The American Revolution in the Carolinas
When asked about key battles of the American Revolution most people think about the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Saratoga, or Washington crossing the Delaware before the Battle of Trenton. All Northern battles during the early part of the war.
Few people think about battles fought in the south even though South Carolina saw more battles during the American Revolution than any other state. Part of this may be due to the early success of South Carolina Patriots in facing off against the Royals. In January of 1775, Patriots in Charleston established the Provincial Congress as a governing body in direct opposition to the British colonial authority.
In June of that same year, the Crown appointed Lord William Campbell as Royal Governor, charging him with reining in the now renegade colony. He did not succeed. Instead, he was forced to flee Charleston on September 15, 1775. Although he never set foot in the state again, and after the British Navy’s defeat at Battle of Sullivan’s Island on June 28, 1776, South Carolina remained firmly under Patriot control for the next few years.
While Charleston remained firmly in the hands of the Patriots, the backcountry remained divided. Before fleeing the state, Lord Campbell had issued pamphlets criticizing the Patriot cause as one of the rich aristocrats in Charleston looking out for their own interests. This led to a widening of the divide between the citizens of the coastal areas and those of the backcountry and led to some of the bloodiest and most brutal battles of the Revolution.
Because of the shear number of battles fought here, the landscape is littered with historical sites. Thanks to the rural nature of the state, some of these sites have been preserved to this day and remain some of the best examples of colonial defenses still in existence. You can even trace the progress of the Southern Campaign through visiting the Historic Sites
On November 19th 1775 Patriots and Loyalists faced off near the backcountry settlement of Ninety-six. A Militia of 1900 loyal to the King of England lay siege to a well entranced force of 560 Patriots in what was both the first large scale conflict of the American Revolution in the Carolinas but also one of the first land battles of the Revolution in the entire country. After two days, Patriots and Loyalists reached a settlement that saw both sides agreeing to retreat from the area. In the end four Loyalists lost their lives while only one Patriot.
After this initial conflict, life in South Carolina continued on as normal. The divisions between Patriot and Loyalist may have simmered below the surface, but open hostility seemed a world away, but that would soon change.
It wasn’t until May 12, 1780 when the British triumphantly strolled back into Charleston that the war returned to the Carolinas with a vengeance. Over the course of just over one year, South Carolina would see more battles in the American Revolution than any other state. Not only that, but the battles would be the bloodiest of the war pitting neighbor against neighbor.
After the fall of Charleston, the British Legion under the command of Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton was sent north to “clean up” any Patriot resistance ahead of the main British Army.
On May 29, Tarleton found a group of troops in the Waxhaws region of South Carolina. Led by Colonel Abraham Buford, they were originally dispatched to aid in the defense of Charleston, but after the fall, Buford’s troops were just trying to return to Patriot headquarters in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
The brief battle was a disaster for the Americans. In a matter of minutes, 113 Patriots were killed and 203 wounded. Very few prisoners were taken.
Survivors told stories of how they tried to surrender, but the British ignored their white flags and pleas for mercy. It was on this field where a young cavalry officer would earn the nickname “Bloody Tarleton”, a name that would follow him throughout the remainder of the war. And he became the most hated person in the Carolnias.
The main British Army led by Lord Charles Cornwallis moved north along the Wateree River until it reached the strategically important town of Camden. By June 1 1780, they had pacified any resistance in the town to an extent that Cornwallis returned to Charleston leaving Francis Rawdon to oversee the fortification of the town and the consolidation of British power.
On July 19 1780, a new commander arrived at Continental Army headquarters in in Hillsborough, North Carolina to take command of the Southern Army and confront Cornwallis. That new commander was General Horatio Gates, and his first order of business was to attempt to push the British out of Camden.
On August 16, 1780, 4000 Patriots faced off against 2200 British Troops just outside the modern town of Camden. Although they outnumbered the British by nearly 2 to 1, many of the Patriot troops were green militiamen untested in battle. And while Gates had seemingly distinguished himself in earlier battles, his leadership was sub par to say the least. In fact, when Gates’ inexperienced troops turned to run, he joined them and abandoned other soldiers who were still fighting the British in a now hopeless battle. One of the last things Maj. Gen. Johann de Kalb may have seen before being shot down was his commanding officer running for his life.
The Continental Army in South Carolina now lay in shambles. If the British advance were to be halted, it was now up to the militia.
The day after the disastrous defeat at Camden, a group of Patriot militia were dispatched from Cherokee County to raid a British garrison along the Enoree River between modern Spartanburg and Laurens Counties. Upon their arrival, they discovered that the small garrison had been reinforced and that they were now outnumbered by nearly two to one.
Patriot leadership under Isaac Shelby knew that a frontal assault would be fool hardy, so he choose to lure the British out from their entrenched position and into a trap. The plan worked, but word of Gates’ defeat at Camden soon arrived, and with it British reinforcements led by Major Patrick Ferguson trailed close behind.
Shelby and the group of frontiersmen he led fled back to their homes over the Blue Ridge Mountains with the British hot on their trail. Shelby and the Overmountain Men, as they came to be known, were able to move fast and live off the land. Ferguson was not. Running low on supplies and unwilling to violate treaties with the Cherokee, Major Ferguson and the Loyalist troops he commanded made camp at Gilbert Town in Rutherford County, North Carolina on September 10.
During the time that the British were garrisoned at Gilbert Town, patrols were sent out to scavenge for supplies. The landowners however, fearing the loss of their livestock, had already hidden their herds in the woods. According to legend, John Carson of then Burke County led the hungry British to a single herd of cattle hidden in the woods. That herd, however, belonged to local British sympathizers and not to the local Patriots.
From his headquarters in Gilbert Town, Major Patrick Ferguson hatched a plan. If he couldn’t follow Shelby across the mountains, he could still try and entice Shelby to return and surrender. To this end, Ferguson sent a message calling for the Overmountain Men’s surrender or he would “March [his] army over the mountains, hang [the leaders of the rebellion] and lay waste to [their] country with fire and sword.”
This ultimatum was just what some of Isaac Shelby’s neighbors needed to join the fight. Soon an army of 1000 men had gathered at Sycamore Shoals in present day Tennessee, and on September 26, 1780 marched out to face Patrick Ferguson and his Loyalist army.
Ferguson meanwhile had abandoned his position at Gilbert Town and moved back into South Carolina. On October 5, as the army of Overmountain Men camped at Alexanders Ford along the Green River, they got word that the British army had turned east and was waiting for them at Kings Mountain.
Early on the afternoon of October 7, 1780 this hastily assembled, ill equipped, and largely untrained army of Patriots surrounded the base of Kings Mountain and began to creep up. They moved from tree to tree and rock to rock with their footsteps muffled by soggy leaves. The first signs the British had of the impending attack were the first shots fired at 3 PM. Battle cries of the Patriots called for payback for Buford’s Massacre.
Sixty Five minutes later, the battle was over. Patrick Ferguson attempted a final heroic stand, but was shot down by Patriot troops. With his death and the defeat of his army, Cornwallis was forced to retreat back into South Carolina. Kings Mountain didn’t win the war, but it bought the Patriots much needed breathing room and a chance to bring in a new leader.
One week after the militia victory at Kings Mountain, Nathanael Greene was placed in command of the Southern Department of the Continental Army. Although he was appointed commander on October 14 by Gen Washington, it was December before he arrived and formally replaced Horatio Gates.
Shorty before being replaced, Gates had persuaded Daniel Morgan to return to the Continental Army. Green decided to retain Morgan’s services and took the risky move of dividing his army. Morgan was sent west of the Catawba River in a move that the British saw as an act of weakens and inexperience.
On January 2, 1781 Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton was dispatched with orders to track down and destroy Morgan’s army. After two weeks of cat and mouse, Morgan choose the ideal place to face Tarleton. That spot was along the Green River Road in Hannah’s Cowpens. A place many of his troops knew as the staging ground for the attack on King’s Mountain. On January 17, Daniel Morgan handed the British and Banastre Tarleton their most humiliating defeat this far and finally turned the tide of the war.
After Cowpens, Cornwallis became obsessed with defeating Nathanael Greene and green took full advantage. Burning his supplies, so he could travel light and fast Cornwallis was determined to catch Greene and put an end to the Southern Continental Army once and for all. Green led Cornwallis into North Carolina stretching the British supply lines passed their breaking point.
On March 15, 1781 near Greensboro, North Carolina Cornwallis finally caught up to Greene. For the first time, the full Southern Continental Army plus militia under Nathaniel Greene would face off against the full British Army under command of Charles Cornwallis. Greene’s army of about 4500 vastly outnumbered Cornwallis’ smaller 2000 man army. Cornwallis was not only outnumbered, but his troops were exhausted form the chase and hungry due having to forage for supplies.
The tree hour battle was the largest and most brutal of the Southern Campaign this far. At one point Cornwallis ordered his artillery to fire into the melee of men fighting on the field killing Patriot and British alike.
After heavy losses, Greene withdrew from the field giving Cornwallis his victory. But that victory came at a great price. Both sides suffered heavy losses, but the Continentals found themselves in a much better position. Green still commanded a sizable army and had plenty of food and other supplies. Cornwallis on the other hand lost almost a quarter of his army and the men who remained were malnourished and exhausted. In the end Cornwallis abandoned the land he fought so hard for and fled to the coast in an attempt to regroup and eventually march north into Virginia only to face ultimate defeat at Yorktown.
Green, meanwhile, took his army back into South Carolina to push the British out of their fortified positions in the Backcountry. He may have sensed that the war would soon be over and wanted to deny the British as much territory as he could before an armistice could be signed, but he also wanted to cut off any hope of resupply to Cornwallis army along the North Carolina coast and maybe even lure Cornwallis back into South Carolina.
On May 22, 1781 Green turned his attention to the heavily fortified British outpost at Ninety Six. The siege of the Star Fort lasted for 28 days and only ended as word of British reinforcements arrived. Greene chose to save his army and retried, however the siege made the British reconsider the wisdom of having an outpost so far from their supply lines. Shortly after the Continental Army retreated, the British burned anything of value in the settlement and abandoned the settlement for safer areas of the state.