Preventing Slave Insurrection in South Carolina & Georgia, 1775-1776

The War Years (1775-1783)

February 21, 2017
by Jim Piecuch Also by this Author


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As the colonies of South Carolina and Georgia moved closer to open rebellion against Great Britain in the summer of 1775, leaders of the revolutionary movement found themselves facing a host of potential threats. In addition to the numerous loyalists in both colonies, the tribes of pro-British Indians on their frontiers, and the possibility of an attack from British forces, the risk of a slave uprising loomed large in the minds of the rebels. Even in times of stability, slave revolts were a constant danger; in the crisis resulting from an impending war between Britain and the colonies, a slave insurrection might doom the southernmost colonies’ attempt to resist the British.

In 1775 slaves outnumbered whites by 104,000 to 70,000 in South Carolina, and the disparity was greater in the low country, where the province’s rice plantations were located. Georgia’s white and slave populations were approximately equal, each group numbering about 25,000.[1] Revolutionary leaders in these colonies recognized that their large slave populations made them uniquely vulnerable to a British attack. While attending the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Georgia delegates Archibald Bulloch and John Houstoun told John Adams that if the British sent just one thousand troops to Georgia, “and their commander be provided with Arms and Cloaths enough, and proclaim freedom to all the Negroes who would join his Camp, 20,000 Negroes would join it from the two Provinces in a fortnight.” Their only security against the British taking such a step, they told Adams, was that “all the Kings Friends and Tools of Government have large Plantations and Property in Negroes. So that the Slaves of the Tories would be lost as well as those of the Whiggs.”[2]

Bulloch and Houstoun were unaware that many British leaders were actively pressing the government to adopt the kind of measures the Georgians feared. Generals Thomas Gage and John Burgoyne both urged the government to arm slaves, while another officer offered a more specific plan to enlist a corps of slaves in the Chesapeake Bay area to operate against the rebels there. William Lyttelton, a former royal governor of South Carolina, proposed in the House of Commons on October 26, 1775, that a few British regiments be sent to the southern colonies expressly to encourage and support a slave uprising, but the House rejected the measure.[3] Arthur Lee, a revolutionary who was still residing in London, sent news of these proposals to America where they circulated widely and created panic in South Carolina. The newly arrived royal governor of the province, Lord William Campbell, wrote that Lee had convinced the inhabitants that the king’s ministers planned “to instigate and encourage an insurrection among the slaves,” and that people in Charleston believed that the vessel that had brought Campbell to the city carried “14,000 Stand of Arms” to be issued to slaves.[4] South Carolina rebel Thomas Lynch denounced the British for offering “every incitement to our Slaves to rebel – and murder their masters.”[5]

Lynch did not yet know it, but five days earlier, on November 14, the royal governor of Virginia had already taken steps to arm slaves without waiting for approval from London. John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, believed that it was more important to use all available means to suppress the rebellion, and then worry about reconciliation. Accordingly, he issued a proclamation granting freedom to all rebel-owned indentured servants and slaves who would fight for King George III. Dunmore’s proclamation caused an uproar throughout the southern provinces; South Carolinian Edward Rutledge denounced it as the worst measure the British could have ever taken against the colonies.[6] George Washington declared that “if that man [Dunmore] is not crushed before spring he will become the most formidable enemy America has; his strength will increase as a snowball by rolling, and faster, if some expedient cannot be hit upon to convince the slaves and servants of the impotency of his designs.”[7]

Like Washington, South Carolina’s rebel leaders may have been shocked by Dunmore’s actions, but they were not caught unprepared. By the summer of 1775 they had tightened enforcement of the slave codes, so that “regulations which had gone unenforced for years were given new life.”[8] Militia patrols were strengthened, with their primary responsibility being, said Whig Josiah Smith, “to guard against any hostile attempts that might be made by our domesticks.”[9] Some planters labored to persuade their slaves not to be seduced by offers of freedom, which, they warned, would surely prove false. A committee charged with planning South Carolina’s defense proposed, in the event of a British invasion, to relocate the slaves in the vicinity of Charleston to the interior of the colony. Afterwards, constant militia patrols would prevent any communication between the slaves and the British.[10] No effort was ever made to carry out this scheme, which would have been nearly impossible to implement and may actually have created opportunities for slaves to escape.

Officials took more concrete measures against slaves suspected of rebellious intentions. In June, several low country slaves were tried on charges of plotting an insurrection. The evidence proved inconclusive, but one or two slaves were whipped as an example to those who might be considering rebellion. The following month, reports reached the Council of Safety that slaves in St. Bartholomew’s Parish were plotting an insurrection, abetted by a white preacher named John Burnet. Several slaves were arrested and tried; one was hanged and others whipped. Burnet was acquitted.[11]

Rebel leaders also worried about a free black, Thomas Jeremiah of Charleston, who had amassed considerable wealth from his skills as a harbor pilot and was himself a slave owner. One of the suspected slaves arrested in June had, during his interrogation, claimed that Jeremiah had asked him to carry guns to another slave, “to be placed in Negro’s Hands to fight against the Inhabitants of this Province, and that He Jeremiah was to have the chief Command of the said Negroes.” A second slave stated that he had sought Jeremiah’s advice on what to do if war came, and that Jeremiah had told him to “join the [British] Soldiers; that the War was come to help the poor Negroes.” The Whigs tried Jeremiah on August 11, sentenced him “to be hanged and afterwards burned,” and carried out the sentence a week later despite the protests of the royal governor, Lord William Campbell.[12] Campbell sought the assistance of the provincial attorney general, James Simpson, and several judges to demonstrate that Jeremiah had not been tried according to proper legal practice and that the evidence of his guilt was insufficient, but neither this effort nor the support for Jeremiah offered by the prominent Anglican ministers Robert Cooper and Robert Smith were sufficient to alter the decision of the rebel leaders.[13]

Most historians, like the judges whose opinions were sought by Campbell, have since called into question the legality of Jeremiah’s trial as well as his guilt. In all likelihood, the rebels targeted Jeremiah because of the danger he represented as a prosperous free black man in a society based on slavery. Rebel leader Henry Laurens, normally considered a moderate revolutionary, maligned Jeremiah as “a forward fellow, puffed up by prosperity, ruined by Luxury & debauchery & grown to an amazing pitch of vanity & ambition.”[14] J. William Harris, author of a study of the Jeremiah incident, pointed out with more than a hint of sarcasm that “if this sort of character was a sign of guilt, half of South Carolina’s political leaders would have deserved hanging.”[15] Nevertheless, Jeremiah’s execution served both to remove the potential threat posed by a wealthy free black man with great influence among Charleston’s African American community, and, in the words of one witness to Jeremiah’s hanging, to “deter others from offending in the like manner.”[16]

Jeremiah’s execution brought an end to white South Carolinians’ fears of slave insurrection, although its deterrent effect was limited as many slaves continued to make their way to the coast and seek refuge aboard British warships, while others fled overland to British East Florida. Some of the former joined British sailors in nighttime raids along the South Carolina coast. By December, a further five hundred fugitive slaves were camped on Sullivan’s Island at the entrance to Charleston harbor, awaiting an opportunity to board Royal Navy vessels.[17]

Amid the tensions produced by Dunmore’s proclamation, Whig leaders could not tolerate this outright defiance of white authority. On December 9, Gen. William Moultrie ordered Maj. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to take 150 troops and capture the slaves in a surprise night attack. Pinckney, however, was unable to find a ford. A second attempt on December 18 succeeded. The troops, reinforced by fifty-four Catawba Indians, struck before dawn and killed an estimated fifty blacks. Several more were captured, along with a few British sailors. Fewer than twenty slaves escaped and were picked up by boats from British warships.[18] The Council of Safety expressed satisfaction with the operation, declaring that it would “serve to humble our Negroes in general.”[19]

The Royal Navy’s policy of granting refuge to fugitive slaves caused the Whigs to repudiate an agreement whereby they sold provisions to the naval vessels at Charleston in exchange for the officers’ pledge not to take supplies by force. On December 10, a Whig accused Capt. John Tollemache of HMS Scorpion of harboring fugitive slaves. Tollemache replied that the blacks “came as free men, and demanded protection,” and he refused to return them.[20] When the Scorpion left Charleston shortly afterward, the Whigs believed that between thirty and forty slaves were on board.[21] Henry Laurens denounced the British “robberies” of slaves as “sufficient to alarm every man” in the colony.[22]

Slaves continually tried to escape to British warships through the spring and summer of 1776. Two who stole a schooner and attempted to reach a naval vessel were caught, and hanged on April 27. Five slaves employed as bargemen used the craft to reach a British ship in May. Some of the slaves took an active role in raiding parties that the British dispatched to seize supplies.[23] In August, a party of forty sailors and twenty armed blacks from a British frigate landed on Bull’s Island, taking cattle and six slaves. Henry Laurens observed that “many hundreds” of slaves had by then “been stolen & decoyed by the Servants of King George the third.”[24]

In Georgia, royal governor Sir James Wright clung to a vestige of his authority until the beginning of 1776, so that rebel leaders in that colony could not undertake any measures of their own to forestall a slave rebellion. However, when a Royal Navy squadron arrived in Savannah in January, the Whigs placed Wright under arrest. Then, in concert with South Carolina, the rebel militia searched slave quarters on both sides of the Savannah River, confiscating all arms and ammunition they found. The militia also searched the homes of overseers, leaving each of them with only one musket and thirteen rounds of ammunition. That measure was ordered by the Georgia Council of Safety to give overseers the means to defend against a slave revolt, but to deny slaves access to larger quantities of arms and ammunition should an insurrection succeed.[25]

As in South Carolina, slaves in Georgia did not rebel; instead, those most determined to bid for freedom tried to reach British ships. Many succeeded, while other fugitives gathered on Tybee Island to await their opportunity. By mid-March, about two hundred slaves were there. Col. Stephen Bull of the South Carolina militia, who had taken a detachment southward to assist the Georgians, urged his colony’s Council of Safety to authorize harsh measures against the runaways. If the slaves managed to board British vessels, Bull asserted, it would “enable an enemy to fight us with our own … property.”[26] Bull wanted to mount an attack on Tybee using Creek warriors who were then at Savannah. He suggested that the attackers execute all of the slaves who could not be recaptured, with their owners compensated at public expense. In addition to eliminating the fugitive slave refuge and setting an example for other slaves who might try to escape to the British, Bull hoped that employing the Creeks against the blacks would “establish a hatred or aversion between the Indians and negroes.”[27]

South Carolina officials approved Bull’s plan, although they stipulated that the attack should be carried out by the Georgians, who should also decide whether or not the Creeks should participate. The governments of South Carolina and Georgia would share the cost of reimbursing owners of any slaves who were killed in the operation. Finally, the Council told Bull to blame the violence on the British: “to those Royal Miscreants who are carrying on an inglorious picaroon Warr let every inglorious unavoidable act of necessity which we may be driven to commit for our self preservation, be imputed.”[28] The Georgia militia, dressed and painted like Indians and assisted by about thirty Creeks, attacked the fugitive slaves on Tybee Island on the night of March 25. A dozen slaves were captured, and the rest were killed.[29] The exact number of dead was never reported, but if Bull’s estimate was correct, perhaps as many as 200 slaves died in the one-sided battle. The British later denounced the “savage barbarity” of the attackers, and claimed that the white militiamen had acted more brutally than the Creeks.[30]

Georgia slaves nonetheless continued to flee to the British when opportunities offered. The Georgia Council of Safety noted in July that “negroes are daily inveigled and carried away” by British warships.[31] Others took advantage of the colony’s proximity to East Florida to escape overland to that staunchly loyalist province.[32]

The slave rebellion feared by South Carolinians and Georgians alike never came. The vigilance of Whig leaders, the harsh punishments meted out as examples to blacks like Thomas Jeremiah, and the brutal assaults on fugitive encampments on Sullivan’s and Tybee Islands convinced most slaves that rebellion could not succeed, at least in the circumstances of 1775 and 1776. Yet it was also clear that many slaves ardently desired a chance at freedom, saw the British as the agents of that freedom, and endured the risks and hardships involved in attempting to reach British vessels or on the trek to East Florida. The Whigs would maintain control over the vast majority of their slaves during the next two years, until British troops landed in Georgia at the end of 1778. From that time onward, as the British occupied Georgia and South Carolina by mid-1780, thousands of slaves would leave their plantations and attach themselves to the Royal Army. They would provide valuable support in various military departments as pioneers, laborers, teamsters, and artisans. Some would take a more active role as spies and even soldiers. Many would lose their lives, be retaken by their masters, or re-enslaved by the British, but a considerable number would find the freedom they sought. The extensive and often brutal efforts employed by the South Carolinians and Georgians at the start of the Revolution to maintain control over their slaves delayed, but did not prevent, the flight of thousands of African Americans from bondage.


[1] Rachel Klein, Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760-1808 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 9; John Richard Alden, The South in the Revolution, 1763-1789 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 9.

[2] John Adams, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, L. H. Butterfield, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1961), Vol. 2, Diary, 1771-1781, Sept. 24, 1775, 182-183.

[3] Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 60, 67; John Brooke, King George III (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), 178; “Project for Strengthening General Howe’s Operations in the North by a Diversion in the South,” [1775], Lord George Germain Papers, Vol. 4, William L. Clements Library; William Lyttelton’s Speech, Oct. 26, 1775, in R. C. Simmons and P. D. G. Thomas, eds., Proceedings and Debates of the British Parliaments Respecting North America, 1754-1783, Vol. 6 (White Plains, NY: Kraus International Publications, 1987), 96.

[4] Quoted in William R. Ryan, The World of Thomas Jeremiah: Charles Town on the Eve of the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 47.

[5] Thomas Lynch to Ralph Izard, Nov. 19, 1775, in Anne Izard Deas, ed., Correspondence of Mr. Ralph Izard of South Carolina, from the Year 1774 to 1804; with a Short Memoir, Vol. 1 (New York: Charles S. Francis and Co., 1844), 154.

[6] Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 19; Edward Rutledge to Ralph Izard, Dec. 8, 1775, Correspondence of Izard, 165-166.

[7] Quoted in Ryan, World of Thomas Jeremiah, 18.

[8] Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998), 292.

[9] Robert Olwell, Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1740-1790 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 238.

[10] Henry Laurens to James Laurens, June 7, 1775, in Henry Laurens, The Papers of Henry Laurens, Vol. 10, David R. Chesnutt, ed. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985), 162-163; “Report of the Committee for Forming a Plan of Defence for the Colony,” 1775, in Robert W. Gibbes, ed., Documentary History of the American Revolution, Consisting of Letters and Papers relating to the Contest for Liberty Chiefly in South Carolina, From Originals in the Possession of Gen. Francis Marion, by Gen. Peter Horry, of Marion’s Brigade: Together with Others from the Collection of the Editor, Vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1853), 205.

[11] Henry Laurens to John Laurens, June 18, 1775, and June 23, 1775; Thomas Hutchinson to Council of Safety, July 5, 1775; Council of Safety to St. Bartholomew Committee, July 18, 1775, in Laurens, Papers, 10:184-185, 191-192, 206-208, 231.

[12] Lord William Campbell to the Earl of Dartmouth, Aug. 31, 1775, in K. G. Davies, ed., Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783 (Colonial Office Series), Vol. 11 (Dublin: Irish University Press, 1977?), 95-96.

[13] J. William Harris, The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man’s Encounter with Liberty (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 140-146.

[14] Henry Laurens to John Laurens, Aug. 20, 1775, in Laurens, Papers, 10:320-322.

[15] Harris, Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah, 148.

[16] Ibid., 1.

[17] Peter H. Wood, “‘The Facts Speak Loudly Enough’: Exploring Early Southern Black History,” in Catherine Clinton and Michele Gillespie, eds., The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 7.

[18] William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, So Far as It Related to the States of North and South-Carolina, and Georgia, Vol. 1 (New York: David Longworth, 1802), 113-114; Terry W. Lipscomb, The Carolina Lowcountry, April 1775-June 1776, and the Battle of Fort Moultrie (Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1994), 20.

[19] Council of Safety to Richard Richardson, Dec. 19, 1775, in Laurens, Papers, 10:576.

[20] Moultrie, 112.

[21] Henry Laurens to James Laurens, Jan. 6, 1776, in Laurens, Papers, 11:7.

[22] Henry Laurens to Stephen Bull, Jan. 20, 1776, in Laurens, Papers, 11:50.

[23] Quarles, 128; Richard Hutson to Isaac Hayne, May 27, 1776, “Letters of the Hon. Richard Hutson,” Year Book, City of Charleston, South Carolina, 1895, 315.

[24] Henry Laurens to John Laurens, Aug. 14, 1776, in Laurens, Papers, 11:223-224.

[25] Harvey H. Jackson, “The Battle of the Riceboats: Georgia Joins the Revolution,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1, Summer 1974, 30; South Carolina Council of Safety to Georgia Council of Safety, Jan. 19, 1776, in Laurens, Papers, 11:44.

[26] Stephen Bull to Henry Laurens, March 12, 1776, March 13, 1776, and March 14, 1776, in Gibbes, Documentary History, 266, 268.

[27] Bull to Henry Laurens, in Gibbes, Documentary History, 268-269.

[28] South Carolina Council of Safety to Bull, March 16, 1776, in Laurens, Papers, 11:172.

[29] Martha Condray Searcy, “The Introduction of African Slavery into the Creek Indian Nation,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1, Spring 1982, 27.

[30] Laurens, Papers, 11:173n.

[31] “Proceedings of the Georgia Council of Safety, July 5, 1776, in Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Vol. 5 (Savannah: Braid & Hutton, 1901), 71.

[32] Lachlan McIntosh to Lachlan McIntosh, Jr., Aug. 14, 1776, in “Papers of Lachlan McIntosh,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1, March 1955, 56.


  • Excellent article, covering material new to me, thank you Jim. A couple of questions occur to me. I wonder how a British warship, with full crew, would accommodate perhaps several dozen fleeing slaves. Housing and feeding them may have been a problem – and, what would these former slaves do while aboard ship. And, what would the British commander do with them in the long term? Eventually, they would have to be landed somewhere – but where? Would they get their freedom and if so where might that be? These problems would not be confined to SC and GA but would confront the British Navy all along the coast. For that matter the problem would be faced by British land forces, too. Any suggestions on answers to these questions, or suggestions on where I could look for answers would be appreciated. Thanks!

  • Hugh, thanks for your comments. I haven’t seen much about what happened to slaves taken aboard British warships. I suspect some of that information might be found in the Admiralty Office Papers, a collection I’ve barely explored. Some of the refugees did participate in raids with marines and sailors that gathered supplies along the coast, probably a necessity to feed the extra people on board. Others may have filled vacancies in the ships’ crews, since the Royal Navy often lost sailors due to the attrition of disease, accidents, and desertion. That would have saved captains the problems of impressing unwilling colonists. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if some captains sold the escaped slaves in the West Indies; some army officers did so later in the war.

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