For two years after the American Revolution erupted in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord, the war unfolded primarily on northern battlefields. Following a pivotal defeat at the 1777 Battle of Saratoga and the French entry to the American side the following year, however, British commanders attempted to reverse their floundering fortunes by launching a campaign in the South.
There the British would find not just crops such as tobacco, rice and indigo that were vital to their economy, but stronger Loyalist support. With foreign wars requiring the redeployment of foot soldiers to other global hotspots, British military leaders planned to exploit the South’s deep political, economic and racial divisions and enlist Loyalists and those enslaved on patriot plantations to their cause.
The “Southern Strategy” transformed the American Revolution into a civil war that was, according to author Thomas Fleming, “far more savage and personal than anything fought in the North.” Both sides engaged in scorched-earth campaigns that pitted neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother. South Carolina alone accounted for nearly one-fifth of battlefield deaths and one-third of battlefield wounds suffered in the entire war—mostly the result of American-on-American violence.
The British Seize Key Southern Ports
After gaining a strategic foothold in the South with the December 1778 capture of Savannah, Georgia, British commander-in-chief General Sir Henry Clinton sailed from New York with a 14,000-man force to seize Charleston, South Carolina. After weeks of pummeling by British guns, the port city fell on May 12, 1780. The 4,500 or more soldiers taken prisoner was the single largest contingent of American troops lost in the war.
Critical to Britain’s southern strategy was Clinton’s June 1779 decree that offered freedom to any enslaved people who fled their patriot masters. The edict had a dual intent: decimate the rebels’ economy while bolstering British ranks. Although those who escaped captivity were not required to fight with the British to earn their liberation, many served as cooks, nurses, servants and soldiers. Hardly driven by altruism, British forces forced thousands of enslaved people they captured to serve in the army and even sold them for money to buy provisions.
Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the son of a Liverpool slave trader and leader of the Loyalist British Legion, stoked fears of a social revolution by employing mixed-race forces to pillage patriot plantations. After pursuing Colonel Abraham Buford’s Virginia Continentals through South Carolina, Tarleton’s men routed the patriots at the May 1780 Battle of Waxhaws—and, according to survivors, slaughtered patriots trying to surrender. A rebel doctor reported that “for fifteen minutes after every man was prostrate, [the British] went over the ground plunging their bayonets into every one that exhibited any signs of life.” British officer Charles Steadman conceded, “The virtue of humanity was totally forgot.”
Leaving General Charles Cornwallis with command of forces in the South, Clinton departed Charleston in June 1780 after declaring the rebel resistance in South Carolina broken except for “a few scattering militia.” Patriot forces, however, used “Buford’s 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 at King’s Mountain
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With the Continental Army in tatters after Charleston’s fall, the patriot’s defense efforts fell to rebel militias and irregular frontier troops led by commanders such as Francis Marion, nicknamed the “Swamp Fox,” and Thomas Sumter, whose plantation had been torched by Tarleton’s raiders. Employing guerrilla tactics learned from their frontier conflicts with Native Americans, these backcountry rebels launched nighttime attacks and hit-and-run raids against British supply trains and outposts.
As Americans fought each other, the war turned increasingly brutal. Loyalist forces murdered a pregnant woman in her bed and above the canopy scrawled “thou shalt never give birth to a rebel” in her blood. After being wounded in 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 for the British and mounted his head on a stake.
After torching homes, slaughtering livestock and hanging traitors from trees while sweeping across western areas of South Carolina, a Loyalist militia led by Major Patrick Ferguson was attacked by a force of backcountry patriots twice its size at King’s Mountain on October 7, 1780. The patriots withstood withering fire to storm the summit of the rocky hilltop. Ferguson, the only British regular and non-American in the battle, refused to surrender and was fatally shot while charging on his white stallion.
Seeking to avenge Buford’s Massacre, the patriots cried “Buford! Buford!” and “Tarleton’s Quarter!” as they killed Loyalists waving white flags. While 28 patriots died, the Loyalists suffered 10 times as many fatalities and more than 600 were imprisoned. The Goforth family lost four sons in the battle—three Loyalists and one patriot.
Nathanael Greene Harnesses the Militias
After a terrible defeat in the August 1780 Battle of Camden, George Washington replaced his losing general with Nathanael Greene, who relied upon partisan leaders such as Marion and Sumter to assist the foot soldiers.
To force the British to fight on multiple fronts, Greene divided his army in two and gave Brigadier General Daniel Morgan command of one 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. A furious Cornwallis snapped his saber in two after hearing he had lost one-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 March 15, 1781, encounter, Greene retreated in defeat from a battlefield littered with British soldiers. One-third of Cornwallis’s army was killed or injured in a victory so Pyrrhic it caused British parliamentarian Charles James Fox to proclaim, “Another such victory would ruin the British army.”
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The War Ends in Virginia
Despite Clinton’s opinion that he should remain in the Carolinas, Cornwallis attempted to cut off rebel supply lines in Virginia with his depleted forces. British soldiers and Loyalist privateers raided warehouses and shipyards and destroyed livestock and crops along Virginia’s rivers and coastline during the spring and summer of 1781. A Tarleton-led expedition even forced Thomas Jefferson to flee Monticello.
While fooling Clinton into thinking the Continental Army would attack New York, Washington instead directed forces to Virginia, where Cornwallis was cut off by sea following the British naval defeat at the September 1781 Battle of the Chesapeake. Weeks later, combined French and American forces surrounded Cornwallis and began the Siege of Yorktown. “We have got him handsomely in a pudding bag,” quipped a Virginia militia general. After Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, the war that started in the North effectively ended in the South.