The War Shifts to the South (1778–1780)

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The War Shifts to the South (1778–1780)

In the spring of 1778, William Howe (1729–1814) received word that his resignation as commander in chief of British forces in America had been accepted. He would be able to return to England as soon as his replacement, Henry Clinton (1738–1795), arrived in Philadelphia. The much-criticized Howe resigned because he felt that the British government had not sent him enough troops; without them, he said, he could not be expected to win the Revolutionary War.

In June 1778, Clinton learned that the French had joined forces with the Americans. Fearful that the French navy would cut him off from British headquarters in New York, Clinton quickly abandoned Philadelphia and headed for New York. George Washington (1732–1799) set up camp at West Point, New York.

For the next two years, there were no important battles in the North, although sporadic fighting did continue. New York and Pennsylvania were shocked by Indian raids. In the fall of 1778, Washington arranged his army in a semicircle around New York City, but Clinton did not respond to this maneuver. Clinton had decided to shift his fighting forces to

the South, reasoning that England's best efforts in the North had failed.

The South in 1778

The Southern Colonies included Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The South was very different from the North socially, politically, and economically; its people even spoke differently. The vast and underpopulated terrain of the South ranged from swampy lowlands to forested wilderness, from pine barrens (expanses of white sand studded with pine trees) to large tracts of fertile farmland. Southern summers were unbearably hot, but the winters were mild and the growing season was long. The South boasted few towns and there was very little manufacturing. Instead, the economy revolved around farming.

More than a third of the Southern population consisted of black slaves. They worked on large tobacco plantations in Virginia and cultivated rice in Georgia and the Carolinas. Much smaller farms were cultivated by poor whites in Georgia and the Carolinas, while much of Maryland's large white Catholic population was employed in the mining and manufacturing of iron.

America was largely viewed by the outside world as a land of opportunity. In the North, at least, people could strive to rise in society; but in the South, there were rigid class divisions—the very rich, the very poor, and the black slaves. For the rich—who had earned their wealth by trading tobacco and cotton crops with England—the preservation of the status quo (present customs, practices, and power relations) was the main goal.

The British thought the South would be full of Loyalists—people who were loyal to King George III and to the way of life that had made them rich. If British soldiers and Southern Loyalists had combined their strength, they might have

been able to defeat the Southern rebels in the American Revolution. But Great Britain's troops had been tied up in battle after battle in the North from 1775 to 1778. By the end of 1775, Southern rebels controlled the South, and that was the situation at the beginning of the Southern Campaign of 1778–80.

The Southern Campaign begins

The South had not seen any military action for two years, and the rebels had grown careless. In December 1778, Clinton sent British forces from New York to take Savannah, Georgia. It was easily captured and became the British center of Southern operations. In September-October of 1779, the patriots tried to take back Savannah with the help of the French navy. Their efforts failed, though, and patriot spirits sank. The British continued to hold Georgia.

By this time, the war had been going on for nearly five years. The American treasury was running dry, and soldiers were threatening to mutiny (rebel; leave the service) because they were not being paid, fed, or even clothed properly. British spirits were not much higher. They seemed to have gained very little after all their efforts. The French had declared war on England and French troops were attacking British possessions in the West Indies and other parts of the world. The British were desperate.

Charleston Expedition of 1779–80

Clinton had returned to New York in June 1779. Six months later, he and some 8,000 soldiers headed down to Charleston, South Carolina. It was a stormy thirty-eight-day voyage. Many of the British troops' horses, supplies, and artillery were lost as their ship, the Anna, "was blown across the Atlantic," noted Mark M. Boatner III in the Encyclopedia of the American Revolution.

Charleston was the major political and economic center of the South, home to 2,000 wealthy planters and their families—the richest group of people in America. Clinton's spirits brightened at the thought of a sure victory in Charleston. From there he sought to conquer the rest of the South.

Clinton finally moved against Charleston on February 11, 1780. The siege lasted three months. American General Benjamin Lincoln (1733–1810) and his 5,000 men were trapped and outnumbered by British sailors, redcoats, and Hessians (pronounced HESH-uns, German soldiers working for the British). Lincoln recounted his story, which was excerpted by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris in The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. He vividly recalled the night of May 10, describing the enemy shells as "meteors crossing each other and bursting in the air; it appeared as if the stars were tumbling down." The general continued: "The fire was incessant almost the whole night; cannon-balls whizzing and shells hissing continually amongst us; ammunition chests… blowing up; great guns bursting, and wounded men groaning along the lines. It was a dreadful night!" By May 12, they could hold out no longer,

and Lincoln surrendered. The loss of Charleston was the worst defeat in the entire war; it would remain America's biggest loss until the World War II Battle of Bataan (pronounced buh-TANN; occurred in the spring of 1942; a battle for a key island in the northern part of the Philippines that ended in Japanese victory and the capture of thousands of American and Filipino prisoners of war). The Carolinas now lay open to the British.

Cornwallis takes over Southern Campaign

Clinton returned to New York and stayed there, leaving Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805) in charge of Savannah. Clinton's Southern strategy up until this time (see box) caused many problems for Cornwallis. From this point until the fighting stopped in 1781, the British cause would be further complicated by constant quarreling between Clinton and Cornwallis. (Clinton was known for his poor relations with other commanding officers.) Cornwallis began a march through the Carolinas in his hopedfor conquest of the entire South.

Washington in 1780

Back up North, George Washington had spent the beginning of 1780—another awful winter—at his quarters in Morristown, New Jersey. Men deserted in droves, and Washington had to resort to repeated beatings and whippings to maintain discipline. The Hudson River froze. Private Joseph Plumb Martin wrote in his journal: "We were absolutely, literally starved… I saw several of the men roast their old shoesand eat them, and I was afterwards informed by one of the officers' waiters, that some of the officers killed and ate a favourite little dog that belonged to one of them."

Washington had not been home in six years. He had no money or supplies, and he began to wonder if the entire venture had been a mistake. Warmer weather brought a little relief. On July 10, 1780, 5,500 French troops under the command of Jean Baptiste Rochambeau (1725–1807) arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, and began to prepare for war. So far, the alliance with France had been a disappointment to the patriots, but this was about to change. Assisting Rochambeau in training French and American troops to fight together was Washington's young friend, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834).

When Washington resumed his position, encircling the British in New York City, there was no response from Clinton. By

the end of 1780, the war in the North had reached a stalemate (standstill).

Fighting continues in the South

Although there was little action in the North, the South became a hotbed of activity. Beginning in December 1780, American General Nathanael Greene (1742–1786) engaged Cornwallis in a chase through the Southern swamps and into Virginia. Cornwallis tried to get the American army to stand up and fight, but the Americans eluded him. Greene displayed a sense of genius that would earn him a reputation second only to that of George Washington as a military commander. Cornwallis achieved some victories, but it could not be said that he won the South because he could not sway the people to his side. His soldiers plundered the countryside and behaved in such a reprehensible (shameful) manner that Southerners became outraged. Many were moved to join the fight against him.

Cornwallis's obstacles were overwhelming. The South was simply too large to be taken, he was constantly short of supplies, his Loyalist supporters lacked enthusiasm for fighting, and his commander, Clinton, failed to send him the reinforcements he needed so critically.

Changing strategies, Cornwallis decided that the seizure of Virginia would end the war, and in April 1781 he began to make his way there. Earlier, he had convinced General Clinton to send troops from New York to meet him in Virginia. At their head was the brilliant American General Benedict Arnold (1741–1801), who had recently stunned Washington and all of America by going over to the British side. The thought of Arnold and Cornwallis moving on Virginia focused George Washington's attention on the South.



Boatner, Mark M. III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.

Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Dolan, Edward F. The American Revolution: How We Fought the War of Independence. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.

Marrin, Albert. The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Martin, Joseph Plumb. Yankee Doodle Boy: A Young Soldier's Adventures in the American Revolution Told by Himself. Edited by George F. Scheer. New York: Holiday House, reissued 1995.

Williams, T. Harry. The History of American Wars from Colonial Times to 1918. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Web Sites

"American Revolution Timeline: An Unlikely Victory, 1777–1783." The History Place. [Online] Available (accessed on January 20,2000).

Estimated Population of the American States: 1780

The first official census (count) of the population of the American states was conducted in 1790. Any figures prior to that date are estimates. This table shows estimates of the combined "white and Negro" population in 1780, then shows the estimated "Negro" population. Notice that an extremely large number of blacks lived in Virginia. Virginia was more unwilling than all the other colonies to arm blacks to serve in the American Revolution; slaveowners feared those guns would be turned against them in a massive slave uprising.

At the beginning of the Revolution, the population of Great Britain was 8 million, compared to an American population of about 2.75 million (20 percent of the people counted were slaves).

State* (1780)White and NegroNegro
Notes: *The term "state" is used loosely here. There were thirteen "states"—former British colonies—when America declared its independence in 1776. Other settled areas farther west were referred to as "states," too, but there was no "union" of the States—or United States—until 1787. Delaware was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution; it was admitted to the Union on December 7,1787. Vermont was admitted in 1791; Kentucky in 1792; Tennessee in 1796; and Maine in 1820.
**The "Negro" figures for Rhode Island and Connecticut include some Indians.
Source: Historical Statistics of the United States. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Washington, D.C., 1960. In Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, by Mark M. Boatner III. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, p. 883.
Maine (counties)49,133458
New Hampshire87,802541
Rhode Island**52,946
New York210,54121,054
New Jersey139,62710,460
North Carolina270,13391,000
South Carolina180,00097,000

Henry Clinton's Southern Strategy

British General Henry Clinton believed he understood the Southern mind and had devised a strategy to win the South. His Southern strategy hinged on the longstanding hostilities that existed among Southerners. He hoped to "divide and conquer" the South by turning brother against brother and slave against owner.

Many Southern Loyalists were poor Scots and Irish farmers who were treated with contempt by both wealthy Loyalists and patriot Southerners. Once supplied with weapons by the British, however, poor Loyalists used them not to help in the war effort but to get revenge on their neighbors—Loyalists and patriots alike. In the horrible chaos that followed, innocent people were tortured, farms were burned to the ground, and homes were looted. None of this helped the British cause in the South.

Clinton contributed more fuel to the fire by issuing two famous proclamations. On June 30, 1779, he promised that "every Negro who shall desert the Rebel Standard [flag], [is granted] full security to follow within these Lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper." In response, tens of thousands of slaves fled behind British lines. This caused such a panic among Southern slaveowners that many decided to support the patriots.

The following year, on June 3, 1780, Clinton issued a proclamation releasing all prisoners from southern jails. Most would probably have gone home to sit out the war, but Clinton ordered them to take an oath of allegiance and actively support the British cause. This, in turn, prompted them to support the rebellion. Clinton's strategy had backfired.

Supply Shortages Endanger Patriot Cause

Shortages of supplies, especially food, clothing, and shoes, began to be a problem for Washington's army as early as 1776. The situation grew worse and worse and continued until the last days of the war in 1781. Money shortages meant missed paydays, and serious morale problems resulted. Sometimes whole military units threatened to walk off the job, but their officers were usually able to talk them into returning to duty. When they could not persuade the men to return, sterner measures were sometimes employed. On one occasion, for example, Washington ordered three units of deserting New Jersey soldiers arrested. Three men in each unit were shot to serve as a warning to others who might be thinking about deserting.

Many people have wondered how—in a land of plenty—starvation and freezing could be such a problem for Washington's army. One answer is that supplies were available, but there was no way to get them to the troops: there were very few good roads; wagons were scarce; and if there were no rivers nearby, transporting goods was nearly impossible.

Another problem was that farmers and suppliers had lost their confidence in Continental money. They were afraid they would not be able to use it and, as a result, often refused to accept it. Some preferred to sell to the British in return for British money. It was not until 1781, with the war drawing to a close and a patriot victory seeming likely, that a renewed confidence in the nation's money supply helped the situation.

The Continental Congress has often been criticized for the way it oversaw the Revolutionary War (it was responsible for seeing to the payment of soldiers and the provision of supplies). According to military historian T. Harry Williams, though, "the accomplishment of the Congress was remarkable, and in the eighteenth century unexampled [without example; unprecedented]." He added: "Governments of that time did not engage in wars unless they had on hand a sufficient fund of coins to sustain their forces, a 'war chest' [money set aside to finance a war]… The Congress had nochest or any hope of acquiring one, but it still continued the war. It created its own money and decreed that all must use it in the national interest. And it kept its forces in the field and eventually won the war."

Source: T. Harry Williams. The History of American Wars from Colonial Times to 1918. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981, pp. 21–39.

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The War Shifts to the South (1778–1780)

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