An unlikely Revolutionary War hero: the Reverend William Martin

By Bill Fitzpatrick



The congregation that had been through hell watched as their minister headed toward the pulpit.


What might he say?


Turn the other cheek? Turn it over to God? Where was God when the battle took place? Was it really God’s will that hundreds of patriots were killed, and so few wounded?


The congregation had every right to wonder what their sometimes-erratic minister might say. He was never a man to hold his tongue.


But Reverend William Martin knew exactly what he was going to say. He had not led nearly 1,000 Presbyterians from the Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland to South Carolina to have the promise of a better life taken away from him, from those people, again.


When the Charleston Mercury asked me to write a regular column on the importance of our state’s rural historic churches during the Revolution War, I said yes. The week before I would have said no. That was before I watched the Ken Burns documentary, Benjamin Franklin. After Charleston fell to the British, we are told that Cornwallis “soon headed to Yorktown.” To emphasize the point, an oversized arrow pointed the way from Charleston to Yorktown.


My goodness, did Lord Cornwallis and his troops enjoy a week or two at Pawley’s on their leisurely one-year jaunt from Charleston to the outskirt of Yorktown?


With this dreadful compression of history, Burns and his staff obliterated South Carolina’s role in the winning of the American Revolutionary War. Really? On May 12, 1780, Charleston surrenders and Cornwallis “soon headed to Yorktown?”


Are you kidding me?


I have traveled more of our state’s backroads than most, that is true enough. When my business partner and I sold our company in 2010, and with a lifelong interest in writing, travel, history and photography, I decided to spend a year or two exploring the more rural parts of our state. Hello Due West! Chester, you are looking, um, oh, never mind. It is in these wanderings that I visited the Waxhaws, an historic region that includes large chunks of now-Lancaster, Union, and Chester counties.

Ken Burns and his team were indeed correct when they said Charleston was lost to the British on May 12, 1780. But in their haste to shift the narrative to Yorktown, they overlooked the seminal role the backcountry played in the wining of the American Revolution.


After Charleston’s surrender, Lord Charles Cornwallis, wishing to crush the opposition, sent Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton chasing after patriot troops led by Colonel Abraham Buford that had arrived too late to help with Charleston’s defense. On May 29, the two forces fought in the Waxhaws.


Was it a massacre?


Those who survived the bloody encounter accused Tarleton of ignoring their white flags of surrender. Tarleton said not true. No matter. The Battle of Waxhaws became known as “Buford’s Massacre” and Tarleton was condemned as a butcher. From this point forward, ordinary people who simply wished to live their lives in peace, such as the members of nearby Waxhaw Presbyterian Church, would find such to be impossible.



The story of how and why the Reverend William Martin emigrated to the Waxhaws has its origins with the 1603 death of Queen Elizabeth I. The event marked the end of the Tudors, the beginning of the Stuarts and the English colonization of the Ulster Plantation, today’s Northern Ireland. Conflicts with the native Irish Catholics would be expected; future conflicts between the Scots-Presbyterians and Anglicans, including an era during the 1600s known as the Killing Time, probably not. When given the choice between death by hanging or swearing allegiance to an earthly English king, quite a few Scots-Presbyterians chose the rope.


In 1772, the ongoing religious and economic tensions between the English Anglicans and the Scots Irish Presbyterians of the Ulster Plantation led the Reverend William Martin and more than 1,000 of his followers to emigrate to South Carolina. After arriving in Charleston, and confirming that they were Protestants of good standing, they were provided land grants. To the backcountry they went, some to the Abbeville area and some like the Reverend Martin and many of his followers, to the Waxhaws. They had but a few years to establish and enjoy their new lives before the events of May 29, 1780.

A few days after the Battle of Waxhaws, an angry Reverend Martin addressed his congregation.


“Go see the tender mercies of Great Britain! In that church you may find men, though still alive, hacked out of the very semblance of humanity: some deprived of their arms —mutilated trunks: some with one arm or leg, and some with both legs cut off. Is not this cruelty a parallel to the history of our Scottish fathers, driven from their conventicles, hunted like wild beasts? Behold the godly youth, James Nesbit — chased for days by the British for the crime of being seen on his knees upon the Sabbath morning!”


“My hearers,” he said, in his broad Scotch-Irish dialect — “talk and angry words will do no good. We must fight! As your pastor — in preparing a discourse suited to this time of trial — I have sought for all light, examined the Scriptures and other helps in ancient and modern history, and have considered especially the controversy between the United Colonies and the mother country. Sorely have our countrymen been dealt with, till forced to the declaration of their independence —and the pledge of their lives and sacred honor to support it. Our forefathers in Scotland made a similar one and maintained that declaration with their lives; it is now our turn, brethren, to maintain this at all hazards.


Within a short period of time, the British burned his church. Eventually, they captured the Reverend Martin, put him in chains and locked him in the Camden jail for six months.

According to the historian George Howe, when Martin appeared before Cornwallis, he did not apologize for his beliefs or actions, argued that to him the Declaration of Independence was always what his religion maintained. An impressed Cornwallis then released the minister. Martin, who survived the war, died in 1807.


Postscript

After writing this story, I took another trip to the Waxhaws, not to photograph the string of Presbyterian churches that are associated with the itinerant Reverend Martin, but to find his gravesite, something I had never done before. A perfect man he was not. He enjoyed sipping whiskey, to a fault. Late in his life, 10 of his neighbors testified in court that he had lost his good sense. Well, maybe so. Maybe he had few friends at the end of his life for he is not buried in a church cemetery or even a family plot. His tombstone is to be found among the pines and scrub brush of rural Lancaster County.

I parked my car in front of a wire barrier, walked around the left wooden post, and then headed down a dirt road. A friend of mine who had made this same trip had told me to look through the trees and the brush on the left side of the path and that I should be able spot the cemetery stone. I did. I made my way through the brush and wondered, but just for a minute, why I had made so a long trip to see a stone in the woods.


Bill Fitzpatrick chairs the board of Preservation South Carolina, a statewide non-profit preservation organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the historic and irreplaceable architectural heritage of South Carolina. Fitzpatrick is the author of South Carolina’s Sacred Spaces, a book that features 70 churches that helped share the state’s history and culture.

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