Sarah Reeve Gibbes
The failure of the British commissioners to conclude an amicable adjustment of differences between the two countries - and the ill success of the effort to gain their ends by private intrigue and bribery - annihilated the hopes of those who had desired the acceptance by Congress of terms of accommodation. War was now the only prospect; the reduction of the Colonies to obedience by force of arms, or the establishment of national Independence by a protracted struggle. The movements and expeditions which succeeded the battle of Monmouth - the incursion of the Indians and tories under Colonel John Butler and Brandt, for the destruction of the settlement in the lovely valley of Wyoming - the terrible tragedy of July, with the retaliatory expeditions against the Indians - and the repetition of the barbarities of Wyoming at Cherry Valley, in November were the prominent events that took place in the middle and northern sections of the country during the remainder of 1778.
The scene of important action was now changed to the South. In November, Count D'Estaing, with the French fleet, sailed for the West Indies, to attack the British dependencies in that quarter. General Sir Henry Clinton, on his part, despatched Colonel Campbell from New York, on an expedition against Georgia, the feeblest of the southern provinces. His troops landed late in December near Savannah, which was then defended by the American general, Robert Howe. His small force being enfeebled by sickness, defeat was the consequence of an attack; and the remnant of the American army retreated into South Carolina. The British having obtained possession of the capital of Georgia, the plan of reducing that State and South Carolina was vigorously prosecuted in 1779, while the armies of Washington and Clinton were employed in the northern section of the Union. Soon after the fall of Savannah, General Prevost, with troops from East Florida, took possession of the only remaining military post in Georgia; and joining his forces to those of Colonel Campbell, assumed the chief command of the royal army at the South. The loyalists who came along the western frontier of Carolina to join his standard committed great devastations and cruelties on their way. General Lincoln, who commanded the continental forces in the southern department, sent a detachment under General Ashe across the Savannah, to repress the incursions of the enemy, and confine them to the low country near the sea coast. The surprise and defeat of this detachment by Prevost completed the subjugation of Georgia.
But in April General Lincoln entered the field anew, and leaving Moultrie to watch Prevost's movements, commenced his march up the left bank of the Savannah and crossed into Georgia near Augusta, with the intention of advancing on the capital. Prevost attacked Moultrie and Pulaski, compelling them to retreat; and then hurried to place himself before Charleston. From this position, however, he was obliged to withdraw on Lincoln's approach. He proceeded to the island of St. John's, separated from the mainland by an inlet called Stono River; and leaving a division at Stono Ferry, retired with a part of his force towards Savannah. On the 20th of June, Lincoln attacked the division at Stono Ferry, but was repulsed, The British soon after established a post at Beaufort, and the main body of the army retired to Savannah. For some months the hot and sickly season prevented further action on either side.
The siege of Savannah under D'Estaing and Lincoln took place early in October, 1779. The Americans were repulsed, the gallant Pulaski receiving his death wound; and the enterprise was abandoned. The French fleet departed from the coast; and General Lincoln retreated into South Carolina. A cloud of despondency hung over the close of this year. The flattering hopes inspired by the alliance with France had not been realized. The continental army reduced in numbers and wretchedly clothed - the treasury empty - the paper currency rapidly diminishing in value - distress was brought on all classes, and the prospect seemed more than ever dark and discouraging. On the other hand, Britain displayed new resources, and made renewed exertions, notwithstanding the formidable combination against her. Sir Henry Clinton determined to make the South his most important field of operations for the future, and planned the campaign of 1780 on an extensive scale. He arrived in Georgia late in January, and early in the succeeding month left Savannah for the siege of Charleston, then defended by General Lincoln. The fleet of Arbuthnot was anchored in the harbor, and the British overran the country on the left side of the Cooper river. The surrender of Charleston on the twelfth of May seemed to secure the recovery of the southern section of the Union; and Clinton immediately set about re-establishing the royal government.
The foregoing brief glance at the course of events during the two years succeeding the evacuation of Philadelphia, is necessary to prepare the reader for the southern sketches that follow.
A few hundred yards from a fine landing on Stono River, upon John's Island, about two hours sail from Charleston, stands a large, square, ancient looking mansion, strongly built of brick, with a portico fronting the river. On the side towards the road, the wide piazza overlooks a lawn; and a venerable live oak, with aspen, sycamore, and other trees, shade it from the sun. On either side of the house, about twenty yards distant, stands a smaller two story building, connected with the main building by a neat open fence. In one of these is the kitchen and out-offices; the other was formerly the school-house and tutor's dwelling. Beyond are the barns, the overseer's house, and the negro huts appertaining to a plantation. The garden in old times was very large and well-cultivated, being laid out in wide walks, and extending from the mansion to the river. The "river walk," on the verge of a bluff eight or ten feet in height, followed the bending of the water, and was bordered with orangetrees. Tall hedges of the evergreen wild orange tree divided the flower from the vegetable garden, and screened from view the family burial ground. The beautifully laid out grounds, and shaded walks, give this place a most inviting aspect, rendering it such an abode as its name of "Peaceful Retreat" indicated.
At the period of the Revolution this mansion was well known throughout the country as a seat of hospitality and elegant taste. Its owner, Robert Gibbes, was a man of cultivated mind and refined manners - one of those gentlemen of the old school of whom South Carolina has justly made her boast. Early in life he became a martyr to the gout, by which painful disease his hands and feet were so contracted and crippled that he was deprived of their use. The only exercise he was able to take was in a chair on wheels, in which he was placed every day, and by the assistance of a servant, moved about the house, and through the garden. The circuit through these walks and along the river formed his favorite amusement.
Unable, by reason of his misfortune, to take an active part in the war, his feelings were nevertheless warmly enlisted on the republican side; and his house was ever open for the reception and entertainment of the friends of liberty. He had married Miss Sarah Reeve, she being at the time about eighteen years of age. Notwithstanding her youth, she had given evidence that she possessed a mind of no common order. The young couple had a house in Charleston, but spent the greater part of their time at their country seat and plantation upon John's Island. Here Mrs. Gibbes devoted herself with earnestness to the various duties before her; for in consequence of her husband's infirmities, the management of an extensive estate with the writing on business it required, devolved entirely upon her. In addition to a large family of her own, she had the care of the seven orphan children of Mrs. Fenwick, the sister of Mr. Gibbes, who at her death had left them and their estate to his guardianship. Two other children - one her nephew, Robert Barnwell - were added to her charge. The multiplied cares involved in meeting all these responsibilities, with the superintendence of household concerns, required a rare degree of energy and activity; yet the mistress of this well ordered establishment had always a ready and cordial welcome for her friends, dispensing the hospitalities of "Peaceful Retreat," with a grace and cheerful politeness that rendered it a most agreeable resort.
It was doubtless the fame of the luxurious living at this delightful country seat which attracted the attention of the British during the invasion of Prevost, while the royal army kept possession of the seaboard. A battalion of British and Hessians, determined to quarter themselves in so desirable a spot, arrived at the landing at the dead of night, and marching up in silence, surrounded the house. The day had not yet begun to dawn, when an aged and faithful servant tapped softly at the door of Mrs. Gibbes' apartment. The whisper "Mistress, the redcoats are all around the house," was the first intimation given of their danger. "Tell no one, Cæsar, but keep all quiet," she replied promptly; and her preparations were instantly commenced to receive the intruders. Having dressed herself quickly, she went up-stairs, waked several ladies who were guests in the house, and requested them to rise and dress with all possible haste. In the meantime the domestics were directed to prepare the children, of whom, with her own eight and those under her care, there were sixteen; the eldest being only fifteen years old. These were speedily dressed and seated in the spacious hall. Mrs. Gibbes then assisted her husband, as was always her custom -to rise and dress, and had him placed in his rolling chair. All these arrangements were made without the least confusion, and so silently, that the British had no idea anyone was yet awake within the house. The object of Mrs. Gibbes was to prevent violence on the enemy's part, by showing them at once that the mansion was inhabited only by those who were unable to defend themselves. The impressive manner in which this was done produced its effect. The invaders had no knowledge that the inmates were aware of their presence, till daylight, when they heard the heavy rolling of Mr. Gibbes' chair across the great hall towards the front door. Supposing the sound to be the rolling of a cannon, the soldiers advanced, and stood prepared with pointed bayonets to rush in, when the signal for assault should be given. But as the door was thrown open, and the stately form of the invalid presented itself, surrounded by women and children, they drew back, and - startled into an involuntary expression of respect -presented arms. Mr. Gibbes addressed them - yielding, of course, to the necessity that could not be resisted. The officers took immediate possession of the house, leaving the premises to their men, and extending no protection against pillage. The soldiers roved at their pleasure about the plantation, helping themselves to whatever they chose; breaking into the wine room, drinking to intoxication, and seizing upon and carrying off the negroes. A large portion of the plate was saved by the provident care of a faithful servant, who secretly buried it. Within the mansion the energy and self-possession of Mrs. Gibbes still protected her family. The appearance of terror or confusion might have tempted the invaders to incivility; but it was impossible for them to treat otherwise than with deference, a lady whose calm and quiet deportment commanded their respect. Maintaining her place as mistress of her household, And presiding at her table, she treated her uninvited guests with a dignified courtesy that ensured civility while it prevented presumptuous familiarity. The boldest and rudest among them bowed involuntarily to an influence which fear or force could not have secured.
When the news reached Charleston that the British had encamped on Mr. Gibbes' plantation, the authorities in the city despatched two galleys to dislodge them. These vessels ascended the river in the night, and arriving opposite, opened a heavy fire upon the invaders' encampment. The men had received strict injunctions not to fire upon the house, for fear of injury to any of the family. It could not, however, be known to Mr. Gibbes that such a caution had been given; and as soon as the Americans began their fire, dreading some accident, he proposed to his wife that they should take the children and seek a place of greater safety. Their horses being in the enemy's hands, they had no means of conveyance; but Mrs. Gibbes, with energies roused to exertion by the danger, and anxious only to secure shelter for her helpless charge, set off to walk with the children to an adjoining plantation situated in the interior. A drizzling rain was falling, and the weather was extremely chilly; the fire was incessant from the American guns, and sent (in order to avoid the house) in a direction which was in a range with the course of the fugitives. The shot, failing around them, cut the bushes, and struck the trees on every side. Exposed each moment to this imminent danger, they continued their flight with as much haste as possible, for about a mile, till beyond the reach of the shot.
Having reached the houses occupied by the negro laborers on the plantation, they stopped for a few moments to rest. Mrs. Gibbes, wet, chilled, and exhausted by fatigue and mental anxiety, felt her strength utterly fail, and was obliged to wrap herself in a blanket and lie down upon one of the beds. It was at this time, when the party first drew breath freely - with thankfulness that the fears of death were over - that on reviewing the trembling group to ascertain if all had escaped uninjured, it was found that a little boy, John Fenwick, was missing. In the hurry and terror of their flight the child had been forgotten and left behind! What was now to be done ? The servants refused to risk their lives by returning for him; and in common humanity, Mr. Gibbes could not insist that any one should undertake the desperate adventure. The roar of the distant guns was still heard, breaking at short intervals the deep silence of the night. The chilly rain was failing, and the darkness was profound. Yet the thought of abandoning the helpless boy to destruction, was agony to the hearts of his relatives. In this extremity the self-devotion of a young girl interposed to save him. Mary Anna, the eldest daughter of Mrs. Gibbes, then only thirteen years of age, determined to venture back in spite of the fearful peril -alone. The mother dared not oppose her noble resolution, which seemed indeed an inspiration of heaven; and she was permitted to go. Hastening along the path with all the speed of which she was capable, she reached the house, still in the undisturbed possession of the enemy; and entreated permission from the sentinel to enter; persisting, in spite of refusal, till by earnest importunity of supplication, she gained her object. Searching anxiously through the house, she found the child in a room in a third story, and lifting him joyfully in her arms, carried him down, and fled with him to the spot where her anxious parents were awaiting her return. The shot still flew thickly around her, frequently throwing up the earth in her way; but protected by the Providence that watches over innocence, she joined the rest of the family in safety. The boy, saved on this occasion by the intrepidity of the young girl, was the late General Fenwick, distinguished for his services in the last war with Great Britain. "Fenwick Place," still called "Headquarters," was three miles from "Peaceful Retreat."
Major Garden, who after the war married Mary Anna Gibbes, mentions this intrepid action. There are a few errors in his account; he calls the boy who was left "a distant relation," and says the dwelling-house was fired on by the Americans. The accomplished lady who communicated the particulars to me, heard them from her grandmother, Mrs. Gibbes; and the fact that the house was not fired upon is attested by a near relative now living. The house never bore any marks of shot; though balls and grapeshot have been often found on the plantation. Again-Garden says the family "were allowed to remain in some of the upper apartments;" and were at last "ordered to quit the premises," implying that they were treated with some severity as prisoners.
This could not have been the case; as Mrs. Gibbes constantly asserted that she presided at her own table, and spoke of the respect and deference with which she was uniformly treated by the officers. Her refusal to yield what she deemed a right ensured civility toward herself and household.
The family Bible, from which the parentage of General Fenwick might have been ascertained, was lost during the Revolution, and only restored to the family in the summer of 1847.
Some time after these Occurrences, when the family were again inmates of their own home, a battle was fought in a neighboring field. When the conflict was over, Mrs. Gibbes sent her servants to search among the slain left upon the battle-ground, for Robert Barnwell, her nephew, who had not returned. They discovered him by part of his dress, which one of the blacks remembered having seen his mother making. His face was so covered with wounds, dust and blood, that he could not be recognized. Yet life was not extinct; and under the unremitting care of his aunt and her young daughter, he recovered. His son, Robert W. Barnwell, was for some years president of the South Carolina College.
Scenes like these were often witnessed by the subject of this sketch, and on more than a few occasions did she suffer acute anxiety on account of the danger of those dear to her. She was accustomed to point out the spot where her eldest son, when only sixteen years old, had been placed as a sentinel, while British vessels were in the river, and their fire was poured on him. She would relate how, with a mother's agony of solicitude, she watched the balls as they struck the earth around him, while the youthful soldier maintained his dangerous post, notwithstanding the entreaties of an old negro hid behind a tree, that he would leave it. Through such trials, the severity of which we who enjoy the peace so purchased cannot fully estimate, she exhibited the same composure, and readiness to meet every emergency, with the same benevolent sympathy for others. During the struggle, while Carolina was invaded or in a state of defence, her house was at different times the quarters of friend and foe. The skirmishes were frequent, and many who went forth in the morning in health and vigor, returned no more; nor did she know from day to day who were next to be her guests.
Mrs. Gibbes had a cultivated taste; and amidst her many cares still found leisure for literary occupation. Volumes of her writings remain, filled with well-selected extracts from the many books she read, accompanied by her own comments; with essays on various subjects, copies of letters to her friends, and poetry. Everything from her pen evinces delicacy as well as strength of mind, extensive information, and refinement of taste, with the tenderest sensibility, and a deep tone of piety. Most of her letters were written after the war, and throw no additional light on the feeling or manners of that period.
She was in the habit of putting aside locks of hair enclosed with appropriate poetical tributes, as mementoes of her departed friends; and many of these touching memorials have been found among her papers. For fifteen years she was deprived of sight, but lost nothing of her cheerfulness, or the engaging grace of her manner; nor was her conversation less interesting or entertaining to her visitors. A stranger, who shortly before her death was at her house with a party of friends, whom she delighted by her conversation, expressed great surprise on being informed she was blind.
During the latter part of her life, she resided at Wilton, the country-seat of Mrs. Barnard Elliott, where she died in 1825, at the age of seventy-nine. Her remains rest in the family burial-ground upon John's Island. A beautiful monumental inscription in St. Paul's church, Charleston, records the virtues that adorned her character, and the faith which sustained her under many afflictions.