Horatio Gates’ loss at Camden and Thomas Sumter’s defeat at Fishing Creek were body blows to the Patriot cause in the South in the late summer of 1780. Despite his victory at Musgrove’s Mill, Isaac Shelby was run out of South Carolina and sought refuge with the Overmountain Men beyond the Blue Ridge. To capitalize on the British momentum, Major Patrick Ferguson sought to mass his Loyalist militia, then training in disparate camps across Georgia and the Carolinas, and strike the Overmountain mustering camps ending their threat once and for all.
But Sumter, Shelby and Gates weren’t the last organized Patriots in the South. Southern partisans under Lt Col Francis Marion were dispatched by Gates just prior the Battle of Camden to seize and destroy bridges and ferries to prevent Cornwallis’ escape. Gates’ catastrophic loss left Marion and his 70 odd horsemen deep in the swampy wilderness northeast of the Santee River.
The diminutive Marion (he was only 5 ft tall) was one of America’s most talented and aggressive partisan leaders in the South during the American Revolution. In the beginning of September 1780, Marion’s men rescued 250 Maryland and Delaware Continentals taken prisoner at Camden. Believing the war lost most declined to join Marion, and went north. The rescue though got back to the loyalists then marching to join Ferguson.
On 4 September, Marion’s advanced guard met and charged a patrol of Loyalists on a road along the Little Pee Dee River. One of the captured Loyalists told Marion that Major Micajah Gainey’s force of 400 militia was camped three miles down the road. They were camped at a small loyalist settlement for the night.
Despite the overwhelming odds, Marion decided to attack. But the loyalist lied: Gainey’ men men weren’t camped, but on the march. Furthermore, Gainey was with the men the patriots just attacked, who were not a patrol, but the advanced guard; the advanced guard of a force dispatched specifically the recapture the prisoners and defeat Marion. Gainey had escaped the attack and warned his main body. When Marion charged down the road hoping to catch the Loyalists at breakfast, he ran straight into Gainey’s men in battle line blocking the road. Not wishing to push an attack against a far superior adversary prepared for him, Marion and his men fled back up the road.
Gainey could not pursue because he had few horses remaining after the loss of his advanced guard, but he took up the chase at the double. However, Marion did not flee far. He set up an ambush at Blue Savannah, a few miles down road. The open sandy fields punctuated by scrub pines and small lakes (made by meteor strikes in the distant past. These sandy depressions are filled with water and are known locally as “Savannahs”) meant little cover for the loyalists on the road. Gainey’s men, led by Captain Barefield, marched right into the ambush. Marion’s men let out a devastating volley then charged the confused loyalist mass. Barefield’s men got off one volley before they broke and ran into the swamp.
For just three men wounded, Marion inflicted 30 killed and twice as many wounded on a enemy almost five times his force’s size. The Battle of Blue Savannah was Francis Marion’s first battle, and first victory of many, in the American Revolution against the British and Loyalists in the South. Effectively alone, Marion carried the Patriot cause in South Carolina while other American forces reorganized or continued to muster. Dubbed the “Swamp Fox” by Banastre Tarelton, Marion roused the entire Pee Dee and Santee river basins against the British. More immediately, Marion prevented many loyalist bands from eastern South Carolina from joining Ferguson’s expedition against the Overmountain men.