A Fight of Intrepidity: Siege of Fort Watson

By Joe Kriz


It’s April 1781, and American Lt. Colonel Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee and his legion of men, reinforced by the 1st North Carolina Continental Regiment, have teamed up with Brigadier General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion’s militia outside of Charles Town (modern day Charleston), South Carolina. A combined force of 380 men, their target was Fort Watson, a British fort built atop an abandoned Santee Indian Burial and Ceremonial Mound.

Though only 20 yards wide, the elevated fort stood nearly 30 feet tall and was flanked by abatis. Inside, British Lt. James McKay and a band of 114 men stood guard, defending the British supply line from Charles Town to inland Camden, including a failed attack by Major General Thomas Sumter earlier in the year.

If Lee and Marion wanted to avoid the same fate, they’d have a literal and figurative uphill battle. Despite outnumbering Fort Watson forces, their men lacked adequate ammunition, artillery, and supplies. A victory here would not only disrupt British activity in South Carolina, but also reequip their soldiers with much needed arms and food.

‘Come and Take It’

Arriving on April 15, Lee and Marion demand McKay’s surrender, to which he responded: “Come and take it.” And so, the Siege of Fort Watson was on.

Unfortunately, with no artillery, and Fort Watson self-sufficient thanks to a well dug from nearby Scott’s Lake, defeating McKay would prove more challenging than anticipated. Add the spread of smallpox among Marion’s men to the mix and morale was quickly waning after six days outside the walls.

That is, until Lt. Colonel Hezekiah Maham, commander of a regiment of South Carolina Light Dragoons, suggested the ambitious construction of a siege tower. Needing to be taller than then enemy’s rampart, the tower would place rifleman above the walls to shoot down into the fort.

Maham’s Tower

With no tools, Lee and Marion’s men were ordered to seize axes from nearby plantations to build Maham’s tower. The second obstacle was falling the necessary trees to build the massive structure, as those immediately surrounding the fort had been truncated by the British to reduce enemy cover. However, this increased distance ultimately helped conceal the tower’s construction.

By the night of April 22, the notched and fastened logs were assembled as the tower rose toward to the sky and was later placed within striking distance of the outpost. At dawn, covering fire from a detachment of Maryland Continentals allowed riflemen to climb into the crow’s nest of the tower and unload musket fire into the fort.

Under surprise fire from above, McKay and his men crawled to avoid the sharpshooters, to no avail. Now distracted, Lee and Marion’s men rushed to break through the field fortifications with their axes and storm the fort. Again, Marion offered terms of surrender.

Seeing the inevitable assault, and having been shot during the siege, McKay and his men laid down their arms in defeat.

Lt. Colonel Lee would later recall the battle in his memoir, writing “A party of riflemen, being ready, took post in the Maham tower the moment it was completed; and a detachment of musketry, under the cover of the riflemen, moved to make a lodgment in the enemy’s ditch, supported by the legion infantry with fixed bayonets. Such was the effect of the fire from the riflemen, having thorough command of every part of the fort, from the relative supereminence of the tower, that every attempt to resist the lodgment was crushed. The commandant, finding every resource cut off, hung out the white flag.”

Fort Watson was taken on April 23 and subsequently destroyed, with the capture of all 114 men. Only two Continental soldiers died during the siege.

A Peculiar Talent

In the days following, Lee would write to Major General Nathanael Greene about the turn of events and his impression of Francis Marion, requesting to be under Marion’s command in some capacity. Greene wouldn’t formally agree, but Lee and Marion would continue fighting side by side during the Revolution in the weeks to come.

Greene would also write to Marion, issuing high praise for the Swamp Fox:

“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…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…To fight the enemy bravely with a prospect of victory is nothing; but to fight with intrepidity under the constant impression of a defeat, and inspire irregular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself.”

Fort Watson Legacy

Just one month later, Greene would go on to successfully employ the tower tactic used at Fort Watson during the siege of fortified village Ninety Six, South Carolina, and others before the war ended.

Today, little remains of Fort Watson, located within the 15,000-acre Santee National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1942. Overlooking Lake Marion, the man-made lake was named after Francis Marion and is one of the 50 largest in the U.S. Ironically, its creation, by damming the Santee River, led to the flooding of Marion’s former Pond Bluff home.

Over 1,200 years old, no fort structures remain on the Santee Indian Mound protected site. However, guests can view the mound from the visitor center or take Fort Watson Road into the refuge to get a closer look. A wooden stairway leads to a wildlife viewing platform atop the vegetation-covered mound for historic perspective.