American Patriot and Wife of Colonel Richard Richardson
Image: Marion Crossing the Pee Dee
By William Ranney
Scene during the Revolutionary War showing General Francis Marion and his men on a raft crossing the Pee Dee River in South Carolina. Marion led a small force that employed the tactics of guerilla warfare, wreaking havoc on the British. The success of Marion’s motley crew depended on its mobility, on changing camps constantly and on fighting at night.
Dorcas Nelson was the daughter of Captain John Nelson of South Carolina, a native of Ireland. The ferry over the Santee River, established and kept for several years by her parents, is still called Nelson’s Ferry; and many of their descendants continue to live on both sides of the river.
Richard Charles Richardson was the son of Brigadier General Richard Richardson, who arrived in South Carolina in the 1730s. A surveyor by trade, he emigrated from Virginia and established himself as a planter in Clarendon County. Among many other civil and military accomplishments, he served valiantly as a Patriot in the Revolutionary War.
At the age of 20, Dorcas Nelson married Richard Richardson in 1761, and moved to her husband’s home, about twenty miles up the river, near the junction of the Congaree and the Wateree. The approach to Big Home Plantation, the ancestral home of the Richardsons, was through “an avenue of live oaks more than a mile long.” She enjoyed all the comforts of southern country life among the prosperous class until the Revolutionary War, in which the fortunes and happiness of so many patriots were wrecked.
When three regiments of regulars were raised in 1775, Captain Richard Richardson and his father were retained in the militia because of their great popularity and influence; Edward, a younger brother, was appointed captain of the Rangers. A second regiment of riflemen, however, was raised in March 1776; and Richard was appointed captain under Colonel Thomas Sumter. During the six succeeding years, he spent very little time at home with his family.
The Snow Campaign
At the beginning of the war, Richard Richardson was captain of a militia company in the brigade of his father General Richardson. Both were zealous, firm and influential officers. The captain was frequently called out by the new government; and his first expedition was against the Loyalists in the upper districts of the state, incited by the royal governor, Lord William Campbell.
In November, 1775, Colonel Richardson led his Camden regiment of South Carolina militia into the backcountry, the wilderness piedmont of the Appalachian mountains. He was accompanied by Captain Thomas Sumter as adjutant general, who had raised a company of local militia. Colonel Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, for his successful guerrilla warfare against the British, served in this campaign as well.
On November 30, they set out, evading the loyalist King’s Men regiments, and on December 2, they stopped at the home of Captain Evan McLauren. More bodies of rebel militia joined Richardson, making a corps of 3000 men. Formal accusations of insurrection were issued against Tory leaders. Their surrender was demanded, along with their arms and ammunition. Among the captured was Thomas Fletchall, one of the most incendiary of the King’s Men.
As the rebel contingent grew throughout December to 5000 troops, Colonel Richardson moved up the Enoree River to Raeburn Creek. King’s men continued to surrender or be captured. Richardson allowed those who would swear not to oppose the rebellion to return home with their arms. The loyalist troops who resisted headed for the Cherokee Nation territory on the Reedy River.
Receiving intelligence that the most active leaders of the opposition were encamped on Cherokee land, Richardson sent 1300 militia and rangers under Colonel William Thomson into the canebrake (an area of land with a thick dense growth) on December 21. They struck the King’s Men in their camp at dawn on December 22, and defeated them in the Battle of Great Cane Brake, killing six and capturing 130, while the rest vanished into the wilderness. The volunteers seized prisoners, arms, ammunition, and baggage, and marched back to meet Richardson on December 23.
It began to rain, flooding the marshy country. Then the snow fell, two feet of it. Winter had set in earlier than usual with uncommon severity, and the young soldiers suffered greatly from the cold, sleet, and snow. Richardson led his miserable men and their prisoners on a brutal seven-day march back to the Congaree.
Richardson was not surprised that his force dwindled as men were released or otherwise departed for home. His own words to the South Carolina Council of Safety said that as winter advanced upon them, the men were “illy provided, no tents, shoes worn out, and badly clothed.” Their families at home needed the firewood they would cut and the game they would hunt.
An uneasy truce settled over the backcountry, while the British army gathered on the Atlantic coast under Cornwallis, preparing to invade.
Siege of Charleston
April 2 – May 12, 1780
The British began a southern strategy by beginning a siege of Charleston, South Carolina. The siege lasted until May 9th when British artillery fire was close enough to set the town on fire and force a surrender. A perception continued among the British that the South was full of loyalists just awaiting the call from the British.
At the end of December 1779, General Clinton succumbed to this view and headed south with a small army. His goal was to capture Charleston, South Carolina. Clinton approached steadily, arriving opposite Charleston on April 1, 1780. He then began a classic European siege. The British dug siege trenches ever closer to the wall of the city.
Day by day, week by week, the British got ever closer to the wall of the city. In the meantime, both sides exchanged artillery fire, the Americans trying to make the British task as difficult as possible, while the British hoped to terrify the Americans into submission. By the beginning of May, the British had advanced within a few feet of the American lines.
Their artillery fire was soon becoming deadly and on May 9th many of the wooden houses in Charleston were set on fire by the artillery. The city elders had had enough and requested that the American commander Lincoln surrender, which he did. The British victory in Charleston was pyrrhic. There was no popular uprising and instead South Carolina degenerated into a period of chaos.
Following the fall of Charleston, the county was overrun with British troops, and British took possession of the Richardson plantation, which they made their headquarters. When the British officers discovered that Colonel Richardson had gathered Patriots around him and joined forces with Marion, they made offers of pardon, wealth and promotion to Dorcas if she would use her influence to have her husband join forces with them. She refused to even lay the matter before her husband.
At the surrender of Charleston, Richard was taken prisoner and sent to a military station on St. John’s Island, where he nearly fell a victim to smallpox. As soon as he recovered sufficiently to move about, he escaped, and returned to the neighborhood of his home, where he concealed himself in the Santee Swamp. The recesses of those dark thickets, where the trees grow close together, and are interlaced by a luxuriant growth of giant creepers, often afforded hiding places for hunted Americans.
At this time, the British troops had overrun the state; and Colonel Banastre Tarleton had made the Richardson house headquarters for his regiment of cavalry. They lived luxuriously on the abundance of their richly stocked and well-cultivated plantation. Dorcas and her children were restricted to a single apartment, and allowed but a scanty share of the provisions furnished from her own stores. But every day, she sent food from her small allowance to her husband in the swamp, by an old and faithful slave, whose care and discretion she could trust.
Dorcas had expected the seizure of her horses and cattle by the British, and had sent Richard’s favorite riding horse into the swamp with a few cattle which she wished to save for future need. Everything that fell into the enemy’s hands was consumed. The horse was shut up in a covered pen in the woods, which had once been used for holding corn; and he thus received the name of Corncrib.
Dorcas not only sent provisions to her husband, but sometimes visited him, taking with her their little daughter. These stolen meetings were full of consolation to the fugitive soldier. The spot he had chosen for his retreat was a small knoll or elevation in the heart of the swamp, called John’s Island. On this many of their initials may still be seen, carved on the bark of the trees.
It wasn’t long before the British had information of Richardson’s escape. They naturally concluded that he was somewhere in the vicinity of his family and relatives. A diligent search was instituted; scouts were sent in every direction. Rewards were offered for his apprehension; but without success. One day an officer, caressing Richard’s little girl, asked when she had seen her papa; the mother grew pale, but dared not speak, for a short time only had elapsed since the child had been taken on a visit to her father.
The thoughtless prattler answered promptly, that she had seen him only a few days before. “And where?” asked the officer, eager to extract information that might betray the patriot. The child replied without hesitation, “On John’s Island.” The officer knew of no place so called except St. John’s Island, from which Richardson had escaped. After a moment’s reflection, he came to the conclusion that the child had been dreaming.
The British officers boasted to Dorcas about what they would do to her husband when they captured him. Once she replied:
I do not doubt that men who can outrage the feelings of a woman by such threats, are capable of perpetrating any act of treachery and inhumanity towards a brave but unfortunate enemy. But conquer or capture my husband, if you can do so, before you boast the cruelty you mean to mark your savage triumph! And let me tell you, meanwhile, that some of you, it is likely, will be in a condition to implore his mercy before he will have need to supplicate, or deign to accept yours.
On one occasion, some of the officers displayed in the sight of Mrs. Richardson, their swords reeking with blood – probably that of her cattle – and told her it was the blood of Captain Richardson, whom they had killed. At another time they brought intelligence that he had been taken and hanged. In this state of cruel suspense, she sometimes remained for several successive days, unable to learn the fate of her husband, and not knowing whether to believe or distrust the horrible tales she heard.
One day, when the troops were absent on some expedition, Captain Richardson visited his home, but an enemy patrolling party appeared unexpectedly at the gate. Seeing the British soldiers about to come in, Dorcas pretended to be busy doing something at the front door and stood in the way until her husband had time to escape through the back door, and into the swamp.
General Francis Marion happened at that time to be in a very critical situation, and unaware of the great superiority of the enemy’s force close at hand. The gallant Richardson hastened to his aid; joined him, and conducted the retreat of his army, which was successfully executed. The British were not long in discovering that the captain had joined the forces of Marion; and their deportment to his wife was at once changed.
The British professed a profound respect for her brave husband, and wanted Dorcas to prevail upon him to join the royal army by promising a pardon, wealth, and honorable promotion. She treated all such offers with the contempt they deserved.
They then sent his brother Edward, who was a prisoner on parole on the adjoining plantation, to be the bearer of their offers. Dorcas also sent a message to her husband, assured him that she did not join in British solicitations; that she and her children were well and were provided with abundance of everything necessary for their comfort. Thus she concealed the privations and wants she was suffering.
Edward went to the American camp, took his brother into Marion’s presence, and delivered both messages with which he had been charged. The offers from the enemy were of course rejected, and considering himself absolved from his parole, Edward remained with Marion until the end of the war in South Carolina.
Several times after that, Richard placed his life in peril to visit his family. Hearing that the British troops had been ordered away from his plantation, he obtained permission to go for a short time. He arrived safely, but had been seen on his way by a loyalist. A party of them was immediately assembled in front of his house.
Corncrib was hitched outside the gate; Richard leaped on him and galloped up the avenue, where the enemy were posted. He passed through the midst of them without receiving either a shot or a sabre wound. Just as he passed their ranks, one of his well-known neighbors fired at him, but missed. All this took place in the sight of his terrified family, and Dorcas always believed that the party was determined to take Richard alive, and claim the reward offered for his apprehension.
When peace finally returned, Dorcas and her family continued to reside in the same house. The British troops had wasted the plantation, and destroyed everything moveable in the dwelling; but the buildings had been spared, because they were spacious, and afforded a convenient station for the British.
Colonel Richardson, who had been promoted for his meritorious service in the field, cheerfully resumed the occupations of a planter. His circumstances were much reduced by the chances of war; but he and Dorcas enjoyed tranquility and happiness, surrounded by affectionate relatives and friendly neighbors. Of their ten children, four died young; the rest married and reared families.
Dorcas Nelson Richardson survived her husband several years, and died in 1834, at the age of 93. She was remarkable throughout life for the calm judgment, fortitude, and strength of mind. One of the brave women of the American Revolution, she kept the home fires burning, cared for her children, endured deprivations uncomplainingly, and aided the American cause.