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Biographical Sketch of Daniel McGirtt

 

An extract from the book entitled Historic Camden (first published 1905), by Thomas J. Kirkland and Robert M. Kennedy, Chapter XIV, pages 297-305, is presented below.

 

Within the present limits of Kershaw County was born, about the middle of the eighteenth century, a doubtful hero, Daniel McGirtt, one of the most picturesque figures of the Revolution. He was a savage Tory outlaw, another “Terror of Loch Lomond’s side,” whose career might well adorn a highly colored page of Scottish Border fiction.

Daniel was of good stock. His father, James, had a grant of land on the Wateree of 400 acres, five miles below Camden, at the horseshoe in the river then called the “Great Neck,” near Mulberry. Here probably Dan­iel first saw the light, though the bulk of his father's estates seem to have been lower down the stream. In 1753, James and his wife, Priscilla, conveyed this land in the Neck to Robert Milhouse. They also sold some of the “Hermitage” lands to Joseph Kershaw.

James McGirtt is said to have been a man of considerable culture. From “Wells’ Register and Almanac,” for 1775, we learn that he filled places of trust and confidence, being lieutenant-colonel in Richard Richardson's regiment of Provincial militia. It was probably he, and not his son Daniel (as stated in the South Carolina Gazette of April, 1769), who, with Colonels Richardson and William Thompson, behaved with such “great spirit, discretion and success” in suppressing the Schofield trouble on Saluda River. The Gazette characterizes the three colonels as “gentlemen of great reputation and highly esteemed by the whole body of backsettlers.”

One of James McGirtt's daughters married Captain John Cantey, the founder of the Camden branch of that family.

Johnson [in his book titled Traditions] says that the elder McGirtt was firmly attached to the American cause throughout the war, but there is no evidence to confirm this, and we incline to the opinion that he remained true to the Crown, and with his family retired to East Florida about the beginning of the struggle. Certainly this might be inferred from the following letter written by William Ancrum, a Charlestonian by residence but one of our first and largest landowners, who knew all the families hereabouts. It is directed to his agent at the Congarees, on May 9, 1778, and relates to the recent stealing of three Negro slaves from his plantation at that point. He says:

“It is suspected that some of the McGirtts who were formerly settled near Camden and some time ago retired to East Florida and who, it seems, have given themselves up to these scandalous practices are the perpetrators of this villainy, who have also taken off with them a great many horses from the settlements on the Wateree River.”

From the reputed high character of the man, it is impossible to believe that James McGirtt, the father, is to be included in this grave charge of Mr. Ancrum. There may have been other misguided sons besides Daniel who had abandoned themselves to such nefarious business, all too common, alas, in the unsettled times of war and the unprotected condition of the up-country.

Among Dr. Johnson's interesting traditions is one purporting to explain the reason of young Daniel McGirtt's desertion of the patriot cause. As a young man, says he, Daniel was a noted hunter and rider, thoroughly familiar with the woods and paths from Santee River to the Catawba Nation. As a scout, he was invaluable to the Americans, as well for his daring courage as for his accurate knowledge of the countryside.

His favorite mount was a magnificent mare that he called “Grey Goose.” His devotion to this animal led to his ultimate ruin. At Satilla, Georgia, a superior officer coveted the steed, and, not being able to get her by other means, swore that he would have her by force. This threat led to a personal difficulty in which the high-spirited Daniel felled the officer to the ground. For this he was court-martialed, found guilty of a serious violation of the rules of war, and publicly whipped at the post. By the terms of his sentence, a second whipping was subsequently to be inflicted. Stung to madness by this disgrace, Daniel determined to escape, in which, perhaps by the connivance of his guards, he succeeded. Mounting beautiful “Grey Goose,” who happened to be tethered near, he made a wild dash for liberty, turning however, in his saddle, to hurl back at his former com­rades anathemas and threats of revenge. The latter he vindictively fulfilled.

Dr. Johnson represents this as having taken place, evidently, after the British had overrun the province, for he adds that, “When the State was again recovered by the American army,” McGirtt retired to East Florida. As a matter of fact, however, he had withdrawn to Florida and been made a lieutenant-colonel in the (Tory) Florida Rangers as early as 1775, just after the “Snow Campaign.”

Dr. E. M. Boykin says of Daniel that his ruling passion seems to have been for horses. Indeed that he loved a horse so well that “he did not always stop to examine his title to it, but was in the saddle and over the hills and far away, taking, it is said, from the Whigs to sell to the British and vice versa.”

Daniel McGirtt was attached to Prevost's army on its devastating raid through lower Carolina. It will be recalled that plantations were laid waste and robbed of all their valuables - live stock, silver plate, provisions, even Negroes.

Commenting on this, the Gazette of July 7, 1779, says that with Prevost was:

“ ... a large body of the most infamous banditti and horse thieves that perhaps ever were collected together anywhere, under the direction of McGirtt (dignified with the title of colonel), a corps of Indians, with Negro and white savages disguised like them, and about 1,500 of the most savage disaffected poor people, seduced from the back settlements of this State and North Carolina.”

Again, on July 28, 1779, the same journal remarks:

“A report prevailed that Brig.- Gen. Prevost was ordered to New York under an arrest for not having done more mischief in this State than he did. But, if it be true that he was in copartnership to share all plunder, whether in plate, horses, or Negroes, with the famous McGirtt (as was confidently affirmed by most of the Brit­ish officers while they were in this neighborhood), the general will have no cause to regret even a dismissal from their service, for McGirtt himself has declared that his own share of what he has stolen amounting to his weight in gold, he is now satisfied and will immediately quit his thieving and settle in West Florida.”

Let us now turn from this sinister side of the man's nature and consider one or two instances of his generosity and courage.

Lieut. James Cantey of Camden, with a small escort, was once convoying a large amount of money from Au­gusta, Ga., to Charleston. The wife of General Wilkin­son was with the party. McGirtt, with a much larger force, hung upon the flanks of the convoy, and would occasionally call out: “James Cantey, get out of that party, or I will pounce down on you and wipe the last one of you off the earth. I have need of that money and am going to have it.” To this Cantey defiantly replied that he could get it only by walking over his dead body.  Finally, seeing that his game of bluff would not work, McGirtt withdrew, when nearing the city, yelling out, as a farewell: “You confounded, hard­headed fool! You had better thank your stars that you happen to be my nephew!”

On another occasion, while Capt. John Boykin, of Hampton's Cavalry, and a party of Whigs were on a scouting expedition about the Santee Ferries, they encamped, one night, in a bend of Jacks Creek, near Vance. When all was silent, a voice was heard from the other side of the stream, “Hello! Is there a Boykin, or an Irvin, or a Whitaker in camp? If so, tell him to come where I may speak to him.” One of the gentlemen named at once responded, with the inquiry, “Well, who are you and what do you want?” “Never mind who I am,” said the voice, which was at once recognized as McGirtt's, “but take my advice and break this camp. Tarleton knows where you are and will be on you by daylight.” Needless to say, the advice was heeded, and, leaving their fires brightly burning, the party escaped to the other side of the stream, barely in time, and witnessed, from a place of safety, the Bloody Dragoon's furious overhaul of their abandoned camp. This story was told to Dr. E. M. Boykin by Mr. Stephen Boykin, who, then an aged man, could distinctly remember the days of the Revolution.

One of Daniel McGirtt's acts of daring is commonly believed to have given a name to a locality in this country. With a single companion he once ventured to make a secret reconnaissance in the swamps on the western side of the Wateree. Some patriots of the neighbor­hood, learning of his presence, determined to entrap him. Suspecting that he would wish to cross a creek with very high banks, on the Bettyneck plantation, ten miles below Camden, they removed the only bridge at that point and concealed themselves on either side of the way. McGirtt and his comrade rode blindly into the ambuscade, but, putting spurs to their horses, passed unscathed by the fire of musketry until they reached the yawning chasm. Retreat was impossible, so both urged their horses to the leap. The distance from bank to bank was quite twenty feet. McGirtt, as by a miracle, passed safely over, but his unfortunate attendant per­ished in the attempt. The stream has since been known as “Jumping Gully.” [Note:  It is almost cruel to question these cherished traditions, but a recently discovered plat of James McGirtt’s lands in the Fork of the Wateree, made May 4, 1756, shows that this stream was, even at that early date, known as “Jumping Gully.”] After the war, McGirtt took his band of desperadoes to Florida, where they seem to have maintained themselves for a while by their wits and their good right arms, after the manner of medieval robber knights.

The contemporary Charleston papers afford occasional glimpses of our border hero and his band.

The South Carolina Gazette and Public Advertiser of April 3, 1784, says: “By a gentleman arrived this week from St. Augustine, we learn that the notorious McGirtt, who came into this State with Prevost's army in 1779 and committed numberless depredations on the inhabitants, is confined in the castle of that place for several robberies committed by him and his party in that province.”

Ramsay thus summarizes his career:

“Mr. Tonyn, governor of the last-mentioned loyal province (East Florida), granted a commission to a horse-thief of the name of McGirtt, who, at the head of a party, had for several years harassed the inhabitants of South Carolina and Georgia. By his frequent incur­sions, he had amassed a large property that he depos­ited in the vicinity of St. Augustine. After peace was proclaimed, he carried on the same practices against his former protectors in East Florida, until they were obliged, in self-defense, to raise the royal militia of the province to oppose him.”

The journals of the day carry on the romantic story for us. The Gazette, on May 12, 1784, contains this
item:

“The noted McGirtt, who, we mentioned some time past, was confined in the castle of St. Augustine for stealing, lately made his escape, assisted by two others, from the place of his confinement, and in the face of the guard.”

Again, on June 12th of the same year:

“Letters from St. Augustine inform us that, on the 27th of last month, a party of about thirty men, under the famous Col. McGirtt, met with a party of men under the command of Col. Young, some little distance from St. Augustine, which he immediately attacked, and killed Col. Young and his servant and took eight or nine of his men, which he disarmed and let go.”

But the damp dungeons of St. Augustine, though they had little tamed this truly dauntless spirit, had wrecked the physical man.

Abandoning his life of adventure and outlawry, he sought an asylum at the home of his brother-in-law, Col. John James, of Sumter District, in this State. Here his wife, a sister of Colonel James, had lived in seclusion during the war. With woman's poetic devotion, she had never lost faith in him, and, in her society, he peacefully passed the evening of his life. His identity was, of course, carefully concealed.

A part of the time was passed under the generous protection of his nephews, Zach. and James Cantey, in Camden. Here occurred the following incident, which we give on the authority of Dr. Boykin:

Years after the war, Anthony Hampton paid a visit to Col. James Chesnut at Mulberry. The conversation turned, one evening, on the redoubtable McGirtt, and Mr. Hampton told how, during the Revolutionary struggle, his life had been saved by McGirtt, who had secretly cut the cords that bound his limbs, while he was being carried, a prisoner, to Charleston, thus enabling him to escape in the darkness. To his guest's inquiry as to the ultimate fate of McGirtt, Colonel Chesnut replied, “If you would very much like to know, I shall let you ask him personally;” and that evening the astonished Hampton was conducted into the presence of his former liberator, at his secluded cottage in Gen. Zach. Cantey's yard.  The two men had been friends as boys, and, despite the fact that both were now bent with age, the meeting was cordial and pleasant. Among the many reminiscences that such occasions are wont to evoke, was that of the escape of Hampton above related. “Well, come now, Anthony,” said McGirtt, “suppose we had been in each other's shoes that night, what would you have done?”  “Let you go on and be hanged, by George,” said Hampton; “it would have been a great pity, I know now, since you have turned out such a clever fellow, but the truth must be told.”

Johnson, so frequently quoted, gives us the information that Daniel McGirtt ended his checkered career at the home of Colonel James, in misery but not in want, and that his widow long survived him.

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