by LTC JD Lock
Queen’s & King’s Rangers (Robert Rogers)
It is believed and written by many that when “the time came for the colonies to fight for their independence, the American Rangers were ready.” To a degree, when one looks to the likes of Francis Marion, “The Swamp Fox,” that may be true. But, from the perspective of Robert Rogers and his Rangers, that is contrary to the fact. As circumstances would have it, Rogers, who had never earned the trust of those like George Washington, sought and received a commission from Great Britain, consequently raising and leading the Queen’s Rangers and King’s Rangers during the American Revolution, flying the Union Jack of Great Britain rather then the red, white, and blue colors of the newly declared American colonies.
As a result of this alliance, Rogers’ greatest claim to fame during the Revolution and possibly most infamous overall… was the seizure of Nathan Hale. Captured by one of Rogers’ scouting units and personally escorted to confinement by Rogers, himself, the great American patriot Hale would be tried and hung from the gallows shortly thereafter, as a traitor, but not before uttering his immortal declaration, “I only regret that I have one life to lose for my country.”
From 1776 to 1781, Rogers obtained an additional seven Battle Honors for his famed Rangers, but, unfortunately, under the flag of the Queen’s and King’s Rangers,
The American revolutionaries were not without their Rangers, despite Rogers’ support of the Crown. On the brink of war, the Continental Congress passed a resolution on 14 June 1775, on what is known as Flag Day, that “six companies of expert riflemen be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia.” From these beginnings of the Continental Army, a group of expert riflemen composed of hardy frontiersmen were formed in 1777 into an organization George Washington referred to as The Corps of Rangers. Commanded by Dan Morgan, this Ranger force was singled out by British General John Burgoyne, the commander of British forces intent on isolating the New England colonies, as “the most famous corps of the Continental Army, all of them crack shots.”
Following a disastrous expedition to Quebec, Canada, and his subsequent capture and parole as a prisoner, Morgan was appointed a colonel of a rifle regiment. Morgan’s Corps of Rangers was coming to fruition. For the remainder of the war, the fame of Morgan and of his Rangers continued to grow as they deployed throughout the colonies engaging British forces.
Morgan would continue to fight in support of the American Revolution in a number of significant battles, including the battle at Cowpens, South Carolina, on 17 January 1781. An attack against Morgan and his “crack shots” by a British force of 1,100 men would result in a brilliant double envelopment that has been called by historians the “American Cannae.” The British defeat was total with over 110 soldiers killed and 830 captured. Morgan’s losses were placed at twelve killed and sixty-one wounded.
Francis Marion – ‘Swamp Fox’
Though titled Rangers by Washington and a grateful American people, Morgan’s Rangers were not, in essence, Rangers in the sense of the uniquely trained, motivated, and challenged soldier. When one considers those parameters, there truly was only one group of American revolutionaries who could be considered an excellent example of early American Ranger prowess. This highly successful group of Partisans was known as “Marion’s Brigade.”
Formed in 1780 as a result of the brutality of British General Cornwallis’ severe measures, this unit was commanded by Brigadier General Francis Marion, considered by many to be one of the boldest and most dashing figures of the American Revolution. Taking refuge in forests and swamps, for which he earned the appellation the “Swamp Fox” from his enemies, Marion’s brigade kept the British off-balance with quick movements that captured British troops, destroyed supplies, and disrupted lines of communications.
Frustration had set in on the British in regard to Marion, and the decision was made by Cornwallis’ replacement as field commander in South Carolina, Lord Francis Rawdon, to try and eradicate the pest once and for all. A double-pronged attack was planned with Lieutenant Colonel Watson marching down the Santee to attack Marion while Colonel Welbore Ellis Doyle crossed the Lynches River to cut off the rebel’s escape. On 5 March 1781, Watson began his movement, marching from Fort Watson. Late that afternoon, he bivouacked south of Nelson’s Ferry. Later that evening, one of Marion’s scouts reconnoitered the camp and rode off to warn his brigadier. Marion was located past Murry’s Ferry. When brought word of Watson’s deployment, he correctly realized that this was a strategic attempt by the British to drive him from the southern region of the state. Watson’s Buffs were considered to be one of the finest regiments in the British army. Marion knew that an engagement with them would not be easy and he could expect no support from the American army. The only unit capable, Lee’s Legion, had been recalled to the north to support Greene. As with all his previous battles, he was on his own with this fight.
Undaunted, the Swamp Fox ordered an immediate advance and moved to position himself at Wiboo Swamp. There, Marion waited, knowing that Watson would eventually appear. Soon, the British regiment marched into view. Both Watson and Marion rode out to face each other across a quarter-mile causeway spanning the mire and marsh of the swamp.
Watson did not take long to initiate the fight. Sending forth his Loyalist cavalry to cross the causeway, Marion met the charge with one of his own led by Peter Horry and his mounted men. Following a brief skirmish on the narrow land bridge, both sides withdrew. Advancing his main force as support, Marion again ordered Horry to charge. Undaunted, the British Regulars held their ground, unlimbered their field cannon, and repelled the attack.
As Horry withdrew, Watson’s mounted Tory dragoons advanced right behind, successfully crossing the causeway. A counter charge of the remainder of Marion’s cavalry pushed the dragoons back across the land bridge. With his cavalry defeated, Watson advanced his guards. Imposing and silent, highly disciplined and trained, impressive in their bright red uniforms, the guards led with bayonets that gleamed and sparkled on the ends of upraised muskets. Realizing that he had done enough and that his men would not be able to stand in the open ground against such a disciplined and highly trained force, Marion had his men remount and follow him, leaving the field of battle to Watson.
The morning following their initial engagement, Watson resumed his march down the Santee Road with Marion slowly backing away before him, remaining out of the range of the British artillery. That evening both sides encamped, though Marion did order his night patrols to take shots at Watson’s sentinels.
Morning arrived and Watson again resumed his march with Marion leading. At Mount Hope Swamp, Marion had his men disassemble the bridge. A covering force of riflemen were swept aside by Watson’s artillery, allowing Watson’s guard to ford the stream unopposed. The cat and mouse advance continued on the far bank.
Crossing the road that led from Murry’s Ferry to Kingstree, Watson continued to follow Marion toward Georgetown. Soon, though, just as Marion had expected, the guardsmen wheeled around and made their way back to the Kingstree intersection. Lower Bridge was only twelve miles away. To cross it would put Watson deep within the heartland of the Whig resistance. This was the decisive point of the campaign that required Marion to attack.
Seventy men, thirty of whom were sharpshooters, were dispatched to ride ahead to secure and hold the Lower Bridge under Major James. With knowledge of the land, James and his men were able to secure the bridge before the arrival of Watson’s dragoons. Within minutes, the planks had been removed from the center of the bridge and the stringers burned on the east end. The sharpshooters were placed at the abutment where they had the clearest shot at the far end of the bridge while the remaining musketeers secured their flanks. Marion and his brigade soon arrived and forded the river. Pleased with James’ deployment, Marion reinforced him with an additional company and moved to a reserve position to the rear and out of sight.
The east bank of the river was low, open, and swampy. The west bank was a high bluff with the roadway passing down through a ravine to the bridge. The distance from bank to bank was the perfect sharpshooter distance, fifty yards.
Realizing that he needed to clear the far bank first before his soldiers could safely enter the defile to cross the bridge, Watson emplaced his cannon. But the bluff was too high and the artillery canister just passed overhead of the defenders on the east bank when fired. An attempt to move the cannon and depress the muzzles led to the crews being run off by the highly accurate fire of the sharpshooters.
Curtailing his attempt to clear the far side first, Watson formed his men in column and ordered the first column forward with its captain out front. Upon reaching the ford site, the captain was killed with one shot from the Marion’s sharpshooter commander. Four men running forward to recover his body were also killed in sequence.
Baffled about what to do next, Watson waited on the bluff until evening, when he withdrew to a plantation a mile north of the bridge. To the plantation’s Whig owner, Watson acknowledged he had “never seen such shooting before in his life.” While Watson established his headquarters in the plantation house, Marion and his men bivouacked in the woods of the ridge south of the ford. Marion and his men had won the day’s skirmish. But they were engaged with one of the finest regiments in the British army and, thus, in the world. Marion knew that if he did not continue to press, they’d be back with a vengeance.
Before daybreak, Marion roused his men and deployed his troops. To get things off to a spirited start, he dispatched a detachment of sharpshooters across the river to the plantation where Watson and his troops were housed with orders to shoot his sentries and to wreak havoc. These sharpshooters were proving to be so successful that Watson felt compelled by noon to redeploy his regiment to a large open field about a half-mile away.
Unfortunately for Watson, the lack of trees and concealment did not diminish the fires, nor their accuracy. With his men in a panic and the number of wounded and suffering growing, Watson shelved his pride and addressed a letter to Marion not only requesting permission to send seven of his most seriously wounded through the lines but once again alluding to the fact that Watson believed Marion was conducting himself in a manner contrary to civilized war. Marion’s response was to once again reiterate his position that he was only responding in kind to British transgressions. In addition, he sent a pass for the safe passage of the wounded and their attendants.
Watson and his men remained where they were, subsisting off the plantation, gathering from those homes around them anything else they needed. Scouts abounded about the British regiment. Watson was cut off from outside information, for his messengers could not break through Marion’s cordon. As his situation grew more desperate with each passing day, Watson finally decided to retreat. Leaving his dead in an abandoned rock quarry and loading his wounded on wagons, Watson and his crack regiment began their withdrawal at the double-time on 28 March toward Georgetown. Seven miles later at Ox Swamp, he encountered destroyed bridges and an abatis across the causeway. The situation was not good. Swamp to his left and right, passage blocked to the front and Marion closing in from the rear, Watson had to quickly choose whether to flee or fight.
Choosing escape, Watson abruptly wheeled his Regiment to the right and proceeded to move at a quick pace across fifteen miles of marsh and pine lands to the Santee Road. In pursuit was Peter Horry, firing on the retreating forms from every bush and thicket. The infantry moved at a trot the entire way, stopping only to fire a volley to their rear. Within the formation were the wagons, periodically stopping to gather more wounded or dead.
Nine miles from Georgetown, the harried regiment approached the Sampit River. Having dashed ahead to destroy the bridge, Horry and his men were positioned fifty yards across the river. Undaunted by the destroyed bridge or the rebels’ fire, the lead guardsmen closed column and plunged across the river. As the advance guard made its way across the river, Marion fell upon the rear guard.
A quick fight ensued with heavy firing. Watson rode back to rally his men only to have his horse shot from under him. Mounting a second animal, he ordered his artillery to open fire with grapeshot. As Marion’s men turned back from the fires, Watson loaded two wagons with wounded. Leaving twenty dead from the engagement, he, the wagons, and the remainder of his regiment forced the ford.
Safely camped in the vicinity of Georgetown later that evening, Watson was extremely bitter, complaining that Marion and his men would “not sleep and fight like gentlemen.” Instead, “like savages,” they were “eternally firing and whooping around us by night, and by day waylaying and popping at us from behind every tree!” Marion and his partisan group of “uncivilized” American militia had soundly defeated the Buffs Regiment, one of the finest fighting combat units in the world.
Following additional successes by the Swamp Fox, General Nathanael Greene would write the following to Francis Marion:
When I consider how much you have done and suffered, and under what disadvantage you have maintained your ground, I am at a loss which to admire most, your courage and fortitude, or your address and management. Certain it is no man has a better claim to the public thanks, or is more generally admired than you. History affords no instance wherein an officer has kept possession of a country under so many disadvantages as you have; surrounded on every side with a superior force; hunted from every quarter with veteran troops, you have found means to elude all their attempts, and to keep alive the expiring hopes of an oppressed Militia, when all succor seemed to be cut off. To fight the enemy bravely with a prospect of victory is nothing; but to fight with intrepidity under the constant impression of defeat, and inspire irregular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself. Nothing will give me greater pleasure, than to do justice to your merit, and I shall miss no opportunity of declaring to Congress, the Commander-in-chief of the American Army, and to the world in general, the great sense I have of your merit and services.
Most crucial to the American Revolutionary War effort was the fact that between 15 August 1780 and 8 September 1781, Marion and his men alone held eastern South Carolina from the British. Hiding in his lair on Peyre’s Plantation or Snow’s Island by day and stealthily emerging at night to strike around midnight, Marion and his men would wreak havoc on British units from White Marsh to Black Mingo before fading once again into the morasses of the Santee or Peedee Rivers. Immortalized in song and story, Francis Marion became a hero of the Revolution second only to the commander-in-chief and first President of the United States, George Washington.