Rebecca Motte Biography | Women of the Revolution


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

    Rebecca Motte.


      Fort Motte, the scene of the occurrence which so strikingly displayed the patriotism of one of South Carolina’s daughters, stood on the south side of the Congaree river. The height commands a beautiful view, several miles in extent, of sloping fields, sprinkled with young pines, and green with broom grass or the corn or cotton crops; of sheltered valleys and wooded hills, with the dark pine ridge defined against the sky. The steep overlooks the swamp land through which the river flows; and that may be seen to a great distance, winding, like a bright thread, between the sombre forests.

      After the abandonment of Camden to the Americans, Lord Rawdon, anxious to maintain his posts, directed his first effort to relieve Fort Motte, at the time invested by Marion and Lee. This fort, which commanded the river, was the principal depĂ´t of the convoys from Charleston to Camden and the upper districts. It was occupied by a garrison under the command of Captain M’Pherson, of one hundred and sixty-five men, having been increased by a small detachment of dragoons from Charleston, a few hours before the appearance of the Americans. The large new mansion-house belonging to Mrs. Motte, which had been selected for the establishment of the post, was surrounded by a deep trench, along the interior margin of which was raised a strong and lofty parapet. Opposite, and northward, upon another hill, was an old farm-house, to which Mrs. Motte had removed when dismissed from her mansion. On this height Lieutenant Colonel Lee had taken position with his force; while Marion occupied the eastern declivity of the ridge on which the fort stood; the valley running between the two hills permitting the Americans to approach it within four hundred yards.

      M’Pherson was unprovided with artillery, but hoped to be relieved by the arrival of Lord Rawdon to dislodge the assailants before they could push their preparations to maturity. He therefore replied to the summons to surrender, which came on the 20th May, about a year after the victorious British had taken possession of Charleston, that he should hold out to the last moment in his power.

      The besiegers had carried on their approaches rapidly, by relays of working parties; and aware of the advance of Rawdon with all his force, had every motive for perseverance. In the night a courier arrived from General Greene, to advise them of Rawdon’s retreat from Camden, and urge redoubled activity; and Marion persevered through the hours of darkness in pressing the completion of their works. The following night Lord Rawdon encamped on the highest ground in the country opposite Fort Motte; and the despairing garrison saw with joy the illumination of his fires; while the Americans were convinced that no time was to be lost.

      The large house in the centre of the encircling trench left but a few yards of ground within the British works uncovered; burning the mansion, therefore, must compel the surrender of the garrison. This expedient was reluctantly resolved upon by Marion and Lee, who, unwilling under any circumstances to destroy private property, felt the duty to be much more painful in the present case. It was the summer residence of the owner, whose deceased husband had been a firm friend to his country, and whose daughter (Mrs. Pinckney) was the wife of a gallant officer, then a prisoner in the hands of the British. Lee had made Mrs. Motte’s dwelling his quarters, at her pressing invitation, and with his officers had shared her liberal hospitality. Not satisfied with polite attention to the officers, while they were entertained at her luxurious table, she had attended with active benevolence to the sick and wounded, soothed the infirm with kind sympathy, and animated the desponding to hope. It was thus not without deep regret that the commanders determined on the sacrifice, and the Lieutenant Colonel found himself compelled to inform Mrs. Motte of the unavoidable necessity of the destruction of her property.

      The smile with which the communication was received, gave instant relief to the embarrassed officer. Mrs. Motte not only assented, but declared that she was “gratified with the opportunity of contributing to the good of her country, and should view the approaching scene with delight.” Shortly after, seeing by accident the bow and arrows which had been prepared to carry combustible matter, she sent for Lee, and presenting him with a bow and its apparatus, which had been imported from India, requested his substitution of them, as better adapted for the object than those provided.

      Every thing was now prepared for the concluding scene. The lines were manned, and an additional force stationed at the battery to meet a desperate assault, if such should be made. The American entrenchments being within arrow shot, M’Pherson was once more summoned, and again more confidently – for help was at hand – asserted his determination to resist to the last.

      The scorching rays of the noon-day sun had prepared the shingle roof for the conflagration. The return of the flag was immediately followed by the shooting of the arrows, to which balls of blazing rosin and brimstone were attached. Simms tells us the bow was put into the hands of Nathan Savage, a private in Marion’s brigade. The first struck, and set fire; also the second and third, in different quarters of the roof. M’Pherson immediately ordered men to repair to the loft of the house, and check the flames by knocking off the shingles; but they were soon driven down by the fire of the six pounder; and no other effort to stop the burning being practicable, the commandant hung out the white flag, and surrendered the garrison at discretion.

      If ever a situation in real life afforded a fit subject for poetry, by filling the mind with a sense of moral grandeur, it was that of Mrs. Motte contemplating the spectacle of her home in flames, and rejoicing in the triumph secured to her countrymen, the benefit to her native land by her surrender of her own interest to the public service. I have stood upon the spot, and felt that it was indeed classic ground, and consecrated by memories which should thrill the heart of every American. But the beauty of such memories would be marred by the least attempt at ornament; and the simple narrative of that memorable occurrence has more effect to stir the feelings than could a tale artistically framed and glowing with the richest hues of imagination.

      After the captors had taken possession, M’Pherson and his officers accompanied them to Mrs. Motte’s dwelling, where they sat down together to a sumptuous dinner. Again, in the softened picture, our heroine is the principal figure. She showed herself prepared, not only to give up her splendid mansion to ensure victory to the American arms, but to do her part towards soothing the agitation of the conflict just ended. Her dignified, courteous, and affable deportment adorned the hospitality of her table; she did the honors with that unaffected politeness which wins esteem as well as admiration; and by her conversation, marked with ease, vivacity and good sense, and the engaging kindness of her manners, endeavored to obliterate the recollection of the loss she had been called upon to sustain, and at the same time to remove from the minds of the prisoners the sense of their misfortune.

      To the effect of this grace and gentle kindness, is doubtless due much of the generosity exercised by the victors towards those who, according to strict rule, had no right to expect mercy. While at the table, “it was whispered in Marion’s ear that Colonel Lee’s men were even then engaged in hanging certain of the tory prisoners. Marion instantly hurried from the table, seized his sword, and running with all haste, reached the place of execution in time to rescue one poor wretch from the gallows. Two were already beyond rescue or recovery. With drawn sword, and a degree of indignation in his countenance that spoke more than words, Marion threatened to kill the first man that made any further attempt in such diabolical proceedings.”

      Other incidents in the life of Mrs. Motte, illustrate the same rare energy and firmness of character she evinced on this occasion, with the same disinterested devotion to the American cause. When an attack upon Charleston was apprehended, and every man able to render service was summoned to aid in throwing up intrenchments for the defence of the city, Mrs. Motte, who had lost her husband at an early period of the war, and had no son to perform his duty to the country, despatched a messenger to her plantation, and ordered down to Charleston every male slave capable of work. Providing each, at her own expense, with proper implements, and a soldier’s rations, she placed them at the disposal of the officer in command. The value of this unexpected aid was enhanced by the spirit which prompted the patriotic offer.

      At different times it was her lot to encounter the presence of the enemy. Surprised by the British at one of her country residences on the Santee, her son-in-law, General Pinckney, who happened to be with her at the time, barely escaped capture by taking refuge in the swamps. It was to avoid such annoyances that she removed to “Buckhead,” afterwards called Fort Motte, the neighborhood of which in time became the scene of active operations.

      When the British took possession of Charleston, the house in which she resided – still one of the finest in the city – was selected as the head-quarters of Colonels Tarleton and Balfour. From this abode she determined not to be driven; and presided daily at the head of her own table, with a company of thirty British officers. The duties forced upon her were discharged with dignity and grace, while she always replied with becoming spirit to the discourteous taunts frequently uttered in her presence, against her “rebel countrymen.” In many scenes of danger and disaster was her fortitude put to the test; yet through all, this noble-spirited woman regarded not her own advantage, hesitating at no sacrifice of her convenience or interest, to promote the general good.

      One portion of her history, illustrating her singular energy, resolution, and strength of principle should be recorded. During the struggle, her husband had become deeply involved by securities undertaken for his friends. The distracted state of the country – the pursuits of business being for a long time suspended – plunged many into embarrassment; and after the termination of the war, it was found impossible to satisfy these claims. The widow, however, considered the honor of her deceased husband involved in the responsibilities he had assumed. She determined to devote the remainder of her life to the honorable task of paying the debts. Her friends and connections, whose acquaintance with her affairs gave weight to their judgment, warned her of the apparent hopelessness of such an effort. But, steadfast in the principles that governed all her conduct, she persevered; induced a friend to purchase for her, on credit, a valuable body of rice-land, then an uncleared swamp,on the Santee, built houses for the negroes, who constituted nearly all her available property – even that being encumbered with claims – and took up her own abode on the new plantation. Living in an humble dwelling – and relinquishing many of her habitual comforts – she devoted herself with such zeal, untiring industry, and indomitable resolution to the attainment of her object, that her success triumphed over every difficulty, and exceeded the expectations of all who had discouraged her. She not only paid her husband’s debts to the full, but secured for her children and descendants a handsome and unincumbered estate. Such an example of perseverance under adverse circumstances, for the accomplishment of a high and noble purpose, exhibits in yet brighter colors the heroism that shone in her country’s days of peril !

      In the retirement of Mrs. Motte’s life after the war, her virtues and usefulness were best appreciated by those who knew her intimately, or lived in her house. By them her society and conversation were felt to be a valued privilege. She was accustomed to amuse and instruct her domestic circle with various interesting anecdotes of persons and events; the recollection of which, however, at this distant period, is too vague to be relied on for a record. The few particulars here mentioned were received from her descendants.

      She was the daughter of Robert Brewton, an English gentleman, who emigrated to South Carolina and settled in Charleston before the war. Her mother was a native of Ireland, and married Mr. Brewton after her removal to this country, leaving at her death three children – Miles, Frances, and Rebecca. Miles Brewton took part with the first abettors of resistance to British oppression; and their consultations were held at his house in Charleston. Early in the war he was drowned on his way to England with his family, whom he intended to leave there, while he should return to take part with the patriots.

      Rebecca Brewton was born on the 28th June, 1738. She married Jacob Motte in 1758, and was the mother of six children, only three of whom lived to maturity. General Thomas Pinckney married in succession the two elder daughters. The third surviving daughter was married to the late Colonel William Alston, of Charleston. By the children of these, whose families are among the most distinguished in the State, the memory of their ancestor is cherished with pride and affection. Her fame is, indeed, a rich inheritance; for of one like her the land of her birth may well be proud !

      Mrs. Motte died in 1815, at her plantation on the Santee. The portrait from which the engraving is taken is said to be an excellent likeness.

      Some facts related to Major Garden by Mrs. Brewton, who was an inmate of Mrs. Motte’s family at the time of the destruction of her house, are interesting in this connection. She stated that Mrs. Motte and her family had been allowed to occupy an apartment in the mansion while the American forces were at a distance; but when the troops drew near, were ordered to remove immediately. As they were going, Mrs. Brewton took up the quiver of arrows, and said to her friend that she would take those with her, to prevent their being destroyed by the soldiers. She was passing the gate with the quiver in her hands, when M’Pherson asked what she had there, at the same time drawing forth a shaft, and applying the point to his finger. She sportively bade him be careful, “for the arrows were poisoned;” and the ladies then passed on to the farm-house where they were to take up their abode.

      On several occasions Mrs. Brewton incurred the enmity of the British officers by her lively sallies, which were sometimes pointed with severity. Before the siege of Fort Motte, a tory ensign had frequently amused himself, and provoked the ladies, by taunts levelled against the whigs, sometimes giving the names of the prominent commanders to pine saplings, while he struck off their heads with his weapon. After the surrender, Mrs. Brewton was cruel enough, meeting this young man on the spot where he had uttered these bravadoes, to request, sportively, another exhibition of his prowess, and regret that the loss of his sword did not permit him to gratify her.

      Not long after this, Mrs. Brewton obtained permission to go to Charleston. An officer in the city inquiring the news from the country, she answered “that all nature smiled, for every thing was Greene, down to Monk’s Corner.” This bon mot was noticed by an order for her immediate departure; she was obliged to leave the city at a late hour, but permitted to return the following day. Her ready wit procured her still further ill will. An officer going into the country offered to take charge of letters to her friends. She replied, “I should like to write, but have no idea of having my letters read at the head of Marion’s brigade.” The officer returned in a few days on parole, having been taken prisoner by Marion, and called to pay his thanks, as he said, to her for having communicated the intelligence of his movements.

      The society of this sprightly and fascinating widow appears to have been much sought by the more cultivated among the British, who enjoyed her brilliant conversation, while they winced under her sarcasm. One day when walking in Broad street, wearing deep mourning, according to the custom of the whig ladies, she was joined by an English officer. They were passing the house of Governor Rutledge, then occupied by Colonel Moncrief, when taking a piece of crape that had been accidently torn from the flounce of her dress, she tied it to the front railing, expressing at the same time her sorrow for the Governor’s absence, and her opinion that his house, as well as his friends, ought to wear mourning. It was but a few hours after this act of daring that the patriotic lady was arrested and sent to Philadelphia.

      NOTE. – Mrs. Motte’s arrows, which have become so famous in history, had been given as a curiosity – being poisoned – by an East India captain to her brother, Miles Brewton. After his loss at sea, they were accidentally put among some household articles belonging to Mrs. Motte, and in her several removals for quiet and security, chanced to be taken to “Buckhead” in the hurried transportation of her effects.

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