Why was the Revolutionary War in the south lost by the British?

Detail or portrait of Cornwallis by Thomas Gainsborough. (National Portrait Gallery)

A re-evaluation from a British perspective in the light of The Cornwallis Papers

cornwallispapersIt was in 1975, when I was researching the American Revolution, that I came upon the Cornwallis papers in the UK National Archives. I was much surprised that, despite the passage of almost 200 years and the vast extent of literature on the Revolution, no one had yet got around to editing and publishing this extraordinarily important primary material in so far as it related to the southern campaigns of 1780 and 1781 ― material that in my estimation was crucial to evaluating the war in the south. I therefore decided to do the job myself.[1]

As published, The Cornwallis Papers has two purposes: first, to provide a comprehensive and fully edited transcript of the papers; and second, in view of the numberless inaccuracies littering the historical record, to provide a commentary, whether in the introductory chapters or various footnotes, aimed at presenting the papers in an accurate, balanced and dispassionate way. “Yet,” as stated in the preface to volume I, “it is so very difficult to be accurate, balanced and dispassionate about a conflict in which political passions were so polarised and views so warped by them. Inevitably, it is the perspective from which the papers are viewed which will to a degree determine whether the editor is seen to have squared the circle.”[2]

So what in the southern campaigns were the critical mistakes that led Britain to disaster?

The cardinal sins were initially to underestimate to a gross extent the number of troops needed for prosecuting the campaigns, to misjudge the continued pacification of conquered territory, to omit taking into account the likely nature of the war should pacification not succeed, and to fail to improvise tactics accordingly ― all contrary to Clausewitz’s first rule of war: “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”[3]

Of the number of troops left with Cornwallis in June 1780 after the capture of Charlestown ― a number on which historians widely diverge ― Mackesy provides a convincing account that 6,753 effectives remained in South Carolina and 1,706 in Georgia, of whom 4,870 and 1,259 were respectively fit for duty.[4] The upshot was that while posts at Camden, Cheraw Hill, the village of Ninety Six and Augusta were established, there were, apart from the troops at Camden, precious few to control the vast hinterlands given the need to maintain the posts themselves. So the opportunity was there, which the revolutionaries seized, to regroup unopposed and to commence what became the insurgency. Far better to nip it in the bud, but where were the troops to do so?

As Gen. Samuel B Griffith has pertinently observed, though perhaps a little too negatively, “Historical experience suggests that there is very little hope of destroying a revolutionary guerrilla movement after it has survived the first phase [organisation and consolidation] and has acquired the sympathetic support of a significant segment of the population. The size of this ‘significant segment’ will vary; a decisive figure might range from 15 to 25 per cent.”[5] As for controlling a population of some 83,000 in South Carolina’s backcountry, the shortage of troops was in fact risible.[6] In the east some 700 men of the 71st (Highland) Regiment occupied Cheraw Hill, but were soon decimated by illness and disease. It was not long before they were withdrawn. In the west Lt. Col. John Harris Cruger soon superseded Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour in command of the District of Ninety Six, but his and Lt. Col. Isaac Allen’s corps amounted to no more than near 300 men fit for duty. In Georgia Augusta was shortly to be occupied by Lt. Col. Thomas Brown’s corps alone, but it too amounted to no more than 200 men fit for duty, leaving the vast swathe of territory between there and Savannah totally bereft of troops.[7] Admittedly, part of the shortfall in Ninety Six was for a time countered by the formation of the royal militia, but grossly unsupported by regulars, it was inadequate to control large expanses of territory there.

As far as other aspects of pacification are concerned, experience soon proved that in a politically polarised situation lenity was not the answer. Short of admitting failure, the only solution was to adopt a policy of deterrence, but none was in the main adopted by Cornwallis and in any event, to be effective, it would have had to depend on an adequate number of troops to back it up.

Of Cornwallis’s lenity The Cornwallis Papers affords a number of examples. Captured at the Battle of Camden and in the action at Fishing Creek were a number of militiamen who had perfidiously sworn allegiance to the Crown, enrolled in the royal militia, and gone off to the enemy. Although all deserved the halter for their treachery, only “some few of the most hardened … were actually executed.” He did go on to order Cruger, Major Patrick Ferguson and Lt. Col. George Turnbull to execute persons of the same description, but mitigated his order by stating that, if there were many, only several of the ringleaders were to be hanged.[8] Needless to say, revolutionary propaganda malevolently exaggerated the extent of the executions and it has percolated down to the present day.

Another example was his treatment of those in the Long Cane settlement who, violating their paroles, went off to join Lt. Col. Elijah Clark and Col. Benjamin Few before participating in the action near White Hall. Defeated by Allen there, many begged to resume their paroles and were in fact pardoned by Cornwallis with no sanction whatever for their violations.[9]

When public order breaks down or is in danger of doing so, it has been the practice since time immemorial for the courts to impose deterrent sentences. If ever there was reason to adopt such a policy, it was in the backcountry of South Carolina in 1780, for, if the full rigor of martial law were not imposed, leaving transgressors to escape with impunity, how was it possible to deter parolees, protectioners, and those who had submitted from taking up arms? Yet Cornwallis proceeded otherwise.

As to deterrence, it is unnecessary for me to expatiate except to assert a perhaps self-evident and simple fact, namely that a principal purpose is to deter by threat or way of punishment actions or omissions of a particularly injurious nature.

Then there was Cornwallis’s treatment of the loyalists, who according to Col. Robert Gray, a most percipient commentator, constituted about fifty percent of the backcountry population. Over the past five years they had been brutally repressed by the revolutionary authorities and demanded retribution. By not providing it ― except to exile certain deposed officers and officials to the sea islands for other reasons ― Cornwallis alienated his friends without winning over his enemies.[10]

When we consider retributive justice, as sought by the loyalists, it embraces in its classical form the idea that the amount of punishment should be proportionate to the amount of harm caused by criminally offensive behaviour. Despite criticism in recent years the concept remains to this day a central pillar of the criminal law, and it is perhaps right that it should be so, for, if individuals begin to believe that society is unwilling or unable to impose penalties commensurate with injurious acts, then seeds of anarchy and vigilante justice are sown. Indeed, it was the lack of retributive justice that impelled many loyalists to seek vengeance on their enemies, thereby adding to the disorder in the backcountry.

As respects the likely nature of the war should pacification not succeed, the British had a wealth of experience in meeting with aroused irregular opposition, for example at Concord and Lexington, and not least in the comprehensive defeat of Burgoyne. Wherever the British campaigned, it had become a fact of life. This being so, it was naive to assume that it would not break out in the south and to fail to plan ahead. In the plains and open woodlands there, the key to defeating irregulars was mounted troops, as Major George Hanger himself explained: “The crackers and militia in those parts of America are all mounted on horseback, which renders it totally impossible to force them to an engagement with infantry only. When they chuse to fight, they dismount and fasten their horses to the fences and rails; but if not very confident in the superiority of their numbers, they remain on horseback, give their fire, and retreat, which renders it useless to attack them without cavalry, for though you repulse them and drive them from the field, you can never improve the advantage or do them any material detriment.” Yet the only mounted troops Cornwallis was left with were the British Legion and a detachment of the 17th Light Dragoons. Their numbers were totally inadequate for such a job. As Robson succinctly put it, “The British, hidebound by their European background, never improvised sufficiently.” Without improvisation and adaptation to American conditions they were in no position to succeed.[11]

And so, as 1780 progressed, a combination of the above factors led the British to control neither the entire eastern part of South Carolina by the close of the summer nor, with the defeat of Ferguson, almost the whole of the backcountry by the close of the year.

Finally, when reviewing what went wrong, we need to take into account Cornwallis’s precipitate invasions of North Carolina without first consolidating control of South Carolina and Georgia in line with Clinton’s instructions;[12] his continuance of the second invasion after the defeat at Cowpens; and his absurd and fateful decision at Wilmington to forsake the provinces to the south and march into Virginia.

As events would prove, the autumn campaign of 1780, in which North Carolina was penetrated for the first time, was a very risky venture indeed, yet despite the operational difficulties attending it, Cornwallis saw no option but to go on to the offensive. As he had explained to Clinton, “It may be doubted by some whether the invasion of North Carolina may be a prudent measure, but I am convinced it is a necessary one and that, if we do not attack that province, we must give up both South Carolina and Georgia and retire within the walls of Charlestown.”[13]

Of the risks Cornwallis was running, the greatest was that of losing control of much of South Carolina and Georgia, so few were the troops that he left behind. Charlestown and Savannah were safe, but what about the rest of the country? If we leave aside the relative backwater of Georgetown, there were only three principal posts outside Charlestown and Savannah ― at Camden, the village of Ninety Six, and Augusta. Left to garrison Camden were the New York Volunteers and the South Carolina Royalist Regiment under the overall command of Turnbull, who, in the words of Cornwallis, “tho’ … not a great genius, … is a plain rightheaded man.” If we subtract the troops intended to reinforce Cornwallis, those remaining at Camden amounted to no more than 250 fit for duty, far too few to maintain the post, control the extensive hinterland, and, not least, provide support for the royal militia, without which, if attacked, it was an edifice waiting to crumble. At Ninety Six and Augusta too those other most capable officers, Cruger and Brown, had equally few troops and faced the same parlous situation.[14]

It was at Charlotte that matters came to a head and the campaign was terminated due to unforeseen events. The first of these was the entirely unexpected ferocity with which the inhabitants of the locality continued resolutely to oppose the occupation of Charlotte itself.[15] On October 3 Cornwallis commented to Balfour, “This County of Mecklenburg is the most rebellious and inveterate that I have met with in this country, not excepting any part of the Jerseys.”[16] It soon became apparent that the village was completely unsuitable for a small intermediate post, so effectually would it have been blockaded and so high would have been the risk of its being taken out in detail. Preoccupied with defending itself, the post would have exerted no control over the surrounding territory and afforded no protection to messengers coming to and from Cornwallis as he pursued his onward march. Extraordinarily difficult as it already was to communicate with South Carolina (almost all of the messengers being waylaid), Cornwallis faced the prospect of totally losing the communication if he proceeded farther. He nevertheless contemplated advancing as late as the 11th, but as Col. Francis Lord Rawdon[17] explained to Balfour, the lack of communication with South Carolina brought about by the inveteracy of the Mecklenburg inhabitants, the uncertainty of cooperation with a diversionary force intended for the Chesapeake, and the possible consequences of a second event of calamitous proportions convinced him that he had to turn back. He quit Charlotte at sunset on the 14th.[18]

The second event was the defeat of Ferguson. Why, as he became increasingly aware of the formidable force gathering to oppose him, he did not press ahead to join Cornwallis has long remained a puzzle. The answer may at first have lain partly in his having ideas beyond his station, that is to say, in his reluctance to forego a separate command, which he had previously exercised on more than one occasion, and partly, as evinced by The Cornwallis Papers, in his belief that he could take on and defeat his opponents himself. If initially the answer, it was eventually overtaken by another as Ferguson began to realise that his hopes of success were doubtful. Taking post on October 6 at King’s Mountain, “where I do not think that I can be forced by a stronger enemy than that against us,” he called for 2 or 300 of Col. Matthew Floyd’s militia to join him the following evening unless they were destined for another service.[19] With such a reinforcement “we do not think ourselves inferior to the enemy if you are pleas’d to order us forward; but help so near at hand, it appear’d to me improper of myself to commit any thing to hasard.” It soon became clear that he was egregiously mistaken in believing that the risks of advancing outweighed for the time being those of remaining where he was. The terrain at King’s Mountain proved ideal for an onslaught by revolutionary irregulars and he was totally defeated in the afternoon of the 7th. Ferguson was killed and his entire party consisting of the American Volunteers and some 800 militia was captured or killed.[20]

Cornwallis for his part was not free of blame for the disaster. The war had shown that detachments such as Ferguson’s were ever attended with danger and had thrown up various instances of their fatal and ruinous effects. While, admittedly, having sound reasons for not reinforcing Ferguson offensively, Cornwallis appears to have taken no account ― at least in the short term ― of the need to support him for defence.

Nothing is so certain as the unexpected, and it was the unexpected, magnifying the risks of losing territory to the south, that ultimately put paid to the northward invasion.

It is easy to be wise after the event when we look back on the autumn campaign, but the question is not so much why the campaign was delayed ― to which my commentary in The Cornwallis Papers provides the answers[21] ― as why it ever took place. The plan was devised when South Carolina was in a quiescent state. As long as it remained so, it seemed reasonable to assume that public order could be maintained by leaving relatively few troops in support of the royal militia. Yet by the time that the campaign began the situation had markedly worsened. The territory east of the Wateree and Santee was in open revolt, the backcountry had been the scene of various actions and might be so again, and much of the royal militia was not to be relied on. In the light of the changed circumstances it was folly to throw caution to the winds and proceed with the original plan, for, self-evidently, much was to be lost if success or failure in North Carolina was vitiated or attended by losing control of even more territory than had already been lost to the south. Overall, as belatedly recognised by Cornwallis when he brought Major Gen. Alexander Leslie to join him,[22] it would have been far better if he had abandoned the campaign before it began and simply called for a reinforcement, but here again the prime concern should have been to use it for consolidating British authority in the two provinces so tenuously held rather than for pursuing wildcat ventures to the north.

Propelling Cornwallis to precipitate action was the political imperative of making progress swiftly. Unfortunately for him, he struck the wrong balance between political and military considerations, acted prematurely, and the collapse of the campaign almost inevitably ensued.

My preceding critique applies equally to the winter campaign, when North Carolina was invaded again. Strategically it was wrong to begin the campaign, and even worse to continue with it after Cowpens, for, by destroying his extensive train of baggage and provisions, Cornwallis was perforce unable, unless resupplied, to remain in the back parts of North Carolina, a prerequisite if the loyalists were to embody. It almost beggars belief that, with the North Carolinians in Lt. Col. John Hamilton’s corps available to advise,[23] his intelligence was so poor as not to indicate that the only means of resupply, by water from Wilmington to Cross Creek, was impractical.

It is at Wilmington, when we analyse Cornwallis’s decision to forsake the provinces to the south and march into Virginia, that we realise how unsuited he was to command in a conflict so akin to a civil war. Prior to the publication of The Cornwallis Papers his decision had puzzled historians for almost 230 years and none had come close to determining his real motives. Almost all, like Alden, Gruber, Lumkin, Mackesy, Peckham and Tonsetic, had simply accepted the decision at face value or as no more than a strategic mistake, while a few, like Pancake and Rankin, had attempted to justify it on spurious grounds such as assuring the safety of the Carolinas by disrupting Greene’s supplies and reinforcements or as making the Chesapeake the main focus of the war.[24]

In what Borick has described as among my “most groundbreaking and insightful analysis”[25] I have sought to disprove, by drawing on The Cornwallis Papers alone, Cornwallis’s contention that it was impracticable for him to return overland to South Carolina. I have gone on to analyse his stated reasons for not moving that way and concluded that they do not hold water. This being so, I have advanced what in my estimation were most likely the real reasons propelling him to take the absurd and fateful decision that he did, besides explaining why the whole affair evinced “at best a serious flaw in his character and at worst a gross dereliction of duty.” In short, Cornwallis was temperamentally ill at ease with defensive warfare, a prospect facing him if he returned to South Carolina and Georgia; a humane, cultivated man, he was sickened by the murderous barbarity with which the war was waged there by the revolutionary irregulars and state troops; he had no stomach for the deterrent and necessarily disagreeable measures involved in suppressing the rebellion there; and he was suffering from the mental and physical fatigue of commanding a year’s hard and solid campaigning. Against this background it is not entirely surprising that he should have cast around, perhaps subconsciously, for reasons to release him from the predicament of dealing with a situation which he had come to detest. Always keen to act offensively, he simply opted for the more congenial alternative of doing so in Virginia, well way from the distasteful nature of the war farther south, an alternative, incidentally, which pricked his pride less than the perceived ignominy of conducting a defensive war to the southward after another unsuccessful campaign. These, then, were most likely the real reasons why Cornwallis took the absurd and fateful decision that he did.[26]

However much we may sympathise with his reasons, more weighty considerations were involved. It is no exaggeration to say that his decision was critical in a series of events that lost Britain the southern colonies and cost it the entire war.



[1]   See Ian Saberton ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War, 6 vols (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 2010) (“CP”).

[2]   CP, 1: ix.

[3] Claus von Clausewitz, On War, edited by Beatrice Hauser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 30.

[4] Piers Mackesy, The War for America 1775-1783 (reprint of 1964 edition, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 346, quoting CO 5/100(53) (Kew: UK National Archives). In South Carolina Cornwallis took 2,500 men to Camden, and Balfour some 600 to Ninety Six, leaving three British and three Hessian regiments to garrison Charlestown. In Georgia were Allen’s, Brown’s, Cruger’s and Wright’s British American corps, together with von Porbeck’s Hessian.

[5] Introduction to Mao Tse-Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare (New York: Praeger Publishers Inc, 1961), 27.

[6] The figure of some 83,000 is taken from Carl Bridenbaugh, Myths & Realities: Societies of the Colonial South (reprint of 1952 edition, New York: Atheneum, 1976), 121.

[7]   For biographical notes on Cruger, Balfour, Allen, and Brown, see CP, 1: 35-7, 258-9 and 271-2.

[8]   CP, 2: 19 and 20; Charles Stedman, History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War (London, 1792), 2: 214. For biographical notes on Ferguson and Turnbull, see CP, 1: 37-8 and 138-9.

[9] For biographical notes on Clark and Few, together with an account of the action near White Hall, see CP, 1: 257, and 3: 282-3. For Cornwallis’s lenity, see CP, 3: 286-7.

[10] Robert Gray, “Col. Robert Gray’s Observations on the War in Carolina,” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, 11 (July, 1910), 139-59, 148, previously published in the North Carolina University Magazine, 8, No. 4 (November, 1858), 145-60. For a biographical note on Gray, see CP, 1: 135.

[11] The Hon George Hanger, An Address to the Army in reply to Strictures of Roderick M’Kenzie (late Lieutenant in the 71st Regiment) on Tarleton’s History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 (London, 1789), 82; CP, 2: 34; Eric Robson, The American Revolution in its Political and Military Aspects 1763-1783 (reprint of 1955 edition, New York: W W Norton & Co Inc, 1966), 99. “Crackers” were a body of hardy, illiterate and lawless backwoodsmen scattered among the backcountry population. Feared more than most by the British, they tended to have no settled habitation and lived partly by hunting and partly by preying on their neighbours.

[12]   See Clinton to Cornwallis, 1 June 1780, CP, 1: 56-9.

[13]   Ibid., 177.

[14]   CP, 2: 28-30.

[15]   See, for example, Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (London, 1787), 159-61, and Hanger, An Address to the Army, 66-70.

[16]   CP, 2: 106.

[17]  For a biographical note on Rawdon, see CP, 1: 151-2.

[18]   CP, 2: 30, 106, 126 and 251.

[19]  For biographical note on Floyd, see CP, 1: 142.

[20]   CP, 2: 30-1 and 159-65.

[21] Ibid., 25.

[22]  For a biographical note on Leslie, see CP, 3: 3-4.

[23]   For a biographical note on Hamilton, together with a description of his corps, see CP, 1: 55.

[24]   John R Alden, The American Revolution 1775-1783 (reprint of 1954 edition, New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 238; idem, A History of the American Revolution (London: Macdonald and Co, 1969), 465; Ira D Gruber, “Britain’s Southern Strategy,” in W Robert Higgins (ed.), The Revolutionary War in the South: Power, Conflict, and Leadership (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1979), 205-38, 235; Henry Lumkin, From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South (St Paul, Minn: Paragon House, 1981), 223; Mackesy, The War for America, 407-8; Howard H Peckham, The War for Independence: A Military History (reprint of 1958 edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 177; Robert L Tonsetic, 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War (Hovertown PA: Casemate, 2013), 105-6; John S Pancake, This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782 (reprint of 1985 edition, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 189-90; Hugh F Rankin, “Charles Lord Cornwallis: Study in Frustration,” in George Athan Billias (ed.), George Washington’s Generals and Opponents: Their Exploits and Leadership (Boston MA: Da Capo Press, 1994), part II, 213.

[25]   Carl P Borick, Review, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 112, Nos 1-2 (January-April 2011), 88-90, 89.

[26]   CP, 4: 101-3.

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  • “’Crackers’ were a body of hardy, illiterate and lawless backwoodsmen scattered among the backcountry population. Feared more than most by the British, they tended to have no settled habitation and lived partly by hunting and partly by preying on their neighbours.”

    Well, that takes account of all my Carolina ancestors.

  • In my reading of the Cornwallis Papers the antecedent or cause of the lack of or scarcity of British troops was the vast misrepresentation of Loyalist support in the Carolinas perpetrated by several British parties. The economy in force of the British in the South was predicated on thousands of loyal subjects coming to the King’s standard. While thousands did come into the British lines their support was fickle at best. Loyalist militia often were less well led and effective than Whig militia. In general, the British misconstrued loyalty to mean those loyalists would enthusiastically take up arms against the rebels. The reality being many loyalists were seeking protection from rebel abuses and/or being drafted into the rebel militia. Men like James Simpson, Josiah Martin, John Hamilton seem to have been negligent in their understanding both the motivations of the rebel militia and the loyalist militia.

  • The little I know about the fighting in North and South Carolina consists of some genealogy research on my Quaker ancestors. They lived in both states and traveled back and forth. The Quakers were supposedly not to take sides, but some were loyalists like Thomas Lindley who was hanged as a traitor by the Americans. At least one son though, went on to fight the British after that and he and his sons fought them again in the War of 1812. They were no longer Quakers. They did like pioneering and generally were some of the first in newly opened territories. They were believers and they joined the Presbyterians and Predestination Baptists and no longer pretended to stay out of wars. They were very patriotic from then on. The backwoods people in America were better educated than many think, and could do many things people have to go to college for today. All of my pioneer ancestors could read, write and cipher… as they would say.

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