The Loyalist Exodus of 1778

The War Years (1775-1783)

May 17, 2016
by Jim Piecuch Also by this Author


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In March 1778, several hundred South Carolina Loyalists began a march to the British province of East Florida to seek refuge from persecution and assist the British. Their successful effort threw the Whigs of South Carolina and Georgia into a panic and provided a valuable accession of military manpower to East Florida. The Loyalists’ actions demonstrated that Britain had a substantial number of supporters in the southern backcountry, thus encouraging British officials in their expectation that a shift in military operations to the South would attract strong local support.

South Carolina Loyalists had first exerted themselves to support the British in November 1775, when some two thousand Loyalists surrounded a slightly smaller Whig force that occupied the backcountry town of Ninety Six. After several days of skirmishing, the two sides agreed to a truce and the combatants returned to their homes. The Whigs, however, then ignored the agreement and sent a militia force through the region, disarming the Loyalists and arresting their leaders in the “Snow Campaign” of November and December. Over the next two years, Whig leaders adopted a policy of harshly persecuting suspected Loyalists, causing many Loyalists to flee the state.[1]

This persecution undoubtedly was a factor in convincing many Loyalists to escape to St. Augustine in 1778, but the more immediate cause was the South Carolina legislature’s passage of a loyalty act that spring. The law required all males sixteen and older to swear allegiance to the state. Those who refused to do so would forfeit their right to vote and to conduct business and legal transactions. Anyone who left the state to avoid taking the oath was subject to the death penalty if they returned. As a result, many wealthier Loyalists sold whatever property they could and sailed to Britain or the West Indies.[2] For many of the poorer Loyalists in the backcountry who were unwilling to pledge allegiance to the Whig government and could neither afford the sanctions for refusal nor the cost of a sea voyage, escape to East Florida seemed the best solution to their dilemma.

As men formulated their plans and word began to circulate among the Loyalists, those willing to escape began gathering in the vicinity of Ninety Six early in the spring. Benjamin Gregory and John Murphy assumed leadership of the group, which numbered about four hundred, all mounted, by late March. They had intended to wait for another party to join them, but rebel militia leaders learned of the plan and the second group decided that it was too risky to attempt the proposed flight. Gregory and Murphy then led their followers on a rapid march southward toward the Savannah River.[3]

On first hearing that the Loyalists were in motion, Whig officials dismissed the group as “no more than a Plundering Party.” A few militia units were dispatched to round them up, but the Loyalists eluded them.[4] Soon, however, the Whigs received more accurate reports of the Loyalists’ strength and panicked. “The back Country is all up in Arms; The Tories … have risen, and as if informed by the same spirit and moved by the same spring, have put themselves in motion at one and the same time throughout all parts of the State,” Gov. Rawlins Lowndes reported with considerable exaggeration.[5]

To elude possible pursuit and make it easier to secure supplies, the Loyalists split into several parties, “plundering robbing and terrifying the Inhabitants” along their routes and gathering reinforcements. By the time they reached the Savannah River, Lowndes estimated that the Loyalists’ numbers had increased to six hundred. They crossed the river into Georgia on April 3, putting “that Country in a very great Consternation.”[6] Although Lowndes had ordered the Whig militia to take the field and halt the Loyalists, the Whigs only managed to kill and capture a handful of stragglers.[7]

Once the Loyalists entered Georgia, Maj. Gen. Robert Howe, commander of the Continental forces in the Southern Department, took charge of the effort to capture them. On April 6 he ordered Col. Samuel Elbert of the Georgia Continentals to assemble as many troops as possible “to prevent the Insurgents, now embodied & marching to East Florida, from joining the forces of that province.” Elbert was to treat the Loyalists “as enemies to the united States” and use every method “consistent with the rules of war” to defeat them.[8] Elbert failed to halt the Loyalists, largely, Howe later explained, because the mounted Loyalists easily eluded and outdistanced Elbert’s infantrymen; Howe believed that he could have stopped the refugees if he had had a sufficient force of cavalry. Growing conscious of their power, the Loyalists “Hoisted the British Kings standard, as they passed” with impunity across Georgia.[9] Along their route they attracted an additional two hundred Georgia Loyalists, including a party led by Col. John Thomas. Several deserters from the Whig forces also joined them.[10]

After the Loyalists successfully reached East Florida in mid-April, Whig leaders concluded that the exodus had not been spontaneous, but was instead part of a larger British plan to attack the southern states. Georgia Gov. John Houstoun believed that the Loyalists’ escape presaged “the total Reduction” of Georgia.[11] Brig. Gen. William Moultrie agreed and predicted that an invasion from both St. Augustine and Pensacola in British West Florida was imminent; according to rumor, Loyalists and Indians would attack from West Florida while British regulars and Loyalists would advance from East Florida.[12] Robert Howe also expected “serious Consequences” to follow the Loyalists’ junction with the British. Considering the weakness of the southern states and the “Disaffection among the People & that this Infection is still more prevalent in the Back parts of So Carolina,” Howe thought it wise “to prepare for the worst.”[13] Whig Joseph Clay of Georgia expressed concern at “the very great additional Strength” that the British were “daily receiving from the great Defection” of South Carolina’s Loyalists.[14] He warned Henry Laurens that the influx of Loyalists was making the British in East Florida “so formidable” that they might soon overrun Georgia.[15]

Although the feared British invasion never materialized, other South Carolina Loyalists inspired by the exodus tried to replicate the escape. Many Loyalists from both Carolinas gathered along the Pee Dee River in northeastern South Carolina, probably with the intention of marching to St. Augustine, but Whig militia from North Carolina attacked them before they moved. A battle ensued in which several men were killed on each side, including a Whig colonel, but the Loyalists were dispersed.[16] Officials in the three southernmost states called out detachments of militia and kept them actively patrolling to discover and prevent Loyalist gatherings, effectively ending the exodus. In late April, “several other large parties of the disaffected attempted to cross Savannah River,” however, the South Carolina militia prevented them from entering Georgia.[17] A few men who did manage to slip through the cordon informed Lt. Col. Thomas Brown, a South Carolina refugee who commanded the East Florida Rangers, that other South Carolina Loyalists had hoped to make their escape, but now “thought proper to postpone their insurrection to a more favourable opportunity, as the rebels upon receiving intelligence of the March of Murphy and Gregory’s party had embodied themselves in every district.” Because the Loyalists lacked sufficient arms and ammunition, they could not hope for success without the element of surprise. Brown’s informants claimed that another 6,300 men across South Carolina were prepared to assist the British when opportunity offered.[18]

Some of the Loyalists decided to strike directly at their enemies rather than attempt to flee. Near Orangeburg, Loyalists launched a series of attacks against area Whigs. They “cut off the ears of one Prichard a Magistrate, and another Man,” beat a Whig militia captain, and burned the home of a member of the assembly. These acts, Lowndes noted, “have thrown all that part of the Country into a general Panick, and so intimidated the Inhabitants that those well affected, are detered from taking any steps for their own Security least … they should bring upon themselves the resentment of these banditti.” The governor ordered one hundred Continental troops to Orangeburg to reinforce the local militia, instructing the officers “to settle the point of Law, on the spot,” if they captured the perpetrators.[19] The show of force put an end to the loyalists’ attacks.

Meanwhile, Gov. Patrick Tonyn of East Florida, an aggressive former army officer, believed that the Loyalist reinforcements he had received, along with reports of Loyalist strength in the South Carolina backcountry, justified invading Georgia. With the provincial units at St. Augustine, the Rangers and South Carolina Royalists, greatly strengthened by the eight hundred refugees, Tonyn told Gen. Sir William Howe that “the province of Georgia may be taken in possession” with his British and Loyalist units, augmented by Indian auxiliaries. The conquest of Georgia “will give a fair opportunity for the loyalists in South Carolina to show themselves,” and if they were as numerous as reports indicated, “I should apprehend that province would soon be compelled to subjection,” Tonyn mused.[20]

Tonyn, however, never got the opportunity to try his plan. Before Howe could reply, the Whigs undertook their own offensive. For the third time in as many years, they launched an invasion of East Florida with the aim of capturing St. Augustine. The Loyalist exodus had convinced many Whigs that the invasion was necessary to prevent the British from being joined by even more refugees.[21] The Loyalists formed a large part of the force that opposed the Whigs; an estimated 350 South Carolinians, along with 150 of Brown’s Rangers and 150 Indians, fought a series of delaying actions from north of the St. John’s River to the St. Mary’s River, where the Whig offensive came to a halt. Informants told the Whigs that a short time before, both Brown’s troops and the South Carolina refugees had been “extremely discontented with their Change of Situation & had expressed a wish to Return.”[22] Prisoners captured by the Whigs on June 23 declared that some time earlier the Loyalists “had been very discontented & that some of them had threatened to return to Carolina & throw themselves upon the Mercy of their Country,” but had since been “Reconciled.”[23] About fifteen South Carolina Loyalists did desert during the campaign, as did some Whig soldiers, but the Loyalist troops showed no signs of demoralization in their encounters with the Whigs and fought well in the various skirmishes against the invaders. The Whigs began to withdraw on July 14.[24]

The Loyalist exodus had many short term benefits for the British. The refugees had spread panic throughout the South Carolina and Georgia backcountry, reinforced British forces in East Florida, and helped provoke the Whigs into a costly and unsuccessful invasion of that province. The refugees also provided the bulk of the forces that halted the invasion. In the longer term, their action and the reports they brought of thousands of other Loyalists eager to support the British encouraged Tonyn and other royal officials to advocate an offensive in the South. Loyalist support, they believed, would produce great results with a limited commitment of British forces.

The Whigs, despite the short term harm they suffered in terms of exposing their inability to control their own populations and the losses of manpower, money, and supplies in the invasion of East Florida, learned valuable lessons. When the British finally began their southern campaign with the capture of Savannah in December 1778, South Carolina officials acted promptly to prevent another exodus of refugees. The assembly passed an “Act to Prevent Persons Withdrawing from the Defense of the State to Join Its Enemies,” which authorized Gov. John Rutledge to punish anyone who joined the British and did not surrender within forty days. The penalty was death and the confiscation of the offender’s property.[25] Rutledge assembled a force of 2700 militia “to crush any Insurgents in our back Country.”[26] Another detachment of militia commanded by Andrew Pickens pursued one group of Loyalists, numbering between seven and eight hundred men, into Georgia and defeated them at Kettle Creek on February 14, 1779. Only 270 survivors managed to reach British lines.[27] About twenty of the prisoners taken at Kettle Creek were among 150 Loyalist captives tried at Ninety Six between March 23 and April 12. More than twenty were sentenced to death for assisting the British, and five were eventually executed.[28] These measures intimidated the state’s Loyalists from making any effort to join or otherwise assist the British.

Another long term consequence of the Loyalist exodus was that when the British finally occupied South Carolina in May 1780, their most committed supporters had already left the state and been incorporated into provincial units, or had been captured and executed. Those who remained had suffered through five years of repression, and in some cases violent persecution, at the hands of the Whigs. Less bold to begin with, they had been made even more timid by this treatment, and many of the men who could have provided the backbone of a reliable loyal militia were no longer available for that purpose. This was one of the most important reasons why the loyal militia in South Carolina never achieved the strength or effectiveness that the British had expected. Thus, in the end, the 1778 flight of the Loyalists may have done the British almost as much harm as good.


[1] Jim Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), Chapters 2 and 3.

[2] Robert S. Lambert, South Carolina Loyalists in the American Revolution (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1987), 62-64.

[3] Harry M. Ward, Between the Lines: Banditti of the American Revolution (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 195.

[4] Thomas Pinckney to Harriott Pinckney, April 7, 1778, in Jack L. Cross, ed., “Letters of Thomas Pinckney, 1775-1780,” South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 58, No. 3, July 1957, 148-149.

[5] Rawlins Lowndes to Henry Laurens, April 14, 1778, in David R. Chesnutt, ed., The Papers of Henry Laurens (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993), 13:114.

[6] Lowndes to Laurens, ibid.

[7] William Moultrie to Robert Howe in William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, So Far As It Related to the States of North and South-Carolina, and Georgia, Vol. 1 (New York: David Longworth, 1802), 205.

[8] Robert Howe to Samuel Elbert, April 6, 1778, Robert Howe Papers, Georgia Historical Society.

[9] Howe to unnamed, April 13, 1778, Robert Howe Papers.

[10] Ward, Between the Lines, 195.

[11] John Houstoun to Henry Laurens, April 16, 1778, in Papers of Henry Laurens, 13:121-122.

[12] Moultrie to Laurens, April 20, 1778, ibid; Charles E. Bennett and Donald R. Lennon, A Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 71-72.

[13] Howe to Laurens, April 26, 1778, in Papers of Henry Laurens, 13:190-192.

[14] Joseph Clay to Josiah Smith, undated c. March-May 1778, in Letters of Joseph Clay, Merchant of Savannah, 1776-1783, Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Vol. 8 (Savannah: Morning News Printers and Binders, 1913), 70.

[15] Clay to Laurens, May 30, 1778, in Letters of Joseph Clay, 76.

[16] William Gipson, Pension Application, in John C. Dann, ed., The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 187.

[17] James Whitefield to Laurens, May 6, 1778, in Papers of Henry Laurens, 13:261-262.

[18] Thomas Brown to Augustine Prevost, April 10, 1778, in Report on American Manuscripts in the Royal Institutions of Great Britain, Vol. 1 (London: Mackie & Co., 1904), 227-228.

[19] Lowndes to Laurens, Sept. 22, 1778, in Papers of Henry Laurens, Vol. 14 (1994), 343.

[20] Patrick Tonyn to William Howe, April 6, 1778, Sir Guy Carleton Papers, Vol. 10, No. 1073.

[21] John Faucherau Grimke, “Journal of a Campaign to the Southward. May 9th to July 14th, 1778,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 2, April 1911, 63-64.

[22] Grimke, “Journal,” 65.

[23] Grimke, “Journal,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 3, July 1911, 130.

[24] Brown to Tonyn, June 30, 1778, Carleton Papers, Vol. 11, No. 1247; Martha Condray Searcy, The Georgia-Florida Contest in the American Revolution, 1776-1778 (University: University of Alabama Press, 1985), 142, 144, 145-147.

[25] Lambert, South Carolina Loyalists, 83.

[26] “John Rutledge to Benjamin Lincoln,” Feb. 28, 1779, South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 3, July 1924, 133-134.

[27] Robert S. Davis, Jr., and Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr., Kettle Creek: The Battle of the Cane Brakes; Wilkes County, Georgia (Atlanta: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, 1975), 33-34, 36-39, 43.

[28] Robert Scott Davis, Jr., “The Loyalist Trials at Ninety Six in 1779,” South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 80, No. 2, April 1979, 174-175.

One thought on “The Loyalist Exodus of 1778

  • How many thousands of Loyalists left the Carolinas by force or necessity between 1775 and 1780? Certainly thousands. Many have commented on the illiberal and abusive policies of the Whig governments in forcing Loyalists into exile, sworn allegiance and/or property confiscation. In retrospect these Whig policies seem harsh but appears to have had the intended purpose. By the time the British came back many of the people that were willing to fight for them were gone or too scared to rise up. The war in the South seems like it could have taken a different tack had these Loyalists remained in place.

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