Revolutionary War Military Campaigns: Southern Campaign

Figure 1.--

After Monmouth Court House, the British knew they faced a now experienced Continental Army and not a poorly discipline miklitia. And as a result of Saratoga, the Continentals were now supported by French aid and a French army. There seemed to be no way of winning in the north. Checked in the North, the British decided on a southern campaign where they believed they would find more local support. The British seized Savanah (1778). The southern strategy was put into operation with an assault on Charles Town. After a siege the British took the city. At first the British were sucessful, taking control of much of South Carolina. The British defeated the Colonist's Southern Army commanded by Horatio Gates who once challenged Washington for command. Unlike Washington, after his defeats, Gates abandoned the army and fled, disappearing from American history. Gradually a bruising guerilla campaign organized by Francis Marion weakened the British. Washington dispatched a new southern Coninental Army under Nathanael Greene who moved south into North Carolina. A disastrous engaement at Cownpens destroyed an entire Scottish regiment. Lord Cornwallis takes the army north. He wins a series of engagements, but in the priocess loses much of his army. Finally he headed toward the Chesapeake Bay where he expected to be evacuated by the Royal Navy.

British Plan

British plns to quickly supress the Colonists in the North failed. Checked in the North where the early battles of the Revolution were fought, the British began to look at the southern colonies. They believed that there would be more Royalist support in the South. The plan was to seize the important ports in the south (Savannah and Charles Town) and then move north into North Carolin and Virginia. The idea was that they British would gain strength as they mobed north by attracting recruits and support from Loyalists. Organizing a substantial Loyalist militia was central for the success of the British plan.

Initial Operations

The British first seized Savannah (1778). With Savannah as a base, the British put their southern strategy into affect. After a short seige the British next seized Charles Town (1780). Command of the British forced was put in the hands of Lord Corwallis. There was considerable success at first. The British did recruit a Loyalist militia. The most important Loyalist was Banister Taralton. Cornwallis set up a base in the backcountry--Ninety Six (June 1780). Cornwallis believed this base would secure his control of the South Carolina backcountry. Lieutenant-Colonel John Harris Cruger, a loyalist from New York, was put in charge of Ninty Six. He ordered Cruger to be "vigorous" in punishing rebels and maintaining order. Recruitment was aided by the stunning victory of the British over the Continental Southern Army commanded by Horatio Gates who had been the American commander at Saratoga. The Southern Army had been ordered to releave the siege of Charles Town. His army was uterlly destoyed at Camden and Gates ignominiously fled the battlefield (August 1780). Cornwallis seemed posed to begin his sweep north toward Virginia. Cornwallis did not want to begin his drive north until his position in South Carolina was secured.

American Situation (1781)

The decisive year for the War would prove to be 1781. The continuation of the War was costtly for the British. A crisis was rapidly approaching for the Americans. The British could afford to maintain armies in the field indefinitely, along dissent was growing. The Americans, however, even with French aid could not. One historian explains, :The American army was critically short on all classes of military supplies and equipment, including muskets. artillery, and ammunition of all types, as well as uniforms, blankets, tents, and medical supplies. Additionally, General Washingtonfound it increasingly difficult to feed his troops. Lacking funds to make purchases, Washington had to resort to requisitioning food and other supplies from surrounding farms and towns, angering the war weary and increasingly apathetic civilian population. Making matters worse, the troops had not been paid in months, and many were nearing what they believed to be the end of their three-year enlistments. When the three-year soldiers were told that their enlistments were actually for the duration of the war, threats of mutiny reverberated through the camps ...." [Tonsetic]

Shift in Power: South Carolina

The British seemed to firmly control South Carolina after their seemingly decisive victory at Canden. Corwallis's Army seem unbeatable by the wear Colonial forces. There was no longer an organized Continental army in the South. This control proved illusionary. Francis Marion organized a guerilla campaign South Carolina low countries which tied up substantial British forces closed to their major base at Charlestown. At the same time Thomas Sumter organized resistance in the upcountry. Here a population of Scotts-Irish proved willing converts to the Patriot cause. The Scotts-Irish in fact proved to be the backbone of the Continental Army and the Colonial cause. Washington dispatched a new southern Coninental Army under Nathanael Greene who moved south into North Carolina to challenge Cornwallis.

British Reverses

The British position in the Carolinas rapidly began to crumble in Fall 1780 only a few months after Camden. The British experienced a major reversal at King's Mountain. There a Patriot militia force composed of back country recruits defeated Patrick Ferguson who commanded a Loyalists force (October 1780). This had a negative impact on Corwallis efforts to recruit Loyalist support. Cornwallis sent various units to secure the British position in South Carolina. The units were mauled by Patriot forces. The most significant engagement was fought at Cowpen (March 1781). Here Tarlton pushed aggresively forward in an effort to destroy a force of Continental regulars and militia under Daniel Morgan. The result was the death or surrender of virtually an entire regiment of Scottish soldiers--one of the toughest regiments in Corwallis' army. A Continental force had stood against a British regular force. Corwallis next decided to finally move north. Only he no longer controlled much of South Carolina and was no longer attracting Loyalist recruits. Cornwallis initially resolved to meet and defeat Greene's army. Green disregarding standard miligtary doctrune, divided his forces and Corrwallis did likewise, reducung the force he could muster in the field at any diven time.[Tonsetic] The two forces first met at Guilford Courthouse (March 1781). Corwallis emerged victorious, but by a narrow margin and with heavy losses. Greene withdrew in good order. Not only had Cornwallis not destroyed Green's army, but he had lost about a third of his army and many of his finest officers. Combined with the losses at Cowpens and other engagements, Cornwallis' army had been significantly reduced while the Continentals were gaining in strength. Corwallis retired to Wilmington. What had begun as a British offensive gradually shifted to a retreat northward with Patriot forces attacking the British cloumns. Cornwallis decided to move into Virginia where he could be reinforced by a British fleet. Green used some of his forces to lay seige to Ninty Six (May 1781). This effort failed. The British held the fort. A relieving British force arrived, but the British then abandoned it, retiring to Charleston. This left the Patriots in control of South Carolina excedpt for the port of Charleston and the British southern strategu in tatters.

The Battle of the Capes

The French rarely prevailed in naval encounters with the British. One of the few French naval victories of any importance was the Battle of the Capes. It was not a decisive battle. It was more of a stabndoff, but a tand off that forced the Royal Navy to withdraw and left the French in controll of the mouth of the Chesapeake. Unfortunately for the British, it was not just any naval battle, it proved to be the decisive naval engagement of the War and would doom Cornwallis' army at Yorktown.

Yorktown (October 1781)

The overwhelming naval and military superiority of the British allowed the British to control the conduct of the War and made it virtually impossible for the Patriots to force the British to surrender--as long as they could fall back on a port for reinforcement and resupply. The one successful American offensive was the siege of Yorktown (1881) in Virginia, a siege made possible by the French defeat of a British naval squadron in the Battle of the Cape--a rare French naval victory. Washington left a small force to decoy Howe and rushed the Coninental Army south. Cut off by the French fleet, Cornwallis' army was then defeated in a classic siege srategy by Washington's Continentals and the French Army. The French provided the technical advise in siefe warfare. The last redoubt defending the British position was taken by a force commanded by Alexander Hamilton. The British were forced to surrender. A lone drummer boy and a British officee with a white flag appeared at the British lines. The British had lost another army which meant the end of the war, although a peace treaty was not signed until 2 years later (1783).


Tonsetic, Robert. 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War (2011), 288p.


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Created: 7:44 AM 12/19/2004
Last updated: 11:39 PM 11/20/2011