Wilkinson, Eliza

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Eliza Wilkinson

Account of the Looting of Her Sister's Home by British Soldiers

Originally published in 1839; most recently published in 1969 Excerpted from Voices of 1776, 1972

" I heard the horses of the inhuman Britons coming in such a furious manner that they seemed to tear up the earth…. "

Eliza Wilkinson

Until 1779, the American Revolution was fought mostly in the north. Then it moved far to the south, where some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place. The south, especially Georgia and South Carolina, was home to more Loyalists (colonists who were loyal to King George III [1738–1820]) than the north. Part of the overall British plan to win the war was to secure the support of those Loyalists, making full use of black slaves. Once the south was in their hands, the British planned to use it as a base to conquer the north.

General Sir Henry Clinton (1738–1795) was placed in command of British forces for the southern operation. One of his first actions was to make an announcement similar to the Declaration of Martial Law in Virginia by John Murray (1732–1809), known as Lord Dunmore (see entry on p. 217), but applying to the entire south. The British promised freedom to slaves who came over to their side.

Tens of thousands of slaves reported voluntarily to the British, thinking they would be granted their freedom. Others were seized and forced to fight. Plantation owners throughout the south complained bitterly about this turn of events.

When the war turned to the south, patriot Eliza Wilkinson was a sixteen-year-old widow living on her father's plantation (large farm) just south of Charleston, South Carolina. In 1779, General Clinton posted British troops all along the nearby Savannah River in preparation for taking Charleston, and local patriots were frightened. Wilkinson fled to the nearby plantation of her sister, hoping to get out of harm's way, but on June 3, 1780, British soldiers arrived at the door.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Eliza Wilkinson's account of the looting of her sister's home by British soldiers:

  • The South Carolina economy revolved around farming. The wealthiest southerners lived on large farms, called plantations, which were worked by black slaves. For a long time, southern plantation owners had maintained their lavish lifestyle by trading with Great Britain. The British thought the south would be full of people who were loyal to King George and to the way of life that had made them rich. To their surprise, the British did not find as much support from southerners as they had expected. The behavior Eliza Wilkinson described in her story below is one reason why southerners did not support the British.

Excerpt from Eliza Wilkinson's account of the looting of her sister's home by British soldiers

…a Negro girl ran in, exclaiming, "O! The king's people are coming! It must be them, for they are all in red!" …I heard the horses of the inhuman Britons coming in such a furious manner that they seemed to tear up the earth…. They were up to the house—enteredwith drawn swords and pistols in their hands. Indeed, they rushed in…crying out, "Where're these women rebels?"

…The moment they espied us, off went our caps…. And forwhat…? Why, only to get a paltry stone and wax pin which kept them on our heads, at the same time uttering the most abusive language imaginable and making as if they'd hew us to pieces with their swords. But it's not in my power to describe the scene. It was terrible to the last degree…. They then began to plunder the house ofeverything they thought valuable or worth taking. Our trunks were split to pieces, and each mean, pitiful wretch crammed his bosom with the contents, which were our apparel…. I ventured to speak tothe inhuman monster who had my clothes. I represented to him the times were such we could not replace what they'd taken from us, andbegged him to spare me only a suit or two. But I got nothing but a hearty curse for my pains. Nay, so far was his callous heart from relenting that, casting his eyes towards my shoes, "I want them buckles," said he, and immediately knelt at my feet to take them out…. [W]hile he was busy …a brother villain, whose enormous mouth extended from ear to ear, bawled out, "Shares there, I say! Shares!" So they divided my buckles between them.

…And, after bundling up all their booty, they [left the house and] mounted their horses. But such despicable figures! Each wretch's bosom stuffed so full, they appeared to be all afflicted with some dropsical disorder. (Wheeler, p. 290)

What happened next …

The British were easily able to take the south. General Clinton captured Charleston in 1780. Under the command of British general Lord Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805), the British occupied most of South Carolina and moved into North Carolina. Loyalists came forward offering their support, but never as many as Cornwallis expected. The fighting finally ended at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19, 1781, with an American victory.

According to one version of the story, a band played "The World Turned Upside Down" as the king's troops surrendered to the patriots under General George Washington (1732–1799). Cornwallis did not lead his troops in the surrender; he claimed to be "sick." To add to the embarrassment of the scene, observers reported that many of the surrendering British soldiers were drunk.

Did you know …

  • The war in the south was a different kind of war from that in the north. The landscape was different, ranging from swampy lowlands to mountainous wilderness. The people were different, ranging from uneducated backwoodsmen to sophisticated planters. There was a tremendous gulf between rich and poor, slaves and masters.
  • A substitution system was adopted by several colonies during the war. The system allowed men to fulfill their military duty by sending their slaves to serve for them. This was regarded as a perfectly honorable way of carrying out one's soldierly duty.
  • In 1779, there were only five cities in the thirteen colonies with a population of more than eight thousand. Only one of those cities, Charleston, was in the south.

Where to Learn More

Claghorn, Charles E. Women Patriots of the American Revolution: A Biographical Dictionary. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

Meyer, Edith Patterson. Petticoat Patriots of the American Revolution. New York: Vanguard Press, 1976.

Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Wheeler, Richard. Voices of 1776. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1972.

Wilkinson, Eliza. The Letters of Eliza Wilkinson. New York: Ayer, 1969.

Zeinert, Karen. Those Remarkable Women of the American Revolution. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1996.

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Wilkinson, Eliza

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