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US History E-Text > The Revolution: Frontier, Ocean, and South > War in the South

The seat of war was transferred to the South late in the year 1778. Even before the battle of Lexington the strife had begun south of Mason and Dixon's line. There was Dunmore's War, and the battle at Moore's Creek, and the valiant defense of Fort Moultrie. But the foe soon departed and the Southland had rest for nearly three years, when he came again and made it the scene of the final conflict.

For nearly four years the power of the British had been thrown against the great states of the North. They had destroyed much property and taken many lives; they had overrun vast tracts. But the game had been a losing one; a fine army had been sacrificed in the Hudson Valley, and now at the end of the four years the British commander had not possession of a single foot of territory except Manhattan Island and Newport. He therefore determined, while still holding New York as his base, to send his legions to the weaker communities of the South, to conquer Georgia, then the Carolinas, and perchance the Old Dominion, and to hold these until terms could be made with their powerful neighbors to the North. The plan is supposed to have originated in the brain of Lord George Germain.

In December, 1778, a force of thirty-five hundred British regulars under Colonel Campbell landed near Savannah, Georgia. The American force there, commanded by General Robert Howe, was less than twelve hundred in number. The two forces met in battle; the Americans were routed, losing five hundred in prisoners, and the city of Savannah surrendered with its guns and stores. General Prevost soon arrived with British reŽnforcements from Florida, and he and Campbell pressed their advantage with vigor; they captured Augusta and other points, and within ten days proclaimed their conquest of the state of Georgia. General Benjamin Lincoln was now made commander in the South, instead of Howe. General Moultrie had just won a signal victory in defending Fort Royal, but the advantage was soon lost, for fifteen hundred men under General Ashe, who were sent by Lincoln against Augusta, suffered a crushing defeat at Briar Creek at the hands of the English. Prevost then crossed the Savannah River and began a march toward Charleston, spreading devastation in his trail; but his course was checked in a skirmish with Lincoln, and he turned back. The summer of 1779 passed, and the British as yet had no foothold north of Georgia.

Early in September D'Estaing arrived at the mouth of the Savannah from the West Indies with a powerful French fleet, and American hopes in the South rose with a bound. The first thought was to recapture Savannah, and the siege was begun on September 23. For three weeks, day and night, Lincoln's artillery from the shore joined with that of the French commander from the harbor. But Prevost gave no sign of surrendering the city, and D'Estaing proposed a combined assault. This was made with desperate valor on October 9, but it failed. The French and Americans lost heavily, and, saddest of all, the brave Pulaski was numbered with the slain. D'Estaing fearing the October gales, sailed away, and the coast was clear for two months, when another fleet hove into view. This fleet was not that of a friend; it bore Sir Henry Clinton from New York and Earl Charles Cornwallis with eight thousand soldiers for the subjugation of the South.

Clinton landed at Savannah, but his aim was to capture Charleston, the chief seaport of the South. Adding the force of Prevost to his own, he began the march overland to Charleston, which was now occupied by Lincoln with 7000 men. Clinton began engirdling the city about the 1st of April, 1780, and a week later the British fleet ran by Fort Moultrie and entered the harbor. Soon after this Lord Rawdon arrived from New York with three thousand more troops, and the doom of the southern metropolis was scaled. Lincoln should have fled and saved his army, but he lacked the sagacity of a Washington or a Greene; he prepared for defense, while day by day the coil of the anaconda tightened about the doomed city. Lincoln surrendered, and Charleston, with its stores, its Charleston, advantages, and the army that defended it, fell into the hands of the British commander.1

Siege of Charleston Map

The fall of Charleston was a sad blow to the patriot cause -- the most disastrous event of the war, except the fall of Fort Washington on the Hudson four years before. It gave Clinton control of South Carolina as well as of Georgia, and that offlaer now called away for New York, leaving Cornwallis in command with five thousand men. During the following months the scene in the Carolinas and Georgia was one of wild disorder and anarchy. A large portion of the people were loyalists, and scarcely a day passed without hand to hand encounters, bloodshed, and murder. The patriots were without an army, but bands of roving volunteers annoyed the British incessantly.

The most daring and successful leader of these bands was Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox." With a handful of followers he would creep like a tiger from the coverts of the woods or the fastnesses of the mountains, strike a deadly blow, and disappear again like a shadow. Scarcely inferior to Marion was Thomas Sumter, the "South Carolina Gamecock," who was to outlive all his fellow-officers of the Revolution, and to leave his name upon that famous fort which was destined to be the scene of the opening of that greater war, to be fought by a later generation of Americans. After the war Sumter became a statesman, sat in the United States Senate, was minister to Brazil, and died in 1832 at the great age of ninety-eight years. Next to Sumter must be ranked Andrew Pickens, who also lived many years under the Constitution, and served his state in Congress. These and a few other kindred spirits kept alive the patriot cause in the South after the fall of Charleston, until a new army could be organized.

The summer had not passed before the clouds began to break away. Washington had sent De Kalb, who was hastening southward with over fifteen hundred veterans; the call for militia from Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina met with a considerable response; and a commander to succeed Lincoln was to be sent from the North. Washington preferred Greene for this responsible duty, but the people called for Gates, "the hero of Saratoga," whom public opinion still clothed with the glamour of a great genius. Gates arrived upon the scene late in July, and again the hopes of the lovers of liberty rose -- to be ruthlessly dashed to the ground once more -- only once more.

This final disaster was to occur at Camden, South Carolina, whither Gates hastened by forced marches. Reaching a point near the town, he found Lord Rawdon blocking his way with a force smaller than his own. Gates should have struck an immediate blow, but he hesitated for two days, and by that time Cornwallis with the main army had joined Rawdon. Now occurred an unusual coincidence. On the night of the 15th of August, Gates decided to march through a wood for ten miles and surprise the enemy at daybreak. It happened that Cornwallis, on the same night and at the same hour, began a march over the same route for the purpose of surprising Gates. The two armies met midway and both were equally surprised. They waited till daylight, and then came the battle of Camden. The American force was largely composed of raw militia, who broke and fled at the first fire, throwing their loaded muskets to the ground. The regulars fought with great bravery, but the odds were against them, and the American army was totally routed. The noble De Kalb, bleeding from eleven wounds, fell into the enemy's hands and died soon afterward. Gates was borne from the field in the mad retreat, and he kept on galloping, and by night he had covered sixty miles. But he did not stop here; three days later he was at Hillsborough, North Carolina, nearly two hundred miles from the scene of the battle. His "northern laurels were changed to southern willows," as the cynical Charles Lee put it. Gates made an effort to recruit an army, but with little success. He saw that his career was over, and he made a piteous appeal to the commander in chief. Washington wrote him a consoling letter, expressing confidence, and even suggesting that he might be able to place Gates in command of one wing of the Continental army. The broken old general cherished this letter to the end of his days. The writing of this by Washington, in the face of the memory of the Conway Cabal, dislayed a magnanimity with which few of the human race are gifted.

A few days after the crushing defeat of the Americans at Camden, another disaster, but of minor importance, was added to it. Sumter, with four hundred men, had captured a British baggage train, but Tarleton overtook him, recaptured the baggage, and made prisoners of three hundred of his men.

These were the darkest hours of the Revolution, save only the few weeks preceding the battle of Trenton.

But soon the light began to dawn; and never again, from that hour until now, has it been so nearly obscured as in the dark days that followed the battle of Camden. Scarcely had Tarleton won his victory, when Colonel Williams defeated five hundred British and Tories with great slaughter; and a few days later, on the banks of the Santee, Marion, with a handful of men, dashed upon a portion of the British army, captured twenty-six, set one hundred and fifty prisoners free, and darted into the forest without losing a man.2 This was a beginning; King's Mountain was soon to follow.

Cornwallis sent Major Ferguson, one of his best officers, with twelve hundred men, five sixths of whom were loyalists, to scour the back country, gather recruits, and strike terror into the hearts of the patriots. The news of his raid spread beyond the mountains, and the frontier settlements were soon roused to fury; and, like the farmers at Lexington and Bennington, these hardy backwoodsmen seized their muskets, and hastened to meet the foe. Without orders, without hope of reward, these men, led by such heroes as John Sevier and Isaac Shelby, William Campbell and James Williams, poured like a torrent from the slopes and glens of the mountains, more than a thousand strong. A motley crowd they were, Indian fighters and hunters, farmers and mountain rangers, dressed in their hunting shirts, with sprigs of hemlock in their hats, fearless and patriotic, and every man a dead shot with the rifle. So eager were they for the fray that the few hundred that were needed to guard the settlements had to be drafted for the purpose.3 Ferguson heard of the coming of the "dirty mongrels," as he called them, and he planted his army on a spur of King's Mountain near the boundary between the Carolinas.

The mountaineers, now numbering over thirteen hundred, came upon Ferguson on the afternoon of October 7, hungry and worn with an all-night march. They chose Campbell as their leader, but in truth the battle, like that at Lexington, was fought without a leader. Ferguson had chosen a strong position, but the pioneers were used to mountain climbing. They chose the only plan that could have succeeded: they surrounded the hill and, pressing up the slopes, attacked the British from every side. The latter fought with a courage worthy of a better cause. They fired volley after volley, they rushed upon the foe with the bayonet and pressed them down the hillside. But the Americans instantly re-formed and renewed the attack. At one moment the false cry ran along the American line that Tarleton was in the rear, and about to attack them. It created a panic and several hundred started to run, when John Sevier, whose "eyes were flames of fire, and his words electric bolts," rode among the fleeing men, and, with the magnetic power of a Sheridan, turned them back to duty and to victory. Three times the assaulting columns surged up the hill only to be driven back at the point of the bayonet. But they always came again, and at length the British were exhausted; they huddled together on the hill, their ranks melting before the sharpshooters' bullets like snow beneath a summer's sun, Ferguson was a man of desperate valor. He refused to surrender. A white flag, raised by one of his men, he struck down with his sword. Then with foolhardy daring he made a dash through the encircling columns for liberty. Five sharpshooters leveled their pieces, and the British officer fell with five mortal wounds in his body. The remnant of the force surrendered; 4564 of their number lay dead upon the field, to say nothing of the wounded, while but 28 of the Americans were slain.

The battle over, the men who had won it, taking their prisoners with them, hied away again to their crude civilization beyond the Alleghanies, disappearing as suddenly and noiselessly as they came. This was their only service in the war, but it was a noble service. At King's Mountain they turned the tide of the war, and insured the ultimate independence of America.

During the following months Marion and Sumter were extremely energetic in their peculiar mode of warfare, and the latter gained a victory over Tarleton. But this was not all; Daniel Morgan came down from the North, -- Morgan, whose romantic career we have noticed, -- and at his hands the scourge of the South, Tarleton, was to suffer the most crushing defeat of his life. General Nathanael Greene was appointed to succeed Gates at the South. He arrived in December, 1780, and with the aid of Thomas Jefferson, Governor of Virginia, raised some two thousand men from that state, and these, with fifteen hundred whom Gates had collected after Camden, gave him a respectable army. Greene's first important move was to send the free lance, Daniel Morgan, to raid the back country. Morgan, with nine hundred men, was soon confronted by eleven hundred under Tarleton. The two met at the Cowpens, not far from King's Mountain. Morgan's tactics were perfect; the battle was furious, and Tarleton's army was almost annihilated, he and a few followers alone escaping through the swamps on horseback. Greene had the services of some of the best men of the Continental army -- Steuben, whom he left in Virginia to watch the traitor Arnold, Kosciusko, and the brilliant cavalry leaders, Henry Lee and William Washington, the latter a distant relative of the commander in chief. Cornwallis was greatly weakened by the defeat at the Cowpens, and he determined to strike Greene as soon as possible and revive the waning spirits of the regulars and loyalists. Perceiving this, Greene decided to lure the British general as far as possible from his base of supplies, and then to give him battle. He began an apparent retreat northward. Cornwallis fell into the trap, destroyed his heavy baggage, and followed. The chase continued for two hundred miles. At Guilford Courthouse, but thirty miles from the Virginia border, Greene, having joined Morgan's forces with his own, wheeled about, and, after some days of sparring for position, offered battle.5 Greene placed his raw militia in front with orders to fire two or three volleys before giving way, after which the brunt of the battle was to be borne by the regulars. This plan had been adopted by Morgan at the Cowpens with great success, and Greene found it highly useful. At one time during the battle the Americans were on the point of being routed when they were saved by a cavalry charge of Colonel Washington. After the battle had continued for some hours the British planted their columns on a hill, from which they fought with great valor and could not be dislodged, and at nightfall they were left in possession of the field. From this cause the battle of Guilford has been considered a British victory. But the real victory lay with Greene. He had lured his enemy far from his base of supplies, and had destroyed one fourth of his army, six hundred men, himself losing but four hundred. Cornwallis saw that he was entrapped, refused Greene's challenge for a second battle, and marched in all haste to the seacoast, leaving his wounded behind.

By the flight of Cornwallis North Carolina was left in the hands of the Americans, and South Carolina was soon to share the same good fortune; for Greene, instead of pursuing the enemy toward Wilmington, turned to the latter state, and in three months he and his subordinates had driven the enemy from every stronghold -- Camden, Augusta, Forte Motte, Orangeburg, Ninety-six -- all except Charleston6 and all the energy that the British had expended in two and a half years to possess those states came to naught.


1One regiment, not present at the surrender, was soon afterward captured by Colonel Banastre Tarleton. [return]

2Gilmore's "Rearguard of the Revolution," p. 210. [return]

3Ibid. [return]

4Sloane gives this number. [return]

5Greene's flight was prompted also by the fact that he did not feel able, without reŽnforcements, to fight Cornwallis. He offered battle only after making a detour into Virginia and gathering several hundred recruits. [return]

6Colonel Stewart, however, who succeeded Lord Rawdon, remained in South Carolina till September 8, when occurred the battle of Eutaw Springs. This has been pronounced a British victory; but, strange to say, the victors fled and were pursued for thirty miles by the vanquished.

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XIV p. 301-308. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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