THE SPARTAN MATRON WHO HELPED BURN HER OWN PROPERTY
Charleston, South Carolina, was only about thirty years old when the Englishman, Robert Brewton, and the Huguenot exile, John de la Motte, took up their residence there. In 1758 Robert Brewton’s daughter Rebecca married Jacob Motte, grandson of the Huguenot.
Three daughters came to the Motte home, and the family lived quietly until the outbreak of the Revolution. In 1775 Mrs. Motte’s brother, Miles Brewton, sailed for England with his family, intending to leave them with relatives there while he returned to Charles-ton for the service of his country. But the vessel was lost, and was never heard from again. His Charleston house on King Street, which was built about 1765, became the property of his sister.
When the war broke out, Mrs. Motte, knowing that it was impossible for her husband to become a soldier because of his failing health, decided to do her part for her country. Fortifications were to be built, and many laborers were needed, so she sent to her plantation for all the able-bodied men; these she placed at the disposal of those in charge of the work of defence.
She had her reward when, first in 1776, and again in 1779, the British forces were unable to secure possession of the town. The third attempt, made by Sir Henry Clinton in 1780, was successful. For nearly three years the town was in the enemy’s control. The Motte house was made headquarters by Clinton and his staff. The Mottes were crowded into a small room, while the British lived in comfort in the large apartments. Mrs. Motte divided her time between her in-valid husband, her timid daughters, and the invaders. It was her custom to preside at the long dinner table, but the young ladies were never allowed to appear in the presence of the officers.
A reminder of the presence of the unwelcome guests is still to be seen on the marble mantel in one of the roomsa caricature of Clinton scratched on the polished surface, evidently with a diamond point. In the same room the women of Charlestonwho were accustomed to go about the streets in mourning, during the period of the occupationpresented a petition to Lord Rawdon, asking for the pardon of Isaac Hayne, a patriot who had been condemned for some infraction of the regulations of the invaders. Their petition for clemency was in vain, though it was emphasized by the presence of Hayne’s two little children.
After the death of Mr. Motte, in January, 1781, Mrs. Motte and her daughters secured permission to leave Charleston that they might return to the family plantation on the Congaree, thirty or forty miles from Columbia. They were disappointed in their desire to be alone, for it was not long till the English decided to build on the estate one of their long line of military stations. Earthworks were thrown up around the house, which became known as Fort Motte. Again the family were crowded into a few rooms, while officers occupied the remainder.
After a time Mrs. Motte was asked to retire to a small house on the plantation, a rough structure, covered with weather-boards, unplastered and only partially lined. At first it seemed that there was no place here to conceal the silverware brought from Fort Motte. How the difficulty was solved has been told in ” Worthy Women of Our First Century “:
” Some one suggested that the unfinished state of the walls of their sitting-room afforded a convenient hiding place; and they set to work to avail themselves of it. Nailing tacks in the vacancy between the outer and inner boarding, and tying strings around the various pieces of silver, they hung them along the inner wall. Shortly afterwards a band of marauders did actually invade the premises; and one more audacious than the others jumped on a chair and thrust his bayonet into the hollow wall, saying he would soon find what they had come in search of; but, rapping all along on the floor within the wall, he did not once strike against anything to reward bad perseverance.”
After a time General Marion and Colonel Lee led up troops for the siege of Fort Motte. Fearing that British reenforcements were on the way, they decided they must make an attack at once. The best way seemed to be to set fire to the main building. The American leaders, knowing that this was the home of Mrs. Motte, took counsel with her. ” Do not hesitate a moment,” was the prompt reply of the patriotic woman. Then she added, ” I will give you something to facilitate the destruction.” So saying, she handed to General Lee ‘-a quiver of arrows from the East Indies which, so she had been told by the ship captain who brought them to Charleston, would set on fire any wood against which they were thrown.
Two of the arrows were fired from a gun without result, but the third set fire to the shingles of the house. The efforts of the garrison to extinguish the flames were in vain, and before long the fortress was surrendered to the patriots. In later years, when Mrs. Motte was praised for her part in the siege, she was accustomed to say, ” Too much has been made of a thing that any American woman would have done.”
After the war Mrs. Motte returned to the house in Charleston. The daughters married, and numerous grandchildren played in the rooms where the British officers lived during the occupation of Charleston. The youngest of these granddaughters lived in the house in 1876, when the story of Rebecca Motte was written for the Women’s Centennial Executive Committee.
During her last years in the old mansion, Mrs. Motte was proudly pointed out to visitors to the city. One of her great-grandchildren said that at the time ” she was rather under-sized and slender, with a pale face, blue eyes, and grey hair that curled slightly under a high-crowned ruffled mob-cap. She always wore a square white neckerchief pinned down in front, tight sleeves reaching only to the elbow, with black silk mittens on her hands and arms; a full skirt with huge pockets, and at her waist a silver chain, from which hung her pin-cushion and scissors and a peculiarly bright bunch of keys.”
The body of this gracious patriot was buried in old St. Philip’s Church, another of the Revolutionary landmarks of the Palmetto City.
The mansion which she made famous should be called the Brewton House, or the Motte House. But a Motte married an Alston, and an Alston married a Pringle, and so many families of the latter name have been associated with the place that their name is popularly given to it.