The Revolutionary War in the south: Re-evaluations of certain revolutionary actors and events

The War Years (1775-1783)

December 6, 2016
by Ian Saberton Also by this Author


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This article provides a wide-ranging set of re-evaluations compartmentalised under the sub-headings below and placed in the context of the historiography relating to them.  Based preponderantly on The Cornwallis Papers,[1] the article crystallises my reassessment of the actors and events addressed.

Re-evaluations of certain revolutionary actors

Portrait of Thomas Sumter by Rembrandt Peale (U.S. Army)
Portrait of Thomas Sumter by Rembrandt Peale (U.S. Army)

Thomas Sumter

While adverting to the internecine warfare waged in the backcountry of South Carolina, the two standard biographies of Thomas Sumter, the brigadier general commanding the revolutionary militia there, gloss over his responsibility for the often barbarous conduct of his men.[2]  I do not, although I accept that he was fighting a partisan war.  Overall, I assert in The Cornwallis Papers that he consistently displayed a marked streak of ruthlessness which did not scruple to employ measures such as cold-blooded murder on a grand scale.[3]  How do I come to this necessarily compressed conclusion?  Well, from a variety of primary sources.

For example, when Sumter captured Orangeburg on May 11, 1781, thirteen of the loyalist prisoners were shot in cold blood.  On November 23, 1780 Cornwallis, who had no reason to lie to a subordinate, advised Lt. Col. John Harris Cruger that Sumter’s men “have been guilty of the most horrid outrages.”  Not only was Sumter responsible but also Col. Thomas Brandon, Lt. Col. Elijah Clark and others, who, as Cornwallis explained on December 3, 1780 to Clinton, “had different corps plundering the houses and putting to death the well affected inhabitants between Tyger River and Pacolet.”  Next day he observed to Clinton, “I will not hurt your Excellency’s feelings by attempting to describe the shocking tortures and inhuman murders which are every day committed by the enemy, not only on those who have taken part with us, but on many who refuse to join them … I am very sure that unless some steps are taken [by the enemy] to check it, the war in this quarter will become truly savage.”[4]  On March 7, 1781, when Col. Francis Lord Rawdon, then commanding in the field in South Carolina and Georgia,[5] reported to Cornwallis on Sumter’s foray down the Congaree and Santee, he remarked generally on “the savage cruelty of the enemy, who commit the most wanton murders in cold blood upon the friends of Government that fall into their hands.”  Turning specifically to Sumter, he related that, while blockading Fort Granby, Sumter “summoned by proclamation all the inhabitants to join him, offering to all such as would take part with him a full pardon for their former attachment to us and denouncing penalty of death to all who did not range themselves under his standard by the 23rd of February.  To give weight to these threats several persons known to be friendly towards us were inhumanly murdered, tho’ unarmed and remaining peaceably at their own houses.”[6]

From the examples I have cited it is in my opinion fallacious to believe that Sumter did not condone or approve of the barbarous conduct of his men.

Cornwallis well understood the nature of the creature opposed to him.  When Major James Wemyss and his wounded men were captured at Fishdam Ford, Cornwallis immediately assumed that they had been ill treated by Sumter.  He was of course mistaken, for Sumter never mistreated captured British or British American troops, but Cornwallis’s reaction speaks volumes.  Nor could he bring himself to write personally to Sumter about the exchange of John Hutchison, a loyalist prisoner whom it was suspected Sumter was about to hang.  Although Cornwallis drafted the letter himself, it was signed by Lt. John Money, his aide-de-camp.  By contrast he had no compunction about writing to Major Gen. Horatio Gates, Major Gen. Nathanael Greene and Major Gen. William Smallwood, who were other revolutionary commanders in the south.[7]

Andrew Williamson

A Scots immigrant, Andrew Williamson (c. 1725-1786) was the brigadier general commanding the revolutionary militia in the backcountry of South Carolina till shortly after the fall of Charlestown.  He then capitulated and ever since his status and role have remained in obscurity.  “There hangs a heavy cloud over Williamson’s conduct at this time,” remarks McCrady, but until my pen portrait of him in The Cornwallis Papers no one had convincingly succeeded in explaining it.[8]

Since then an article about him has been penned by Toulmin, but it fails to explain Williamson’s conduct in response to the British invasion.  Before The Cornwallis Papers the only biographical information about him was that briefly set out in three dictionaries.  None approaches a satisfactory explanation of his behavior.[9]

Otherwise we are left with brief, scattered and unexplained references to his taking protection, which he did not, or ― far fewer ― to his entering into a parole, which he did.  Protection, of course, involved swearing allegiance to the Crown.[10]

So what motivated Williamson’s conduct?  Why was he not sent on parole to the off-shore islands, as Cornwallis originally intended, being instead assiduously courted by the British in a vain attempt openly to turn him?  Basically because he adopted a duplicitous approach, remaining outwardly true to his revolutionary convictions while covertly acting in the British interest, whether by offering confidential advice, for example on the use of the Cherokees against Georgia insurgents, or by persuading his fellow countrymen not to go off to the enemy.  Although his motives are not entirely clear, it seems that he wished to stay peaceably at White Hall, his plantation six miles west of Ninety Six on Hard Labor Creek, there doing whatever little was necessary to achieve that end, rather than to refuse to submit, openly opposing the British in the field, or, having submitted, to refuse to cooperate and face banishment to the off-shore islands.  Losing heart in the revolutionary struggle, he had, in short, opted for the quiet life.

As matters turned out, increasing disorder in the backcountry would lead him to abandon White Hall by summer 1781 for his plantation in St. Paul’s Parish, some seven miles from Charlestown.  Here on July 5, 1781 he was captured by revolutionary militia but was promptly rescued, precipitating the Hayne affair.  Later, true to his duplicitous nature, and contrary to his parole, he would communicate to Greene useful information about the Charlestown garrison.  In January 1782 his extensive properties were confiscated by act of the revolutionary assembly but none was advertised or sold by the confiscation commissioners.  Instead, in 1784, he was quietly amerced and disqualified.  Two years later he died, apparently on his plantation near Charlestown.

Photo of a portrait of Andrew Pickens that hangs in Fort Hill, Clemson, SC. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Photo of a portrait of Andrew Pickens that hangs in Fort Hill, Clemson, SC. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Andrew Pickens

Colonel of the Long Cane revolutionary militia, Pickens was granted a parole after the fall of Charlestown and remained peaceably at home till the close of 1780.  He then proceeded to break his parole, went off with a band of his men to take part in the Battle of Cowpens, and for his part in the victory was promoted to brigadier general of militia by the ousted revolutionary governor, John Rutledge.

Relying on McCall, as does Waring, American writers have consistently maintained that Pickens was a man of honor who quite reasonably considered himself released from his parole as a result of being plundered by James Dunlap, a British American officer.  It is not a version of events supported by The Cornwallis Papers.[11]  Based on evidence there, I conclude that it was a fabrication and have until now left the public at large to form its own view of Pickens’ conduct.[12]  Revealing my own assessment here, I am of opinion that he was indisputably a most effective officer, but sadly, breaking his word as he did, he was no gentleman.

Waring’s remains the most authoritative biography of Pickens, who had been the subject of three others prior to the publication of The Cornwallis Papers.  Since then one by Reynolds, a direct descendent of Pickens’ brother Joseph, has appeared.  An academically flawed work, it materially lacks balance and is not averse to a cavalier treatment of primary sources.[13]

Benjamin Cleveland

The picture that has come down to us of Cleveland, colonel of the Wilkes County, North Carolina revolutionary militia, is very much as painted by Draper, who maintains that he was quite justifiably “the terror of terrors” to all Tories but to all others “the jolly ‘Old Roundabout’ of the Yadkin,” a sobriquet derived from the name of his plantation.  Examples of a succession of American writers who have followed suit are Landrum, Crouch, Ashe, Hickerson and Russell.[14]  I myself on the other hand, based on evidence that Draper himself provides, supplemented by Major Patrick Ferguson’s own comments in The Cornwallis Papers,[15] suggest that his barbarous conduct was far too excessive and betrayed in him a marked streak of sadism.

So what briefly do we know about Cleveland?  Born in Prince William County, Virginia, in 1738, he was taken while very young to a border settlement on Blue Run and by early manhood had developed a keen love of hunting, gaming, horse racing, and the wild frolicking common on the frontier.  About 1769 he migrated to Rowan County, North Carolina, settling on the upper Yadkin River.  With the onset of the Revolution he became a captain in the revolutionary militia and took park in the Cherokee expedition of 1776.  Afflicted with a serious speech impediment and weighing fully eighteen stones, he began to show a darker side to his character when suppressing loyalists and earned a reputation for summary hangings, floggings, and mutilation.  By now colonel of the Wilkes County revolutionary militia, he had been appointed a justice of the County Court and had been twice elected to the revolutionary legislature.  An inspirational leader, he courageously led his men in the Battle of King’s Mountain, but not content with victory, he was conspicuous in bringing about the mock trial and hanging of loyalist prisoners at Bickerstaff’s Old Fields, undoubtedly desiring, in keeping with his character, a little light entertainment.

After the war he moved to the Tugaloo region of western South Carolina, where he served for many years as a justice of the Pendleton (now Oconee) County Court.  As a judge he had great contempt for technicalities and for the arguments of lawyers, often sleeping on the bench.  At his death in 1806 he weighed over thirty-two stones.[16]

Thomas Polk

Having previously served as colonel of the 4th North Carolina Continental Regiment, Polk went on to become the commissary in charge of supplying both the North Carolina and southern Continental forces in 1780.  While otherwise relating well known facts about him, I tread new ground in The Cornwallis Papers by drawing on evidence there to suggest that he had in mind becoming a traitor to the revolutionary cause.[17]

Although Polk is described in the Dictionary of American Biography as “a zealous patriot,” other works have pointed out that Gates considered his conduct suspicious at this time, but no concrete evidence has been forthcoming, and certainly none as damning as that set out in The Cornwallis Papers.[18]

Re-evaluations of certain events

Clinton’s proclamation of June 3, 1780

This proclamation has been oft and uniformly interpreted as forcing the disaffected in South Carolina to choose between supporting the Crown or taking up arms against it.

Yes, it cancelled the paroles of those not in the military line, but as interpreted by Cornwallis, it did not cancel the paroles of those who had served in the revolutionary forces during the British operations in South Carolina.  Of the disaffected to whom the proclamation applied, we see from The Cornwallis Papers that none were to be permitted to enter the royal militia, so that none were to be required to take up arms against their fellow revolutionaries.  Instead, having been disarmed, they were to be allowed to remain at home, being required only to contribute a measure of supplies in lieu of their personal attendance in the militia.  Ipso facto, the notion that the proclamation in itself precipitated the disaffected into choosing between fighting for the British or fighting for the enemy is patently false.[19]

The damage was in fact done, not by the proclamation and the eminently reasonable way in which it was applied by Cornwallis, but rather by the gloss placed on it by militant revolutionaries, who, though relatively few, propagated a most deceitful and persuasive interpretation of its effect, an interpretation which has gained uncritical acceptance down the years.  As Lt. Col. George Turnbull observed, when citing another instance of revolutionary propaganda, “It is inconceivable the damage such reports has done.”[20]

Besides misrepresentation of British policy, another reason for becoming actively disaffected may have been plundering by “men cloathed in green” ― presumably British Legion cavalrymen, who were notorious for it ― and by loyalists or settlers professing to be loyalists.  However, many of those soon to take up arms would require no such reasons and, if subject to paroles or protections, would be unconcerned about the niceties of observing them.  Once the shock of the occupation had passed, some, committed as they were to the Revolution, and others, influenced or intimidated by the committed into supporting it, would quite simply take up arms in its defence.

The action at the Waxhaws, May 29, 1780

No matter Piecuch’s contention that no deliberate massacre took place at the Waxhaws, the vast disparity in the number of casualties alone suggests that a disreputable bloodbath occurred ― a fact that Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton himself, in so many words, admits, as does Charles Stedman, a commissary serving with Cornwallis.  Various American historians have maintained, ever since the close of the war, that Tarleton was responsible for ordering the slaughter, but was he, and did the action instigate, as is generally asserted, the merciless barbarity with which the war was waged by the revolutionary irregulars and state troops?[21]

In answering these questions I rely in part on an eyewitness account by the revolutionary officer who was directly involved in the incident that led to the bloodbath.  Henry Bowyer, Col. Abraham Buford’s adjutant, rode forward with a flag of truce ― after the action commenced ― to advise Tarleton that Buford was now prepared to surrender.[22]  According to Bowyer, “When close to the British commander, he delivered Beaufort’s [sic] message, but a ball at the moment striking the forehead of Tarleton’s horse, he plunged and both fell to the ground, the horse being uppermost.” [23]  Exasperated at the dishonouring of the flag, and fearing that Tarleton was dead, his cavalry reacted, in Tarleton’s own words, with “a vindictive severity not easily restrained.”[24]  He ― pinioned beneath his horse ― was, as he implies, in no position easily to restrain them.  Upwards of one hundred of Buford’s corps were killed, many mangled, whereas Tarleton’s casualties came to only nineteen.

Whilst running amok cannot be remotely condoned, no matter what the justification for it, it remains debatable whether the effect on the revolutionary mind was as marked as we have long been led to believe.  If the action had not occurred, I conclude that the revolutionaries of the Carolinas, embittered against their neighbours and unfettered by civilised restraints, would most likely have continued to behave as badly as they did.  “Tarleton’s quarter,” meaning no quarter, seems to have served simply as an excuse.  “After a review of the papers in volume I and subsequent volumes [of The Cornwallis Papers],” says Borick, “it is hard to disagree.”[25]

The royal militia

The problem of finding suitable field officers and the fragility of the royal militia in South Carolina during the summer of 1780 I highlight in The Cornwallis Papers, basing myself on evidence coming to light there.  Ill armed and at times slow to turn out, it displayed a patchwork of confidence, timidity, fidelity, and disloyalty in the face of the revolutionary forces taking to the field.  Precipitated by Major Archibald McArthur’s withdrawal from Cheraw Hill, Col. William Henry Mills’ entire Pee Dee Regiment promptly defected, whilst in the backcountry most of Col. William Vernon Turner’s Rocky Mount and Col. Matthew Floyd’s Enoree-Tyger Regiments did likewise.  Perhaps Col. John Fisher’s Orangeburg Regiment was the most zealous, but other regiments in the backcountry were for the most part hesitant and in need of support, particularly those toward the North Carolina line.  Overall, the fighting qualities of the royal militia were inevitably diminished, first by admitting disaffected persons, and second by incorporating Quiet men, as Ferguson termed them, to the extent of no more than one for every three loyalists.[26]

Whether we begin with Tarleton or continue with works down to the present day, we find that, while various authors relate the defection of Mills’ and Floyd’s regiments, none provides as complete a picture of the royal militia at this time as I do.[27]

Battle of Camden; Death of de Kalb. Engraving from painting by Alonzo Chappel. (U.S. National Archives)
Battle of Camden; Death of de Kalb. Engraving from painting by Alonzo Chappel. (U.S. National Archives)

What if the Battle of Camden had been lost?

Cornwallis’s victory was so comprehensive that historians have been seemingly distracted into believing that it was inevitable.  None ― at least of those that I have read ―  has questioned Cornwallis’s assertion that there was “little to lose by a defeat.” [28]  I on the contrary maintain that there was everything to lose ― the war, in fact, itself.  Why?  Well, an army had been lost at Saratoga.  If another had been lost at Camden, the political repercussions in Britain would have been so pronounced that, as with Yorktown, they would almost certainly have led to a termination of the war and a recognition of American independence.

No victory is inevitable.  However propitious the prospects of success, chance invariably plays its part in battles and can be the determining factor.

Wemyss’ and Moncrief’s expeditions to the east of the Wateree and Santee

The day before Cornwallis quit Camden for North Carolina on September 7, 1780, Wemyss embarked on his expedition to the Pee Dee, designed to pacify the vast expanse of territory east of the Wateree no longer under British control.  He had been ordered by Cornwallis to endeavor to form a militia in the Cheraw District, to disarm the untrustworthy, to make prisoners of those who had at first submitted ― or lived quietly at home ― and then revolted, to destroy or confiscate their property, and to hang those who had voluntarily enrolled in the royal militia and then gone over traitorously to the enemy.  Wemyss set out from the High Hills of Santee with 80 to 100 men of the 63rd Regiment and was joined at Kingstree Bridge by detachments of the Royal North Carolina Regiment (100), Major John Harrison’s irregular corps (50), and Col. Samuel Bryan’s militia (50).[29]  All were mounted.  He burnt and laid waste about fifty houses and plantations mostly belonging to those who had taken up arms in breach of their paroles or oaths of allegiance, but only some twenty prisoners were taken and only one man, “a notorious villain,” having been convicted by court martial, was executed.  Nothing could be done with forming a militia, the disaffection was so rife.  Wemyss and his party arrived back at Camden on October 4.[30]

As Wemyss prepared to march, Major James Moncrief with the 7th Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) quit Charlestown on September 4 to be joined two days later by Col. Elias Ball Sr’s and Col. John Wigfall’s militia at Lenud’s Ferry.  He proceeded to repossess Georgetown, where he assembled Col. James Cassells’ militia, and went on to scour the lower parts of the district east of the Santee, destroying the property of those who had revolted, dispatching their slaves for the works at Charlestown, and appropriating some 150 horses for use to the north.  After posting Ball and Wigfall at three ferries on Black River and leaving Cassells to patrol between there and the Pee Dee, he marched on the 21st for Camden, where he arrived one week later with the 7th (all mounted).  The militia that he left behind performed as badly as usual.  Shortly before midnight on the 28th Ball was routed by Col. Francis Marion at Black Mingo, Wigfall appears to have fled, and Cassells, fearing attack, evacuated Georgetown on the 29th or 30th, despite being protected by an offshore galley.  The town was reoccupied three weeks later by a detachment sent from Charlestown.[31]

Although Wemyss and Moncrief did not overstep the rules of warfare of their day, writers down the years have criticised them for severity, turning a blind eye to that practised by revolutionary irregulars east of the Wateree and Santee ever since McArthur quit Cheraw Hill in mid July.  Yes, they were severe, but were their actions proportionate and defensible?  That is the question.  Cornwallis answered it in part when writing to Rawdon on August 4: “It is absolutely necessary to inflict some exemplary punishment on the militia and inhabitants of that part of the country.  On the moment we advance, we shall find an enemy in our rear … some force must be sent to reduce and intimidate that country or the communication between the upper army and Charlestown will be impracticable.”[32]  In sanctioning the measures to be taken by Wemyss and Moncrief, Cornwallis came the closest he ever did to adopting in South Carolina the policy of deterrence favoured by Tarleton.[33]  The measures were in fact the only option available to him east of the Wateree and Santee, where the vast majority of the inhabitants were so virulently disaffected that lenity and conciliation stood no chance.  They had to be tried, and indeed the devastation wrought by Wemyss and Moncrief may have prevented or deterred quite a few there from presenting a threat in the shorter term, but in the longer term the territory would remain a running sore while ever the British remained outside Charlestown.  In other respects the expeditions failed.  So short was Cornwallis of regular or British American troops to garrison the territory (those who took part in the expeditions being intended to reinforce him at Charlotte) that reliance had to be placed on militia to take their place.  Yet, as I have mentioned, none could be formed by Wemyss, whilst those left by Moncrief were not up to the job.  It has been argued ― unconvincingly, it may be said ― that the expeditions served only to turn many against the Crown, but the inhabitants there were already so preponderantly and actively opposed that this proposition is unfounded.

These, then, are the facts set out in, and the conclusions to be drawn from, The Cornwallis Papers ― ones that contradict the material distortion of the historical record percolating down to the present day, as evinced by the accusation that Wemyss conducted a wholesale hanging spree.  About Moncrief’s foray history has remained virtually silent.  Swisher summarises it very inaccurately in one brief sentence, but elsewhere we search almost in vain for references to it. [34]


If we begin with Major George Hanger, who took part in Clinton’s failed attempt to relieve Cornwallis, and then turn to historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries whose interpretations have carried great weight, we find a uniformity of view that the single or prime cause of the capitulation was the Royal Navy’s losing command of North American waters.

Discounting the defeats at King’s Mountain and Cowpens as “only partial misfortunes,” Hanger continues, “I will be so bold as to assert that these misfortunes did not in any degree contribute to the loss of America, nor could many such misfortunes have produced that calamity.  Our ruin was completed by permitting a superior French fleet to ride triumphant on the American seas the autumn of 1781.  That, and that only, ruined our cause in America and disgracefully put an end to the war.  There the nail was clinched!”[35]

Among those agreeing with Hanger are Johnston, Carrington, and more recently Mackesy, Wallace and Ward.  Others such as Adams and Robson concede that lost superiority at sea was the prime cause of the disaster but do not elaborate as to the rest.  Willcox and Higginbotham are among those who mention that British military strategy was also at fault, but again without elaboration.[36]

While accepting that French naval superiority was the immediate cause of the defeat, I myself aver ― unlike the historians I cite ― that it was due preponderantly to a series of chance circumstances, a number of which, if they had been otherwise, would not have placed Cornwallis at Yorktown or would have averted his capitulation in other ways.  So what were they?  First, from any sensible strategic standpoint Cornwallis ought never to have been in Virginia in the first place.[37]  Second, once he was there, and despite his marked reservations, he was pressured by Clinton to occupy the town.[38]  The danger to such a post, if command of the Chesapeake was lost, it did not take an accomplished strategist to see[39] ― and Clinton was aware that de Grasse was expected in the hurricane season.[40]  Third, there was the coincidence of Yorktown’s occupation with the arrival of de Grasse; fourth, was the failure of the Royal Navy to cater adequately for command of North American waters; fifth, was Cornwallis’s decision not to break out at once; and ultimately, fate intervened, which in the form of a squall dispersed his boats and put paid to his breaking out on the Gloucester side at the close of the siege.

As to the dilatoriness of the Royal Navy in repairing its fleet, I state in The Cornwallis Papers, without mentioning my source:  “There is reason to suspect that the repairs to the ships damaged in the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes may not have been progressed as rapidly and as urgently as the critical situation demanded.  Had they been completed one week sooner, Cornwallis might well have been saved.”[41]  In coming to these conclusions I had in mind comments made in his diary by Major Frederick Mackenzie, one of Clinton’s aides-de-camp.  On October 1, 1781 he remarks, “It appears very doubtful that the Navy will after all attempt or undertake any thing towards the relief of Lord Cornwallis.”  The captains “appear more ready to censure the conduct of others than to refit their own ships.  Several of the captains spend more of their time on shore than they do on board and appear as unconcerned about the matter as if they commanded guard ships at Portsmouth.”  On October 16 he continues, “If the Navy are not a little more active, they will not get a sight of the Capes of Virginia before the end of this month and then it will be too late.  They do not seem to be hearty in the business or to think that the saving that army is an object of such material consequence.”[42]

Cornwallis has at times been criticised for abandoning his outer line of defence, for not breaking out immediately on the arrival of the French fleet, or for leaving too late his attempt to do so.[43]  Although such factors are undeniably part of the chain that contributed to his defeat, I refute such charges in The Cornwallis Papers and explain why in my opinion his conduct was unexceptionable ― in fact perfectly understandable in the circumstances.[44]

Admittedly, after the French naval troops had joined up with Lafayette’s men on September 1, Cornwallis could have attacked them before the arrival of Washington’s and Rochambeau’s reinforcement and hopefully broken out, whether to retire to the Carolinas or to proceed to the north.  Alternatively he could have broken out on the Gloucester side and attempted by rapid marches to reach New York.  Yet either option would have involved the abandonment of numerous sick, artillery, stores and shipping, and under these circumstances it was entirely reasonable that he should have preferred to await news from Clinton of his intentions.  In mid September Clinton’s dispatches arrived, in which he undertook to embark with a reinforcement as soon as possible, and with this assurance Cornwallis, again quite reasonably, forsook for the time being all thoughts of breaking out.

Cornwallis has, as I say, been criticised for abandoning his outer line of defence, about half a mile beyond the inner, on the night of September 29 as the enemy began to invest Yorktown.  Could it have been held, if only for a few days, defence of the post would have been protracted.  Yet, observing that the enemy were taking measures that could not fail to turn his left flank in a short time, and having just received word from Clinton that there was every reason to expect his departure on October 5, Cornwallis did not hesitate to withdraw within his inner works, conscious that he could hold out until Clinton’s anticipated arrival.  It is idle to try and second-guess his judgement now.

In his Campaigns Tarleton makes out a seemingly convincing case for breaking out on the Gloucester side soon after Major Charles Cochrane arrived on October 10 with Clinton’s dispatch of the 30th.[45]  In it Clinton indicated that his departure had fallen back at the earliest to the 12th but that even that date was subject to disappointment.  Yes, the chances of a break-out would have markedly improved if Cornwallis had acted promptly as Tarleton suggests, but in the circumstances in which he found himself it is perfectly understandable that, for the same reason as he had not abandoned his post earlier, Cornwallis should have decided to wait for relief until matters became critical.  By the 16th they had become so and on that night he attempted to transfer his fit troops to the Gloucester side, but, as previously mentioned, fate in the form of a squall intervened, his boats were dispersed, and the attempt came to nought.  He was then left with no option but to capitulate.

It remains for me here to add briefly to my comments about Washington.  “Like all great commanders,” says Robson, “he was aided by sheer good fortune.”[46]  I go one step further and suggest that, for the reasons I have advanced, he was a general who was not just lucky in the Yorktown campaign but extraordinarily so.

Other actors and events

Re-evaluations or biographical or identifying information not found here are likely to be covered in my commentary in The Cornwallis Papers or among its 2,882 footnotes.


[1]   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]  Anne King Gregorie, Thomas Sumter (Columbia, SC: R. L. Bryan Co, 1931), passim; Robert D. Bass, Gamecock: The Life and Times of General Thomas Sumter (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961), passim.

[3]   CP, 1: 150.

[4]   CP, 3: 25 and 38.  For biographical notes on Cruger, Clark and Brandon, see CP, 1: 152, 257-8, and 295.

[5]   For a biographical note on Rawdon, see ibid., 151-2.

[6]   “Levi Smith’s Narrative,” The Royal Gazette (Charlestown), 13-17 April 1782, reprinted in the Political Magazine (London), June 1782, 378; CP, 3: 25, 28, 273, and CP, 4: 47.

[7]   CP, 3: 68, 74, and CP, 2: 330-1, 341-2.  For biographical notes on Gates, Wemyss (pronounced “Weems”), Money, Smallwood and Greene, see CP, 1: 176 and 305; 2: 45 and 56; and 3: 10.

[8]  Edward McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution 1775-1780 (New York: The Macmillan Co, 1901), 527; CP, 1: 77.

[9]   Llewellyn M. Toulmin, “Backcountry Warrior: Brig. Gen. Andrew Williamson,” Journal of Backcountry Studies, 7, Nos 1 and 2 (Spring and Fall, 2012); American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 23: 521-2; Dictionary of American Biography (Scribner’s, 1936), 10: 296-7; N. Louise Bailey and Elizabeth I. Cooper, Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), 3: 769-71.

[10]   Among those asserting or strongly implying that he took protection are John R. Alden, The South in the Revolution 1763-1789 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 242, 272; Bass, Gamecock, 207; Mark Mayo Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York: David McKay Co, 1973), 1210; Lyman C. Draper, King’s Mountain and its Heroes (Cincinnati, 1881), 47, 72; William T. Graves, Backcountry Revolutionary: James Williams (1740-1780) (Lugoff, SC: Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution Press, 2012), 151; John W. Gordon, South Carolina and the American Revolution: A Battlefield History (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), 104; Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution (New York, 1855), 2: 506n; Jim Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 210, 274; Toulmin, supra, 40; and David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina: A Short History, 1520-1948 (reprint of 1951 edition, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969), 297.  Among those maintaining that he entered into a parole are Walter Edgar, Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict that Turned the Tide of the American Revolution (New York: Perennial, 2003), 139; Robert Stansbury Lambert, South Carolina Loyalists in the American Revolution (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987), 160-1; Henry Lumkin, From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1981), 1, 248; John S. Pancake, This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782 (reprint of 1985 edition, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 80-1; and David K. Wilson, The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775-1780 (reprint of 2005 edition, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 262.

[11]  See my commentary on Dunlap in “The Revolutionary War in the south: Re-evaluations of certain British and British American actors,” Journal of the American Revolution (November, 2016).

[12]  Hugh McCall, The History of Georgia (Savannah, 1816), 2: 352; Alice N. Waring, The Fighting Elder: Andrew Pickens (1739-1817) (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1962), 41-2; CP, 1: 74-5 and 79.

[13]  Cecil B. Hartley, Heroes and Patriots of the South: comprising lives of General Francis Marion, General William Moultrie, General Andrew Pickens, and Governor John Rutledge (Philadelphia, 1860); Andrew Lee Pickens, Skyagunsta: the border wizard owl, Major-General Andrew Pickens (1739-1817) (Greenville, SC: Observer Printing Co., 1934); William Hayne Mills, The Life of General Andrew Pickens (Clemson, SC: 1958); William R. Reynolds, Andrew Pickens: South Carolina Patriot in the Revolutionary War (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co Inc, 2012) .

[14]   Draper, King’s Mountain, 425-54; J. B. O. Landrum, Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina (Greenville, SC, 1897), 224-29; John Crouch, Historical Sketches of Wilkes County (Wilkesboro, NC, 1902), 11-35; Samuel A’Court Ashe, Biographical History of North Carolina from colonial times to the present (Greensboro, NC, 1906), 5: 69-73; Thomas Felix Hickerson, Happy Valley, History and Genealogy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1940), 7-9; David Lee Russell, The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Inc., 2000), 189; CP, 2: 33 and 135. .

[15]   For a re-evaluation of Ferguson, see CP, 1: 37 and Saberton, “Re-evaluations”, supra.

[16]   CP, 2: 135.

[17]   Ibid., 115.

[18]   See, for example, Lossing, Field-Book, 418; John Hill Wheeler, Reminiscences and Memoirs of North Carolina and Eminent North Carolinians (reprint, Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co, 1966), 282; Blackwell P. Robinson, William R. Davie (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957), 96; Richard K. Showman, Dennis M. Conrad, Roger N. Parks, et al. eds, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, 6: 559n.

[19]   Cornwallis’s general plan for regulating South Carolina and his dispatch of June 30, 1780 to Clinton support my own interpretation, CP, 1: 123-4 and 160-1.

[20]   CP, 1: 139.  For a biographical note on Turnbull, see ibid., 138.

[21]   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), 27-40; Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (London, 1787), 31; Charles Stedman, History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War (London, 1792), 2: 193, 325.  For American accounts down the years of Tarleton’s involvement see, for example, David Ramsay, The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina from a British Province to an Independent State (Trenton, 1785), 2: 109-10; William Dobein James, A Sketch of the Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion and A History of His Brigade (Charleston, 1821), Appendix, 1-7; Joseph Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences chiefly of the American Revolution in the South (Charleston, 1851), 311; McCrady, History, 519, 522; Robert D. Bass, The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson (reprint of 1958 edition, Columbia: Sandlapper Press Inc, 1973), 80-3; Russell F. Weigley, The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 7; Charles Bracelen Flood, Rise and Fight Again: Perilous Times along the Road to Independence (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1976), 259-61; Lumkin, From Savannah to Yorktown, 50; J. Tracy Power, “‘The Virtue of Humanity Was Totally Forgot:’ Buford’s Massacre, May 29, 1780,” South Carolina Historical Magazine, 93, No. 1 (January, 1992), 5-14; John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse:  The American Revolution in the Carolinas (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 1997), 84-5; Wilson, The Southern Strategy, 259.

[22]   For a biographical note on Buford, see CP, 1: 52.

[23]   Alexander Garden, Anecdotes of the American Revolution (Second Series) (Charleston, 1828), 126-8.

[24]   Tarleton, Campaigns, 31.

[25]    Carl P. Borick, Review, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 112, Nos 1-2 (January-April, 2011), 89.  For my re-evaluation of Tarleton, see Ian Saberton, “Was the Revolutionary War in the south winnable by the British,” Journal of the American Revolution (October 10 , 2016),

[26]   For biographical notes on Fisher, McArthur, Mills, Floyd and Turner, see CP, 1: 80, 87, 132, 142 and 195.  By “Quiet men” Ferguson meant those who had voiced neither loyalist nor revolutionary sentiments.

[27]   See, for example, Tarleton, Campaigns, 93, 98.

[28]   CP, 2: 12.

[29]   For biographical notes on Harrison and Bryan, see CP, 1: 161 and 168.

[30]   CP, 2: 208-10, 214-7, and 219.

[31]   Ibid., 266 and passim.  For biographical notes on Ball, Moncrief, Cassells, Wigfall and Marion, see CP, 1: 51, 58, and 307; 2: 64; and 3: 4-5.

[32]   CP, 1: 226.

[33]   See Saberton, “Was the Revolutionary War in the south winnable by the British?”

[34]  James K. Swisher, The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Country (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co., 2012), 200.

[35]   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), 127-8.

[36]   Henry P. Johnston, The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis 1781 (reprint of 1881 edition, Williamstown, MA: Corner House Publishers, 1975), 97; Henry B. Carrington, Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, (5th edition, New York, 1888), 654; Piers Mackesy, “British Strategy in the War of American Independence,” Yale Review, 52 (Summer, 1963), 556-7; idem, Could the British have won the War of Independence? (Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1976), 25; Willard M. Wallace, Appeal to Arms: A Military History of the American Revolution (New York: Harper & Bros, 1951), 254; Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution (New York: The Macmillan Co, 1952), 2: 885; Randolph G. Adams, “A View of Cornwallis’s Surrender at Yorktown,” The American Historical Review, 37, No. 1 (October, 1931), 49; 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), 146; William B. Willcox, “The British Road to Yorktown: A Study in Divided Command,” The American Historical Review, 52, No. 1 (October, 1946), 26-7, 34; idem, “British Contributions to American Independence,” The Key Reporter, 42, No. 1 (Autumn, 1976); Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763-1789 (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1971), 383.

[37]   See Saberton, “Was the Revolutionary War in the south winnable by the British?”

[38]   See Clinton to Cornwallis, July 8 and 11, 1781, CP, 5: 140-3; and Cornwallis to Clinton, July 26, 1781, CP, 6: 13-15.

[39]   See, for example, Clinton to Cornwallis, May 29 and June 1, 1781, CP, 5: 120.

[40]   See Clinton to Cornwallis, June 19, 1781, ibid., 135.

[41]   CP, 6: 5.

[42]   Allen French ed., Diary of Frederick Mackenzie (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), 2: 653, 664.  For a biographical note on Mackenzie, see CP, 3: 38.

[43]   See, for example, Johnston, Yorktown Campaign, 120-1; Willcox, ‘The British Road to Yorktown,” 26-7; Robson, American Revolution, 141; Higginbotham, The War, 381; and William Seymour, The Price of Folly: British Blunders in the War of American Independence (London: Brassey’s (UK) Ltd, 1995), 227-8.

[44]  CP, 6:  5-6.

[45]   Tarleton, Campaigns, 379-85.  For a biographical note on Cochrane, see CP, 6: 39.

[46]   Robson, American Revolution, 172.


  • Ian,
    You provided another interesting analysis of some key actors in the southern campaign based on your extensive research. However, one must take issue with your closing sentence. Eric Robeson’s comment that Washington was lucky is correct, he was also good. Clausewitz introduces the element of chance in warfare. Today, we attempt to qualify chance based on analysis of ends, ways and means to identify risks. While Washington made many mistakes during the American Revolution, he learned from his mistakes. As you are aware, warfare is a risky business, Washington worked diligently in the months prior to the Yorktown Campaign to reduce the risks associated with an offensive campaign during 1781.
    On May 1, 1781 Washington reinstituted the practice of keeping a diary. He maintained this diary through the death of his stepson on November 5, 1781 (George Washington Diaries, Vol II, 1925). Supplemented by his official correspondence (Writings of George Washington, Vols. 22 & 23, 1937), students of military art and science may obtain relatively good insight into Washington’s thoughts and actions associated with the events of 1781 culminating in the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. In Washington’s own words, “…much trouble was taken to misguide and bewilder Sir Henry Clinton in regard to the real object… [of the 1781 campaign]” (Writings of George Washington, Vol. 30, 1939, p. 27). Washington effectively practiced many of the facets of military art and science in support of campaign management we advocate today, including deception as reflected in the quote above. Eric Robeson was correct, Washington was lucky, but he made much of that luck through effective planning and execution. A thorough and reflective study of the official correspondence he left us reveals much insight into the mind of the commander who outgeneraled both Clinton and Cornwallis with the help of many others including Rochambeau, de Grasse and de Barras.

  • Patrick, your comments are as interesting as ever, but in this instance I am disinclined to change my assessment of Washington. To say that he was extraordinarily lucky is not to say that he was not a good general. Luck and good generalship go together. What was Napoleon’s first question of a prospective general: “Est-il heureux?” “Is he lucky?” In Washington’ case, for the reasons advanced in my article, the answer, incontrovertibly, is “Yes, in spades!”

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