteered to serve in the American Revolution when he was only 16 years old. We know of at least two notable sacrifices that he made during the war.
First, Barnwell was at the Battle of Matthew’s Plantation in 1779. The militia were guarding Capt. John Matthews’s plantation when they were surrounded and attacked by the British in the middle of the night. During that battle, a British officer promised to provide quarter to surrendering Americans. But as Americans lay down their arms, the British broke their promise. They bayoneted the unarmed men, burned the plantation, and took prisoners.
Barnwell was badly injured, suffering as many as 17 bayonet wounds. He was stripped of his supplies and left for dead on the field. Fortunately, Barnwell’s aunt lived nearby. Barnwell was close to death, but his aunt managed to nurse him back to health.
Apparently, a little thing like a near-death experience was not enough to stop Barnwell’s dedication to the Patriot cause!
Barnwell returned to the militia and was present at the Siege of Charleston about a year later.
Unfortunately, he seems to have arrived just in time to be captured and taken aboard a prison ship. He was held there for many long months.
During his time aboard the ship, the prisoners wrote a letter to American General Nathanael Greene. They did not want needless sacrifices to be made on their behalves. The letter concluded: “[S]hould it fall to the lot of all, or any of us, to be made victims. . . , we have only to regret that our blood cannot be disposed of more to the advancement of the glorious cause to which we have adhered.”
Barnwell was released in a general exchange of prisoners not too long afterwards. Despite being wounded once and captured once, Barnwell **still** returned to the militia and continued to serve. After the war, he found even more capacities in which to serve the public. Among other positions, he served as speaker of the South Carolina House and as a U.S. Congressman.
He died in 1814, another Patriot who has gone unnoticed (or nearly unnoticed) by history books.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (Robert Barnwell)
David Ramsay, The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina from a British Province to an Independent State (1785) (Vol. II)
Edward McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1775-1780 (1901)
James Haltigan, The Irish in the American Revolution: And Their Early Influence in the Colonies (1908)
Joseph Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South (1851)
Pension Application of Edward Barnwell W8352 (transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris)