Southern Theater, Military Operations in

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Southern Theater, Military Operations in

SOUTHERN THEATER, MILITARY OPERATIONS IN. The primary focus of military operations in the Revolutionary War was the North until after the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, 28 June 1778. Then, as the British adopted a southern strategy, the conflict moved south and ended, to all intents and purposes, at Yorktown, Virginia, 19 October 1781.


With major military events taking place around Boston and in Canada, the British sent few regulars to support the embattled Loyalists in the South. The year ended with the rebels generally in control of all four southern provinces. As in all the colonies, most initial actions involved the seizure of British munitions and posts. For instance, the South Carolina militia under Major James Mayson seized Fort Charlotte and its military supplies on 12 July 1775, only to immediately surrender the position to Loyalist militia under Captain Moses Kirkland. Most of these seizures of arms and ammunition did not involve bloodshed. That situation changed in October 1775 with the battle of Hampton, Virginia. Five more battles followed that year in the South: Kemp's Landing, Virginia, in early November, in which Governor John Murray, Lord Dunmore, scattered the Virginia militia (leading to his proclamation offering freedom to the slaves at that site on 7 November); the Hog Island Channel Fight, South Carolina, of 11-12 November; Ninety Six, South Carolina, 19-21 November; Great Bridge, Virginia, 9 December; and Cane Brake (Reedy River), South Carolina, 22 December. Each of these actions involved Patriot and Loyalist militia, giving a preview, albeit a tame one, of the civil war nature of the fighting that was to rage later in the South.


The London authorities counted strongly on Loyalist support in putting down the rebellion, but they sorely misunderstood the ability of the Loyalists to sustain a military presence on their own. They also generally believed their own misinformation on the number of Loyalists in the South; the majority of whites, it appears, would have preferred for both sides to just leave them alone. Frustrated around Boston and encouraged by reports of the fugitive governors from the Southern provinces, the British launched the Charleston Expedition of General Sir Henry Clinton in 1776. But before the British could get going with this operation their hopes for Loyalist support were crushed at Norfolk, Virginia, 1 January, and Moores Creek Bridge, North Carolina, 27 February. After a humiliating defeat at Charleston, 28 June, the British expedition limped back to join General Sir William Howe on Staten Island for the New York Campaign. The only other significant actions in the South during the year were at Hutchinson's Island, Georgia, 7 March; Gwynn Island, Virginia, 8-10 July; Rayborn Creek, South Carolina, 15 July; and Essenecca Town, South Carolina, 1 August 1776; and a number of naval encounters in the Chesapeake.


While decisive events took place in other theaters, armed actions in the South in 1777 were limited to some minor skirmishes and the battles at Fort McIntosh, Georgia, 2-4 February, and Fort Henry, Virginia, 1 September.

The French Alliance, signed in Paris on 6 February 1778, changed, in theory, the entire complexion of the Revolutionary War. In addition to the free flow of munitions and other supplies to the rebels and the addition of thousands of professional soldiers, France's entry into the war challenged the naval supremacy that had given the British such great strategic flexibility: the ability to move large bodies of troops along the coasts and up the rivers of America. Actually, the British had not capitalized fully on this advantage, and it was almost three years before the French fleet made any decisive contribution to American strategy; but this new element figured prominently in British planning.

Major General Robert Howe was the first commander of the rebel Southern army, and in the spring of 1778 he endeavored to mount an expedition to invade East Florida, where General Augustine Prevost was reported to be receiving British reinforcements. With about 550 Continental troops and the militia commands of Colonels Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Stephen Bull, Andrew Williamson, and Governor John Houstoun (of Georgia) numbering an addition 1,500 men, as well as naval units commanded by Commodore Oliver Bowen, Howe reached the Altamaha River on 20 May. Here his proposed attack on St. Augustine aborted because Houstoun and Williamson refused to take orders from Howe. Dissolution of the expedition was speeded by hunger and sickness.

The British then undertook operations that resulted in the capture of Savannah, 29 December 1778, by Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell's expedition from New York. Prevost marched north to take Sunbury, Georgia, 9 January 1779, and assumed command of British operations in the South. These campaigns reflected a new British strategy which sought to reclaim the southern colonies one by one for British rule. The first indication of the success of this policy was the restoration of James Wright as governor of Georgia in July 1779.


Major General Benjamin Lincoln was appointed commander of the Southern Department in September 1778 while Howe was operating in Georgia. When Howe retreated from Savannah he joined forces with Lincoln, who had moved south to Purysburg, on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. The Americans then numbered 1,121 Continentals and 2,518 militia; but only 2,428 were fit for duty, and the militia demonstrated a lack of military ability. Prevost moved up to face Lincoln across the river with just under 1,000 British regulars, 700 Germans, some 100 Creeks, and 600 Loyalists. Campbell went inland to take Augusta, 29 January, with virtually no opposition.

As the two main armies faced each other across the formidable barrier of the swamp-bordered Savannah River, Prevost capitalized on his available naval forces to make the first move: he sent a force of about 200 men to take Port Royal Island. This turning movement was frustrated by General William Moultrie at Beaufort, South Carolina, 3 February 1779.

Moultrie's success swelled Lincoln's ranks with militia reinforcements, and he undertook a counteroffensive to recover Georgia. General Andrew Williamson moved with 1,200 men to a position across the river from Campbell's isolated force in Augusta. General Griffith Rutherford led 800 men to Black Swamp, about ten miles upstream from Purysburg. General John Ashe was then sent with 1,500 to join Williamson opposite Augusta. After Ashe crossed the river and started down the right bank in the tracks of Campbell, who had evacuated Augusta the evening before, Colonel Andrew Pickens won his victory at nearby Kettle Creek, Georgia, 14 February. The British under Lieutenant Colonel Mark Prevost executed a brilliant little operation that destroyed Ashe's column at Briar Creek, Georgia, 3 March. But Campbell had to pull his forces back from Augusta, as there was no general rising of Loyalists and he feared being cut off by the Patriot militia from Savannah.

Despite Campbell's retreat, the victory at Briar Creek made the recovery of Georgia for the Patriots that year highly unlikely, most particularly as they now were running dangerously low of arms and ammunition. Nonetheless, Lincoln remained optimistic, especially after a supply of firearms arrived from the Dutch West Indies in mid-April. Leaving Moultrie with 1,000 men at Purysburg and Black Swamp, Lincoln marched up the left bank of the river toward Augusta with the remaining 4,000. Lincoln's goal remains unclear, since Campbell's troops had already retreated to the coast and there were few active Loyalists left in the area of Augusta. Apparently he hoped to give the Georgia legislature, which was reconvening in Augusta, a needed morale boost. Prevost countered with the indirect strategy of pushing through Moultrie's covering force to bring Lincoln back by threatening Charleston. Lincoln recognized this as a diversion and continued his march toward Augusta, but Prevost met so little resistance that he moved on to threaten Charleston, 11-12 May. Lincoln stopped his advance at Silver Bluff, South Carolina, about ten miles short of Augusta, and came puffing back toward Charleston. Prevost withdrew by way of the coastal islands. In a mismanaged attempt to destroy the British rear guard of Lieutenant Colonel John Maitland, the rebels were beaten at Stono Ferry, 20 June 1779. Maitland was left with a strong outpost on Port Royal Island, and Prevost withdrew his main body to Savannah.

The Franco-American attempt to recapture Savannah, 9 October 1779, not only left the place in British hands but also generated more Loyalist support, dropped Patriot morale to a new low, and further disillusioned the Americans about the value of the French alliance.


The Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1780 brought the Revolutionary War south to stay. The surrender of Lincoln's army on 12 May was the greatest British triumph of the war. This campaign also brought into prominence a British cavalry leader, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, whose victories—at Monck's Corner, 14 April; Lenud's Ferry, 6 May; and at the Waxhaws, 29 May—wiped out all organized Patriot resistance in South Carolina that had not been destroyed at Charleston.

When Clinton left for New York on 5 June with about a third of the troops he had brought on this expedition, General Charles Cornwallis was left with 8,345 men to maintain and extend British control of the South. With his main body at Charleston, and strong detachments at Savannah, Augusta, and Ninety Six, Cornwallis established a forward base at Camden and pushed outposts to Rocky Mount, Hanging Rock, and Cheraw. Another post was established at Georgetown, near the mouth of the Peedee River. Within this arc of over 350 miles were many other posts needed to secure lines of communications and rally Loyalists. The latter were counted on to hold this vast area of some 15,000 square miles. Once more the British miscalculated Loyalist strength.

During the three months that followed the surrender of Charleston, the Carolinas were the scene of skirmishes between bands of patriots and Loyalists. Pickens, Francis Marion, and Thomas Sumter emerged as the most prominent partisans in the actions against Loyalist forces, including those led by the British officers Tarleton and Major Patrick Ferguson. Many of these skirmishes were connected with the campaigns leading to the battles of Camden and Kings Mountain. Others took place at Ramseur's Mill, North Carolina, 20 June; Williamson's Plantation, South Carolina, 12 July; Rocky Mount, South Carolina, 30 July, Green Spring, South Carolina, 1 Aug., and Hanging Rock, South Carolina, 6 and 12 August. The Revolution in the south in the years 1779 to 1781 became a civil war, with all the cruelty and bitterness that tends to mark such conflicts.


Early in 1780 the French government warned Congress that the Patriots must do more for themselves and rely less on the French Alliance to win the war for them. Washington sent General Johann de Kalb south in April with a small body of Continental troops around whom they hoped the Southern militia would rally. Lincoln's surrender at Charleston shook patriot resolve, and Congress recognized the necessity of a major success in that theater of operations. Over Washington's recommendation of General Nathanael Greene, they turned on 13 July to the victor of Saratoga, General Horatio Gates, to serve as commander of the Southern Department.

Kalb, meanwhile, had left Morristown on 16 April with the Maryland and Delaware Continental contingents that constituted the main portion of the Southern army throughout most of the subsequent campaigning. The First Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General William Smallwood, was composed of the First, Third, Fifth, and Seventh Maryland. The Second Brigade of General Mordecai Gist comprised the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Maryland, and the Delaware Regiment. Kalb also had Colonel Charles Harrison's First Continental Artillery Regiment with its eighteen cannon. Marching through Philadelphia to Head of Elk, the infantry proceeded by water to Petersburg, Virginia, and the artillery continued by land. From Petersburg Kalb moved at the rate of fifteen to eighteen miles a day. On 20 June he learned of Charleston's surrender five weeks earlier (12 May). Because the purpose of his expedition was to help defend Charleston, Kalb was faced with a decision as to what he should do next. The hoped-for militia reinforcements failed to arrive in any appreciable numbers while he camped at Parson's Plantation, North Carolina, about thirty-five miles northeast of Hillsboro. Showing the initiative and resolution that were lacking in so many native-born Patriots during the Revolution, he led his regulars farther southwest. He reached Hillsboro on 22 June. Despite the heat, insects, lack of adequate equipment, and almost total lack of provisions, the expedition struggled on to Buffalo Ford on Deep River, about fifty miles north-northeast of the enemy post at Cheraw, South Carolina. Here he was joined by 120 survivors of Pulaski's Legion, now commanded by Colonel Charles Armand. But the large force of well-fed North Carolina militia under Major General Richard Caswell refused to join him, and he was unable to make contact with the Virginia forces of General Edward Stevens and Colonel Charles Porterfield, who were known to be in the field. During the two weeks he camped at Buffalo Ford, Kalb learned of Gates's appointment. His persevering efforts having gone almost completely unrewarded, the giant Bavarian moved his camp along Deep River to Hollingsworth's Farm and surrendered command to Gates on the latter's arrival on 25 July.

In the Camden Campaign, July-August 1780, Gates ignored the good advice of Kalb and several of the southern militia commanders, leading his army to a disaster that almost equaled Lincoln's surrender at Charleston. Kalb died of multiple wounds in the Battle of Camden, 16 August, while Gates fled the field and Tarleton wiped out Sumter's detachment at Fishing Creek, 18 August.


Realizing that their previous three choices to command the Southern army—Generals Howe, Lincoln, and Gates—had proven less than stellar, Congress resolved on 5 October 1780 that General Washington should select the new commanding general. Washington immediately chose General Nathanael Greene, with General Friedrich von Steuben as second in command.

Before Greene arrived at Charlotte, North Carolina (2 December) to take command, however, Gates had reorganized the puny remnants of his army. Of four thousand that had constituted this force before Camden, only about seven hundred made their way back to Hillsboro, North Carolina Most of them lacked weapons, having thrown them aside so as to not impede their flight. Congress resolved to forward food and other supplies, but none were forthcoming. The militia presented no problem of reorganization given that few, if any, of those from North Carolina showed up, and the fleet-footed Virginia militiamen who found their way to the rendezvous soon went home. This left only the regulars, and what was left of two brigades had to be consolidated to form a single regiment of two battalions. A third regiment was constituted a short time later when Colonel Abraham Buford arrived with the portion of his Third Virginia Continentals that had survived the Battle of the Waxhaws (29 May) plus two hundred recruits; fifty of Porterfield's light infantry also came into camp. Early in October, Gates organized a corps of light troops by taking selected men from the regiments; this formed the nucleus of General Daniel Morgan's division, which played a pivotal role in Greene's operations.


Cornwallis did not wait for Greene's arrival to take the field. Clinton had left Cornwallis with instructions to make the security of South Carolina his primary objective, but the ambitious earl also got authority to communicate directly with the London authorities, and the latter endorsed his more aggressive strategy to extend British control into North Carolina. On 8 September 1780, therefore, he started an offensive.

At Kings Mountain, South Carolina, 7 October, the Patriots won a victory over Major Patrick Ferguson. Clinton later called this victory "the first link of a chain of evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America."

In response to direction from London, where Cornwallis's strategy was favored over his own, Clinton had ordered Major General Alexander Leslie to move from New York with 2,500 troops to the Chesapeake; here he was to link up with Cornwallis as the latter pushed into Virginia, or at least to block movement of American reinforcements south. Leslie sailed from New York on 16 October with the British Guards, Eighty-second and Eighty-fourth Regiments, the Bose's German Regiment, and Loyalist units commanded by Lieutenant Colonels Edmund Fanning and John W. T. Watson. Although the Kings Mountain disaster had already occurred (7 October), Leslie landed at Portsmouth, Virginia, as originally planned. Here he received orders from Lieutenant Colonel Francis Rawdon, who was acting commander while Cornwallis was incapacitated by fever, to bring his force to Charleston. Leslie sailed from Portsmouth on 23 November, reached Charleston on 16 December, and marched inland with 1,500 troops to arrive at Camden on 4 January 1781. The Eighty-second and Eighty-fourth stayed in Charleston, and Fanning went to Georgetown.

Cornwallis, meanwhile, had retreated from Charlotte to Winnsboro, South Carolina, which he reached in late October 1780. While the bulk of his army remained inactive he devoted his attention to suppressing the partisans. Marion's raids on the line of communications between Charleston and Camden were particularly troublesome. Marion sallied forth from his camp at Snow Island and routed a body of Loyalist militia under Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Tynes at Tearcoat Swamp, 26 October. Then he materialized out of the Black River swamps to cross the High Hills of Santee and camp astride the British supply line at Singleton's Mills. Cornwallis gave Tarleton permission to take most of his Legion off to catch Marion, but Tarleton was led a merry chase during which he never caught sight of Marion's men. A frustrated Cornwallis ordered Tarleton to turn his attention instead to Sumter, who had just defeated Major James Wemyss at Fishdam Ford, South Carolina, 9 November 1780. This victory brought swarms of Patriots to Sumter's camp and seriously alarmed Cornwallis about the safety of his rear area, particularly Ninety Six. On 20 November Tarleton finally brought Sumter to ground at Blackstock's Plantation, South Carolina, a hard-fought skirmish of which it is difficult to say who won.


Greene assumed command on 3 December and almost immediately took the offensive in an extraordinarily unorthodox manner. The highlights include Morgan's brilliant victory over Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina, 17 January 1781; Greene's masterful retreat to the Dan River; his return to North Carolina and tactical defeat but strategic victory at Guilford Courthouse,15 March; Cornwallis's retreat to Wilmington; Rawdon's victory over Greene at Hobkirk's Hill (Camden), South Carolina, 25 April; Greene's mopping up in the Carolinas; and the final major engagement, at Eutaw Springs, South Carolina, 8 September 1781.

Meanwhile, Virginia was the scene of devastating raids as the British shifted troops into that area from the stalemated north. Lafayette was sent there with an expeditionary force, and Cornwallis appeared from Wilmington. At first Cornwallis pursued Lafayette, hoping to crush his small army, but as the American force grew in size, Lafayette cleverly outmaneuvered Cornwallis and began his retreat to the Chesapeake that culminated in the confrontation at Yorktown.

SEE ALSO Beaufort, South Carolina; Blackstock's, South Carolina; Briar Creek, Georgia; Camden Campaign; Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1776; Charleston Raid of Prevost; Cherokee War of 1776; Cowpens, South Carolina; Eutaw Springs, South Carolina; Fishdam Ford, South Carolina; Fishing Creek, North Carolina; Fort McIntosh, Georgia; Great Bridge, Virginia; Green (or Greene's) Spring, South Carolina; Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina; Gwynn Island, Virginia; Hampton, Virginia; Hanging Rock, South Carolina; Hutchinson's Island, Georgia; Kettle Creek, Georgia; Kings Mountain, South Carolina; Lenud's Ferry, South Carolina; Monck's Corner, South Carolina;Moores Creek Bridge; Ninety Six, South Carolina (19 November 1775); North Carolina, Mobilization in; Ramseur's Mill, North Carolina; Reedy River, South Carolina; Rocky Mount, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia (29 December 1778); Savannah, Georgia (9 October 1779); Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene; Stono Ferry, South Carolina; Sunbury, Georgia (9 January 1779); Virginia, Military Operations in; Waxhaws, South Carolina; Wheeling, West Virginia; Williamson's Plantation, South Carolina; Yorktown Campaign.


Gordon, John W. South Carolina and the American Revolution: A Battlefield History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

Hoffman, Ronald, Thad W. Tate, and Peter J. Albert, eds. An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985.

Smith, Page. A New Age Now Begins: A People's History of the American Revolution. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Treacy, M. F. Prelude to Yorktown: The Southern Campaign of Nathanael Greene, 1780–1781. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963.

Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain's Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775–1780. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.

                               revised by Michael Bellesiles

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