Fort Watson in Augmented Reality

This fort was under siege by the Patriots in the Revolutionary War

Fort Watson

The Siege of Fort Watson, April 15–23, 1781

Along the shores of Lake Marion visitors will find the site of Fort Watson. There you will see a prehistoric ceremonial mound built by the Santee Indians, which became the scene of a siege during the Revolutionary War. The landscape you encounter today is very different from the forested wetlands inhabited by the Santee and occupied by the British. Lake Marion, a man-made body, was not created until the 1940s. Before then, this ground bordered on Scott’s Lake, an oxbow reservoir that connected to the Santee River. This strategic location on bluffs overlooking water benefitted not only the American Indians who farmed, fished, and hunted in this region, but also the soldiers garrisoned here in the 18th century.

After the capture of Charleston in the spring of 1780, the British established rural outposts throughout the region to safeguard supplies and troops, and to tighten control over local rebels. This deserted ceremonial site was the ideal location for a fort because it provided an elevated vantage point that overlooked the ferry crossing on the Santee River and the road to Charleston. The mound was incorporated into a stockade built under the direction of Provincial Lieutenant Colonel John Watson of the British Army, for whom the fort was named.

In April 1781, Watson was away from camp on a mission to track down and defeat Marion. After that failed mission, he and his select units marched to reinforce the British station at Camden. In Watson’s absence, command of Fort Watson fell to Lieutenant James McKay, who held the post with 125 men. Meanwhile, Lee and Marion joined forces on April 14. Knowing Watson was away from base, it seemed like an advantageous time to attack his garrison. On April 15, the combined Patriot force of about 400 surrounded the fort and began a siege. In keeping with the formal rules of war, they demanded that McKay surrender the post. McKay, however, felt the fort’s solid defenses could withstand an attack and decided to hold off the Patriots until reinforcements arrived.

The Patriots’ first act was to cut off the fort’s access to water by guarding Scott’s Lake and the nearby river, but they soon discovered that the garrison dug a well next to the mound. Unfortunately, the Patriots had no artillery, so they could not force the surrender of the fort. If they had guns, Lee wrote to Greene, “This post could be reduced in five moments.” To add to their woes, some of the men in Marion’s camp came down with smallpox, which caused fear and desertions. As the siege progressed, the Americans were hampered in their efforts to construct their own fortifications as they lacked the tools to dig trenches. Running low on ammunition and morale, the commanders were desperate for a breakthrough by the end of the first week. Then, Major Hezekiah Maham made a novel proposal. Marion wrote to Greene: “…as we had no entrenching tools to make our approach, we immediately determined to raise a work equal to the height of the fort.”

Lead Sponsor 

The Fort Watson Augmented Reality Experience is made possible thanks to the generosity of Lorna Hainesworth, Ambassador and National Traveler. 

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Related Battles

Summerton, South Carolina | April 15, 1781
Result: American Victory
Estimated Casualties