The Battle of Black Mingo

Colonel Francis Marion’s victory at Blue Savannah put a mark on him and his men’s heads. Marion and his band of partisans withdrew into the White Marsh on the border with North and South Carolina. Loyalist militia, which should have been marching west to join Ferguson, put to the torch patriot houses and settlements in eastern South Carolina, and established a string of outposts to protect the British lines of communication from Marion as Cornwallis invaded North Carolina. At the end of September 1780, Marion, with just sixty men remaining, emerged from the White Marsh to gather more patriot partisans, get revenge for the loyalists’ depredations, and harass the new loyalist outposts.

On 28 September, Marion received word that Col John Ball, his relative, had about fifty loyalist militia encamped at Patrick Dollard’s respectable Red House Tavern at Shepherd’s Ferry on the west bank of Black Mingo Creek. Though they had ridden hard through treacherous cypress swamps for the past 48 hours, Ball’s small exposed encampment was a perfect target for his diminished force. If he hurried, he could catch the loyalists drinking that night in the tavern.

Around midnight on the 29th, Marion’s men crossed Black Mingo Creek at Willtown Bridge about a mile north of Red House Tavern. Unfortunately, an alert sentry heard the horses’ hooves pounding on the bridge’s wooden planks, and fired a warning shot. Ball’s men, enjoying a tankard of ale packed in the tavern’s common room, spilled out into an adjacent field and prepared to meet Marion’s assault.

Surprise lost, Marion, in desperation, decided to attack anyway. He expected Ball to defend from the tavern, and divided his men up into three groups to surround the building. The loyalists, who could hear Marion’s men dismounting in the distance, waited patiently in the darkness, steadied by Ball’s leadership. As the center group approached the tavern, the fire from the loyalists’ initial volley lit up the night from less than thirty yards away and laid low several of Marion’s men and officers. The Americans fell back into the trees and nearly broke, but Marion and Major John James rallied the wavering partisans. Using the trees as cover, the center group advanced and fired on the loyalists exposed in the field. With the loyalists transfixed by the center group, the right group advanced along the creek bank and engaged Ball’s men from the flank. Taking fire from two directions and unable to adequately respond to either, it was now the loyalists’ turn to waver. When Marion’s left group skirted around the tavern and appeared behind the loyalists, they broke and fled into the morass of the Black Mingo Swamp.

Marion captured all of the loyalists’ supplies, including most of their guns, powder, baggage, and horses, including Ball’s own mount. The spirited sorrel gelding was a magnificent animal and claimed by Marion himself. Marion cheekily named him “Old Ball” and rode him for the rest of the war. More importantly, though less than 120 men were involved in the Battle of Black Mingo and it was over in less than 15 minutes, the battle cemented Marion’s aggressive, but tolerant, reputation in South Carolina. Five of the loyalist captives, including an officer, joined Marion’s band and Marion graciously accepted their services without reservation. Marion’s magnanimity was in stark contrast to the actions of the British and loyalists, who had recently torched every property owned by patriots or not sufficiently active loyalists on a 15 miles wide by 70 mile swath along the Black River.

Marion wanted to continue on and attack the next nearby loyalist encampment at Black River Church, but it was larger, nearly a hundred loyalists, and the men balked. They had heard stories of what happened to their homes, so Marion released all who wanted to see to their families and hopefully bring in the harvest. With just seventeen men, Marion withdrew to Snow Island just below the confluence of the Lynches and Great Pee Dee Rivers. Hidden, hard to get to, and naturally defensible, over the next few months Marion turned Snow Island into a supply depot, recruiting station, and sanctuary from which he would strike the British and loyalists anywhere in Eastern South Carolina.

The dispersal of his men after the Battle of Black Mingo had the unexpected side effect of further spreading Marion’s reputation far and wide. Patriot recruits sought him out and loyalists turned coat on Marion’s generous and fair reputation towards former loyalists. Those loyalist recruits who didn’t join the American cause stayed local to protect their homes and settlements. Once his men returned, no British supply convoy from Charleston was safe and few got through to Cornwallis. After the Battle of Black Mingo, the British temporarily abandoned the construction of a string of fortifications across Eastern South Carolina, which subsequently broke Cornwallis’ lines of communication back to the coast.

Despite the outsized effects of his victory at Black Mingo, Marion understood how close he came to being the one caught in a crossfire in the dark outside Red House Tavern. For the rest of the war, whenever Marion approached a British or loyalist force he planned to surprise, he never crossed a bridge without first placing blankets over the planks.

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