Saving the Battlefields Where America Was Forged

A Project of the Civil War Trust |  civilwar.org

The Southern Theater of the American Revolution

From 1775 to 1783
Kellen Allen

The Southern Theater of the Revolutionary War is often reduced to the battles of Camden, Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, and Yorktown. In fact, fighting in the Southern colonies raged through the entire war and was an area of great concern for both sides. In addition to regular fighting between the armies, a civil war erupted between Patriots and Loyalists, with many small battles between militias raging throughout the countryside.

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An example of a powder magazine from Colonial Williamsburg (Wikimedia Commons)

In the south, the conflict began much as it did in the north, with British authorities attempting to disarm the growing Patriot militias. On April 20, 1775, a day after Lexington and Concord, the British Royal Governor of Virginia ordered British sailors to secure the store of gunpowder at Williamsburg. Patrick Henry led a small militia force to Williamsburg to recapture the gunpowder, but unlike Lexington and Concord, there was no fighting during this “Gunpowder Incident.” Instead, the British merely paid for the powder and both sides backed down.

Open conflict erupted on November 17, 1775, when British regulars skirmished with Patriot militia at the Battle of Kemp’s Landing. In the south, where the split between Patriots and Loyalists was much more even, both militias recruited heavily. 1775-1777, was dominated by small skirmishes and the British need for a deep-water port to support their southern campaign. In June 1776, Major General Henry Clinton attempted to capture Charleston but was unable to reduce Fort Sullivan (which would become Fort Moultrie).

The failures at Charleston made the British turn their attention to another deep-water port, Savannah, Georgia, which they captured on December 29, 1778. The fall of Savannah inaugurated the British “Southern Strategy,” the goal of which was subduing the southern colonies, where they felt there was more loyalist support, before turning north to crush the hotbed of the revolution.

In October 1779, after the fall of Savannah, an American army commanded by Major General Benjamin Lincoln, supported by the French fleet, attempted to recapture the city. After besieging the city for a month, Lincoln was repulsed with heavy losses. This successful defense solidified the British hold on Savannah and enabled them to establish a base of operations in the south.

1780 marked major British campaigns to consolidate their gains and subjugate the lower south. In early 1780, Sir Henry Clinton moved his force of 14,000 from Savannah towards Charleston, bent on capturing the city where he previously failed. On April 1, Clinton laid siege to the city and its 5,000 defenders under Lincoln. Because of British superior numbers and lack of fortifications, Lincoln surrendered his entire force on May 12. With the surrender, the American southern army was shattered, and defense of the south fell to local militias commanded by backcountry men like Francis Marion.

The British maintained their momentum after the fall of Charleston by perusing the remnants of the American southern army. Forces under Colonel Banastre Tarleton caught the Americans at Waxhaws on May 29, 1780, where American forces were massacred despite their efforts to surrender, earning Tarleton his infamous reputation for “Tarleton’s Quarter.” With the American losses at Charleston and Waxhaws, the British were on the verge of controlling the southern colonies. The Waxhaw massacre, however, inspired many patriots in the area, and fresh militiamen eagerly joined the American cause.  These new recruits contributed to an inspiring patriot victory at Hanging Rock.

Charles Cornwallis, in command after Clinton returned to New York, decided to invade North Carolina. Sent to oppose him was Horatio Gates, “the Hero of Saratoga.” On August 16, 1780, Cornwallis and Gates collided at Camden. The resulting battle was a bloody defeat for the Americans, Gates, utterly defeated, fled. Nathaniel Greene, one of Washington’s most trusted generals, replaced Gates. 

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The 1st Maryland Line stands their ground at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Wikimedia Commons)

With American resistance in the south faltering, a victory was desperately needed to slow British gains. Loyalist militia commanded by Major Patrick Ferguson marched into North Carolina. To stop them, American militia from the Carolina backcountry, rugged “Overmountain Men,” tracked and ambushed Ferguson’s force atop Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. In retaliation for Waxhaws, the Americans gave the British no quarter. Ferguson was killed and his force decimated. Forced to abandon the North Carolina campaign, Cornwallis returned to South Carolina for the winter.

Cornwallis detached part of his force under Tarleton to continue to hamper patriot activates in the Carolinas. Greene one of his own favored commanders, Daniel Morgan, to counter Tarleton. The two detachments met on January 17, 1781 at the Battle of Cowpens, near the North and South Carolina border, where Morgan’s superb tactical abilities soundly defeated Tarleton.

While Cowpens was a setback, the British were far from defeated. From January to March 1781, Greene and Cornwallis fought a war of skirmish and maneuver, with Greene steadily withdrawing farther into North Carolina. This phase, known as the “Race to the Dan,” the Dan River being a crucial water barrier in the region, helped wear down Cornwallis’ army, and separate the British from their supply lines. The Race culminated at Guilford Courthouse, where Cornwallis was able to drive the Americans from the field, but with heavy casualties: a classic Pyrrhic victory. 

Unable to trap and destroy Greene, Cornwallis decided to invade Virginia, still untouched by the war, and cut American supplies to the Carolinas. Cornwallis’ initial actions in Virginia were successful; American forces under Lafayette were able to slow, but not stop, Cornwallis’ campaign.

Meanwhile, Greene returned to the Carolinas. The armies met again outside Camden, at the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill on April 25, 1781, where the British won the field, but withdrew to Charleston. Afterwards, Greene besieged the British garrison at Ninety-Six, but the British were able to lift the siege with reinforcements from Charleston.

Despite the victory at Ninety-Six, the efforts of Greene and patriot militia leaders forced the British to withdraw. Greene attacked the British again at Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781, where despite retreating, Greene inflicted enough casualties to compel the British to withdraw to Charleston. With American forces under Lieutenant Colonel Harry “Light Horse” Lee driving the British back to Savannah, and Greene pinning the British in Charleston, the patriots were rapidly solidifying control of Georgia and South Carolina.  Victories at Fort Fair Lawn, Colleton Castle, and Port Royal Island further shocked the British.

Concurrently, Cornwallis had established a base of operations at Yorktown, hoping for resupply and reinforcement by sea. The French victory at the Battle of the Capes on September 5, 1781, removed this possibility, and cut off Cornwallis by sea. With the arrival of American and French troops, the encirclement was complete, and the siege began on September 28, 1781. After nearly a month, Cornwallis was forced to surrender. When news of the surrender reached British Prime Minister Lord North he exclaimed, “Oh God, it’s all over.”

While the war continued until the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Yorktown marked the collapse of the British war efforts. The British “Southern Strategy,” while initially promising, had ended in utter failure.