New exhibit displays pieces of SC Revolutionary War history

New exhibit displays pieces of SC Revolutionary War history
Excavation at Fort Motte (Source: Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum)
Excavation at Fort Motte (Source: Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum)

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Pieces of South Carolina's Revolutionary War history are on display at a special exhibit at the South Carolina Relic Room and Military Museum.

The exhibit is called "...make no Doubt we shall carry this post...": The History and Archeology of Fort Motte. It features artifacts uncovered at the site of the former British post on the south bank of the Congaree River in Calhoun County.

"It's significant as part of the very successful American campaign in the spring of 1781 to drive the Loyalists and British from the interior of South Carolina," said co-guest curator James Legg with the South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology.

In 1780, much of South Carolina was under British control.

"Essentially the British had almost overwhelming military success in South Carolina in 1780 and they established a series of interior posts, including fortifying towns like Ninety-Six, Camden, Georgetown, Augusta. And they also placed a number of these smaller fortifications; isolated, fortified posts on their lines of communications to these interior towns. Among those was Fort Motte," Legg said.

The fort was strategically placed on the road connecting Charleston and Camden. But in the spring of 1781, Francis Marion and Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee started attacking these outposts, first at Camden, then Fort Watson before moving onto Fort Motte, a few miles from the present town of Fort Motte.

"From April to July...the Americans were able to pretty much reduce all of the interior posts of the British and drive them back to the outer coastal plain," Legg said.

The British seized the home of one of South Carolina's wealthiest widows, Rebecca Motte, who inherited her properties not only from a wealthy husband, but a wealthy brother. She was also a staunch Patriot.

"They turned the house into a fortification," Legg said. "So the house itself was Fort Motte."

After seven days of siege in May 1781, Marion, Lee and their troops set the house on fire. The British garrison of 184 men surrendered and soldiers from both sides worked to extinguish the blaze.

According to legend, "Mrs. Motte was almost overjoyed to sacrifice her newly-built mansion house in order to end the siege and defeat the British," Legg said. "She was a hard core Patriot and when Lee and Marion said, 'You know, we'd really like to burn your house down in order to end the siege,' she thought that was great."

The loss of these posts was the beginning of the end of the British occupation of South Carolina.

Although the house no longer stands on the site, archaeologists have found plenty of artifacts telling the land's history, piece by piece.

"Fort Motte is particularly well-preserved as an archaeological site," Legg said. "A lot of these other sites from the Revolution in general, and also from the spring campaign in 1781, no longer exist. They're under a lake or been developed, or in the case of Fort Granby (in Cayce) it's in a archaeological terms, Fort Motte is pristine."

This is the first time many of these artifacts have been on display.

"Since we have the entire landscape and most of the historic features we've been able to locate at this point, we've been able to do some very specific coherent work there. We can say 'Okay, this location is this and this material is from that.'"

And thanks to a cooperative land owner, there's no deadline on the research.

"It's an ongoing project," Legg said. "We don't have to shut it down anytime soon."

On April 22 at 12 p.m, Legg and co-curator Steve Smith with the SC Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology are presenting a lecture on Fort Motte at the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. The lunchtime lecture will last one hour and is free to the public. Guests are welcome to take their lunch.

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