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The forgotten fort

Posted: May 18, 2017 1:40 p.m.
Updated: May 19, 2017 1:00 a.m.

Camden is proud of her Revolutionary War heritage.  The Battle of Camden and the Battle of Hobkirk Hill play pivotal roles in the history of the Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War.  But there was another engagement here between the Loyalists and the Patriots that we rarely talk about. The actions of one of its main characters focus on a larger issue of the Revolutionary War that those of us with Patriot bloodlines don’t often think about -- why some American colonists chose to support the British rule rather than take on the Patriot cause.

The story of the forgotten fort begins about 1770, when James Cary (also seen as Carey) and his wife Mary Bennett Cary moved from Charleston to the Camden area. James and Mary were Virginia-born Americans. They first settled in South Carolina in 1764 near Wassamaw Swamp in St. James Parish Goose Creek.  James was an attorney and planter. When they moved to Camden, James managed a plantation for John Milhous on the western side of the Wateree River north of Friend’s Neck. He apparently purchased the Milhous tract and also acquired land just to the north of the Milhous plantation.  Cary’s plantation would become the western terminus of the Wateree Ferry at Camden.

Cary’s plantation became a vital location for transportation over the Wateree River, as Camden became a place of great commerce prior to the Revolutionary War. When Cary came to  the backcountry of South Carolina he joined the Regulators, a group of backcountry vigilantes who sought to protect the settlers against the thieves and bandits who were unchecked by the government officials in Charles Town. In other words, the Regulators took the law into their own hands.  Once the Regulator movement was quelled, Cary was one of 75 Regulators to receive a pardon from Royal Governor Montagu in 1771.

He raised indigo, tobacco, fruit orchards, and livestock on his plantation and also ran a saw mill.  At various times in the historical record, Cary stated that he had 42 slaves working his land. Cary described his plantation as “a very elegant place and valuable.” When the Revolution dawned upon South Carolina, Cary apparently would not commit to the Patriot cause.  He later stated that he was “continually harassed” by the Patriots and had to pay “many heavy fines” for not taking up their cause.  Yet he seems to have been walking a precarious line between the two factions. Cary contributed the labor of his slaves for 22 days during the Patriots’ construction of the earthen works for the “defenses of the magazine at Camden” in March and April, 1780. Two months later, Cary was faced with the stark reality that the Revolution was playing out in his own back yard. He chose to officially join the side that had the upper hand at the moment --  the Loyalists.  On June 1, 1780, the British Army took Camden and established a garrison there, building palisaded walls around the little town and erecting earthen redoubts on all sides of the fortified garrison.  

When the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, reached the garrison, he sought to involve locally prominent men in pacifying the rebels and restoring British rule.  He gave James Cary a commission as a major of militia. Cary accepted the commission, though he had no military experience. Cary was squarely in the British camp from this point on.  Upon instructions from British commander Lord Rawdon, Cary constructed a fort upon his plantation, complete with a redoubt and stockade.  Known as Cary’s Fort, it guarded the western approach to the Wateree Ferry. Across the river, just north of the mouth of Belton’s Branch at the terminus of the Camden ferry road, the British built another redoubt.

Gen. Gates instructed Col. Thomas Sumter to sweep the western side of the Wateree River and take the Loyalist stronghold at Cary’s Fort. On August 15, Col. Thomas Taylor and his Patriot troops surprised the fort and, finding all of the Loyalist militia asleep, they killed seven Loyalists, took 30 prisoners, including Cary, and captured 38 wagons of supplies, among which was a load of rum. As one writer put it, “I guess everyone has a bad day” here and there!

Once Cary’s Fort was captured, Col. Taylor proceeded to set a trap for a convoy containing another six wagons of British supplies making its way toward Camden from Ninety-Six. He took all of the supply wagons and captured 70 British regulars from the 71st Highlanders.  Quite a coup for the Patriots! Maybe we don’t hear about this rout of the British very often because the very next day a larger event overshadowed it.  On Aug. 16, Gates and Cornwallis met in battle in the middle of piney woods eight miles north of Camden -- the Battle of Camden.  Also known as the Battle of Gum Swamp, the conflict was a complete victory for the British and was the battle that caused Gen. Gates to turn tail and run back to Charlotte, completely outstripping his straggling troops as they all fled north.  

And, by the way, Gen. Sumter and his men, encamped at Fishing Creek on August 18, lost all of those supplies captured at Cary’s Fort when Banastre Tarleton overtook the resting Patriots.  Tarleton and his men killed 50 Patriots and captured 300, while reclaiming all of the supply wagons and British prisoners, including Cary, taken at the Wateree Ford near Camden three days earlier.

James Cary never recovered his possessions in South Carolina.  He and Mary left Camden with Rawdon on May 10, 1781, after the Battle of Hobkirk Hill, as they evacuated to Charleston. The Carys eventually went to Jamaica, where curiously enough, Cary was in possession of several of Joseph Kershaw’s slaves. But that’s another story.

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