British Proclamations of May and June 1780
British Proclamations of May and June 1780
Southern Colonies. Following the Franco-American alliance of February 1778, King George III and his military advisors devised a new strategy to subdue the rebellious North American colonies. Until this time the British army had concentrated its activities in the Northern provinces; now the major theater of operations would be the South. Royal officials believed that a majority of the people in the Southern colonies remained loyal to the king and would flock to His Majesty’s standard upon sight. However, this proved to be a serious overestimation. Scholars today believe that John Adams’s estimate indicating the American population as one-third Patriot (Whig), one-third Loyalist (Tory), and one-third neutral is too high for the last two categories. Historians assert that Loyalists comprised only 16 percent (513,000 out of 3,210,000) of the total colonial population, or 19.8 percent of white Americans.
Civil War. In addition the British were unprepared for the vicious civil war plaguing the South since 1775. The Whig versus Tory conflict, found in all the colonies, seems to have been most intense and ferocious in the Southern provinces. Tories regarded Whigs as traitors despicable in their perfidy. Meanwhile, Whigs saw Tories as cowards who lacked the courage to defend their nation’s rights and as collaborators willing to sell themselves and fellow countrymen into slavery. One side rarely granted mercy to the other. Whig Dr. David Ramsay stated that the countryside “exhibited scenes of distress which were shocking to humanity.” The Ninety-Six District of South Carolina alone supposedly contained fourteen hundred widows and orphans at the war’s end. By 1780 the bulk of the Southern Loyalist population had fled to Florida or New York while the remainder hid out in the forests and swamps waiting for the appearance of the British army.
Invasion. On 29 December 1778 a British expedition captured Savannah, Georgia. An American attempt to recapture the city the following October failed. Charleston, South Carolina, fell to the British on 12 May 1780, and later in the summer Charles, Earl Cornwallis, completely routed an American army at Camden. Nevertheless the British presence in the South only inflamed the bitterness between Whigs and Tories. “King’s Men” came out in full force after the royal victories, perpetuating “rapine, outrage and murder.” Many joined the Loyalist regiments attached to the British army, such as the New York Volunteers, Ferguson’s American Volunteers, and the British Legion. Meanwhile, Patriot guerrilla bands led by Francis Marion (“Swamp Fox”), Thomas Sumter (“Carolina Gamecock”), and Andrew Pickens harassed the English. The Patriots also committed the most heinous acts; indeed, their innocence and nobility have been much exaggerated by historians.
Clinton’s Decrees. Immediately after the fall of Charleston the British commander in chief in North America, Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, issued three decrees that had a profound effect upon the Southern populace. His rationale for doing so was to facilitate the restoration of “tranquillity and order to the country.” On 22 May 1780 Clinton declared that anyone taking up arms or persuading “faithful and peaceable subjects” to rebel would suffer imprisonment and confiscation of property. In the second proclamation on 1 June, Clinton granted a full pardon to those individuals who returned to their allegiance. However, two days later the third decree pro-claimed that all paroled civilians had to sign an oath of allegiance to the Crown within seventeen days; if not, they would be considered rebels. (A paroled individual was someone who had been released from imprisonment with the pledge not to bear arms again for a set period of time.)
Ramifications. The last decree, according to historian Charles Stedman, initiated a “counter-revolution.” Paroled Whigs viewed it as treachery, for they could not now live as neutrals. Taking the oath meant resuming the duties of British citizenship, including service in Loyalist militia units. Many had no desire to take up arms against their former comrades, and as a result they fled to the backcountry in order to resume the fight against the red-coats. Others, meanwhile, took the oath without any intention of obeying it. This last group gained the King’s protection and disgusted many authentic Loyalists in the process. The mood in the South changed overnight from one of resignation under British occupation to suspicion with this “arbitrary fiat of the commander-in-chief.”
Friend or Foe. By this time in the war the British could not easily differentiate between friend or foe. For instance, Sumter had resigned his commission in the American army in 1778, returning to his estate and the life of a simple country gentleman. When British soldiers burnt his home in May 1780, he decided to rejoin the Patriot army. Another American soldier named John Postell received a parole after the fall of Charleston, but this did not prevent Loyalist cavalrymen from confiscating his horses and slaves and plundering his house. As a result Postell decided to “seek refuge” with Marion’s partisans, feeling that his treatment at the hands of the British released him from all obligations concerning his parole.
Significance. In hindsight the three British proclamations of May and June 1780 can be viewed as serious mistakes. Royal authorities communicated an ambiguous message about their allegiance policy and in turn alienated a large segment of the population. As a result for the rest of the war in the South, Whig opposition stiffened while many Loyalists became neutrals, left the region, or even joined the Patriot cause.
Robert D. Bass, Ninety-Six: The Struggle for the South Carolina Back Country (Lexington, S.C.: Sandlapper, 1978);
John S. Pancake, This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782 (Tuscaloosa & London: University of Alabama Press, 1985);
John Shy, “British Strategy for Pacifying the Southern Colonies, 1778-1781,” in The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, edited by Jeffrey J. Crow and Larry E. Tise (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978), pp. 155-173;
Charles Stedman, The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, 2 volumes (New York: New York Times &Arno Press, 1969);
Robert M. Weir, Colonial South Carolina: A History (Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1983).