Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War

Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Southern theater
partof=the American Revolutionary War

caption=The Battle of Cowpens
place=Virginia and present Southeastern United States
result=Surrender of British army at Yorktown
combatant2=United States
commander1=Lord Charles Cornwallis,
Sir Henry Clinton
commander2=Nathanael Greene,
Horatio Gates,
Benjamin Lincoln
strength1=Approximately 8,000 regulars and militia
strength2=Approximately 18,000 regulars and militia
casualties1=Entire force captured
casualties2=Unknown, possibly around 2-3,000 killed, many more wounded

The Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War was the central area of operations in the second half of the American Revolutionary War. During the first three years of the conflict, the primary military encounters had been in the north, focused on campaigns around the cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. After the failure of the Saratoga campaign, the British largely abandoned operations in the Middle Colonies and pursued a strategy of pacification in the Southern Colonies. [Hibbert, C, "Rebels and Redcoats", p. 235] The Southern campaign saw the British fight a string of battles, most of which were tactical victories. However, in almost all of these cases, the "victories" strategically weakened the British army by the high cost in casualties - best exemplified by the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Several American victories, such as the Battle of Cowpens and the Battle of King's Mountain also served to weaken the overall British military strength. It was effectively the final major operation of the American Revolution, and its culminating engagement, the Siege of Yorktown, essentially marked the end of British power in the Colonies. [Roberts, "The New Penguin History of the World", p. 723]

Early operations, 1775–1776

In Virginia, what became known as the Gunpowder Incident took place on April 20, 1775, a day after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, an event with some parallels. Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, attempted to remove gunpowder stored in Williamsburg to an armed British ship in the James River. Dunmore saw rising unrest in the colony and sought to deprive Virginia militia of supplies needed for insurrection. Revolutionary militia led by Patrick Henry forced Dunmore to pay for the gunpowder.

After the war began, Dunmore issued an emancipation proclamation in November 1775, promising freedom to runaway slaves who fought for the British. On December 9, 1775, American forces defeated Loyalist troops (including runaway slaves) under Governor Dunmore at the Battle of Great Bridge. After the defeat, Dunmore and his troops took refuge on British ships off of Norfolk; Dunmore bombarded and burned the town on January 1, 1776. He was driven from an island in Chesapeake Bay that summer, never to return.

First attack on Charleston

Crucial in any operation in retaking the South would be the possession of a port to bring in supplies. To this end, in June 1776, an attack under Sir Henry Clinton was made on Fort Sullivan at Charleston, South Carolina. Uncharacteristically, Clinton failed to order a complete reconnaissance of the area. His 2,200 men force was on Long Island (adjacent to Sullivan's Island on which the fort was positioned). He found that the channel dividing the two islands was too deep for his troops to ford. [Bicheno, H: "Rebels and Redcoats", p.158] Instead of re-embarking on his boats, he instead relied on the Royal Navy commander, Sir Peter Parker to reduce the fort, which became known after the war as Fort Moultrie, after its commander during this engagement, William Moultrie. However, the firepower of the British ships was unable to make an impression on the spongy palmetto logs which formed the majority of the defences of the fort, and the bombardment failed to achieve its aim. [Hibbert, C: "Rebels and Redcoats", p.106] It was a humiliating failure, and Clinton's campaign in the Carolinas was called off. [Kepner, F, "A British View of the Siege of Charleston, 1776", "The Journal of Southern History", Vol. 11, No. 1. (Feb., 1945), p. 94 [ Jstor link] ] The two men argued after the engagement, each blaming the other for the failure of the assault. [Kepner, F, "A British View of the Siege of Charleston, 1776", "The Journal of Southern History", Vol. 11, No. 1. (Feb., 1945), p. 94 [ Jstor link] ] It is argued that the South was lost by the failure to take Charleston in 1776, as it left the Loyalists unsupported for three years, while allowing the port of Charleston to serve the American cause until 1780. [Bicheno, H: "Rebels and Redcoats", p.154, 158]

British campaign in the South

The Loyalist question

In 1778, the British once again turned their attention to the South, where they hoped to regain control by recruiting thousands of Loyalists. This assumption of support was based on the accounts of Loyalist exiles in London who had direct access to the American Secretary, George Germain. [Germain letters, [ Clements Library, University of Michigan] ] Keen to recover their lands and be rewarded for their loyalty to the crown, these men realised that the best way in which to convince the British to undertake a major operation in the South would be to exaggerate the level of potential Loyalist support - as a group, they had great influence on the British ministers in London. [Ritcheson, C, "Loyalist Influence on British Policy Toward the United States After the American Revolution", "Eighteenth-Century Studies", Vol. 7, No. 1. (Autumn, 1973), p. 6, [ Jstor link] ] The British operated under the expectation that they would find substantial support for their actions, if only they liberated the right areas, until almost the end of the war. While in South Carolina, Cornwallis wrote in a letter to Clinton that "Our assurances of attachment from our poor distressed friends in North Carolina are as strong as ever." [Letter from Cornwallis to Clinton, August 6th 1780, Clinton Papers, [ Clements Library, University of Michigan] ] For the most part, this assumption was incorrect, as Cornwallis began to realise as the campaign progressed. [Wickwire, "Cornwallis, the American Adventure", p.315]

Early moves in the South

On December 29, 1778, a British expeditionary corps of 3,500 men from New York under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell captured Savannah, Georgia without firing a shot. [Furlong, P, "Civilian-Military Conflict and the Restoration of the Royal Province of Georgia, 1778-1782", "The Journal of Southern History", Vol. 38, No. 3. (Aug., 1972), p. 416-442] . The importance of this for the British cannot be underestimated - by the time Brigadier General Augustine Prevost joined Campbell on January 17 1779, the entirety of low country Georgia was firmly under British control. [Letter from Campbell to Clinton, Junuary 16, 1779, Clinton Papers, [ Clements Library, University of Michigan] ]

Defense of Savannah

In October 1779, an attempt by French and Revolutionary forces to retake Savannah was made. Under the leadership of Major General Benjamin Lincoln with the assistance of a French naval squadron commanded by Comte d'Estaing, it was a spectacular failure, with the combined French-American forces suffering as many as 901 casualties, to the British 54. [Hibbert, C, "Rebels and Redcoats", p.246] The French Navy found the fortifications of Savannah possessed similar qualities to those which had defied Admiral Peter Parker at Charleston in 1776. The artillery bombardment had little effect on the defences, but unlike at Charleston where Clinton had decided against attacking Fort Moultrie by land, Estaing decided to press the assault after the naval bombardment had failed. [Hibbert, C, "Rebels and Redcoats", p.245] In this assault, Count Kazimierz Pułaski, the Polish commander of American cavalry, was fatally wounded. [Rodgers, T, "Siege of Savannah During the American Revolutionary War", "Military History", March 1997, p.6 [ HistoryNet resource] ] With Savannah secured, Clinton could now launch a new assault on Charleston, South Carolina, where he had failed in 1776. Lincoln moved his remaining troops to Charleston to assist in the construction of the defences. [Bicheno, H: "Rebels and Redcoats", p.166]

econd attack on Charleston

Clinton finally moved against Charleston in 1780, blockading the harbour in March and building up about 10,000 troops in the area. His advance on the city had been uncontested, indeed the American naval commander, Commodore Abraham Whipple, scuttled five of his eight frigates in the harbour to make a boom for its defence. [Bicheno, H: "Rebels and Redcoats", p.171] Inside the city, General Benjamin Lincoln commanded about 2,650 Continentals and 2,500 militiamen. When British Colonel Banastre Tarleton cut off the city's supply lines in victories at Moncks Corner in April and Lenud's Ferry in early May, [Wickwire, "Cornwallis, the American Adventure", p.131] Charleston was surrounded. [Hibbert, C, "Rebels and Redcoats, p.266] Clinton proceeded to construct siege lines (beginning March 11) and commenced the bombardment of the town. ["The Siege of Charleston; Journal of Captain Peter Russell, December 25, 1779, to May 2, 1780", "The American Historical Review", Vol. 4, No. 3. (Apr., 1899), pp. 490 [ Jstor link] ]

On May 12, 1780, General Lincoln surrendered his 5,000 men—the largest surrender of U.S. troops until the American Civil War. [Boatner, "Encyclopedia of the American Revolution", p.213] With relatively few casualties, Clinton had seized the South’s biggest city and seaport, winning perhaps the greatest British victory of the war and leaving the American military structure in the South in ruins. It was only when Nathanael Greene slipped past Cornwallis after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781 that the British finally lost this advantage in the South. [Mackey, "The War for America", 1964]

The remnants of the southern Continental Army began to withdraw to North Carolina but were pursued by Colonel Tarleton, who defeated them at the Battle of Waxhaws on May 29, 1780. Among the Americans, a story spread that Tarleton had massacred many Americans after they had surrendered (the truth of this charge is still debated). “Bloody Tarleton” or "Bloody Ban" became a hated name, and “Tarleton’s quarters”—referring to his reputed lack of mercy (or “quarter”)—soon became a rallying cry. Whether or not the battle was the massacre that it was claimed, its ramifications were to be felt throughout the campaign. When the Loyalist militia surrendered at the end of the Battle of Kings Mountain, many of them were killed as patriot marksmen continued to fire while shouting "Tarleton's Quarters!". [ Wickwire, "Cornwallis, the American Adventure, p.258".] Tarleton would later publish an account of the war, in which he glosses over accusations of misconduct towards American prisoners, and portrays himself in an unabashedly positive light. [Tarleton, "A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America", 1784]

Cornwallis takes command

Consequently, organized American military activity in the South collapsed. The states, however, carried on their functions, and the war was carried on by partisans such as Francis Marion. General Clinton turned over British operations in the South to Lord Cornwallis. The Continental Congress dispatched General Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga, to the South with a new army, but Gates promptly suffered one of the worst defeats in U.S. military history at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780, setting the stage for Cornwallis to invade North Carolina. At this stage in the war in the South, the American cause was at an extremely low ebb.

The tables were quickly turned on Cornwallis, however. One wing of his army was utterly defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, delaying his move into North Carolina. Kings Mountain was a battle between American Loyalist militia and American Patriot militia. Cornwallis was later criticised for detaching the Loyalist militia under Phillips, and then failing to support them. [Willcox, "Portrait of a General", 1964. Willcox, the biographer of Sir Henry Clinton, argues Clinton's point of view that Cornwallis fatally weakened his army by detaching units from the main to be defeated in detail.] [Clinton, H, "A Narrative of the Campaigns of Sir Henry Clinton in North America", 1783. Clinton published this pamphlet almost immediately on his return to Britain after the war, and is mostly an apologia for his conduct.] The British plan to raise large Loyalist armies failed; not enough Loyalists enlisted, and those who did were at risk once the British army moved on.

Gates was replaced by George Washington's most dependable subordinate, General Nathanael Greene. Greene assigned about 1,000 men to General Daniel Morgan, a superb tactician who crushed Tarleton’s troops at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781. As with the Battle of Kings Mountain, Cornwallis was later criticised for detaching part of his army under Tarleton without support. [Clinton, H, "The American Rebellion" 1783] Greene proceeded to wear down his opponents in a series of battles referred to as The Race to The Dan (Cowan's Ford, Guilford Court House, Hobkirk's Hill, Ninety Six, and Eutaw Springs). Each of these battles resulted in tactical victories for the British but gave no strategic advantage to the victors. Greene summed up his approach in a motto that would become famous: "We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again." His tactics have been likened to the Fabian strategy of Fabius Maximus, the Roman general who wore down the superior forces of the Carthaginian Hannibal by a slow war of attrition. [ Livy, "ad Urbe Cond." xii, xviii]

While Cornwallis was unable to completely destroy Greene, he recognised that most of the supplies that the American forces were relying on were coming from Virginia, a state that up to this point in the war had been relatively untouched. He resolved, against the wishes of Sir Henry Clinton, to invade Virginia in the hopes that cutting the supply lines to the Carolinas would make American resistance there impossible. [ Cornwallis, "An Answer to Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative". Cornwallis wrote this pamphlet shortly after the war in explanation of his actions.] This theory was supported by Lord George Germain in a series of letters that entirely left Clinton out of the decision making procedure for the Southern Army, despite being nominally its overall commander. [Cornwallis Correspondence, [ Public Record Office] ] Without informing Clinton, Cornwallis marched north into Virginia to engage in raiding operations. [Clinton, H, "The American Rebellion". This lack of notification was one of Sir Henry Clinton's main arguments in his own defence in the controversy that followed the surrender at Yorktown.]

While Cornwallis marched northward, Nathanael Greene slipped past his army and began the American reconquest of South Carolina. This he achieved by the end of June, in spite of a reverse sustained at Lord Rawdon's hands at Hobkirk's Hill (2 miles north of Camden) on April 25. From May 22-June 19, 1781 Greene led the siege of Ninety-Six. These actions helped force the British to the coast.

Greene then gave his forces a six weeks rest on the High Hills of the Santee River, and on September 8, with 2,600 men, engaged the British under Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart at Eutaw Springs. Americans who fell in this battle were immortalized by American author Philip Freneau in his 1781 poem "To the Memory of Brave Americans." The battle, although tactically a draw, so weakened the British that they withdrew to Charleston, where Greene penned them during the remaining months of the war. [Bicheno, 2001. Bicheno strongly emphasises that Cornwallis' absence from the South made the American reconquest merely a matter of time.]


On arrival in Virginia, Cornwallis took command of the existing British forces in the region, which had been commanded by Major General William Phillips. Phillips, a good personal friend of Cornwallis, died two days before Cornwallis reached his position at Petersburg. [Wickwire, "Cornwallis, The American Adventure", 1970] Having marched without informing Clinton of his movements, (communications between the two British commanders was by sea and extremely slow, sometimes up to three weeks) [Cornwallis Papers, [ Public Record Office] the dates of receipt throughout this period of the war are usually two to three weeks after the date of dispatch] he sent word of his northward march and engaged in destroying American supplies in the Chesapeake region.

In March 1781, in response to the threat of Cornwallis, General Washington had dispatched Marquis de Lafayette to defend Virginia. The young Frenchman had 3,200 men at his command, but British troops in the state now totalled 7,200. [Cornwallis, C, "An Answer to the Narrative of Sir Henry Clinton", appended table.] Lafayette skirmished with Cornwallis, avoiding a decisive battle while gathering reinforcements. It was during this period that Cornwallis received orders from Clinton to choose a position on the Virginia Peninsula - referred to in contemporary letters as the "Williamsburg Neck" - and construct a fortified naval post to shelter ships of the line. [Clinton to Cornwallis, June 15th, 1781, Cornwallis Papers, [ Public Record Office] ] In complying with this order, Cornwallis put himself in a position where it would be easy to become trapped. With the arrival of the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse and General George Washington's combined French-American army, Cornwallis found himself cut off. After the Royal Navy fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves was defeated by the French at the Battle of the Chesapeake, and the French siege train arrived from Newport, Rhode Island, his position became untenable. He surrendered to General Washington and the French commander the Comte de Rochambeau on October 19, 1781.

Cornwallis reported this disaster to Clinton in a letter which opened:

I have the mortification to inform Your Excellency that I have been forced to give up the posts of York and Gloucester and to surrender the troops under my command by capitulation, on the 19th instant, as prisoners of war to the combined forces of America. [Cornwallis to Clinton, 20th October, 1781, Cornwallis Papers, [ Public Record Office] ]

Ramifications of the campaign

With the surrender at Yorktown, the full participation of French forces in that battle, and the resulting loss of Cornwallis' army, the British war effort ground to a halt. The sole remaining British army of any size remaining in America was that under Sir Henry Clinton in New York. Clinton, paralysed by the defeat, made no further action until his eventual replacement by Carleton in 1782. [Wientraub, "Iron Tears', 2005] Such a shocking reversal in fortune, coming as it had on the back of a rare naval defeat, served to increase the shift in British popular opinion against the war. The ministry under Lord North collapsed, and no further major operation on the American continent occurred for the rest of the war. Many historians contend that while Saratoga started the decline of British fortunes in the Revolution, Yorktown was its death-knell.



*Bicheno, H: "Rebels and Redcoats: The American Revolutionary War", London, 2003
*Boatner, Mark Mayo, III. "Encyclopedia of the American Revolution." New York: McKay, 1966; revised 1974. ISBN 0-8117-0578-1.
*Clement, R: “The World Turned Upside down At the Surrender of Yorktown”, "Journal of American Folklore", Vol. 92, No. 363 (Jan. - Mar., 1979), pp. 66-67
*Halstead, C: "The Loyalists in the American Revolution", Gloucester MA, 1959
*Harvey, R: "A Few Bloody Noses: The American War of Independence", London, 2001
*Hibbert, C: "Rebels and Redcoats: The American Revolution Through British Eyes", London, 2001,
*Mackesy, P: "The War for America", London, 1964,
*Peckham, H: "The War for Independence, A Military History", Chicago, 1967
*Roberts, H: "The Penguin History of the World", Penguin, 2004
*Syrett, D: "The British Armed Forces in the American Revolutionary War: Publications, 1875-1998”, "The Journal of Military History", Vol. 63, No. 1. (January, 1999), pp. 147-164,
*Valentine, A: Lord George Germain, Oxford, 1962,
*Ward, H: "The American Revolution: Nationhood Achieved" 1763-1788, New York, 1995,
*Weintraub, S: "Iron Tears, Rebellion in America" 1775-1783, London, 2005,
*Wickwire, F: "Cornwallis, The American Adventure", Boston, 1970,
*Willcox, W: "Portrait of a General, Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence", New York, 1964,

Further reading

*Alden, John R. "The South in the Revolution, 1763–1789". Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957.
*Cashin, Edward J. "William Bartram and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier". Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000. ISBN 1-57003-325-0.
*Chidsey, Donald Barr. "The War in the South: the Carolinas and Georgia in the American Revolution, an Informal History". New York: Crown Publishers, 1969.
*Crow, Jeffrey J. and Larry E. Tise, eds. "The Southern Experience in the American Revolution". Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978. ISBN 0-8078-1313-3.
*Eckenrode, H. J. "The Revolution in Virginia". Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1964.
*Lumpkin, Henry. "From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South". Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1981. ISBN 0-87249-408-X.
*O'Donnell, James H. "Southern Indians in the American Revolution". Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973. ISBN 0-87049-131-8.
*Selby, John E. "The Revolution in Virginia, 1775–1783." Williamsburg, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1988. ISBN 0-87935-075-X.
*Thayer, Theodore. "Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the American Revolution". 1960.

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