South Carolina, Mobilization in

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South Carolina, Mobilization in

SOUTH CAROLINA, MOBILIZATION IN. When South Carolinians faced the imperial crisis of the 1770s, they did so as a divided people. South Carolina was geographically divided into two regions: a coastal low country of plantations worked by the colony's slave majority, where life centered on the social, cultural, and political capital, Charleston; and the back country, populated largely by recent immigrants from the northern colonies. Lacking proportional representation in the colonial assembly, and having belatedly received an effective judicial system, back country settlers harbored more grievances against low country Carolinians than they did against British rule.

In the low country resided the wealthiest men in the thirteen colonies. Though their wealth depended on rice and indigo, crops whose value was tied directly to British trade, these men resisted the tightening of imperial control with self-confidence born of their command over the environment, the colony, and their slaves.

It has been difficult for historians to determine why some Carolinians chose loyalty and others chose rebellion. Ethnicity played some role, as Scots in the low country and Germans in the back country tended to support royal rule. Before the disestablishment of the Anglican church, religious dissenters in the backcountry were skeptical of the Revolution. In the back country, the political decision of an influential man often meant the difference between the local population choosing to remain loyal or to embrace revolution. Some low country Carolinians supported opposition to parliamentary acts but not the independence that came in 1776. What is clear is that South Carolinians were more politically divided than most other Americans. After the British largely conquered the province in 1780, these divisions produced the bitterest fighting of the American Revolution.


Revolutionary mobilization began in earnest when news of the battles of Lexington and Concord reached South Carolina. In response, the colony's Provincial Congress met from 1-22 June 1775. The provincial militia, divided into twelve infantry regiments drawn from different districts, provided a ready-made source of mobilization. Members of the congress, however, worried about the allegiance of some militia officers and units. These concerns eventually led to a decision to drop some officers and to draft volunteers to serve in the militia ranks. In the June session, these concerns led to the formation of a volunteer army led by appointed, gentleman officers. The resulting military establishment revealed the low country's political control—despite having less than forty percent of the province's population, the low country possessed seventy percent of the seats in congress. The congress established two 750-man infantry regiments in the low country, and a back country regiment of 450 mounted rangers.

Later in the session the congress opted to cut expenses, and reduced the infantry regiments to ten fifty-man companies and the regiment of rangers to nine thirty-man companies. To meet projected expenses for pay and supplies, the delegates opted to issue £1,000,000 currency rather than levy taxes. In other moves that placed the province on the path to military conflict with Britain, the congress authorized the seizure of weapons and gun-powder from the colony's magazine, and gunpowder from vessels headed to Georgia and East Florida. Before convening, the delegates left virtually unlimited executive authority in the hands of a thirteen-member Council of Safety, which oversaw regular and militia forces.

In July the Council of Safety ordered the seizure of arms and ammunition at Fort Charlotte, a post on the Savannah River. Though the operation was carried out successfully, loyal militia recaptured the arms. The Council of Safety first tried diplomacy to calm matters. Additional unrest in November produced a different response. The Provincial Congress, which was then in session, ordered the back country militia to embody and defeat the Loyalists. Colonel Ralph Richardson of Camden raised a force of 2,500 men, which included some North Carolina units, and conducted operations that ended the Loyalist threat in the back country for the next four years. The December "snow campaign" demonstrated that revolutionaries could quickly mobilize a sizable backcountry force, despite numerous Loyalists in the region.


While the Provincial Congress acted aggressively to end Loyalist unrest, it also made changes to its earlier military establishment. In November 1775, the representatives created the Fourth South Carolina Regiment of Artillery, a smaller regiment with three 100-man companies, to man the batteries at Charleston. Additional changes occurred three months later. On 22 February the congress authorized the original three regiments to augment their numbers until they reached full strength. The congress also established two new regiments of riflemen in the low country and back country respectively: The Fifth South Carolina, with seven 100-man companies, and the Sixth South Carolina, with five 100-man companies.

In 1776 the state's regiments were transferred to the Continental army, but only after negotiations with the Continental Congress. The state had already met Congress's quota of five infantry regiments, but complications over different enlistment periods and pay schedules compelled the Council of Safety to resist full incorporation of its army into the Continental line. In June 1776, Congress adopted South Carolina's regiments into the Continental army, but kept the soldiers under the state's articles of war and their original terms of enlistment. In a concession to concerns over the defense of South Carolina, more than one-third of its troops could not be sent outside the state without the prior approval of Congress.


In June 1776, South Carolina's ability to mobilize faced a major test with the arrival of a British expeditionary force. Manning the defenses of Charleston were 6,500 soldiers, most of whom were South Carolina regulars and militia. On 28 June, the British directed a naval attack against Sullivan's Island, where the Carolinians had constructed a fort of palmetto logs and sand. The defenders of this fort, Colonel William Moultrie and 435 men of the Second South Carolina Regiment and the Fourth Regiment of Artillery, stood firm, inflicting major damage on the British ships. Charleston did not face another British attack for almost three years.

Soon after the British departed, a new threat broke out in South Carolina's interior. The Cherokees openly sided with the British and initiated a frontier war. Sensing an opportunity to eliminate the Cherokees, South Carolina's back country militia quickly mobilized. Joining this force were Carolinians who either had been neutral or slightly pro-British but now united against the threat back country settlers feared most. In August Colonel Andrew Williamson, at the head of about 1,200 militia, attacked and devastated the lower Cherokee towns. Williamson then joined militia from North Carolina and Virginia in laying waste to upper Cherokee towns. The Cherokees ceased to be a major threat. In 1777 they signed a treaty that ceded all their lands in South Carolina.

South Carolinians took great pride in the victories of 1776. Long an internal threat, the Cherokees had been eliminated. Despite the assistance of North Carolina Continentals and militia and the leadership of overall commander Major General Charles Lee, most of the forces defending Charleston had been South Carolina regulars and militia. The victory at Sullivan's Island resulted from equal parts British incompetence and Carolina pluck, but South Carolinians chose to remember the latter and forget the former. The ensuing period of relative quiet produced an apathy born of the certainty that they could again rise and meet threats when the need arose.


During the next two years, British ships patrolled the coast and disrupted the trade that was South Carolina's lifeline. The state responded by forming its own navy, which over the course of its checkered history numbered about one dozen vessels. The state's naval ships succeeded in capturing prizes, but were unable to drive British cruisers from Charleston. In 1778 the state legislature commissioned Commodore Alexander Gillon to purchase three frigates in Europe. Gillon leased a forty-four gun frigate, formerly owned by France, which he named South Carolina. The frigate South Carolina did not depart Europe until the summer of 1781 and never reached South Carolina waters. This expensive venture cost about half a million dollars and involved the government in litigation with European claimants until the 1850s.

In 1778 a new state constitution provided for a governor and an advisory privy council, and a bicameral legislature composed of a senate and a house of representatives. It was left to this state government to deal with problems caused by dwindling enthusiasm for the war. Like Americans in other states, South Carolinians responded to the outbreak of hostilities with patriotic fervor that subsided over time. In 1776 more than 2,000 South Carolinians served as regular troops. Over the next two years, the state had difficulty meeting its quota of Continental soldiers, who dropped to 1,200. The General Assembly employed different expedients to increase the state's regular forces. In 1778, in an apparent act of desperation, the legislators authorized that vagrants be forcibly enlisted in the state's regiments. To attract volunteers, the representatives offered each enlistee 100 acres of land in the recently acquired Cherokee territory.

A military debacle in 1778 caused further problems. South Carolina contributed regular and militia troops to an invasion of British East Florida: Colonel Charles Cotesworth Pinckney commanded 600 soldiers from South Carolina's First, Third, and Sixth Regiments, and Colonel Andrew Williamson commanded 800 militia. Williamson's force arrived near the end of the expedition, which was marred by poor planning and squabbles between civilian and military authorities. Of Pinckney's troops, about 300 died or were hospitalized, South Carolina could ill afford this loss of manpower.

Manpower problems grew more serious in December 1778, when the British inaugurated their southern strategy with the capture of Savannah, Georgia. Once Georgia was secured, the British planned to invade South Carolina. The war had returned, this time with a vengeance.


Only 1,000 regulars remained to defend the state. Desiring Continental reinforcements, Governor John Rutledge dispatched Daniel Huger to Philadelphia to plead for aid. Huger testified before a committee of Congress that South Carolina had difficulties raising large numbers of militia because white men preferred to remain home and prevent their slaves from rebelling or fleeing to the British. With the concurrence of South Carolina delegates Henry Laurens and William Henry Drayton, Congress recommended that South Carolina and Georgia enlist 3,000 slaves as Continentals and promise them freedom in return for their service. Congress dispatched Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, the originator of this plan, to South Carolina to persuade the state government to act.

When news of Congress's resolution reached South Carolina in late April 1779, the state already faced a British invasion. General Augustine Prevost had made a diversionary incursion into South Carolina to lure Major General Benjamin Lincoln, the new commander of the Southern Department, from an invasion of Georgia's backcountry. Finding the path to Charleston open, Prevost went beyond his original intent. By 11 May Prevost, with 2,500 troops, faced Charleston, which was defended by a comparable number of militia. Expecting reinforcements from Congress and receiving instead a recommendation to arm slaves, Governor Rutledge and the privy council offered to surrender Charleston in return for the state's neutrality. Prevost rejected the offer and retreated to avoid entrapment by Lincoln's force, which was returning from Georgia.

This brief crisis revealed the limits of the low country leadership's willingness to mobilize the state's population to win independence. They had no problem using slaves as laborers: In 1778 the General Assembly revised the militia law to use slaves in support roles. But the state's leaders refused to augment their dwindling regular forces by mobilizing slaves as soldiers. The crisis revealed other limits of mobilization. To meet the British threat, Governor Rutledge had hoped to mobilize 5,000 militia but raised only half that number. When Prevost threatened Charleston, numerous low country militia chose to desert and protect their homes rather than defend the state's capital.

With the British in Georgia, South Carolina's government needed to fill its Continental ranks and make changes in the disposition of its militia. Later that summer the General Assembly rejected Laurens's black regiment plan, but offered a 500-dollar bounty and 100 acres of land to every white man who enlisted, and an additional $2,500 at the end of 21 months of service. As for the militia, the legislators made decisions that seemed counterproductive. They refused to put the militia under the Continental articles of war, as requested by General Lincoln. Instead, they placed the militia into three classifications, each subject to successive terms of service limited to two months. None of these moves produced the mobilization of soldiers needed to defend the state.

Low country Carolinians were aroused in September, when a French fleet under Count Charles d'Estaing arrived to support combined operations against the British. South Carolina regulars and militia comprised most of the fifteen hundred soldiers Lincoln led in the siege of Savannah. On 9 October, in a desperate assault on the British defenses, 250 South Carolina Continentals were among the casualties.

After his return to South Carolina, Lincoln requested Continental reinforcements from the North. He now commanded a force of 3,600 soldiers, which included Continentals from Virginia and militia from North Carolina, and 800 South Carolina Continentals, as well as more than 1,000 low country militia. General George Washington responded by ordering North Carolina and Virginia Continentals to South Carolina.


The British returned to Charleston in early 1780, bringing a larger fleet and army, along with a methodical approach that won them the success denied at Sullivan's Island. They faced an unprepared South Carolina. At the General Assembly meeting in January, Governor Rutledge acknowledged that the bounties approved the previous summer had attracted no new Continental enlistments. The Continental Congress responded to these declining numbers by ordering that South Carolina's four infantry regiments be consolidated into two. Nor had efforts to mobilize the militia been successful. The back country militia proved unwilling to leave home and defend the hot, humid, and unhealthy low country. The General Assembly again rejected Laurens's proposal that it arm slaves.

After a brave but hopeless defense, Charleston surrendered on 11 May. Of more than 5,500 American prisoners, 830 were South Carolina Continentals and 1,000 were Charleston militiamen. Facing its gravest crisis of the war, South Carolina managed to mobilize only one-third of the force that defended Charleston.

THE PARTISAN WAR (1780–1782)

With the surrender of Charleston, South Carolina's Continental line ceased to be. The full conquest of the state appeared only a matter of time. A series of counter-productive British actions, however, stimulated resistance and mobilization in the back country. Outraged by British and Loyalist punitive raids, and unwilling to abide a requirement that they swear allegiance and defend royal authority, Carolinians took up arms and fought as partisans (guerrillas). Mobile and flexible in numbers, partisan units operated in the back country under Thomas Sumter and Andrew Pickens, and in the low country under Francis Marion. These partisan bands engaged in hit-and-run raids that disrupted enemy supply lines and occupied the attention of large numbers of redcoats and Loyalist militia. The partisans, in effect, kept the Revolution alive in South Carolina during the summer and early fall of 1780.

Irregular forces played important roles in major battles that turned the tide of the war in the South. At Kings Mountain in October 1780, South Carolina back country militia, joined by "over-mountain" men from Virginia, North Carolina, and what is now Tennessee, killed, captured, or wounded over 1,000 Loyalists. At Cowpens in January 1781, South Carolina militia and their counterparts from North Carolina and Virginia, under the astute leadership of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, fought well alongside Continentals in a pitched battle that led to the total defeat of the British force.

Cowpens was the first major battle after Major General Nathanael Greene arrived to take command of the Southern Department. Greene coordinated the movements of his Continentals with militia and partisan forces. In the spring and summer of 1781, a combination of Continentals, militia, and partisans employed set battles, sieges, and guerrilla tactics to push the British back to Charleston. Controlling only Charleston and its environs, the British stayed put until they evacuated on 14 December 1782.

Because of the nature of the conflict, which often degenerated from a civil war between rebel and Loyalist Carolinians to a blood feud pitting neighbor against neighbor, it is difficult to assess the numbers of South Carolinians who mobilized to defeat the British and their Loyalist allies in 1780 and 1781. some measure of understanding of the activity of South Carolinians can be gained by examining the number of engagements where they fought without assistance from Continentals. From July to December 1780, South Carolina partisans fought twenty-six engagements against British or Loyalist forces. The partisans suffered over 800 casualties, but inflicted nearly 2,500 casualties on their enemies. In the following year, at least sixty-two battles or skirmishes were fought in South Carolina, and in forty-five of these engagements South Carolina partisans or militia fought without outside assistance. A low country elite led South Carolina into revolution, but back country settlers fought the battles that won independence.


The site of 137 battles, South Carolina was the major battleground of the War of Independence. The conflict's human and financial toll was immense. The human cost, in lives lost or affected by the war, was incalculable but enduring. The financial costs for the state were more accessible. While South Carolinians fought mainly at home, their state government contributed willingly to the financial needs of the common cause. In 1783 South Carolina was the only state to pay the full requisition of the Continental Congress. To win independence, South Carolina's government spent almost $5.4 million (comparable to about $89.2 million today), which, per capita, was the largest expense incurred by any state. One factor in South Carolina's support for the federal Constitution of 1787 was the belief that the state would become a creditor once its accounts were balanced. South Carolina's representatives strongly supported Alexander Hamilton's plan to assume state debts. During debate, an opponent of assumption argued that it was unfair for other states to pay South Carolina's debts, for they were incurred in part because of its dubious naval expenditures.

Events late in the war foreshadowed the settlement of differences between the low country and back country (later called the upcountry). In January 1782, the General Assembly met for the first time in two years. With the British still holding Charleston, legislators considered ways to raise regular troops. They again rejected forming black regiments, but found another use for slaves: White men who enlisted as soldiers would receive one slave for each year of service. This plan mirrored Thomas Sumter's policy of offering captured slaves as a bounty to his soldiers. Slave ownership eventually linked the wealthy planters of the state's two regions, especially after cotton became a staple crop in the upcountry.

South Carolinians were justifiably proud of their contributions to winning the War of Independence. They tended to glorify their partisans, downplay Greene's Continentals, and gloss over the debacles of 1779 and 1780. Congressman Aedanus Burke probably spoke for many Carolinians when he hotly responded to Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's eulogy of Nathanael Greene. Hamilton called the militia "the mimicry of soldiership." Speaking before the House of Representatives and Hamilton, Burke lauded the militia's contributions and called the treasury secretary a liar. The two men avoided a duel but the incident revealed a final legacy of mobilization during the Revolution. South Carolinians were defensive of their revolutionary heritage, which was inextricably bound with their sense of honor.

SEE ALSO Charleston Raid of Prevost; Charleston Siege of 1780; Cherokee War of 1776; Cowpens, South Carolina; Drayton, William Henry; Estaing, Charles Hector Théodat, Comte d'; Huger, Daniel; Laurens, Henry; Lincoln, Benjamin; Marion, Francis; Moultrie, William; Pickens, Andrew; Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth; Prevost, Augustine; Provincial Military Organizations; Rutledge, John; South Carolina Line; Sullivan's Island; Sumter, Thomas; Williamson, Andrew.


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