In 1780, General Charles Cornwallis gained the upper hand following the battle of Camden, South Carolina. From that point, he moved on to Waxhaw where the British army continued to leave townsfolk and patriots in tatters from their continued onslaught of the southern colonies, taking prisoners of war as they deemed necessary. Those prisoners were marched another 40 miles, wounded and bleeding, to Camden, South Carolina.
Enter one young mother whose two sons have been taken captive. Elizabeth Hutchinson, an Irish immigrant to America, discovered that her sons were being held prisoner at the stockade in Camden. She marched into the prison unarmed, and unaccompanied, and began issuing orders to the camp guards as though she might be the Queen of England. “I insist on seeing my boys!” She demanded to Lord Roden, who was the camp’s commander. He, being impressed by her, allowed her to explain the situation to him.
Elizabeth regaled all the details: Her two sons had been taken captive and had been slashed by a British officer’s sword who was angry that the captives had refused to shine his boots. She described their forced marching to Camden without food, water, or even bandages for their wounds. Lord Roden allowed her to speak to her sons but warned her that there was an infection of smallpox running rampant through the camp. She did not heed the warning but instead pushed on to ensure that her boys were alright.
A short while later, Elizabeth returned to the commander and proceeded to berate him about her son’s treatment. Consuming merely a solitary piece of stale bread for rations, they were starving to death. Their wounds had not been treated or bandaged, giving more worry about them contracting smallpox. She insisted that the camp commander include her sons in the upcoming exchange of prisoners. To her surprise, Lord Roden, who was impressed by her tenacity, granted her request. Unfortunately, for her oldest son Robert, help had arrived too late. He was not able to make the 40-mile journey back to Waxhaw and succumbed to his injuries and smallpox.
His younger brother was infected as well, and Elizabeth watched over him day and night until he was out of danger. Once he was on the mend, she hurried to Charleston Harbor, another 160 miles away, to nurse ailing captives aboard disease-ridden British ships. It was in this effort that she perished several weeks later to cholera. Before she died, she wrote her son a letter in which she reminded him of a few things in their prior conversations. One of those pieces of advice was, “In the world, you have to make your own way. To do that you must have friends. You can make friends by being honest, and you can keep them by being steadfast. Take time to be deliberate, but when time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”
We remember the many men and women who helped to make a difference and change the face of this country in its founding years. Some of those men would not have been there to make that difference had it not been for mothers and fathers, people like Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson. The mother of Andrew Jackson, our seventh president, who nearly died of smallpox after being held as a captive prisoner of war in a stockade in Camden, South Carolina. When asked about his presidency, he remarked, “I’ve got big shoes to fill. This is my chance to do something. I have to seize the moment.”