Primary Source: Women in South Carolina Experience Occupation, 1780

The British faced the difficult task of fighting a war without pushing more colonists into the hands of the revolutionaries. As a result, the Revolutionary War included little direct attacks on civilians, but that does not mean that civilians did not suffer. The following account from Eliza Wilkinson describes the stress faced by non-combatants who had to face the British army.

On the second of June, two men belonging to the enemy, rode up to the house, and asked many questions, saying that Colonel M’Girth and his soldiers might be presently looked for, and that the inmates could expect no mercy. The family remained in a state of cruel suspense for many hours…

I had no time for thought – they were up to the house – entered with drawn swords and pistols in their hands: indeed they rushed in in the most furious manner, crying out, ‘Where are these women rebels?’ That was the first salutation! The moment they espied us, off went our caps. (I always heard say none but women pulled caps!) And for what, think you? Why, only to get a paltry stone and wax pin, which kept them on our heads; at the same time uttering the most abusive language imaginable, and making as if they would hew us to pieces with their swords. But it is not in my power to describe the scene: it was terrible to the last degree; and what augmented it, they had several armed negroes with them, who threatened and abused us greatly. They then began to plunder the house of every thing they thought valuable or worth taking; our trunks were split to pieces, and each mean, pitiful wretch crammed his bosom with the contents, which were our apparel, &c…

This outrage was followed by a visit from M’Girth’s men, who treated the ladies with more civility; one of them promising to make a report at camp of the usage they had received. It was little consolation, however, to know that the robbers would probably be punished. The others, who professed so much feeling for the fair, were not content without their share of plunder, though more polite in the manner of taking it.” While the British soldiers were talking to us, some of the silent ones withdrew, and presently laid siege to a beehive, which they soon brought to terms. The others perceiving it, cried out, ‘Hand the ladies a plate of honey.’ This was immediately done with officious haste, no doubt thinking they were very generous in treating us with our own. There were a few horses feeding in the pasture. They had them driven up. ‘Ladies, do either of you own these horses ?’ ‘No; they partly belonged to father and Mr. Smilie!’ ‘Well, ladies, as they are not your property, we will take them! “‘

They asked the distance to the other settlements; and the females begged that forbearance might be shown to the aged father. He was visited the same day by another body of troops, who abused him and plundered the house. “One came to search mother’s pockets, too, but she resolutely threw his hand aside. ‘if you must see what’s in my pocket, I’ll show you myself;’ and she took out a threadcase, which had thread, needles, pins, tape, &c. The mean wretch took it from her.” . . . “After drinking all the wine, rum, &c., they could find, and inviting the negroes they had with them, who were very insolent, to do the same, they went to their horses, and would shake hands with father and mother before their departure. Fine amends, to be sure!”

After such unwelcome visitors, it is not surprising that the unprotected women could not eat or sleep in peace. They lay in their clothes every night, alarmed by the least noise; while the days were spent in anxiety and melancholy…

The siege and capitulation of Charleston brought the evils under which the land had groaned, to their height. The hardships endured by those within the beleaguered city – the gloomy resignation of hope – the submission to inevitable misfortune, have been described by abler chroniclers.

Elizabeth Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution, Volume 1 (New York: 1819), 225-232.

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