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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter IX

The War in the South

After 1778 there was no more decisive fighting in the North. The British plan was to hold New York and keep there a threatening force, but to make the South henceforth the central arena of the war. Accordingly, in 1779, they evacuated Rhode Island and left the magnificent harbor of Newport to be the chief base for the French fleet and army in America. They also drew in their posts on the Hudson and left Washington free to strengthen West Point and other defenses by which he was blocking the river. Meanwhile they were striking staggering blows in the South. On December 29, 1778, a British force landed two miles below Savannah, in Georgia, lying near the mouth of the important Savannah River, and by nightfall, after some sharp fighting, took the place with its stores and shipping. Augusta, the capital of Georgia, lay about a hundred and twenty-five miles up the river. By the end of February, 1779, the British not only held Augusta but had established so strong a line of posts in the interior that Georgia seemed to be entirely under their control.

Then followed a singular chain of events. Ever since hostilities had begun, in 1775, the revolutionary party had been dominant in the South. Yet now again in 1779 the British flag floated over the capital of Georgia. Some rejoiced and some mourned. Men do not change lightly their political allegiance. Probably Boston was the most completely revolutionary of American towns. Yet even in Boston there had been a sad procession of exiles who would not turn against the King. The South had been more evenly divided. Now the Loyalists took heart and began to assert themselves.

When the British seemed secure in Georgia bands of Loyalists marched into the British camp in furious joy that now their day was come, and gave no gentle advice as to the crushing of rebellion. Many a patriot farmhouse was now destroyed and the hapless owner either killed or driven to the mountains to live as best he could by hunting. Sometimes even the children were shot down. It so happened that a company of militia captured a large band of Loyalists marching to Augusta to support the British cause. Here was the occasion for the republican patriots to assert their principles. To them these Loyalists were guilty of treason. Accordingly seventy of the prisoners were tried before a civil court and five of them were hanged. For this hanging of prisoners the Loyalists, of course, retaliated in kind. Both the British and American regular officers tried to restrain these fierce passions but the spirit of the war in the South was ruthless. To this day many a tale of horror is repeated and, since Loyalist opinion was finally destroyed, no one survived to apportion blame to their enemies. It is probable that each side matched the other in barbarity.

The British hoped to sweep rapidly through the South, to master it up to the borders of Virginia, and then to conquer that breeding ground of revolution. In the spring of 1779 General Prevost marched from Georgia into South Carolina. On the 12th of May he was before Charleston demanding surrender. We are astonished now to read that, in response to Prevost’s demand, a proposal was made that South Carolina should be allowed to remain neutral and that at the end of the war it should join the victorious side. This certainly indicates a large body of opinion which was not irreconcilable with Great Britain and seems to justify the hope of the British that the beginnings of military success might rally the mass of the people to their side. For the moment, however, Charleston did not surrender. The resistance was so stiff that Prevost had to raise the siege and go back to Savannah.

Suddenly, early in September, 1779, the French fleet under d’Estaing appeared before Savannah. It had come from the West Indies, partly to avoid the dreaded hurricane season of the autumn in those waters. The British, practically without any naval defense, were confronted at once by twenty-two French ships of the line, eleven frigates, and many transports carrying an army. The great flotilla easily got rid of the few British ships lying at Savannah. An American army, under General Lincoln, marched to join d’Estaing. The French landed some three thousand men, and the combined army numbered about six thousand. A siege began which, it seemed, could end in only one way. Prevost, however, with three thousand seven hundred men, nearly half of them sick, was defiant, and on the 9th of October the combined French and American armies made a great assault. They met with disaster. D’Estaing was severely wounded. With losses of some nine hundred killed and wounded in the bitter fighting the assailants drew off and soon raised the siege. The British losses were only fifty-four. In the previous year French and Americans fighting together had utterly failed. Now they had failed again and there was bitter recrimination between the defeated allies. D’Estaing sailed away and soon lost some of his ships in a violent storm. Ill-fortune pursued him to the end. He served no more in the war and in the Reign of Terror in Paris, in 1794, he perished on the scaffold.

At Charleston the American General Lincoln was in command with about six thousand men. The place, named after King Charles II, had been a center of British influence before the war. That critical traveler, Lord Adam Gordon, thought its people clever in business, courteous, and hospitable. Most of them, he says, made a visit to England at some time during life and it was the fashion to send there the children to be educated. Obviously Charleston was fitted to be a British rallying center in the South; yet it had remained in American hands since the opening of the war. In 1776 Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander, had woefully failed in his assault on Charleston. Now in December, 1779, he sailed from New York to make a renewed effort. With him were three of his best officer–Cornwallis, Simcoe, and Tarleton, the last two skillful leaders of irregulars, recruited in America and used chiefly for raids. The wintry voyage was rough; one of the vessels laden with cannon foundered and sank, and all the horses died. But Clinton reached Charleston and was able to surround it on the landward side with an army at least ten thousand strong. Tarleton’s irregulars rode through the country. It is on record that he marched sixty-four miles in twenty-three hours and a hundred and five miles in fifty-four hours. Such mobility was irresistible. On the 12th of April, after a ride of thirty miles, Tarleton surprised, in the night, three regiments of American cavalry regulars at a place called Biggin’s Bridge, routed them completely and, according to his own account, with the loss of three men wounded, carried off a hundred prisoners, four hundred horses, and also stores and ammunition. There is no doubt that Tarleton’s dragoons behaved with great brutality and it would perhaps have taught a needed lesson if, as was indeed threatened by a British officer, Major Ferguson, a few of them had been shot on the spot for these outrages. Tarleton’s dashing attacks isolated Charleston and there was nothing for Lincoln to do but to surrender. This he did on the 12th of May. Burgoyne seemed to have been avenged. The most important city in the South had fallen. “We look on America as at our feet,” wrote Horace Walpole. The British advanced boldly into the interior. On the 29th of May Tarleton attacked an American force under Colonel Buford, killed over a hundred men, carried off two hundred prisoners, and had only twenty-one casualties. It is such scenes that reveal the true character of the war in the South. Above all it was a war of hard riding, often in the night, of sudden attack, and terrible bloodshed.

After the fall of Charleston only a few American irregulars were to be found in South Carolina. It and Georgia seemed safe in British control. With British successes came the problem of governing the South. On the royalist theory, the recovered land had been in a state of rebellion and was now restored to its true allegiance. Every one who had taken up arms against the King was guilty of treason with death as the penalty. Clinton had no intention of applying this hard theory, but he was returning to New York and he had to establish a government on some legal basis. During the first years of the war, Loyalists who would not accept the new order had been punished with great severity. Their day had now come. Clinton said that “every good man” must be ready to join in arms the King’s troops in order “to reestablish peace and good government.” “Wicked and desperate men” who still opposed the King should be punished with rigor and have their property confiscated. He offered pardon for past offenses, except to those who had taken part in killing Loyalists “under the mock forms of justice.” No one was henceforth to be exempted from the active duty of supporting the King’s authority.

Clinton’s proclamation was very disturbing to the large element in South Carolina which did not desire to fight on either side. Every one must now be for or against the King, and many were in their secret hearts resolved to be against him. There followed an orgy of bloodshed which discredits human nature. The patriots fled to the mountains rather than yield and, in their turn, waylaid and murdered straggling Loyalists. Under pressure some republicans would give outward compliance to royal government, but they could not be coerced into a real loyalty. It required only a reverse to the King’s forces to make them again actively hostile. To meet the difficult situation Congress now made a disastrous blunder. On June 13, 1780, General Gates, the belauded victor at Saratoga, was given the command in the South.

Camden, on the Wateree River, lies inland from Charleston about a hundred and twenty-five miles as the crow flies. The British had occupied it soon after the fall of Charleston, and it was now held by a small force under Lord Rawdon, one of the ablest of the British commanders. Gates had superior numbers and could probably have taken Camden by a rapid movement; but the man had no real stomach for fighting. He delayed until, on the 14th of August, Cornwallis arrived at Camden with reinforcements and with the fixed resolve to attack Gates before Gates attacked him. On the early morning of the 16th of August, Cornwallis with two thousand men marching northward between swamps on both flanks, met Gates with three thousand marching southward, each of them intending to surprise the other. A fierce struggle followed. Gates was completely routed with a thousand casualties, a thousand prisoners, and the loss of nearly the whole of his guns and transport. The fleeing army was pursued for twenty miles by the relentless Tarleton. General Kalb, who had done much to organize the American army, was killed. The enemies of Gates jeered at his riding away with the fugitives and hardly drawing rein until after four days he was at Hillsborough, two hundred miles away. His defense was that he “proceeded with all possible despatch,” which he certainly did, to the nearest point where he could reorganize his forces. His career was, however, ended. He was deprived of his command, and Washington appointed to succeed him General Nathanael Greene.

In spite of the headlong flight of Gates the disaster at Camden had only a transient effect. The war developed a number of irregular leaders on the American side who were never beaten beyond recovery, no matter what might be the reverses of the day. The two most famous are Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter. Marion, descended from a family of Huguenot exiles, was slight in frame and courteous in manner; Sumter, tall, powerful, and rough, was the vigorous frontiersman in type. Threatened men live long: Sumter died in 1832, at the age of ninety-six, the last surviving general of the Revolution. Both men had had prolonged experience in frontier fighting against the Indians. Tarleton called Marion the “old swamp fox” because he often escaped through using by-paths across the great swamps of the country. British communications were always in danger. A small British force might find itself in the midst of a host which had suddenly come together as an army, only to dissolve next day into its elements of hardy farmers, woodsmen, and mountaineers.

After the victory at Camden Cornwallis advanced into North Carolina, and sent Major Ferguson, one of his most trusted officers, with a force of about a thousand men, into the mountainous country lying westward, chiefly to secure Loyalist recruits. If attacked in force Ferguson was to retreat and rejoin his leader. The Battle of King’s Mountain is hardly famous in the annals of the world, and yet, in some ways, it was a decisive event. Suddenly Ferguson found himself beset by hostile bands, coming from the north, the south, the east, and the west. When, in obedience to his orders, he tried to retreat he found the way blocked, and his messages were intercepted, so that Cornwallis was not aware of the peril. Ferguson, harassed, outnumbered, at last took refuge on King’s Mountain, a stony ridge on the western border between the two Carolinas. The north side of the mountain was a sheer impassable cliff and, since the ridge was only half a mile long, Ferguson thought that his force could hold it securely. He was, however, fighting an enemy deadly with the rifle and accustomed to fire from cover. The sides and top of King’s Mountain were wooded and strewn with boulders. The motley assailants crept up to the crest while pouring a deadly fire on any of the defenders who exposed themselves. Ferguson was killed and in the end his force surrendered, on October 7, 1780, with four hundred casualties and the loss of more than seven hundred prisoners. The American casualties were eighty-eight. In reprisal for earlier acts on the other side, the victors insulted the dead body of Ferguson and hanged nine of their prisoners on the limb of a great tulip tree. Then the improvised army scattered.1

While the conflict for supremacy in the South was still uncertain, in the Northwest the Americans made a stroke destined to have astounding results. Virginia had long coveted lands in the valleys of the Ohio and the Mississippi. It was in this region that Washington had first seen active service, helping to wrest that land from France. The country was wild. There was almost no settlement; but over a few forts on the upper Mississippi and in the regions lying eastward to the Detroit River there was that flicker of a red flag which meant that the Northwest was under British rule. George Rogers Clark, like Washington a Virginian land surveyor, was a strong, reckless, brave frontiersman. Early in 1778 Virginia gave him a small sum of money, made him a lieutenant colonel, and authorized him to raise troops for a western adventure. He had less than two hundred men when he appeared a little later at Kaskaskia near the Mississippi in what is now Illinois and captured the small British garrison, with the friendly consent of the French settlers about the fort. He did the same thing at Cahokia, farther up the river. The French scattered through the western country naturally sided with the Americans, fighting now in alliance with France. The British sent out a force from Detroit to try to check the efforts of Clark, but in February, 1779, the indomitable frontiersman surprised and captured this force at Vincennes on the Wabash. Thus did Clark’s two hundred famished and ragged men take possession of the Northwest, and, when peace was made, this vast domain, an empire in extent, fell to the United States. Clark’s exploit is one of the pregnant romances of history.2

Perhaps the most sorrowful phase of the Revolution was the internal conflict waged between its friends and its enemies in America, where neighbor fought against neighbor. During this pitiless struggle the strength of the Loyalists tended steadily to decline; and they came at last to be regarded everywhere by triumphant revolution as a vile people who should bear the penalties of outcasts. In this attitude towards them Boston had given a lead which the rest of the country eagerly followed. To coerce Loyalists local committees sprang up everywhere. It must be said that the Loyalists gave abundant provocation. They sneered at rebel officers of humble origin as convicts and shoeblacks. There should be some fine hanging, they promised, on the return of the King’s men to Boston. Early in the Revolution British colonial governors, like Lord Dunmore of Virginia, adopted the policy of reducing the rebels by harrying their coasts. Sailors would land at night from ships and commit their ravages in the light of burning houses. Soldiers would dart out beyond the British lines, burn a village, carry off some Whig farmers, and escape before opposing forces could rally. Governor Tryon of New York was specially active in these enterprises and to this day a special odium attaches to his name.

For these ravages, and often with justice, the Loyalists were held responsible. The result was a bitterness which fired even the calm spirit of Benjamin Franklin and led him when the day came for peace to declare that the plundering and murdering adherents of King George were the ones who should pay for damage and not the States which had confiscated Loyalist property. Lists of Loyalist names were sometimes posted and then the persons concerned were likely to be the victims of any one disposed to mischief. Sometimes a suspected Loyalist would find an effigy hung on a tree before his own door with a hint that next time the figure might be himself. A musket ball might come whizzing through his window. Many a Loyalist was stripped, plunged in a barrel of tar, and then rolled in feathers, taken sometimes from his own bed.

Punishment for loyalism was not, however, left merely to chance. Even before the Declaration of Independence, Congress, sitting itself in a city where loyalism was strong, urged the States to act sternly in repressing Loyalist opinion. They did not obey every urging of Congress as eagerly as they responded to this one. In practically every State Test Acts were passed and no one was safe who did not carry a certificate that he was free of any suspicion of loyalty to King George. Magistrates were paid a fee for these certificates and thus had a golden reason for insisting that Loyalists should possess them. To secure a certificate the holder must forswear allegiance to the King and promise support to the State at war with him. An unguarded word even about the value in gold of the continental dollar might lead to the adding of the speaker’s name to the list of the proscribed. Legislatures passed bills denouncing Loyalists. The names in Massachusetts read like a list of the leading families of New England. The “Black List” of Pennsylvania contained four hundred and ninety names of Loyalists charged with treason, and Philadelphia had the grim experience of seeing two Loyalists led to the scaffold with ropes around their necks and hanged. Most of the persecuted Loyalists lost all their property and remained exiles from their former homes. The self-appointed committees took in hand the task of disciplining those who did not fly, and the rabble often pushed matters to brutal extremes. When we remember that Washington himself regarded Tories as the vilest of mankind and unfit to live, we can imagine the spirit of mobs, which had sometimes the further incentive of greed for Loyalist property. Loyalists had the experience of what we now call boycotting when they could not buy or sell in the shops and were forced to see their own shops plundered. Mills would not grind their corn. Their cattle were maimed and poisoned. They could not secure payment of debts due to them or, if payment was made, they received it in the debased continental currency at its face value. They might not sue in a court of law, nor sell their property, nor make a will. It was a felony for them to keep arms. No Loyalist might hold office, or practice law or medicine, or keep a school.

Some Loyalists were deported to the wilderness in the back country. Many took refuge within the British lines, especially at New York. Many Loyalists created homes elsewhere. Some went to England only to find melancholy disillusion of hope that a grateful motherland would understand and reward their sacrifices. Large numbers found their way to Nova Scotia and to Canada, north of the Great Lakes, and there played a part in laying the foundation of the Dominion of today. The city of Toronto with a population of half a million is rooted in the Loyalist traditions of its Tory founders. Simcoe, the first Governor of Upper Canada, who made Toronto his capital, was one of the most enterprising of the officers who served with Cornwallis in the South and surrendered with him at Yorktown.

The State of New York acquired from the forfeited lands of Loyalists a sum approaching four million dollars, a great amount in those days. Other States profited in a similar way. Every Loyalist whose property was seized had a direct and personal grievance. He could join the British army and fight against his oppressors, and this he did: New York furnished about fifteen thousand men to fight on the British side. Plundered himself, he could plunder his enemies, and this too he did both by land and sea. In the autumn of 1778 ships manned chiefly by Loyalist refugees were terrorizing the coast from Massachusetts to New Jersey. They plundered Martha’s Vineyard, burned some lesser towns, such as New Bedford, and showed no quarter to small parties of American troops whom they managed to intercept.

What happened on the coast happened also in the interior. At Wyoming in the northeastern part of Pennsylvania, in July, 1778, during a raid of Loyalists, aided by Indians, there was a brutal massacre, the horrors of which long served to inspire hate for the British. A little later in the same year similar events took place at Cherry Valley, in central New York. Burning houses, the dead bodies not only of men but of women and children scalped by the savage allies of the Loyalists, desolation and ruin in scenes once peaceful and happy such horrors American patriotism learned to associate with the Loyalists. These in their turn remembered the slow martyrdom of their lives as social outcasts, the threats and plunder which in the end forced them to fly, the hardships, starvation, and death to their loved ones which were wont to follow. The conflict is perhaps the most tragic and irreconcilable in the whole story of the Revolution.

1 See Chapter IX in”Pioneers of the Old Southwest”, by Constance Lindsay Skinner in “The Chronicles of America.”

2 See Chapters III and IV in “The Old Northwest” by Frederic Austin Ogg in “The Chronicles of America”.