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"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." ~ Benjamin Franklin

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Southern Campaign of the Revolution: Myth and the Mists of Time


Before I continue my mini-series on colonial myths, I’d like to offer an overview of the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. How many know what that refers to? Unless you’re a serious American Revolution buff, chances are you don’t.
Kershaw-Cornwallis house, Camden, SC, British headquarters 1780-81
The history taught in schools is sketchy at best, and sometimes  riddled with myth. Where the Revolution is concerned, we’re familiar with the Boston Massacre, Lexington and Concord, the Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, and Yorktown. What happened in between is fuzzy at best, or missing completely.

We also know individual legends like George Washington and the cherry tree, Betsy Ross, and Molly Pitcher. We’ve also heard of Benedict Arnold’s treachery, and we know the difference between Whig and Tory.

The average person is willing to let their knowledge of history be informed solely by grade-school textbooks, or films like The Patriot. Those of us who have an interest in blogs like this one, on the other hand, thirst to know more ... to get the facts right. :-)

I shared already how a common reenactor myth sparked a story idea, then sent me in search of solid provenance for said story.  As I got deeper into the research, it took my breath away at how little I knew of the Revolution as a whole.

Like the fact that the whole second half of the war took place in the southern colonies.
Siege of Charleston display at the Charleston Museum
The war had gone as far as it could in the northern colonies—the British held New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, the major cities. The British cast their eye to the South—for the second time, since an attempt at taking Charleston had failed in 1776. (Much is made of that in Charleston colonial history, in fact, with barely a mention of later events.) This time the effort began with Savannah, Georgia, a lesser port than Charleston, but also an easier target. Savannah fell to the British in late 1779, and the British then turned their sights on Charleston, arguably the most important port and the richest city in the colonies. With a combined offensive on land and sea, the British caught Charleston in a pinch and held it under siege for nearly two long months, March-May 1780.

When the city fell, May 12, 1780, Lord Earl Cornwallis was left to implement the next stage of the "Southern strategy": push into the backcountry while holding Savannah and Charleston. A good part of the populace was believed to be loyalist, but not as many as the British counted on. Their initial plan to establish a network of outposts went smoothly enough at first, but then trouble flared in the backcountry of South Carolina in particular, around Camden, with what became known as the Presbyterian Rebellion. (The trouble was chiefly among the Scotch-Irish Protestant population.)

General Washington sent a force southward, headed by Horatio Gates, and in August 1780 the two armies met just north of Camden, in the wee hours of a moonlit night. Fighting broke out at dawn, and a hot battle turned into a complete rout of the Continental forces, many of them unseasoned militia. Gates was summarily fired after having fled ahead of his troops, and Continental commissary officer Nathanael Greene, a former Quaker, was assigned the task of regrouping the Continental forces and finding ways of making the militia function under fire.

Greene, it turned out, had a genius for logistics—literally, wearing out the British army. Rather than win the war by military might, or number of battles won, he employed a strategy of cutting off supply lines and making it untenable for the British to hold their various outposts.

The force that turned the tide of a war ...
The patriot militia and Continentals won a few of their battles, notably Kings Mountain in October 1780 (a huge surprise, for being mostly Overmountain men untrained in battle) and Cowpens in January 1781 (where Greene found a way to persuade the militia to stand in the face of fire). Others weren’t a dead loss but also not a clear-cut victory on either side, such as Hobkirk Hill in May 1780 (the second battle at Camden) and Eutaw Springs in September 1781. Some were a nightmarish, bloody ordeal on both sides, like Guilford Courthouse in March 1781. Cornwallis reached too far and subjected himself and his troops to an awful, bloody race through North Carolina in the spring of 1781, which after Guilford Courthouse led to the British army limping off to Wilmington, North Carolina, until a fresh press northward to Yorktown, Virginia. By the time October 1781 rolled around, all British troops had withdrawn from South Carolina outposts and were holed up in Charleston. The British cause in the colonies was pretty well finished, and Cornwallis had little choice at Yorktown but to surrender.

These two years comprised possibly the bloodiest and most brutal of the war. Greene is quoted as saying, “Nothing but blood and slaughter has prevailed among the Whigs and Tories, and their inveteracy against each other must, if it continues, depopulate this part of the country.” The Southern Campaign is, I believe, what earned the Revolution the nickname of America’s first civil war. Not much calm and reason here, but passion and fury and vengeance, neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother.

Links of interest:

North Carolina Digital History's War in the South
Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution

All photos mine.

10 comments:

  1. Wow, Carrie, this is so interesting! Thanks for taking the time out to research this (for your books) and sharing the information with us. I always come away from Colonial Quills with learning something new and very interesting.
    Blessings, Tina

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Tina! And thanks for taking the time to comment. :)

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  2. Thanks so much for this, Shannon. I ran across maps that show the battles and skirmishes in South Carolina by year and county. Stunning how many there were. Here's the link -- http://www.carolana.com/SC/Revolution/sc_revolution_maps_of_known_engagements.html

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    1. Thank you, Susan! Yep, that's one of many ... it's astonishing!

      Anyone who's seriously interested in studying the various military engagements in the Carolinas should check out the four-volume Nothing But Blood and Slaughter by Patrick O'Kelley. Amazing resource!

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  3. Oh how I wish I lived in the East when I read this blog. I'd love to visit some of these sites and see some of the re-enactors that you talk about. Thank you for sharing this history. Now I have to go do more research on Nathaniel Greene.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Judith! I admit, I have a little bit of a crush on Nathanael Greene!! I'd love to do a novel centering on him and his wife Caty ...

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  4. Great post, Shannon. You're right, textbooks fail to provide information on this aspect of the war.

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    1. Thanks so much, Janet! And it's sad how much knowledge has been lost ... not just in this account, but all across history.

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  5. Excellent summary of the British Southern Campaign, Shannon! And that's soon coming up in my series, so this overview is very helpful!

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    1. I actually thought of you, Joan! Looking forward to seeing what you do with that. :-D (And thank you, I'm glad it was helpful!!)

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