As far back as the eleventh century B.C. attackers confronted by fortified cities and towns, castles, and forts, used siege towers to elevate their own soldiers to heights equal to the defenders. The Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese all used such weapons to defeat enemies situated behind high walls. These machines of war provided the inspiration that produced a “towering success” in an American Revolutionary battle in 1781.
After the Pyrrhic victory at Guilford Court House, North Carolina, on March 15, 1781, Lord Cornwallis was forced to take his small army to Wilmington to rest and refit. This left the supply line between the bulk of the remaining British troops at Camden and Charleston, South Carolina, vulnerable to attack. Nathanael Greene, loser at Guilford Court House but still commanding a sizable force, sent Col. Henry Lee with about three hundred Continental troops of his own “legion” to attack the posts protecting the British line of communications. The string of outposts included Fort Granby, Orangeburg, Fort Motte, and Fort Watson.
On April 14, Lee joined forces with local militia leader Francis Marion, who commanded about eighty militiamen, and decided that their first target would be Fort Watson, a lonely outpost along the Santee River. Inside the fort were about 114 British regulars and Loyalist militia. Just as the Americans advanced on the position, the commander and namesake of the fort, Col. John Watson, rode to Camden to conference with Lord Rawdon, the commander of British forces in South Carolina. Left in command was Lt. John McKay. “The fort stood on an Indian mound, about forty feet high, and was stockaded, and had three rows of abbatis round it.” “Light Horse Harry” Lee reported that it was surrounded by “table land”—low, level land.
Marion and Lee moved quickly to place their troops between the mound and a nearby lake, the source of the British garrison’s water. Unfortunately for the attackers, Lieutenant McKay responded by digging a well within the fort’s abatis (tree branches sharpened and tangled together to form a fenced barrier). The American forces had no tools for digging siege lines and no cannon to blast the British from their position. Confounded in their task, the Americans could only take cover and harass the British defenders with long-range musket fire. This failed to intimidate the defenders. The British had no cannon but because of their height advantage were able to keep the besiegers away from their works by their own musket fire. The Americans sent a request for surrender by white flag but Lieutenant McKay refused to capitulate. It appeared that neither side could gain an advantage.
Marion and Lee proved to be open minded and creative. Among the officers under their command was Maj. Hezekiah Maham. Born in South Carolina in 1739, Maham was a well-known and financially accomplished planter. Although popular locally, he was also a cantankerous contrarian. He served as a member of the Provincial Congress when the conflict with Britain began in 1775. He joined a militia unit in 1776 and eventually became a major of light dragoons. In 1780 he joined Marion’s detachment as commander of cavalry.
Maham approached the leaders of the expedition and shared an idea. He suggested that they construct a tower of a “strong oblong pen, to be covered on the top with a floor of logs, and protected on the side opposite to the fort with a breastwork of light timber.” It would allow riflemen at its top to shoot down into the British fort. The American leaders quickly agreed. With plenty of trees nearby, the troops set to work. Materials were prepared and under the cover of darkness on the night of April 22 the tower was constructed at the base of the mound. On morning of April 23, riflemen took to the top of the fifty-foot tower and began shooting down into the British stockade.
As soon as the fire from the rifles forced the British defenders under cover, infantrymen led by Ens. Baker Johnson of Lee’s Legion began moving forward up the mound toward the abatis. The British tried to resist the approaching troops with musketry but were driven from the walls as soon as they exposed themselves. As the first Americans began pulling away the branches of the abatis, Lieutenant McKay came to the conclusion that further resistance would be futile. He ordered a white flag mounted atop the stockade. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. In addition to the entire garrison, a great amount of stores also fell to the Americans, including asubstantial amount of ammunition which the Americans “soon turned to great advantage.” The fall of the fort also severed the communications line between Camden and Charleston.
Maham would later command his own body of horse as a lieutenant colonel. He served in several skirmishes and earned a reputation among the Tories for his ability. He also earned a reputation as a jealous and cantankerous subordinate. Ill and unable to continue fighting, he retired to his plantation in 1782. Tory militia took him prisoner but allowed him to remain at home on parole. Maham would survive the war, serving in both parish and state offices. He died in 1789.
Colonel Watson brought a relief force of about four hundred troops toward Fort Watson but it was too late. Intimidated by Lee and Marion, he fled. The Americans chased the British forces long enough to prevent their participation in the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill. The Americans then resumed attacking the British supply line. They attacked Fort Motte on the Congaree River on May 8. They would use another creative tactic—flaming arrows—in capturing that post on May 12. Maham’s idea of building a tower was used again successfully in the sieges of Augusta and Ninety-Six in May and June.
Colorful phrase provided by Don Hagist in “Most Famous Weapon?” Journal of the American Revolution, July 14, 2016, allthingsliberty.com/2016/07/most-famous-weapon/.
William Dobein James, A Sketch of the Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion and A History of his Brigade, from its Rise in June, 1780, until Disbanded in December, 1782; With Descriptions of Characters and Scenes, not heretofore published (Marietta, GA: Continental Book Co., 1948), 109.
Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States Volume II (New York, Bradsord and Inskeep, 1812), 51.
James,A Sketch of the Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion, 110.
Walter Edgar, ed. The South Carolina Encyclopedia Guide to the American Revolution in South Carolina (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2012).
Jeff Dacus. “The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Misfortune: The Fall of Fort Motte,” Journal of the American Revolution, March 19, 2020, allthingsliberty.com/2020/03/the-slings-and-arrows-of-outrageous-misfortune-the-fall-of-fort-motte/.
It would be interesting to see what remains of the RW encampment/battle sites in Fort Granby, Orangeburg, Fort Motte, and Fort Watson. I plan to visit all in SC, last time I only made it to Charleston and immediate environs.