A re-evaluation from a British perspective in the light of The Cornwallis Papers
Relying mostly on inferences drawn from my commentary in The Cornwallis Papers, I shall seek to demonstrate that Britain’s grand strategy for reducing the southern colonies was at least in part sound and it may well have achieved a lasting measure of success if only Clinton and Cornwallis had played their cards right. I begin in June 1780, one month after the capture of Charlestown, as Clinton set sail from South Carolina for the north.
Admittedly, it was only natural for Clinton to be concerned about the arrival of the French expeditionary force and the threat to New York, but wars are won, not by cautious, hesitant commanders, but by those who are prepared to take risks. Instead of taking about 4,500 troops with him to New York, he should have left them with Cornwallis in keeping with the primacy of the southern strategy. Well garrisoned with some 15,500 effectives, of whom some 10,000 were fit for duty, New York should have been able to hold out if attacked, and in any event till reinforced from the south.
With such an accretion of force Cornwallis would ― perhaps at once, as seems inevitable ― have assigned it to the backcountry, maybe half to Ninety Six and half to the east of South Carolina, thereby providing badly needed support for the royal militia and deterring the revolutionary irregulars from regrouping. Of particular value would have been the Queen’s Rangers, who were among the troops recalled to New York, though the shortage of cavalry was so abysmal that a wise decision would have been to supplement them and the cavalry remaining in South Carolina ― that is to say, the British Legion and a detachment of the 17th Light Dragoons ― with mounted troops formed from the infantry. Such an arrangement would have made it unnecessary to call up Lt. Col. John Harris Cruger’s and Lt. Col. Isaac Allen’s corps from Georgia, leaving the troops there to police the interior and perhaps add ― marginally ― to Lt. Col. Thomas Brown’s at Augusta, where, among other things, they would have provided more support for Col. James Grierson’s regiment of royal militia.
Forming mounted troops from the infantry would have been one of the most important ways in which Britain could have met Robson’s critique that it was necessary to improvise and adapt to American conditions if the war was to be won. Forming new, fully equipped cavalry corps was not the answer, dependent as they were on cavalry accouterments shipped from Britain ― accouterments that were expensive, very limited in number, and took months if not years to arrive. What was needed was not carbines, sabers, horse pistols and the rest, but simply getting the infantry with their firelocks mounted that they might meet the revolutionary irregulars on their own terms, given that it was impossible to force them to an engagement with infantry only. Equipped with horses and Pennsylvanian rifles alone, the revolutionary irregulars gave ample evidence of what a formidable force mounted infantry solely equipped with firelocks might be.
Yet a sufficiency of troops, many mounted, to police both provinces was only part of the equation. If pacification was to be maintained or ultimately succeed, those of the revolutionary persuasion had to be convinced that the consequences of taking up arms were greater than the alternative of remaining peaceably at home, where they would have to supply only a measure of provisions in lieu of their enrolment in the royal militia. So, inevitably, we come to the fact that, apart from allowing them to occupy their property peaceably, pacification ultimately depended on deterrence, first on effectively suppressing outbreaks of resistance, using if necessary the kind of tactics I have outlined, and second on imposing severe sanctions for either taking up arms or breaking paroles or oaths of allegiance ― but deterrence would work only if there were sufficient troops to ensure that most transgressors were caught and punished. Of course, whenever a nascent insurgency may develop, there is always a fine line to be drawn between obtaining the desired effect with deterrent measures and going too far with them, thereby provoking the outcome that they were meant to forestall. Yet, all in all, the option of effective deterrence had to be tried here, for there was no other besides lenity, which, as matters soon proved, stood no chance of success. As Robson aptly remarked of British strategy throughout the war, “The results of following the conciliatory point of view were generally disastrous.”
What, then, were the severe sanctions available to the British? Short of using corporal punishment more widely, they were in fact few. In the absence of more prison ships ― in any event only a temporary expedient, long-term imprisonment was not an option, for the Provost in Charlestown was overflowing as were the small jails at Orangeburg and Ninety Six. In Georgia the position was even worse. In the case of those who revolted against the reinstatement of the King’s peace, but were not subject to paroles or oaths of allegiance, there was a measure available that has had a long pedigree. It was adopted by Major James Wemyss, as sanctioned by Cornwallis, when he burned the plantations of those to the east who had taken up arms. I say “a long pedigree” advisedly, for the destruction of homes in like circumstances was, for example, sanctioned by the British in Palestine, where the legislation was kept on the Statute Book by the State of Israel, which controversially uses it to the present day. Made under article 6 of the Palestine (Defence) Order in Council 1937, regulation 119(1) of the Defence (Emergency) Regulations 1945 says: “A military commander may by order direct the forfeiture to the Government of Palestine of any house, structure or land from which he has reason to suspect that any firearm has been illegally discharged, or any bomb, grenade or explosive or incendiary article illegally thrown, or of any house, structure or land situated in any area, town, village, quarter or street the inhabitants or some of the inhabitants of which he is satisfied have committed, or attempted to commit, or abetted the commission of, or been accessories after the fact of the commission of, any offence against the Regulations involving violence or intimidation or any Military Court offence; and when any house, structure or land is forfeited as aforesaid, the military commander may destroy the house or the structure or anything growing on the land.” As for breaking paroles or oaths of allegiance, the sanction of burning plantations remained an option, particularly if transgressors were not apprehended, but if they were, the ultimate sanction, on conviction by court martial, was sentence of death. Yet such sentences were at times commuted by Cornwallis, lessening their deterrent effect, whereas Germain on the contrary, as evinced by his letter of November 9, 1780, appeared to favor their being generally carried out, seemingly convinced, as he was, of their deterrent value.
If there was one British officer who above all others understood the need for deterrence, it was Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, commander of the British Legion. A charismatic leader of men, he gained a deserved reputation for severity in the south and indeed, when we read his letter of August 5, 1780 in which he speaks of fire and confiscation, he may be thought to have damned himself with his own pen. Yet underlying his words is a defensible approach to the war which has received scant attention from American writers, who, apart from Scotti and Piecuch, have superficially and uncritically followed revolutionary propaganda in demonising the man.
Of the factors which formed the backdrop to Tarleton’s approach, two predominated. First, inevitably, was the paucity of British, Hessian, and British American troops, of whom, in early summer 1780, only some 5,000 were fit for duty in South Carolina and 1,300 in Georgia. Second, there was the nature of the war itself, where the constitution and, for those living in North America, one’s very sense of national identity were at stake. In such a contest it was unrealistic to assume that committed members of the revolutionary ― and indeed the loyalist ― party could ever be persuaded to change their views. Dissemble in public they might well be prepared to do, but in their heart of hearts they were as unlikely to forsake their allegiance as to sell it for a mess of pottage.
If we are to draw the correct inferences from Tarleton’s Campaigns, it was considerations such as these which led him to conclude that the war in the south could not be won by lenity and conciliation. In Tarleton’s eyes such a policy, as practised by Cornwallis, would not succeed in winning over the committed. Instead, by minimising the consequences if they were captured, it served only to induce many to take up arms. Apart from the examples to which footnote 10 refers, such lenity and its pernicious effect were graphically described by Col. Robert Gray when he reflected on the war in March 1782: “… when the rebel militia were made prisoners, they were immediately delivered up to the regular officers, who, being entirely ignorant of the dispositions and manners of the people, treated them with the utmost lenity and sent them home to their plantations upon parole; and in short, they were treated in every respect as foreign enemies. The general consequences of this was that they no sooner got out of our hands than they broke their paroles, took up arms, and made it a point to murder every militia man of ours who had any concern in making them prisoners.” Gray contrasted British policy with that of the revolutionaries, who, having a better understanding of what was in part a civil war, treated their royal militia captives with severity: “… when ever a militia man of ours was made a prisoner, he was delivered, not to the Continentals, but to the rebel militia, who looked upon him as a State prisoner, as a man who deserved a halter, and therefore treated him with the greatest cruelty.”
Like the revolutionaries, Tarleton understood that it was quite useless to try and reconcile political differences in a conflict in which they were so acute. As he might well have said, “A leopard cannot change his spots.” In such a polarised situation he, like them, had an intuitive conviction that a winning policy had no option but to rely primarily on deterrence. Indeed, as he saw it, the greater the deterrence, the sooner the restoration of peace and good government under the Crown. Accordingly, in his treatment of “malefactors” who disturbed the peace, as in his encounters generally with the enemy, he came down hard, so that, in the words of Clinton’s proclamation of May 22, 1780, he might deter “by the terror of example”. With so few troops in South Carolina and Georgia it seemed to him the only practical way to keep a lid on dissension there. And as described in my commentary in The Cornwallis Papers, it was a policy which had been successfully practised on a much grander and severer scale by North Carolina revolutionaries during the past five years.
As far as South Carolina’s white inhabitants were concerned, we should avoid exaggerating the impact of Tarleton’s approach. Although no reliable figures are available, perhaps only one third were committed revolutionaries, and of them only those who took up arms and came within Tarleton’s sphere of operations were affected. What is clear, however, is that Tarleton had the stomach for the deterrent and necessarily disagreeable measures involved in suppressing the rebellion, whereas Cornwallis had not. The Wickwires rightly conclude, “Cornwallis had no place in a civil war.”
Perhaps the reason why Tarleton was so demonised in the revolutionary propaganda of his day was the fear that his approach to the war, if it had been generally adopted by the British high command, might well have afforded the surest means of pacifying the south. Akin in various respects to Lt. Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee (Pyle’s massacre), he has ever since been subjected to double standards by American writers, who, if he had operated on the revolutionary side, would no doubt have lauded him down the generations. As I have asserted in my commentary in The Cornwallis Papers, it is high time that the man was reappraised in a sensible way.
So deterrence and the use of an adequate number of troops, suitably adapted to American conditions, were essential, but if pacification was to succeed, a firm grip had also to be taken by Cornwallis on plundering by his troops, alienating, as it did, his friends and propelling his enemies to take up arms.
Pacification would have taken a much longer period than Cornwallis was prepared to allow. As I have observed elsewhere, “Festina lente!” was the maxim for success. If the measures I have outlined had been implemented, there seems a reasonable prospect that South Carolina and Georgia would have been eventually restored to the King’s peace in reality as well as in name, perhaps with the reinstatement of South Carolina’s constitution as favored by Germain. Only then should thoughts have turned to pursuing the overall strategy to the northward, but how? Where were the troops to come from? It would have been folly to remove troops from South Carolina and Georgia, opening the door to the breaking out of an insurgency there, and none for a time would have been available from New York, assuming Clinton had not taken a material detachment with him when he left the south. The answer would have lain in the troop reinforcements arriving at New York in October 1780 and at Charlestown and New York in June and August 1781, together amounting to 8,500 men. Instead of being frittered away on diversionary expeditions like Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s and Major Gen. William Phillips’ ― expeditions that had no effect whatever on the overall strategy of moving northwards from the south, they could have been consolidated for the invasion of North Carolina.
In a convincing memorandum of extraordinary strategic significance, one entirely overlooked by historians, Hector MacAlester explains why the invasion of North Carolina should be mounted, not from the south, which would not solve the problem of maintaining the troops in the back parts, but from the north ― from bases in Petersburg and Halifax, which would not only obviate that problem but force the Continental southern army to withdraw lest it be caught in a pincer movement.
As to Virginia, it would remain, at least for the time being, a bridge too far.
So how do I envisage the war ending? Well, as Clausewitz pertinently put it, “Not every war need be fought till one side collapses … in war many roads lead to success and they do not all involve the opponent’s outright defeat,” ― the most important of these being to wear the enemy down. With North Carolina conquered, Virginia threatened next, and France and Spain vacillating about a continuance of the war, there was a reasonable prospect that the remaining colonies would have accepted an accommodation short of independence, one giving them all they had sought before hostilities commenced. So, responding to the question posed in the title of this article, I conclude ― like Mackesy, but for wider reasons ― that the answer was “Yes”.
 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”).
 For a summary of the strategy, see CP, 1: 3-4.
 The figure of about 4,500 is provided by Clinton in his The American Rebellion, edited by William B Willcox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 191, footnote 6.
 What would have constituted the New York garrison if about 4,500 troops had not been brought from South Carolina is based on subtracting the latter figure from those for the garrison provided by Piers Mackesy in his 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).
 Like the British Legion the Queen’s Rangers was a British American corps, part cavalry, part infantry. Commanded by Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe, it was formed in 1777 and used for light and active service. It had taken part in the Charlestown campaign.
 For biographical notes on Cruger, Allen, Brown, and Grierson, see respectively CP, 1: 258-9, 271-2, and 2: 190.
 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.
 Robson, American Revolution, 118.
 For a biographical note on Wemyss (pronounced “Weems”), “the second most hated man in South Carolina”, see CP, 1: 305.
 CP, 2: 19 and 20; Charles Stedman, History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War (London, 1792), 2: 214. See also CP, 3: 286-7.
 CP, 3: 45.
 CP, 1: 365.
 Anthony J Scotti Jr, Brutal Virtue: The Myth and Reality of Banastre Tarleton (Westminster MD: Heritage Books, 2007); Jim Piecuch, The Blood Be Upon Your Head: Tarleton and the Myth of Buford’s Massacre (Lugoff SC: Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution Press, 2010).
 Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (London, 1787).
 Robert Gray, “Col. Robert Gray’s Observations on the War in Carolina”, The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, 11 (July, 1910), 139-59, 144-5, 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.
 His motto might well have been , “Oderint, dum metuant!” ― “Let them hate, so long as they fear!” ― a saying attributed to Accius (170-c. 90 BC).
 CP, 1: 153.
 Franklin and Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis: The American Adventure (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1970), 173.
 While marching to join Cornwallis at Hillsborough in February 1781, Dr John Pyle and his band of unresisting loyalists were inhumanly butchered by Lee’s Legion and Pickens’ men. The event took place near the Haw River, North Carolina (Joseph Graham, “Narrative”, in William Henry Hoyt ed., The Papers of Archibald D Murphey (Raleigh: Publications of the North Carolina Historical Commission, 1914), 2: 273-6).
 “Festina lente!” ― “Make haste slowly!” (Suetonius, Augustus, 25); CP, 2: 32; see also Piers Mackesy, Could the British have won the War of Independence? (Worcester MA: Clark University Press, 1976), 19.
 References to the reinforcements, their numbers, and places of arrival may be found in Clinton, The American Rebellion, 219; and CP, 3: 38, 5: 297-8, and 6: 24.
 Those to Virginia in December 1780 and March 1781.
 CP, 4: 138-9. For a biographical note on MacAlester, see ibid., 139.
 In another compelling plan (CP, 6: 206-8) Hector MacAlester explains how a conquest of Virginia may be put in train. The troops should not of course have come from those invading North Carolina or possessing the provinces to its south, which it would remain a folly to remove, but rather from further reinforcements sent out by Britain ― a prospect, perhaps not at present, but certain if peace with France and Spain, which was on the cards, were concluded.
 Claus von Clausewitz, On War, edited by Beatrice Hauser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 33-7.
 Of British historians, Robson and Wright conclude that the war had effectively been lost by the close of 1778, whereas Mackesy takes the view that peace with France and Spain, which was in prospect, would have ultimately led to an end of the war in Britain’s favor (Robson, American Revolution, 114; Esmond Wright, Fabric of Freedom 1763-1800 (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1965), 128; Mackesy, Could the British have won? 23-4, 28). I on the other hand explicitly explain how the end may have come about.