For two years after the American Revolution broke out in the towns of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, the war was fought primarily on the northern battlefields. After a decisive defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and French entry on the American side the following year, however, British commanders attempted to reverse their fortunes by launching a campaign in the South.
There the British would find not only crops such as tobacco, rice and indigo which were vital to their economy, but also stronger loyalist support, especially among the Scottish-Irish settlers of the hinterland. With foreign wars requiring the redeployment of infantry to other hotspots around the world, British military leaders planned to exploit the deep political, economic and racial divisions in the South and enlist loyalists and those enslaved in the plantations. of patriots to their cause.
The “Southern Strategy” turned the American Revolution into a civil war that was, according to author Thomas Fleming, “much more savage and personal than anything fought in the North.” Both sides have embarked on scorched earth campaigns that pitted neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother. South Carolina alone accounted for nearly a fifth of battlefield deaths and a third of battlefield injuries throughout the war, mostly the result of US-American violence.
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The British seize the main southern ports
After taking a strategic position in the South with the capture of Savannah, Georgia, in December 1778, the British Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Henry Clinton, left New York with a force of 14,000 men to capture Charleston. , South Carolina. After weeks of shelling by British guns, the port city fell on May 12, 1780. The 4,500 or more soldiers taken prisoner made up the largest contingent of American troops lost in the war.
Clinton’s decree of June 1779 which offered freedom to all slaves fleeing their patriotic masters was central to Britain’s strategy for the south. The edict had a dual intention: to decimate the rebel economy while strengthening the British ranks. Although those who escaped captivity did not have to fight with the British to win their release, many served as cooks, nurses, servants and soldiers. Barely motivated by altruism, British forces forced thousands of slaves they captured to serve in the army and even sold them for money to buy provisions.
Colonel Banastre Tarleton, son of a Liverpool slave trader and leader of the Loyalist British Legion, stoked fears of a social revolution by employing Métis forces to plunder the patriots’ plantations. After pursuing Colonel Abraham Buford’s Virginia Continentals through South Carolina, Tarleton’s men routed the Patriots at the Battle of Waxhaws in May 1780 and, according to survivors, slaughtered the Patriots who attempted to surrender. A rebellious doctor reported that “for fifteen minutes after each man has bowed down, [the British] roamed the ground dipping their bayonets into any that showed signs of life. British officer Charles Steadman conceded: “The virtue of humanity has been totally forgotten.”
Leaving General Charles Cornwallis in command of the forces in the South, Clinton left Charleston in June 1780 after declaring rebel resistance in South Carolina broken, with the exception of “a few scattered militias.” The Patriotic forces, however, used the “Buford Massacre” as a propaganda tool to recruit fighters. And a subsequent proclamation that called for the imprisonment of anyone who refused to serve in a loyalist militia rallied neutral citizens to their cause.
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Guerrilla fighting turns the tide on King’s Mountain
With the Continental Army in tatters after the fall of Charleston, the Patriot’s defense efforts fell on rebel militias and irregular border troops led by commanders such as Francis Marion, nicknamed the “Swamp Fox” and Thomas Sumter, whose the plantation had been set on fire by the Tarleton raiders. Using guerrilla tactics learned from their border conflicts with the Native Americans, these backcountry rebels launched nocturnal attacks and lightning raids against British supply trains and outposts.
As the Americans fought, the war grew more and more brutal. Loyalist forces murdered a pregnant woman in her bed and above the canopy scrawled “you will never give birth to a rebel” in her blood. After being wounded during the siege of Augusta, Georgia, Loyalist Commander Thomas Browne ordered 13 rebels to be hanged in his stairwell so he could watch from his bed. Marion’s men, meanwhile, killed a previously enslaved man caught spying on behalf of the British and put his head on a pole.
After torching homes, slaughtering livestock and hanging traitors from trees while sweeping across western South Carolina, a loyalist militia led by Major Patrick Ferguson was attacked by a force of backcountry patriots twice as numerous at King’s Mountain on October 7, 1780. The Patriots resisted the withered fire to storm the top of the rocky hill. Ferguson, the only British and non-American regular in the battle, refused to surrender and was fatally shot while charging his white stallion.
Seeking to avenge the Buford massacre, the Patriots shouted “Buford!” Buford! and “Tarleton District!” As they killed loyalists waving white flags. While 28 Patriots died, Loyalists suffered 10 times as many deaths and over 600 were imprisoned. The Goforth family lost four sons in the battle: three loyalists and a patriot.
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Nathanael Greene exploits the militias
After a terrible defeat at the Battle of Camden in August 1780, George Washington replaced his losing general with Nathanael Greene, who relied on partisan leaders such as Marion and Sumter to aid the infantry.
To force the British to fight on multiple fronts, Greene split his army in half and gave Brigadier General Daniel Morgan command of a division. Twenty-five miles west of Kings Mountain, Morgan’s combined force of Continentals and militiamen defeated Tarleton’s army of Redcoats and Loyalists at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781. An enraged Cornwallis broke his saber in half after hearing that he had lost a sixth of his army in the battle.
The two sides clashed again less than two months later in North Carolina at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. After the meeting of March 15, 1781, Greene withdrew defeated from a battlefield littered with British soldiers. A third of Cornwallis’ army was killed or wounded in a victory so pyrrhic that British parliamentarian Charles James Fox proclaimed: “Another victory like this would ruin the British army.”
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The war ends in Virginia
Despite Clinton’s opinion that he should stay in the Carolinas, Cornwallis attempted to cut rebel supply lines in Virginia with his depleted forces. British soldiers and loyalist privateers raided warehouses and shipyards and destroyed livestock and crops along the rivers and coastline of Virginia in the spring and summer of 1781. An expedition led by Tarleton even forced Thomas Jefferson to flee Monticello.
While leading Clinton to believe that the Continental Army would attack New York, Washington instead directed its forces to Virginia, where Cornwallis was cut off by sea after the British naval defeat at the Battle of the Chesapeake in September 1781. A few Weeks later, the combined French and American forces surrounded Cornwallis and began the siege of Yorktown. “We generously put it in a pudding bag,” joked a Virginia militia general. After Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, the war that began in the North effectively ended in the South.