Revolutionary War Series: “American Guerillas”
Revolutionary War history is dominated by studies of what happened in the north. It makes sense because George Washington spent most of his time in the middle and northern departments. Famous battles such as the Battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Lexington and Concord took place in the middle and northern departments. Also, there has been a strong focus on Valley Forge (and for good reason). In fact, the PME Podcast recently did an entire episode on Valley Forge.
However, the campaign in the south is worth studying. First, a lot happened in the south specifically in South Carolina. It is estimated that 1/3 of all Revolutionary War battles and skirmishes happened in the South Carolina. Second, the battles that took place were some of the most remarkable battlefield victories in American military history. Finally, the campaign in the south shows military leadership at its finest.
I am proud to launch a series called “American Guerillas” that focuses on what happened in the Carolinas from 1780-1781. The name of the series will make sense as we study the tactics and styles of fighting. This series will also focus on many of the leaders on both the American and British side.
British Strategy Shifts South
In part one of the series, we discuss the events that led to Britain invading Charleston, SC in March 1780. The British had previously tried and failed to take Charleston in 1776. After this failure, the northern campaign became the British focus of effort. Much of the south including Charleston went into an uneasy period of calm. But, all of that changed as the British shifted their strategy.
After the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse in June 1778, British strategists took steps to implement a new campaign. The southern strategy was predicated on a belief that there were more Loyalists in the south than the north. After all, New England and specifically Massachusetts had been the epicenter of the American insurgency. The south seemed to be more supportive to the Crown. At least that was the theory.
In attempting to take Charleston again, British military commanders such as General Henry Clinton learned their lesson from the first attempt. They landed infantry units south of the city and had them work northward. Ultimately, they used classic siege tactics to slowly degrade and destroy the forces within it. On May 12, 1780, American forces under General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered Charleston and were taken prisoner.
After Charleston’s Fall
The British had the momentum and went on the offensive. They fanned out through South Carolina and set up a system of posts from the Ninety-Six district to Camden, Cheraw Hill, and Georgetown. General Charles Cornwallis commanded troops in the field. Under him were Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton was an aggressive cavalry officer, who had gained a reputation in the northern theater for his capture of American General Charles Lee. Tarleton also led a series of attacks around Charleston that cut off American supply lines, and led to the city being captured.
In South Carolina, Tarleton earned an even more notorious reputation after a bloody massacre at the Waxhaws. The story is that the Patriot forces under Abraham Buford had been denied quarter as they tried to surrender. Thus, the phrase “Tarleton’s Quarter” or “Buford’s Play” became synonyms for enacting revenge on the British.
Not long after the Waxhaws massacre, General Horatio Gates took command of the Continental Army in the southern department. Despite the advice of his subordinate commanders, General Gates decided to go on the offensive. This decision led to the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780. The Battle of Camden was another major setback for the American military in the south. Gates’s right flank was mostly comprised of poorly trained and inexperienced militia. These militiamen fled the field when they were confronted by highly trained British regulars.
As the summer of 1780 came to a close, the British had the upper hand. As we will cover in part two, there were a few victories that took place on the American side. But, these victories occurred between Patriot and Loyalist militias. The British regular army handily defeated their American counterparts under Horatio Gates. As a result, Cornwallis set his sights on moving further north and planned to launch an invasion into North Carolina.
Check out the podcast series to learn more about the key leaders in the south on both the American and British side.
Resources and Works Used
- American Battlefield Trust
- Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas. New York, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1997. The Road to Guilford Courthouse
- Brown, Robert W. Jr. Kings Mountain and Cowpens: Our Victory Was Complete. Charleston, SC, The History Press, 2009. Kings Mountain and Cowpens
- Maass, John R. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse: A Most Desperate Engagement. Charleston, SC, The History Press, 2020. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse
- Babits, Lawrence E. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. Chapel Hill & London, The University of North Carolina Press, 1998. A Devil of a Whipping
- Gordon, John W. South Carolina and the American Revolution: A Battlefield History. Columbia, SC, The University of South Carolina Press, 2003. South Carolina and the American Revolution
- Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. New York, NY, Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. The Art of War
My company, Alexandria History Tours, provides history tours in Old Town Alexandria, VA. We have a George Washington tour, a Revolutionary War tour, plus Civil War stops on our tours! Check out the website and learn more.
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