The Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War was the central area of operations in North America in the second half of the American Revolutionary War. During the first three years of the conflict, the largest military encounters were in the north, focused on campaigns around the cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. After the failure of the Saratoga campaign, the British largely abandoned operations in the Middle Colonies and pursued peace through subjugation in the Southern Colonies. This presentation explores the overall Southern strategy, battles, personnel and military tactics and innovations including use of Maham Towers.
Join us on Monday, March 25th, as we welcome NPS Ranger David Lawrence as he presents The Southern Campaign. Our meeting place is now Scoogi’s Italian Resturant at 738 Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown. Feel free to arrive early and eat in the back room where our meetings are held. A short business meeting will start around 7:15pm. The presentation will start at 7:30pm. We encourage you to join our membership for the very small and reasonable tax deductible amount of $30. Don’t forget to our book raffle too. Each meeting we raffle off a number of American Revolutionary themed books. You can purchase tickets for the book raffle, $1 per ticket, or $5 for 6 tickets. They money raises goes to pay the room fee and speaker expenses.
In late 1778, Germain directed the British to begin their campaign in the small, sparsely populated, and heavily divided colony of Georgia. The Southern Strategy initially achieved success there with the British capture of the colony’s major port, Savannah, and the defection of thousands of colonists to the British in December 1778. The next year witnessed continued success of the Southern Strategy when, due to a series of logistical and diplomatic blunders, a Franco-American siege failed to recapture Savannah. Perhaps the single-most devastating event for America in the entire war then occurred at Charleston, an American-held city since the start of the Revolution, in May 1780. After a six-week siege of Charleston by British land and naval forces, American General Benjamin Lincoln, outnumbered and outsmarted by British forces under generals Henry Clinton and Lord Charles Cornwallis, surrendered over five thousand troops and an ample amount of Continental supplies. American Major General William Moultrie of South Carolina, who aided the American forces defending Charleston against the British, remarked on the desperate state of the American cause, stating that “at this time, there never was a country in greater confusion and consternation.”
After Charleston’s fall, Cornwallis, whom Clinton had appointed commander of the Southern Department before returning to New York, began the task of fanning his troops into the southern back-country. The summer of 1780 was demoralizing not only for the South, but for the entire American war effort, especially after American General Horatio Gates’s humiliating defeat against Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden on August 16. As the British achieved initial success, however, their harsh practices in the South, such as the brutality of officers like Colonel Banastre Tarleton, began to incite feelings of resentment among southerners. Tarleton’s actions in allowing his cavalrymen to slaughter most of an American force at the Battle of Waxhaws in late May 1780 made him infamous for cruelty in the South. An American doctor present at Waxhaws recounted the massacre to be a “scene of indiscriminate carnage never surpassed by the ruthless atrocities of the most barbarous savages.” As a result, a fierce partisan war between an ever-growing number of American patriots and a shrinking number of loyalists ensued in the South from 1780 to 1782.
Cornwallis’s plan to subjugate the South involved turning control of one state after another to loyalists. The strategy failed, however, when patriot militiamen and even civilians attacked and gained control of loyalist strongholds left behind by Cornwallis’s main army. Guerilla bands led by back-country patriots such as Thomas Sumter also began attacking supply trains of Cornwallis and his army. Southern patriot militiamen proved their growing strength over loyalist forces at the decisive Battle of King’s Mountain in the North Carolina back-country in October 1780. The Battle of King’s Mountain produced the first major American victory in the South since Savannah’s capture, and boosted the morale of southern patriots. Continued success of Continental troops under the capable American general Nathanael Greene, who was chosen to head the Southern Department in 1780, also hastened the demise of Britain’s Southern Strategy as 1781 dawned.
George Washington’s most trusted commander, Greene pursued a successful Fabian strategy against Cornwallis’s army. By dividing his army and allowing Cornwallis to chase him through the Carolina’s and into Virginia in early 1781, Greene and one of his equally capable generals, Daniel Morgan, secured victory over the British at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781. Two months later, Greene secured another strategic victory even while technically losing at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Cornwallis lost a quarter of his army in the battle, leading him to abandon the back-country of the Carolina’s and move his army to Wilmington on the North Carolina coast to resupply and rest his troops. Cornwallis’s unsanctioned decision to then march his army to Yorktown, Virginia, effectively hastened the end of the British Southern Strategy.
David Lawrence is a Park Guide at Valley Forge National Historical Park, a place with which he shares a long history. Growing up in Levittown, PA, he first visited Valley Forge as a little boy at the 1976 Bicentennial. He began working here as a tour bus driver while in college in the early 90s, working alongside his parents. After college, he worked as a social studies teacher. He began working in the National Park Service in 2004, with stints at Richmond National Battlefield Park, Morristown National Historical Park, and the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island National Monument. In 2012, he found himself returning to Valley Forge, and has now become a permanent Park Guide at the site.