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Ambush/Surrender of Fort Balfour

April 13 (also given as the 18th), 1781 at Fort Balfour , Beaufort County, South Carolina
(aka Vanbibber’s Tavern)

American Forces Commanded by
Lt. Col. William Harden
Strength Killed Wounded Missing / Captured
80 2 1 ?
British Forces Commanded by
Col. Nicholas Lechmere
Strength Killed Wounded Missing / Captured
117 ? ? 117
Conclusion: American Victory

Ft. Balfour, which was situated above a bridge on the Pocotaligo River, was garrisoned by about 100 men, made up of some loyalist militia, under Col. Fletcher Kelsell, and about 25 to 30 of the South Carolina Light Dragoons under Col. Edward Fenwick.

On April 13, Lt. Col. William Harden with about 100 (possibly up to 200) of his Patriot force set out to attack the British post at Fort Balfour, commanded by Col. Nicholas Lechmere. The fort overlooked the Pocotaligo River Bridge, halfway between Charlestown and Savannah. The Patriots arrived and crept into position around the fort. Harden sent Capt. Tarleton Brown with 13 men on horseback to entice the garrison of South Carolina Loyalists out of the fort.
Fenwick, Col. Nicholas Lechmere and 7 dragoons were outside the fort visiting an adjacent hospital, were captured.

This made Lt. Col. William Kelsall the fort commander. The Loyalists formed for a charge against the Patriots but returned to the fort after they found out that the Patriots would not withdraw from their positions. Next, Harden demanded the fort to surrender, but Kelsall refused.

A little while later, Harden sent another demand for the fort to surrender, saying that if the fort did not surrender, that no quarters would be given to the Loyalists. Kelsall asked for 20 minutes to consider the request. A mutiny broke out inside the fort and this convinced Kelsall to accept the demands and surrendered the fort. After 2 hours since the surrender demand, the garrison marched out of the fort and was taken prisoner. McCrady gives the loyalists losses as 91 captured. Ripley states “one colonel, a major, three captains, three lieutenants, 60 privates of the regular garrison, plus a lieutenant and 22 dragoons…” were taken and paroled. The dragoon horses and supplies in the fort were also captured, the supplies being transported from the area during the night or else destroyed. Harden sent some of his men to look for 7 British supply boats that were rowing up the Savannah River. Charleston area loyalist Lieut. Col. Robert Ballingall with 130 Provincials (70 of these mounted), plus 40 militia, who was some sixty miles away, attempted to pursue Harden, who lingered in the area momentarily, but Harden escaped. Bass gives the date as being the 17th or 18th, and states the loyalist lost 8 officers and 82 men captured. On the 18th, Harden wrote Marion requesting commissions from him as an incentive to keep his (Harden’s) men with him.

Harden, at Camp on Saltketcher, wrote Marion, on 17 April: (extract) “I marched on, and got within sight of Fort Balfour, at Pocotaligo, at twelve o'clock in the day; I placed my men, and sent ten of the best horses to draw them out, but luckily Cols. Fenwick and Letchmere were at Vanberst, and were taken with seven of the dragoons, and brought to me; the rest were in the fort. I then sent Capt. [William Jr., i.e. his son] Harden with a flag, to demand a surrender of the fort and the men in it; they sent for answer, they would not give it up. I sent the second time, and told them that if I was obliged to storm the fort, that I would give no quarter. Col. Kelsel then desired half an hour to consider. I gave him twenty minutes: they then agreed to give up the fort on terms which I granted; and in two hours, the fort with one militia colonel, one major, three captains, three lieutenants and sixty privates of Col. Fenwick's, one lieutenant and twenty-two dragoons with their horses, gave up to me, and they marched out and piled their arms without the abbatis; and I marched in and took possession of it; and during that night and the next day had it destroyed.”

Tarleton Brown: “We now lay by for two or three days, and then marched for the fort at Pocataligo. When we came in sight of it, I took thirteen of the best mounted men to survey the premise, and to lead them out if possible. When we had got within about two hundred yards of Bambifer's [Vanbibber’s] house, where the British had deposited their wounded, I saw a negro run in the house, and immediately I saw several men running for the fort; we struck spurs to our horses, and soon came up with them and took them prisoners. When we had gotten them to our company, we found them to be Colonels Fennick [Fenwick] and Leachmore [Col. Nicholas Lechmere], who had been out to see their wounded. When we arrived at the fort, we had not the smallest hope of taking it, but now finding we had two of their most efficient officers, (Major Andrew Devo the only one in the fort), Colonels Harden and [John] Baker sent a flag in form them to give up the fort. When the flag was passing by Colonel Fennick, he asked what that meant. On being told it was for them to surrender the fort, he ripped and swore, and hoped ‘that if they did surrender it, they might all be in hell before the morrow,’ After deliberation in the fort for the space of two hours, they all marched out, well armed, tied their horses to what was then called "Abatis", advanced some little distance from the fort, and formed a line. We then marched between them and the fort and took them prisoners - they having one hundred and ten men and we eighty. If all the men in the fort had been brace and true to their cause, I don't think one thousand men could have taken them, for the fort was advantageously located and well fortified, approachable only at three points, all of which were well guarded by a deep creek and cannons. Part of the men in the fort were as good Whigs as we had - Colonel Stafford, Colonel Davis, Captains Felts and Green, whose son was with us, also others. We now paroled the prisoners and sent them to Charleston, then burnt the house and leveled the fort with the ground…”

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