Fort Fair Lawn Berkeley County (copy) (copy)

Mike Yianopoulos (foreground) of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust, and Raleigh West III of The Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust, check out the Revolutionary War outpost, Fort Fair Lawn, in Moncks Corner in 2016. Wade Spees/Staff 

They fought on horseback, darting through the swamps down the Cooper River toward Charleston.

The backcountry skirmishes during the American Revolution don't get the regard the war's larger battles do. But they helped decide its outcome.

Patriot militia disrupted British supply lines, forcing the troops to back off from the inland invasions. They crumbled the empire's Southern campaign and left Gen. Charles Cornwallis shorthanded at Yorktown, Virginia, where his surrender virtually ended the war.

That's the significance of the old forts, plantations and other sites that conservationists are fighting to preserve along the Cooper as suburban development begins to pave over the riverlands.

"The Cooper River was the 18th century's Interstate 26," said Doug Bostick, director of the S.C. Battlefield Preservation Trust.

The war in the North had been fought to a stalemate. The British thought they could win by solidifying their hold on the "loyalist" South before marching north from there. It might have worked if the skirmishes led by "Swamp Fox" Francis Marion and others hadn't disrupted the movement up the river of reinforcements, food and ammunition, Bostick said.

"The skirmishes aren't great tales in the scheme of things," said Charles Phillips, Brockington and Associates senior historian. "But there was a lot of skirmishing, mostly fighting between groups of horsemen."

The best example and maybe the most concentrated fighting came during the "Dog Days Raids" in 1781, which was two days of skirmishes along the riverland trade paths out of Charleston.

Patriots harried the British as the troops retreated through the Lowcountry from Four Holes Swamp to today's Neck Area in North Charleston.

In the culminating battle, "Lighthorse Harry" Lee's riders stumbled across a British regiment on the morning of July 16 at the Quinby, or Quimby, Bridge along the East Branch of the Cooper. 

They rode straight at a howitzer cannon on the other bank, but its crew was too startled to fire. They kept riding straight through the full regiment, wounding two British and then escaping into the swamp.

The British retreated to the nearby Quinby plantation, a brick house with clay outbuildings too thick for shot to penetrate. After Thomas "Gamecock" Sumter and Wade Hampton caught up, the Americans attacked the British, and lost at least 60 fighters doing it, according to reports.

Marion and his troops, who attacked on one of Sumter's flanks, rode off that night with others who felt Sumter had foolishly risked them in a wide-open attack on the walled-off British when the skirmish raids were working.

Other sites along the river are just as storied. Among them:

Fair Lawn: The recently conserved British earthen fort near Moncks Corner was built to guard both the Cooper River and a land route out of Charleston. The remnants of 6-foot-high walls still enclose it more than two centuries later. The fort might have been the most formidable Revolutionary War backcountry post in the coastal plain. It withstood an attack by 300 Patriot soldiers while manned by fewer than half as many British troops.

Lewisfield Plantation: Along the Cooper downstream of Fair Lawn, the plantation held a dock where British warships moored and where Hampton also fought a skirmish. The dock was strategic enough that in the 1980s two cannons were recovered from the nearby river, one with an imprint of the British crown stamped into its barrel. Much of the plantation also recently was conserved.

But really the entire historic corridor was the battlefield.

"You could almost cast the entire rolling retreat from Eutawville to Charleston as one drawn-out encounter, with a number of smaller skirmishes all along the way," said Raleigh West, director of  the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust.

It wasn't just soldiers fighting along the Cooper, Phillips said. When one side or the other pulled back, marauders and thieves moved in, seizing silver and other valuables from the plantation manors. Some of the fights were little more than squabbles between families whose members who took opposing sides in the war.

"There was a lot of bitterness, a lot of personal animosity that often gets overlooked," Phillips said.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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