The American Revolution in South Carolina

Halfway Swamp

December 12, 1780

Patriot Cdr:

Col. Francis Marion
British Cdr:

Major Robert McLeroth






Old District: 

Camden District
Present County:

Clarendon County

Perhaps one of the most unbelievable actions occurred here. Col. Francis Marion and his Patriots attacked a party of Loyalist recruits escorted by Major Robert McLeroth with a detachment of his men from the 64th Regiment of Foot on their way to the British post at Camden.

Major McLeroth negotiated with Col. Marion to settle the matter with a mass duel. While each side drew up teams for the duel Major McLeroth sent for reinforcements. When the reinforcements appeared Col. Marion and his men fell back.

Later that day Col. Marion tried once again to ambush the British still traveling to Camden by having his men occupy the Singleton family mill and out buildings. Shortly after doing so Col Marion’s men fled the area without firing a shot when they discovered the entire Singleton family had Smallpox.

Robert D. Bass adds quite a bit more detail in his 1959 book entitled, "Swamp Fox," and it seems that he got most of his information directly from William Dobein James's book, entitled "A Sketch of the Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion" (however, W.D. James erroneously reported that this event took place in mid-February of 1781):

By December 12th, Col. Francis Marion had passed Nelson's Ferry and just above Halfway Swamp, some twenty miles beyond the ferry, he overtook the unsuspecting and dawdling Major McLeroth, patiently herding the new recruits for the 7th Regiment along toward Camden.

Col. Marion immediately drove in the British pickets. He dispatched riflemen to skirmish with the rear guard. Then, wheeling his horsemen around Major McLeroth's flank, be began a direct attack. The veterans of the 64th Regiment squirmed and skirmished and finally reached a field enclosed by a rail fence. Into the enclosure they scrambled, dragging in the frightened young recruits behind them. They then posted themselves behind the fence jams and defied the Patriot horsemen. On the east of the Santee Road, just beyond range of the British guns, lay a dark, boggy cypress pond, its shoreline stretching off toward Halfway Swamp. Here Col. Marion drew up his troops and waited.

Soon Major McLeroth sent a British officer under a flag of truce. The redcoat protested vehemently against the Americans shooting British pickets. He argued and argued. He swore that shooting pickets was contrary to all the laws of civilized warfare. With the fervor of wronged innocence, he dared the Americans to come out of the woods and fight in the open field.

Col. Marion replied as vehemently. He maintained that burning the houses of Patriots was more indefensible than shooting armed pickets. He cited the forays of Wemyss and Tarleton. As long as the British burned houses he would continue to shoot pickets. "I consider the challenge that of a man in desperate circumstances," he concluded. "But if Major McLeroth wishes to see mortal combat between teams of twenty men picked by each side, I will gratify him."

Major McLeroth accepted. After British and American deputies had selected a battleground near an old oak tree that stood in the field, he chose twenty sharpshooters and sent them to their post. Col. Marion chose Major John Vanderhorst to command his team. Second in command he placed Capt. Samuel Price of All Saints. Then he began slowly, deliberately choosing his marksmen. As he decided on a man, he wrote his name on a slip of paper. The first of these he handed to Capt. Gavin Witherspoon. He chose only the bravest and none refused the ordeal.

"My brave soldiers!" Marion exclaimed, after Major Vanderhorst had formed his men. "You are twenty men picked this day out of my whole regiment. I know all of you, and I have often witnessed your bravery. In the name of your country, I call upon you once more to show it! My confidence in you is great, and I am sure you will not disappoint me. Fight like men! Fight as you have always done, and you are sure of victory."

Major Vanderhorst then turned to Capt. Witherspoon and asked: "What distance would you choose as the surest to strike with buckshot?"

"Fifty yards for the first fire," replied Capt. Witherspoon.

"Then, when we get within fifty yards, my boys," the major told them, "as I am not a good judge of distances, Mr. Witherspoon will tap me on the shoulder. I will then give the word, and you will form on my left opposite those fellows. As you form, each man will fire at the one directly opposite him, and on my word few will be left for a second shot."

Major Vanderhorst advanced boldly to within a hundred yards of the British, but as he was closing on fifty yards, an officer passed hurriedly along the enemy line. At his command, the redcoats shouldered their muskets and retreated in quick step. After giving three cheers, Major Vanderhorst and his men returned to their comrades.

However, Major McLeroth was only stalling. As soon as he had seen Col. Marion's advance guard, he had sent couriers racing for help. They met Capt. John Coffin and one hundred and forty mounted infantrymen on their way to help escort the new recruits. But instead of galloping to rescue Major McLeroth, Capt. Coffin turned back and lodged his troops behind Swift Creek.

"I understand that McLeroth sent to Coffin for reinforcements. In that case he had either beaten off the enemy, or was only skirmishing with them. Otherwise his messenger could not have gotten through," Lord Rawdon wrote to Lord Cornwallis. "Information was given Coffin that he was to be attacked in the night and a large body of the Enemy approached very near him in the evening. Under these circumstances Coffin judged it best to retire."

During the night, Major McLeroth's troops lit huge camp fires. They burned fence rails and heaped on logs. They shouted and they sang. Toward midnight they began to quiet down. Then, abandoning their baggage, veterans and recruits slipped noiselessly away on the road to Singleton's Mills.

At daylight Col. Marion discovered the ruse. Immediately he dispatched Lt. Col. Hugh Horry and a hundred horsemen to beat Major McLeroth to Singleton's. Lt. Col. Horry soon realized that he could not overtake his enemy. Dataching Major John James and a squadron with the fleetest horses, he told them to ride around the millpond and seize Singleton's houses.

Major James and his men outraced the British. He circled the pond and swept up Singleton's Hill just as Major McLeroth's runners reach the foot. His troops seized the buildings and from their safety delivered one fire. Then, to the amazement of their approaching enemy, the Patriots quickly remounted their steeds and fled as if from the devil.

The Singleton family had Smallpox!

"I have just received an express informing me Major McLeroth was attacked this day by seven hundred Rebels," Capt. John Coffin informed Lord Rawdon on December 13. "The Attack began at twelve o'clock at Singleton's Mills - he has sent for a reinforcement which I understand is at hand, and shall proceed with an expedition."

After Capt. Coffin's note there was silence. "Not even a rumor has reached us," Lord Rawdon complained to Lord Corwallis on December 14th. All next day he waited for a word from the troops at Singleton's. "I began to be uneasy at not hearing from McLeroth when to my great surprise, I saw him enter the room," Lord Rawdon wrote to Lord Cornwallis on December 16th. "The matter has been as I expected: Marion had been reconnoitering him and there has been some loose firing at his outposts. Capt. George Kelly and two privates of the 64th were wounded. The Rebels lost ten or a dozen. Coffin joined McLeroth near Singleton's; but no pursuit of the enemy was undertaken. Marion (whose force is about 600) lies between Nelson's Ferry and the 64th, sixteen miles from the latter." Then, with a show of resolution, he concluded: "I must drive Marion out of that Country; but I cannot yet say what steps I shall take to effect it."

Next day, Col. Francis Marion moved back down the Santee Road. His show of force had ended in a petty stroke, but unknown to him it had ended the military career of Major Robert McLeroth. "I must immediately dislodge Marion," Lord Rawdon informed Lord Cornwalls that morning. "But as McLeroth has not quite enterprise enough, I shall let him go to Charlestown (which he wishes)." Major Robert McLeroth was being cashiered and sent home.

William Dobein James, who had ridden with Col. Francis Marion on this expedition, testified to the humanity of Major Robert McLeroth: "It has been currently reported that he carried his dislike of house burning so far that he neglected to carry into effect the orders of his commander-in-chielf on that point to such an extent as to gain his ill will and that of many other British officers."

Lt. Col. Peter Horry later wrote that each side had several wounded and that Major McLeroth left them in a tavern under a flag of truce. When Col. Francis Marion arrived at said tavern, the old woman who ran it exclaimed: "If I ain't downright sorry to see you, then I'll be hanged. You are chasing the British to kill them. Ain't it so now, Colonel?"

"That is indeed my business," Col. Marion told her grimly.

"Well, dear me, now! And did I not tell you so? But pray now, my dear Colonel Marion, let me beg of you, don't you do any harm to that dear good man, that Major Muckleworth, who went from here a little while ago. For, oh, he's the sweetest-spoken, mildest-looking, noblest-spirited Englishman I ever saw in all my born days."

She led Col. Marion into a nearby cabin. On pallets lay several wounded men. Attending them was a well-dressed middle-aged man. To Col. Marion's greeting he replied calmly, "I am a surgeon in the service of his Britannic Majesty." As Col. Marion nodded, the doctor continued, "I was left by Major McLeroth to take care of the wounded, of whom Sir, I believe that nearly one-half are your own men."

The old lady then told about the money Major McLeroth had paid for a fortnight's lodging for all of the wounded. "And now, Colonel, would it not be a burning shame to kill such a dear good gentleman as that?"

After leaving, Col. Marion rode a long while in silence. Then, turning to Lt. Col. Peter Horry, he said, "Well, I suppose I feel now very much as I should feel were I in pursuit of a brother to kill him." Much later, Col. Marion recounted, "Had the British officers but acted as became a wise and magnanimous enemy, they might easily have recovered the revolted colonies."

Col. Francis, Lord Rawdon soon thereafter sent out Major John Campbell to take over the 64th Regiment of Foot. "In justice to McLeroth," he secretly wrote to Lord Cornwallis, "I should mention that his mild and equitable behaviour to the inhabitants of that country has been of great Service."

(includes minor edits by this Author)

Known Patriot Participants

Known British/Loyalist Participants

Col. Francis Marion - Commanding Officer

Kingstree Regiment of Militia detachment led by Lt. Col. Hugh Horry, Lt. Col. Peter Horry, and Major John James, with seven (7) known companies, led by:
- Capt. John Clarke
- Capt. Daniel Conyers
- Capt. James McCauley
- Capt. John McCauley
- Capt. Samuel Price
- Capt. William Clay Snipes
- Capt. Thomas Waties

Cheraws District Regiment of Militia detachment led by Lt. Col. Lemuel Benton, with seven (7) known companies, led by:
- Capt. John Butler
- Capt. Guthridge Lyons
- Capt. Alexander McIntosh
- Capt. Moses Pearson
- Capt. Daniel Sparks
- Capt. William Standard
- Capt. Daniel Williams

Berkeley County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Major John Vanderhorst, with three (3) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Robert McCottry
- Capt. William McCottry
- Capt. Gavin Witherspoon

Upper Craven County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Major Tristram Thomas, with one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. John Baxter

Kershaw Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. James Postell with unknown number of men

Total Patriot Forces - 700

Major Robert McLeroth - Commanding Officer

64th Regiment of Foot led by Major Robert McLeroth with 200 men

7th Regiment of Foot (Royal Fusiliers) detachment led by Capt. George Kelly with 100 men



















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