21st century fox hunt

The shovels move like machines. Scoop, lift, toss. Scoop, lift, toss. The trench inches forward, fifty yards a day, day after day, night after night. A long ridge of red dirt piles up along the eastern edge, protection from the British muskets. Scoop, lift, toss. Scoop, lift, toss. Near the head of the lengthening trench, half a dozen barebacked slaves hunch behind a large hogshead barrel filled with dirt, which they push forward as a shield while they dig. The British fort gets a little closer all the time. Scoop, lift, toss. Scoop, lift, toss. Scoop, lift, toss.

To the Redcoats on the palisade, the approaching trench looks like a giant snake, zigging and zagging toward them across the hilltop. To the Patriots, the fort looms larger and larger. The British shower the Patriots with musket shot, but the trench keeps coming, the red dirt piling up, the hogshead inching forward until finally, six days after the Patriots began their approach, the British fort comes into range. The plan now is to torch the place.

Welcome to Fort Motte, S.C. — not the rural crossroads community out on Highway 601 but the site of Mt. Joseph, a colonial-era plantation where Gen. Francis Marion and Lt. Col. “Light Horse” Harry Lee of the Continental Army won a major victory over the British during the American Revolution.

The house is long gone. So are the siege trench, the encampments, the artillery mound — so, too, virtually every other visible trace of what happened here between May 6 and May 12, 1781. For USC conflict archaeologist Steve Smith, though, the battle is still raging, at least in his imagination. Smith has been exploring the battleground piecemeal since 2003, when he convinced the landowner, Luther Wannamaker, to let him come onto his property with metal detectors and shovels. And the owner of the Wannamaker Wildlife Center, a seed company in nearby St. Matthews, has gotten increasingly involved himself, clearing and plowing sites in preparation for Smith’s team.

Over the past 13 years, with assistance from the federal American Battlefield Protection Program, Smith and his UofSC colleagues have located the fort, the footprint of the main house, various campsites used by both sides, and the site of the overseer’s house, where the fort’s namesake, Rebecca Motte, lived during the siege. In the spring of 2015 they also re-dug the trench, or sap, using careful soil analysis to retrace the precise angle of the Patriots’ approach. “They dug an amazing distance in five days, they were rotating crews constantly,” says Smith. “They’d take the dirt and throw it up on the fort side of the trench to give them some protection. They were being shot at. We are certain of it.”

Into the swamp

Smith has been fascinated by Francis Marion since childhood. As a boy, he plowed through children’s books like Stewart Hollbrook’s “The Swamp Fox of the Revolution” (from Random House’s famous Landmark series). When he was 11 he wrote a four-page book on Marion — “My mom typed it up for me,” he says with a chuckle — and he clearly recalls critiquing a 1959 Disney TV series starring Leslie Nielson as the Swamp Fox for historical accuracy. 

Eventually, of course, Smith moved on to real scholarship, obtaining a history degree from the Virginia Military Institute and a master’s in anthropology and archaeology from the University of Kentucky before entering the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of South Carolina, where he wrote his dissertation on his childhood hero. The last time a USC magazine writer caught up with him, though, he was tracking the elusive war hero through the Pee Dee, not Calhoun County. 

I’m into history, but there’s still this feeling of, ‘Did this really happen? Did it happen the way we think it happened? What’s the real story?’

archaeologist Steve Smith

That was 1994, Smith hadn’t earned his Ph.D. yet and the publication was Carolina magazine, not Carolinian. The article, “20th Century Fox Hunt,” was about the search for Snow’s Island, the near-mythical camp where Marion and his ragtag militia hid out between raids on the British. Following a tip from an independent historical researcher, Smith and his colleagues at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology had zeroed in on the site using contemporary aerial maps, period documents and newly unearthed 18th-century artifacts such as musket balls, a gun flint and a couple of Colonial-era buttons. The team hit pay dirt, however, when they abandoned the boggy island island terrain for drier ground across the Lynches River. There they discovered additional artifacts as well as the burned-out post holes of a 12-foot-by-24-foot structure that matched the specs of a structure said to have burned at the time of Marion’s occupation.“We rarely get the opportunity to excavate a site untouched by collectors that has a clear 18th-century occupation with no 19th-century intrusion,” Smith said at the time.

In the 22 years since, a lot has changed. Carolina magazine has been replaced by Carolinian and Smith doesn’t just have his Ph.D.; he’s the director of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. He’s also much more confident about the locations of Marion’s camps around Snow’s Island.

“I’ve done a lot of work on Francis Marion, including sites at Snow’s Island where his famous camp was,” he says now. “We never found a camp on Snow’s Island — we found a couple across from Snow’s Island — but Marion wasn’t just camped in the middle of nowhere like everybody thinks.”

In fact, after the Carolina magazine article appeared, Smith continued his explorations around Snow’s Island and discovered further evidence of the Swamp Fox’s presence in the area. “I now believe the first site we found on the Lynches River is the postwar home of William Goddard, rebuilt after the British burned it in the war,” says Smith. “Since then, we have found a camp site across the Pee Dee River, east of Snow’s Island, at a place called Dunham’s Bluff, which I am very convinced is one of Marion’s camps around Snow’s Island, of which there were probably several.”

The Patriots are coming 

Smith points to the ground, traces a rough floorplan with his finger and nods at a small granite monument erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1909. “It turns out from the archaeology that the monument site is pretty square on the site of Mrs. Motte’s plantation house,” he says. “I  expect there were visible brick ruins from the chimneys back in 1909. It’s very close to one of the chimney bases that we uncovered.”

Originally known as Mt. Joseph, the plantation was one of several built by Charleston-based slave trader Miles Brewton prior to his death at sea in 1775. After the British Army commandeered the Brewton family home in the port city, Brewton’s sister, Rebecca Motte, fled to the family’s inland estate with her three daughters and a niece. Mt. Joseph commanded a high bluff overlooking the northwestern corner of what is now Calhoun County and the southernmost corner of Lower Richland, across the Congaree River from what is now the Congaree National Swamp. It was also located near an important trade route that connected Charleston and Camden, though, so it’s perhaps no surprise that British troops showed up there, too. Forced from her home yet again, the Motte family decamped to the overseer’s house on a hilltop a short distance away.“In the fall of 1780 the British fortified her house as an outpost to help guard McCord’s Ferry,” he explains as he walks the structure’s invisible perimeter, approximating the locations of the stockade, the palisade and the surrounding ditch. “It was a major fort. They didn’t do anything by half.”

And this was no small skirmish. Smith estimates a British occupation of 184 troops, including 89 regulars, 59 Hessians and 45 Loyalists under Lt. Donald McPherson, plus 150 militiamen under Marion and another 240 Continental Army soldiers under Lee, some on horseback, some on foot. 

“Part of the British strategy to subdue the rebellion was to occupy a lot of the smaller towns in the back country — Ninety-Six, Augusta, Camden —and they needed to get supplies from Charleston to these places, so this was an important way station.” Smith explains. When rumors started to fly that Lord Rawdon was bringing British reinforcements from Camden — “Some stories say they could see the lights at night from their campfires,” says Smith — the Patriots shifted their assault into high gear. 

Filling blanks

A fighter jet from Shaw Air Force Base, 40 miles to the east, cuts the cobalt sky. Smith shields his eyes to watch it pass and then remarks on the quiet. The property owner is slowly turning the Fort Motte site into a bird sanctuary, and these days, unless a freight train comes down the tracks near the property’s edge or Smith and his colleagues are out digging in the dirt, the birds are about all you hear. On May 12, 1781, though, you would have heard plenty, Smith explains. The shoveling was near constant and the musket fire became increasingly heavy. In fact, the large amount of fired and unfired rounds are helping Smith and his team fill in some important blanks.

“We’ve found three or four of the camps where troops were camping prior to the battle,” he says. “The problem is we don’t have enough diagnostic evidence yet to know who occupied which camps. We’re narrowing in on it, though.” Diagnostic evidence, in this case, means military implements most likely to have been used by one side or the other. The British, for example, typically used a .75-caliber flintlock musket called a Brown Bess; the loyalists and the Americans would most likely have been equipped with .69-caliber French Charleville muskets and rifles. Because the different types of musket are different calibers, Smith and his team are able to identify the correlating lead shot when they find it using metal detection. High concentrations of fired British shot in a given area suggest that that area was occupied by American troops; a concentration of unfired .75 caliber shot would provide evidence of a British camp. 

Uniform buttons would also help fill in the blanks, he explains, since the British numbered theirs in accordance with the soldier’s regiment, though to-date no British buttons have turned up. 

“If we ever found an 84th-regiment button out here, we’d just be ecstatic,” Smith says. “But all of these diagnostics help us relate to who was where. By looking at artifacts and where they’re found, we’ve been able to piece together a lot. Some fits wonderfully, some of it contradicts what we thought happened, which makes it an intriguing story.”

The burning question

Armed with an ornate archer’s bow, a Patriot rises from the red clay sap and fires a flaming arrow onto the roof of Rebecca Motte’s home. As the wooden shingles ignite, the British emerge through the dormers in a futile attempt to extinguish the rising flames. The patriots fire their cannon and shower the house in musket shot. After five long days defending their fort and fearing a greater conflagration should the gunpowder stored inside the home explode, the British raise the white flag of surrender.

Mrs. Motte, whose family had received the bow from an East Indian trader, had in turn presented it to Marion and Lee with full knowledge that it would be used to burn down her home. She considered it a small sacrifice in the greater cause of liberty.

Or that’s the most common legend about the burning of Fort Motte — the one that inspired the most frequently repeated legends as well as a painting by John Blake White acquired by the U.S. Senate Art Collection in 1899. Other versions describe a Patriot charging the palisade with a sling of flaming resin or shooting the flaming arrow from the barrel of a French Charleville musket. 

“It’s an iconic American revolutionary event, but there’s three different versions,” says Smith. “The British said that flaming arrows were used to set the house on fire, that’s in the record. Now we’re doing the archaeology to try to reveal what really happened, and we’re finding some really cool stuff about how this battle unfolded.”

So far, they’ve found the cannonball and charted the musket shot to determine the lines of fire. They’ve re-dug the sap to determine the angle of approach. They’ve even found an 18th century fashion accessory called a chatelaine, which women of Mrs. Motte’s social status would have used to carry keys, sewing kits or other small implements.

Most intriguing of all, though, is something found near the entrance to the sap by a volunteer in the spring of 2015 —specifically, a rusty iron arrow point cold hammered from a nail spike that dates from the right period. Just the possibility that it could have played a role in the battle’s climactic moment lights up Smith’s imagination. 

“I’m into history, but there’s still this feeling of, ‘Did this really happen? Did it happen the way we think it happened? What’s the real story?’” says Smith. “And then you find British shot, you find a cannonball, you find an arrow point like this one and you think, ‘I don’t believe it. Is this really what I think it is?’” 

For a conflict archaeologist and lifelong Revolutionary War buff like Smith, hunting down one of the most elusive figures in American military history never gets old. But the Ohio native also never expected such a long and hot pursuit. “When I first got the job at the institute here I wasn’t thinking about Francis Marion,” he says. “But once I got here I suddenly realized, ‘Hey I’m in the same state. You know, this could be really cool. How do I build on this?’ ”

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