Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Rebecca Brewton Motte 1737 ~ 1815

 

The manorial style of living, together with the slave labor bred in the South during Colonial times developed a type of grande dame such as the more rigorous living in the northern colonies had not evolved at the time of the Revolution. But that the heroic strain existed in the women of social grace and softened loves, as well as in the stern Puritan Mothers, is fully illustrated in the sacrifice and heroism of Rebecca Motte. A few incidents of her life told without the least attempt at ornament show forth the rare energy and firmness of this woman, and her disinterested devotion to the American cause, as no rhetorical encomium, could.

In 1758 she married Jacob Motte, one of the wealthiest men of the South and an ardent patriot, but his life was sacrificed early in the struggle for Independence, and having no son to perform his duty to the country, Mrs. Motte showed herself equal to the courage of men together with the dignity and diplomacy of the highest type of womanhood.

At different times during the first part of the war, it was her lot to encounter the presence of the enemy, and, 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" the then new and large mansion house between Charleston and Camden, to be known afterwards as Fort Motte because of the patriotism so strikingly displayed there by this daughter of South Carolina.

A British detachment under McPherson had seized the mansion house and occupied it with a garrison, removing Mrs. Motte, without ceremony, to an old farmhouse on a hill opposite the beautiful residence which was her legal home. The American force attempting to dislodge McPherson from this position was under Lieutenant-Colonel Lee and the intrepid Marion, and, receiving orders from General Greene to complete the surrender of McPherson, before he could be re-enforced by General Rawdon, who was proceeding to the Motte Mansion, on his retreat from Camden, they concluded that redoubled activity was imperative. On account of the deep trench and strong and lofty parapet which McPherson had placed about the mansion, there could be no direct assault attempted, and the only expedient left for compelling the immediate surrender of the garrison was to bum the homestead. 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, since it must be done in sight of the owner, whose husband had been a firm friend to his country, and whose daughter was the wife of a gallant officer, then a prisoner in the hands of the British. Moreover, Lee had made the farmhouse dwelling of Mrs. Motte his quarters, and she, not satisfied with extending hospitality as liberal as possible to the officers of her country, had attended with active benevolence to the sick and wounded of the American force. It was thus not without deep regret that the commanders determined on the sacrifice and that the Lieutenant-Colonel found himself compelled to inform Mrs. Motte of the unavoidable necessity of the destruction of her property.

The smile, however, 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." Moreover, shortly after, seeing by accident the bow and arrows which had been prepared to carry the balls of blazing rosin and brimstone to the shingled roof of the mansion, Mrs. Motte sent for Lee, and presented him with a bow and its apparatus, which had been imported from India, and was better adapted for the object than those provided.

The scorching rays of the noonday sun had prepared the roof for the conflagration, and, despite the efforts of McPherson's men to tear off the shingles as they caught fire, it soon became evident that the place could not be held against the flames, and the commandant hung out the white flag and surrendered the garrison.

"If ever a situation in real life afforded a fit subject for poetry," remarks one historian, "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."

After the captors had taken possession of the fortified house, McPherson and his officers accompanied the victorious Generals to Mrs. Motte's dwelling, where they all sat down to a sumptuous dinner. Here again the value of their hostess' character shone. She showed herself prepared not only to give up her splendid mansion to insure victory to the American arms, but to do her part toward obliterating the recollection of her loss, and at the same time to remove from the minds of the prisoners the weight of their misfortune.

To her example of dignified, courteous and graceful conduct toward the defeated is doubtless due much of the magnanimity exercised by the visitors towards those who, according to strict rule, had no right to expect mercy. While the mingled party was still 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. With drawn sword and a degree of indignation that spoke more than words, Marion threatened to kill the first man that made any further attempt in such diabolical proceedings. Mrs. Motte's gentle kindness in the face of personal loss had pointed the way to Christian warfare.

When an attack upon Charleston was apprehended, and every man able to render service was summoned to aid in throwing up entrenchments for the defense of the city, Mrs. Motte dispatched 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. The value of this unexpected aid was enhanced by the spirit which prompted the patriotic offer.

When, indeed, the British took possession of Charleston, the house in which Mrs. Motte resided was selected as the head-quarters of the English colonels in command, but she determined not to be driven out, and with inimitable grace and tact, she continued to preside at the head of her own table in a company of thirty British officers, who may have been disconcerted at being treated as guests, but who certainly could not complain of her hospitality. The duties forced upon her were discharged with exquisite tact, yet she always replied with spirit to the discourteous taunts frequently uttered in her presence against her "rebel countrymen." In many scenes of danger and disaster her fortitude was put to the test, yet, through all, this noble-spirited woman regarded not her own advantage, but always and ever the public good.

Perhaps one of the "biggest little'' things Rebecca Motte ever did was the assumption of the responsibility of certain claims against her husband's depleted estate, he having become deeply involved by securities undertaken for his friends. Despite her friends' warning of the apparent hopelessness of such a task, she set about determinedly to devote the rest of her life to the task of honorably discharging those obligations, and steadfast in the principles that had governed all her conduct, she persevered. She procured on credit a valuable body of rice land, then an uncleared swamp, on the Santee, built houses for her Negroes, and took up her abode on the plantation. Living in an humble dwelling and sacrificing all her habitual comforts, she so devoted herself with untiring industry to the problem before her that, in spite of the distracted state of the country, following the war, she eventually triumphed over every difficulty, and not only succeeded in paying her husband's debts, but secured for her children and descendants a handsome and unencumbered estate. As her biographer said: "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 peril."

This woman of whom her state and country should be so justly proud, died in 1815 on the plantation on which her long years of retirement since the war had been passed, the seventy-seven years of her splendid life having embraced the most thrilling period of our Nation's life.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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