Letter between Loyalist Officers occupying South Carolina at the end of March 1781

Charles B. Baxley

 This letter, written from friend to friend, discusses the transportation of supplies and communications from Charleston to the British interior posts during the heart of the second rising in revolutionary South Carolina.  It reflects the reality of the difficulties the Americans have inflicted on the British: disrupting communications lines, pushing most of the supply routes to the south side of the Santee, forcing military escorts of all wagon trains, and making the British put resources into manning a series of way-forts along the Charleston to Camden and Ninety Six roads.  It also passes on information about a third friend, Maj. James Dunlap, and ends with some unusual and personal discussion about a local widow, likely Letitia Nelson.

The letter was written during a period of furious British counter-insurgency against bold partisan activities, most coordinated by South Carolina militia Gens. Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion.  The author and intended recipient, Loyalist officers from New York, were on constant alert from these partisan raids.  Lord Francis Rawdon commanded the British in South Carolina from his Camden, South Carolina base and orchestrated a number of detachments who unsuccessfully tried to kill or capture the partisans and suppress the Whigs in the South Carolina backcountry.  In mid-March 1781, Generals Cornwallis and Greene fought a bloody battle at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina.  South Carolina militia Gen. Thomas Sumter had called out his militia and unsuccessfully attacked the British posts at Granby and Thomson’s Belleville, interdicted a British supply wagon-train at Big Glade, and attacked the British near Fort Watson.  Sumter’s troops were counter-attacked at Radcliffe’s Bridge and dispersed.  South Carolina militia Gen. Andrew Pickens returned to South Carolina and organized the western South Carolina militia to counter the British operations out of their Ninety Six base.  South Carolina militia Gen. Francis Marion continued the insurgency in the Pee Dee basin, and engaged a British field detachment in his three-week-long Bridges Campaign which ended when another detachment of Rawdon’s counter-insurgent troops raided and destroyed Marion’s Snow’s Island base at the end of March.  Against the background of a complex anti-insurgency campaign, Maj. Arthur Maxwell writes his friend, Capt. DePeyster.

 Letter[1] from [Maj. Andrew] A. Maxwell[2] to Capt. [Abraham or Frederick[3]] DePeyster

Congarees[4]                                                                                                                  31 Mar 1781

Dear Sir

I just this moment received a letter from Lt. McPherson[5] informing me that my stores were arrived some days ago at your point[6] and that you detained them in expectation of the arrival of a party of Hessians.[7]  As there [sic] arrival [sic] soon may be uncertain & both stores & wagons much wanted[,] have to request that you will send them up on receipt of this with a proper escort [.]  If you give the Officer commanding at Thompson[8] notice[,] he will send a partty [sic] to the halfway [sic] Swamp[9] to meet them & your Escort [sic] may then return.

Your Old Friend Dunlap[10] has been rather unsuccessful – the matter as far as I can learn; is as Follows –

Coll Cruger[11] sent Major Dunlap with his Dragoons & 30 Rank & file Infantry on a foraging [sic] party[.]  About 15 miles from 96 he heard of a party of rebels & followed them to Long Cane & found them much stronger than he expected.  The Cavalry adopted Hud’s [sic, Hinde’s][12] brassis [sic, brassish or brashest] Maxim & most of them got to Ninety Six to fight another Day.  The infantry continued the engagement till all their ammunition was expended & were then obliged to Surrender —[.]   I have not yet heard what became of Dunlap, am apprehensive he was taken —[.][13]

Pray what is become of your Brother James[14] [?] I hope he has ere [before] this got a Company.  The first time you write him be so good as make him a Sender of my best wishes.

I am afraid [sic]   The situation of Nielson I always thought an unpleasing one but it must be doubly so to my friend who has always shined in the circles of the fair [.]  Mrs. Nielson[15] [,] I suppose you spend a few leisure hours with, pray is not she a well informed woman & give me leave to tell you she has a considerable fortune.  I had once some thoughts of making love to her but unfortunately for me we had a terrible quarrell [sic] [.]  After that I never could prevail upon her to listen to the soft tales of love.  I hope you will be more successfull[sic] —[.]  Pray let me have the pleasure of hearing from you often.  I am with greatest esteem & regard      Dear Sir

Your most obedient  & __?__Voery [sic, Very] hble [sic, humble] Sert  [sic, Servant]

S/ A Maxwell

[1] Document on file at SC Dept. Archives and History, Columbia, SC, Subject File: Battles – H-2-2, referenced by Terry Lipscomb.  The letter was located and shared by Nancy M. Lindroth.  The annotator, Charles B. Baxley, is also appreciative of Nancy Lindroth’s research on the DePeyster brothers; David Neilan research on the DePeyster – Postell prisoner exchange controversy, and editorial assistance from David P. Reuwer.

[2] Maj. Andrew Maxwell was a Connecticut Loyalist in the Prince of Wales American Regiment provincials, assigned to command Fort Granby in modern Cayce, SC.

[3] “Capt. DePeyster” was one of three brothers (Abraham, James and Frederick), Loyalists from a prominent New York family, who came south with Gen. Henry Clinton.  Capt. James DePeyster was posted at Georgetown, SC with the Kings American Regiment.  Capt. Abraham DePeyster was second in command to Maj. Patrick Ferguson, with the American Volunteers Regiment, and was captured by the Americans at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780.  Capt. Frederick DePeyster of the Kings American Regiment was the probable intended recipient of this letter.

[4] The British post at the Congarees was built around the colonial Chesnut and Kershaw Trading House, later known as the Cayce House, in Granby (modern Cayce, SC).  This house stood until the 1930s.

[5] Lt. Donald McPherson of the 84th Rgt. commanded the British garrison posted at Ft. Motte, Rebecca B. Motte’s fortified house on her Mt. Joseph Plantation.  Some scholars think the commander of Ft. Motte may have been Capt.-Lt. Charles McPearson of the 1st Battalion of DeLancey’s Brigade.  The primary sources are unclear.

[6] In this letter “your point” probably refers to the small British fort at Nelson’s Ferry on the Santee River from its context; however, it could mean Orangeburg or Dorchester, other British posts on the alternate Charleston to Granby supply route.

[7] There were several groups of Hessian troops assigned to the Southern Department; they were most often used by the British as garrison troops.

[8] This is likely Continental Col. William “Old Danger” Thomson, commandant of the 3rd SC Regiment, whose plantation, Belleville on the lower Congaree River, was seized and fortified by the British as a strategic waypoint along the roads from Orangeburg and Moncks Corner to McCord’s Ferry.  It was abandoned in March or April 1781 and most of the garrison moved to Fort Motte, about a mile away.

[9] There were two “halfway” Swamps, one on each side of the Santee River.  This letter probably refers to the one on the southwest side of the Santee, about three miles southeast of Lone Star, SC on the McCord’s Ferry Road (SC Hwy 267).

[10] Maj. James Dunlap (Dunlop) was a controversial Loyalist cavalry officer from New York, who was twice wounded by the Americans and miraculously survived.  He would again lead Loyalist troops before being wounded and captured at Beattie’s Mill on March 21, 1781.  Dunlap was widely despised and made the mistake of leading his Loyalist troop in pillaging the homes of Col. Andrew Pickens (then under British protection) and harassing Maj. James McCall’s family.  Because of this action, Pickens felt he was honorably released from his parole.  Pickens proved a great militia leader with Morgan and Greene and in reclaiming the western parts of South Carolina from Crown domination.

[11] Lt. Col. John Harris Cruger, a New York Loyalist, commander of the First Battalion of DeLancey’s Brigade, was assigned to command the British interior post at Ninety Six, South Carolina in 1780.  He successfully defended his post against a siege laid by Americans under Gen. Nathanael Greene in May-June 1781.

[12] The discipline of the light-horse. by Robert Hinde of the Royal Regiment of Foresters, (light-dragoons.) (London: W. Owen, 1778)    http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433007162013;view=1up;seq=18  It is amazing that these officers were somewhat familiar with the Hinde book.

[13] Maj. James Dunlap was surrounded and attacked at Beattie’s Mill by Americans commanded by Georgia militia Col. Elijah Clarke and SC State cavalry commanded by Lt. Col. James McCall.  The SC Loyalist dragoons fled and the Americans systematically reduced Dunlap’s troops who surrendered after Dunlap was wounded.  Dunlap had more troops than Maxwell reported as 34 were killed or wounded before the rest surrendered.  Dunlap was taken to Gilbertown, NC where he was murdered as a prisoner about March 28.  The word of Dunlap’s death had not reached Maxwell.

[14] Capt. James DePeyster was captured by Capt. John Postell of Marion’s Brigade at Postell’s father’s plantation, now thought to be Hasty Point Plantation, on the Great Pee Dee River about 20 miles above Georgetown, SC on February 14, 1781.  In letters seeking James DePeyster’s exchange, Gen. Marion tells that DePeyster was shipped north out of South Carolina; he was probably not exchanged until after the general Southern Department prisoner exchange cartel agreed to on May 3, 1781.

[15] Mrs. Letitia Nelson (sometimes spelled Neilson) owned Nelson’s Ferry, a major crossing of the Santee at the mouth of Eutaw Creek.  She was the widow of Jared Nelson.  The British built a redoubt on the south bank of the Santee River at Nelson’s Ferry and posted troops to control this strategic river crossing and point on their Charleston-Camden supply and communication line.   “Jared Nelson was the owner of Nelson’s Ferry over the Santee.  After his death, his widow married Gen. William Henderson.  She was Letitia Davis, sister of William Ransom Davis, as shown by a marriage settlement made December 4, 1782, and recorded in Marriage Settlements, No. 1, page 113, office of Historical Commission of South Carolina, Columbia.  If he married a sister of Mrs. John Mikell it necessarily was an earlier marriage than that to Letitia Davis.”  Ancestry.com, accessed on November 4, 2013   http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=syf&id=I6383  Mrs. Nelson, though friendly with the British and Loyalist occupying her plantation and controlling her ferry, married one of the senior commanders of the Americans in South Carolina soon after their withdrawal in September 1781.  William Henderson succeeded Gen. Thomas Sumter as commander of the South Carolina militia in central South Carolina.

Posted on November 28, 2013.