The Southern theater was the central area of operations in North America in the second half of the Revolutionary War. During the first three years of the war, the largest military encounters were 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 peace through subjugation in the Southern Colonies.
Before 1778, the southern colonies were largely dominated by Patriot-controlled governments and militias, although there was also a Continental Army presence that played a role in the defense of Charleston in 1776, suppression of Loyalist militias, and attempts to drive the British from strongly Loyalist East Florida.
The British "southern strategy" commenced in late 1778 with the capture of Savannah, Georgia, which was followed in 1780 by operations in South Carolina that included the defeat of two Continental Armies at Charleston and Camden. Major General Nathanael Greene, who took over as Continental Army commander after Camden, engaged in a strategy of avoidance and attrition against the British. The two forces fought a string of battles, most of which were tactical victories for the British.
In almost all cases, however, the "victories" strategically weakened the British army by the high cost in casualties, while leaving the Continental Army intact to continue fighting. This was best exemplified by the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Several American victories, such as the Battle of Ramseur's Mill, the Battle of Cowpens, and the Battle of Kings Mountain, also served to weaken the overall British military strength.
The culminating engagement, the Siege of Yorktown, ended with the British army's surrender. It essentially marked the end of British power in the Colonies.
Early Operations, 1775–1778
In most colonies British officials quickly departed as the Patriots took control. In Virginia, the royal governor resisted. In the Gunpowder Incident of April 20, 1775, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, removed gunpowder stored in Williamsburg to a British warship in the James River.
Dunmore saw rising unrest in the colony and was trying to deprive Virginia militia of supplies needed for insurrection. Patriot militia led by Patrick Henry forced Dunmore to pay for the gunpowder. Dunmore continued to hunt for caches of military equipment and supplies in the following months, acts that were sometimes anticipated by Patriot militia, who would move supplies before his arrival.
Dunmore issued an emancipation proclamation in November 1775, promising freedom to runaway slaves who fought for the British. After an incident at Kemp's Landing in November, where Dunmore's troops killed and captured Patriot militiamen, Patriot forces defeated Loyalist troops at the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9.
Dunmore and his troops retreated to Royal Navy ships anchored off Norfolk; these naval forces bombarded and burned the town on January 1, 1776. Patriot forces in the town completed the destruction of the former Loyalist stronghold. Dunmore was driven from an island in Chesapeake Bay that summer, and never returned to Virginia.
Georgia's royal governor, James Wright, nominally remained in power until January 1776, when the unexpected arrival of British ships near Savannah prompted the local Committee of Safety to order his arrest.
Georgia Patriots and Loyalists alike believed the fleet had arrived to provide military support to the governor; it had been sent from the besieged British forces in Boston, Massachusetts to acquire rice and other provisions.
Wright escaped captivity and reached the fleet. In the Battle of the Rice Boats in early March, the British successfully left Savannah with a number of merchant vessels containing the desired rice supplies.
South Carolina's population was politically divided when the war began. The lowland communities, dominated by Charleston, were strongly Patriot in their views, while the back country held a large number of Loyalist sympathizers.
By August 1775, both sides were recruiting militia companies. In September, Patriot militia seized Fort Johnson, Charleston's major defense works, and Governor William Campbell fled to a Royal Navy ship in the harbor.
The seizure by Loyalists of a shipment of gunpowder and ammunition intended for the Cherokee caused an escalation in tensions that led to the First Siege of Ninety Six in western South Carolina late November.
Patriot recruiting was by then outstripping that of the Loyalists, and a major campaign (called the Snow Campaign due to unusually heavy snowfall) involving as many as 5,000 Patriots led by Colonel Richard Richardson succeeded in capturing or driving away most of the Loyalist leadership.
Loyalists fled, either to East Florida or to the Cherokee lands. A faction of the Cherokee, known as the Chickamauga, rose up in support of the British and Loyalists in 1776. They were finally defeated by militia forces from North and South Carolina.
Crucial in any British attempt to gain control of the South was the possession of a port to bring in supplies and men. To this end, the British organized an expedition to establish a strong post somewhere in the southern colonies, and sent military leaders to recruit Loyalists in North Carolina.
The expedition's departure from Europe was significantly delayed, and the Loyalist force that was recruited to meet it was decisively defeated in the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge in late February 1776.
When General Henry Clinton arrived at Cape Fear, North Carolina, in May, he found conditions there unsuitable for a strong post. Scouting by the Royal Navy identified Charleston, whose defenses were unfinished and seemed vulnerable, as a more suitable location.
In June 1776, Clinton and Admiral Sir Peter Parker led an assault on Fort Sullivan, which guarded the Charleston harbor.
Clinton had failed to order a complete reconnaissance of the area. His 2,200 men force was landed on Long Island (adjacent to Sullivan's Island on which the fort was positioned), and they found the channel dividing the two islands too deep to ford. Instead of re-embarking on his boats, he relied on the expedition's naval forces to reduce the fort, which became known after the war as Fort Moultrie.
However, the firepower of the British ships was unable to make an impression on the spongy palmetto logs that formed the majority of the fort's defenses, and the bombardment failed in its objective.
It was a humiliating failure, and Clinton called off his campaign in the Carolinas. Clinton and Parker argued after the engagement, each blaming the other for the failure of the assault.
It is debated that the South was lost by this 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.
Failed attempts at British East Florida
Patriots in Georgia attempted several times to defeat the British garrison that was based at Saint Augustine in British East Florida. This garrison actively supported the activities of Loyalists who fled there from Georgia and other southern states, and were responsible for raiding cattle and other supplies in southern Georgia.
The first attempt was organized by Charles Lee after he took command of the Continental Army's Southern Department, but sputtered out when he was recalled to the main army.
The second attempt was organized by Georgia Governor Button Gwinnett with minimal help from the new commander of the Southern Department, Robert Howe, in 1777.
This expedition also failed. Gwinnett and his militia commander, Lachlan McIntosh, could not agree on anything. Some Georgia militia companies made it into East Florida, but they were checked in the May Battle of Thomas Creek.
The last expedition was in early 1778. More than 2,000 Continentals and state militia were raised for the effort, but it also failed due to issues of command between Howe and Georgia governor John Houstoun.
A brief skirmish at Alligator Bridge in late June, combined with tropical diseases and command issues in the Patriot forces, left East Florida firmly in British hands for the war's duration.
British campaign in the South
The Loyalist question
In 1778, the British again turned their attention to the South, where they hoped to regain control by recruiting thousands of Loyalists. Their belief in widespread Loyalist support was based on the accounts of Loyalist exiles in London who had direct access to the American Secretary, George Germain.
Keen to recover their lands and be rewarded for their loyalty to the crown, these men realized that the best way 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. In addition, there were strong business, trading and family ties among some Loyalists and the British in London. The British operated under the expectation that they would find substantial support for their actions, if only they liberated the right areas.
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." For the most part, this assumption was incorrect, as Cornwallis soon realized as the campaign progressed.
British take Savannah
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. He was joined in mid-January 1779 by Brigadier General Augustine Prevost, leading troops that marched up from Saint Augustine, taking over outposts along the way.
Prevost assumed command of the forces in Georgia; and dispatched Campbell with 1,000 men toward Augusta with the goals of gaining control of that town and the recruitment of Loyalists.
The remnants of the defense of Savannah had retreated to Purrysburg, South Carolina, about 12 miles upriver from Savannah, where they were met by Major General Benjamin Lincoln, commander of Continental Army forces in the South.
He marched most of the army from Charleston, South Carolina in a move intended to monitor and oppose Prevost. Early in February, Prevost sent a few hundred men to occupy Beaufort in a move probably intended to divert Lincoln's attention from Campbell's movements; Lincoln responded by sending General Moultrie and 300 men to drive them out.
The Battle of Beaufort was largely indecisive, and both contingents eventually returned to their bases.
In the meantime, Campbell had taken control of Augusta without much resistance, and Loyalists were beginning to turn out. While he enrolled more than 1,000 men over a two-week period, he was powerless to prevent the defeat of a sizable number of Loyalists by Patriot militia under Andrew Pickens in the February 14 Battle of Kettle Creek, 50 miles from Augusta. This demonstrated to everyone in the area the limits of the British Army's ability to protect Loyalists.
Campbell suddenly left Augusta, apparently in response to the arrival of John Ashe and more than 1,000 North Carolina militia Lincoln sent to add to the 1,000 militia that were already across the river from Augusta in South Carolina. On the way back to Savannah, Campbell turned over command of his men to Augustine Prevost's brother, Mark.
The younger Prevost turned the tables on Ashe, who was following him south, surprising and very nearly destroying his force of 1,300 in the March 3 Battle of Brier Creek.
Second attack on Charleston
By April, Lincoln had been reinforced by large numbers of South Carolina militia and received additional military supplies through Dutch shipments to Charleston. He decided to move toward Augusta. Leaving 1,000 men under the command of Moultrie at Purrysburg to monitor Augustine Prevost, he began the march north on April 23.
On April 29, Prevost's reaction was to lead 2,500 men from Savannah toward Purrysburg. Moultrie fell back toward Charleston rather than engaging, and Prevost was within 10 miles on May 10 before he began to see resistance. Two days later he intercepted a message indicating that Lincoln, alerted to Prevost's advance, was hurrying back from Augusta to assist in the defense of Charleston.
Prevost retreated to the islands southwest of Charleston, leaving an entrenched guard at Stono Ferry (near present-day Rantowles, South Carolina) to cover his retreat. When Lincoln got back to Charleston, he led about 1,200 men, mostly untried militia, after Prevost.
On June 20, this force was repulsed by the British in the Battle of Stono Ferry. The rear guard, having succeeded in its objective, abandoned that post a few days later. Prevost's foray against Charleston was notable for his troop's arbitrary looting and pillaging, which enraged friend and foe alike in the South Carolina low country.
Defense of Savannah
In October, an attempt by French and Continental Army forces to retake Savannah. Under the leadership of Lincoln, and with the assistance of a French naval squadron commanded by Comte d'Estaing, it was a spectacular failure. The French Navy found Savannah's fortifications similar to those that had defied Admiral Peter Parker at Charleston in 1776.
The artillery bombardment had little effect on the defenses, but unlike Charleston, where Clinton decided against attacking Fort Moultrie by land, Estaing decided to press the assault after the naval bombardment had failed. In this assault, Brigadier General Kazimierz Pułaski, the Polish commander of American cavalry, was fatally wounded.
With Savannah secured, Clinton could 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 its defenses.
Third attack on Charleston
Clinton moved against Charleston in 1780, blockading the harbor in March and building up about 10,000 troops in the area. His advance on the city was uncontested; the American naval commander, Commodore Abraham Whipple, scuttled five of his eight frigates in the harbor to make a boom for its defense.
Inside the city, Lincoln commanded about 2,650 Continentals and 2,500 militiamen. When Colonel Banastre Tarleton cut off the city's supply lines in victories at Moncks Corner in April and Lenud's Ferry in early May, Charleston was surrounded. Clinton began constructing siege lines. On March 11, he commenced the bombardment of the town.
On May 12, 1780, Lincoln surrendered his 5,000 men. With relatively few casualties, Clinton had seized the South’s biggest city and seaport, winning perhaps the greatest British victory of the war. This victory left the American military structure in the South in ruins. It was only after Greene slipped past Cornwallis after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781 that the British finally lost this advantage in the South.
The remnants of the southern Continental Army began to withdraw toward North Carolina, but were pursued by Tarleton, who defeated them at the Battle of Waxhaws on May 29. As a consequence, "Bloody Tarleton" or "Bloody Ban" became a hated name, and the phrase, "Tarleton's quarter"—referring to his reputed lack of mercy, or "quarter"—soon became a rallying cry for the Patriots. Whether or not the battle was the massacre that it was claimed, its ramifications were felt throughout the campaign.
When a Loyalist militia surrendered at the end of the Battle of Kings Mountain, many of them were killed when Patriot marksmen continued to fire while shouting "Tarleton's Quarters!". Tarleton later published an account of the war that glossed over accusations of misconduct towards American militia, and portrayed him in an unabashedly positive light.
Cornwallis takes command
After Charleston, organized American military activity in the South virtually collapsed. The states carried on their governmental functions, and the war was carried on by partisans such as Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, William R. Davie, Andrew Pickens, and Elijah Clarke.
Clinton turned over British operations in the South to Cornwallis. The Continental Congress dispatched Major General Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga, to the South with a new army, but Gates promptly suffered one of the worst defeats in American military history at the Battle of Camden. Cornwallis prepared to invade North Carolina.
Cornwallis' attempts to raise Loyalists in large numbers in North Carolina were effectively crushed when Patriot militia defeated a larger force of Loyalists at Kings Mountain on October 7.
Many of the Patriot men had crossed the Appalachian Mountains from the Washington District of North Carolina to fight the British, and were so named the "Over mountain Men". The British plan to raise large Loyalist armies failed. Not enough Loyalists enlisted, and those who did, were at high risk once the British army moved on.
The defeat at Kings Mountain and the continuing harassment of his communications and supply lines by militia forces in South Carolina forced Cornwallis to withdraw and winter in South Carolina.
Gates was replaced by Greene, Washington's most dependable subordinate. Greene assigned about 1,000 men to Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, a superb tactician who crushed Tarleton’s troops at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781.
As after Kings Mountain, Cornwallis was later criticized for detaching part of his army without adequate support. Greene proceeded to wear down his opponents in a series of skirmishes and military movements referred to as the "Race to the Dan"; each encounter resulted in a tactical victory for the British but gave them no strategic advantage, while attrition took its toll.
Cornwallis knew that Greene had divided his forces and wanted to face either Morgan's or Greene's contingent before they could rejoin. He stripped his army of all excess baggage in an effort to keep up with the fast-moving Patriots. When Greene learned of this decision, his gleeful response was "Then, he is ours!" Cornwallis' lack of provisions as a consequence played a role in his later difficulties.
Greene first engaged Cornwallis at Cowan's Ford, where he sent William Lee Davidson with 900 men. When Davidson was killed in the river, the Americans retreated. Greene was weakened, but he continued his delaying tactics, fighting a dozen more skirmishes in North and South Carolina against Cornwallis' forces.
About 2,000 British troops died in these engagements. 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 Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, the Roman general who wore down the superior forces of the Carthaginian Hannibal by a slow war of attrition. Greene eventually felt strong enough to face Cornwallis directly—near New Garden, North Carolina (modern day Greensboro, North Carolina).
Although Cornwallis was the tactical victor in the Battle of Guilford Court House, the casualties his army suffered forced him to retreat to Wilmington for resupply and reinforcements. While Cornwallis was unable to completely destroy Greene, he recognized 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.
Against the wishes of Clinton, Cornwallis resolved to invade Virginia in the hopes that cutting the supply lines to the Carolina's would make American resistance there impossible.
This theory was supported by Lord Germain in a series of letters that left Clinton out of the decision-making process for the Southern Army, despite his nominally being its overall commander. Without informing Clinton, Cornwallis marched north from Wilmington into Virginia to engage in raiding operations, where he eventually met the army commanded by William Phillips and Benedict Arnold, which had engaged in raiding activities there.
When Cornwallis left Greensboro for Wilmington, he left the road open for Greene to begin 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 to June 19, Greene led the Siege of Ninety-Six, which he was only forced to abandon when word arrived that Rawdon was bringing troops to relieve the siege. However, the actions of Greene and militia commanders like Francis Marion drove Rawdon to eventually abandon the Ninety Six District and Camden, effectively reducing the British presence in South Carolina to the port of Charleston.
On May 22, Augusta, Georgia was also besieged, and fell to Patriot forces under Andrew Pickens and Brigadier General Henry "Light Horse" Lee on June 6, reducing the British presence in that state to the port of Savannah. Greene then gave his forces a six weeks' rest on the High Hills of the Santee River.
On September 8, Greene engaged the British forces under Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart at Eutaw Springs. The battle, although tactically a draw, so weakened the British that they withdrew to Charleston, where Greene penned them in for the remaining months of the war.
Upon arrival in Virginia, Cornwallis took command of the existing British forces in the region, which had been commanded first by turncoat Benedict Arnold, and then by Major General William Phillips. Phillips, a good friend of Cornwallis, died two days before Cornwallis reached his position at Petersburg.
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 sent word of his northward march and set about destroying American supplies in the Chesapeake region.
In March 1781, in response to the threat of Arnold and Phillips, Washington had dispatched Major General Marquis de Lafayette to defend Virginia. The young Frenchman had 3,200 men at his command, but British troops in the state totaled 7,200.
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.
In complying with this order, Cornwallis put himself at risk to become trapped. With the arrival of the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse and Washington's combined French-American army, Cornwallis found himself cut off. The Siege of Yorktown began.
When the Royal Navy fleet, under Admiral Thomas Graves, was defeated by the French at the Battle of the Chesapeake, and a French siege train arrived from Newport, Rhode Island, his position became untenable.
Cornwallis surrendered to Washington and the French commander the Comte de Rochambeau on October 19, 1781.
Cornwallis reported this disaster to Clinton in a letter that 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."
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 Clinton in New York. Clinton, paralyzed by the defeat, made no further action and was replaced by General Guy Carleton in 1782.
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 North Ministry collapsed, a peace-oriented government took power, and no further major operation on the American continent occurred for the rest of the war. While the defeat at Saratoga had started the decline of British fortunes in the Revolution, Yorktown was its death knell.