Its occupation by the British, the character of its inhabitants, and its flora, fauna and terrain
Overall, I am of opinion that militarily the broad picture of the Revolutionary War has not markedly altered since the 1970s, but almost all interpretive works are written from an American perspective that does not always coincide with my aim to provide an accurate, balanced and dispassionate account of the war and the actors in it, as is evinced by my recent articles in this journal. Ipso facto, I have preferred to base my own conclusions mostly on primary and secondary material rather than on the reworking or interpretation of it in tertiary form, even though there is to some degree a measure of agreement between the latter and myself.
When we come to the South Carolina backcountry, to which The Cornwallis Papers preponderantly relate, I myself was struck by the fact that, on extensively reading the literature on the southern campaigns, nowhere did I find a comprehensive sketch of this vast region or of the life and character of its inhabitants at the time that the British occupation began. Scattered items of information were to be found, but nowhere were they collated into an overall picture. Yet in my opinion such a picture was essential if one was to place, for example, The Cornwallis Papers in context and fully understand how backcountry society and the character of its inhabitants impacted on the revolutionary irregulars’ barbarous conduct of the war. It is a purpose of The Cornwallis Papers and this article to fill that gap.
The occupation was set in train on May 18, 1780 as Cornwallis began to march from Manigault’s Plantation with some 2500 men for Camden.
By now appointed to command in the southern provinces, he describes the circumstances of his appointment in a letter of November 12, 1780: “When I came to town after the surrender, Sir Henry mention’d my going with him to the northward. I said that I was ready to serve wherever he thought fit to employ me, and had no objection to remain in Carolina if he thought my services cou’d be usefull in that province. He said something civil about the climate. On my assuring him that it was no objection, he then wished me to take this command. However painfull and distressing my situation has been, and however dark the prospect then was, it cannot be supposed that as a military man I shou’d not rather chuse to command to the southward than be third at New York … I did not interfere in any degree with Sir Henry’s arrangement [the appointment of Brig. Gen. James Paterson as Commandant of Charlestown], nor did I say more or express myself stronger on the subject of my own staying than I have described …”
Crossing the Santee at Lenud’s Ferry with part of his corps, Cornwallis marched up the eastern side of the river while Col. Francis Lord Rawdon with the rest proceeded by way of Monck’s Corner and Nelson’s Ferry. Camden was reached on June 1.
At first named Pine Tree Hill, the village lay to the east of the Wateree about thirty-five miles from its confluence with the Congaree. Settled about 1750 and laid out in plots and streets around a square, it was now inhabited mostly by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, whose meeting house and that of the Quakers were features of the place. Besides Joseph Kershaw’s country store, it was home to saw- and grist-mills, one or more taverns, breweries, distilleries, a pottery, and various other artisan shops. Nine years earlier a courthouse had been built. All in all, trade was brisk and by now the village had become a principal entrepôt for the back settlements.
Politically, occupation of Camden was of course inevitable, but militarily its location left much to be desired. As Rawdon remarked many years later, “Camden had always been reprobated by me as a station, not merely from the extraordinary disadvantages which attended it as an individual position, but from its being on the wrong side of the river and covering nothing, while it was constantly liable to have its communication with the interior district cut off.”
Headquarters at Camden was established in Joseph Kershaw’s mansion. He was a leading incendiary.
As Cornwallis approached Camden, Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour began his march for Ninety Six, a village which lay to the south of the Saluda River some sixty miles west of its confluence with the Broad. In the backcountry it was second in importance to Camden. Leaving Charlestown on May 26, Balfour commanded a mixed corps of some 600 men comprising three companies of the 7th Regiment (the Royal Fusiliers), a detachment of light infantry, the Prince of Wales’s American Regiment, and Major Patrick Ferguson’s American Volunteers. His advance along what was once an Indian trading path is minutely set out in Allaire’s Diary as read with Balfour’s correspondence in The Cornwallis Papers. Ninety Six was reached by Balfour and Ferguson’s men on June 22.
The backcountry is an amorphous expression describing the vast swathe of territory now entered by the British. Though other interpretations are wider or more restrictive, it is used here to refer to the then Districts of Camden and Ninety Six. In the east the outer boundary began at the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree, extended northwards to the North Carolina line, continued westwards along that line to the Cherokee nation, and followed the Georgia line to a point just below Augusta. From there it proceeded in the south to a point on the Saluda midway between the village of Ninety Six and the Broad River before following the Saluda and Congaree eastwards.
Today the backcountry presents a very different aspect from that encountered by the first white settlers in the middle of the eighteenth century. It was then a region interspersed with extensive plains widely covered by cane; with open forests of elm, hickory, oak, pine, poplar and walnut, between which lay a rich carpet of peavine; and with numerous ponds, rivers and streams, along which stretched vast canebrakes. It was partly flat, partly undulating, and partly hilly terrain, which rose to the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance. It abounded in many species of game ranging from bison, deer and elk to turkeys and other wildfowl. Common were the beaver, muskrat, opossum, raccoon, and squirrel. Among beasts of prey, the bear, polecat, puma, wildcat, and wolf were numerous, while the rattlesnake was widely to be found. Edible fish such as the shad were prolific.
By 1780 the backcountry had become dotted with small farms and settlements, but much of the landscape remained as it was thirty years earlier. The bison and elk had been hunted to extinction there, but the other wild animals were still to be found, though in diminished numbers.
The backcountry had yet to evolve into a uniform society. Of the national groups the Scotch-Irish were the most numerous. Disliked by others, they were aggressive, courageous, emotional, fiercely intolerant, hard-drinking, and in many cases inclined to indolence. Of the other groups the Germans from the Palatinate, who had settled mostly in the Dutch Fork, predominated. Better farmers, they were pacific, law-abiding, temperate, and devoted to the ideal of a well-ordered society. The rest were composed of other immigrants from the Old World or their descendants, a number of whom ― less than ten percent of the back inhabitants ― were slaves. Clannishness, through which many clung tenaciously to their cultural heritage, was the order of the day, while mutual dislike or suspicion more often than not triumphed over brotherhood and charity. Not a melting pot, the backcountry was more akin to the Tower of Babel.
By 1776 the proportion of South Carolina’s population living above the fall line had soared to some 83,000, fifty percent of its entire population and seventy-nine percent of its white inhabitants. By the opening of the seventies the small farm had become the means by which ninety-five percent of the backcountry settlers made a living. Nevertheless, clearing land and developing a farm involved too much backbreaking toil for some, who contented themselves with a small corn patch and hunting. Overall, the backcountry had begun to produce an amazing amount of grain and meat, and towards the end of the colonial era as many as 3,000 waggons per year were being sent down from there to Charlestown.
Living in log cabins or primitive shelters on the edge of western civilisation, very many backcountry settlers no longer conformed to accepted standards of behavior, as a recent article of mine has made clear. Criminality, immorality, and irreligion were rife, accentuated by the severe shortage of clergymen and the lack of education. Admittedly, odd meeting houses were to be found, for example at Bush River, Camden, the Dutch Fork, Fair Forest, Fishing Creek, Turkey Creek, and the Waxhaws; itinerant preachers came and went; but in general the vast majority of the population caught neither sight nor sound of a minister. “In the back parts of Carolina,” recalled Major George Hanger many years later, “you may search after an angel with as much chance of finding one as a parson; there is no such thing ― I mean when I was there. What they are now, I know not. It is not impossible, but they may have become more religious, moral, and virtuous since the great affection they have imbibed for the French. In my time you might travel sixty or seventy miles and not see a church or even a schism shop. I have often called at a dog-house in the woods, inhabited by eight or ten persons, merely from curiosity. I have asked the master of the house: ‘Pray, my friend, of what religion are you?’ ‘Of what religion, sir?’ ‘Yes, my friend, of what religion are you ― or to what sect do you belong?’ ‘Oh! now I understand you; why, for the matter of that, religion does not trouble us much in these parts.'” As to honesty, Cornwallis would soon observe, “I will not be godfather to any man’s honesty in this province.”
The ignorance and illiteracy of most backcountry settlers went hand in hand with a lack of intellectual curiosity. According to the Reverend Charles Woodmason, “Few or no books are to be found in all this vast country,” besides a few religious works. “Nor do they delight in historical books or in having them read to them …, for these people despise knowledge, and instead of honouring a learned person or any one of wit or knowledge, be it in the arts, sciences or languages, they despise and ill treat them.”
Quite a few of the settlers would once have been the orphaned or neglected children who swarmed over the backcountry on the eve of the Revolution. Described as then living “expos’d in a state of nature,” they had been “oblig’d almost to associate with villains and vagabonds for subsistence.”
Of the few meeting houses most were attended by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, who surpassed all other sects in bigotry and fierce denominationalism, going to lengths which are almost unbelievable. Men of God, their ministers brought politics into the pulpit, exhorted rebellion, and in some cases ― for example the Reverend John Simpson of Fishing Creek ― took up arms themselves.
Scattered among the backcountry population was a body of hardy, illiterate and lawless backwoodsmen whom the British came to fear more than most. They tended to have no settled habitation and lived partly by hunting and partly by preying on their neighbors. “This distinguished race of men,” declared George Hanger, “are more savage than the Indians and possess every one of their vices but not one of their virtues. I have known one of these fellows travel two hundred miles through the woods, never keeping any road or path, guided by the sun by day and the stars by night, to kill a particular person belonging to the opposite party. He would shoot him before his own door and ride away to boast of what he had done on his return … I speak … of that heathen race known by the name of crackers.”
Despite the vaunted levelling spirit of the backcountry, a gentry of sorts had arisen composed of the wealthy who had acquired extensive land holdings, merchants, surveyors, lawyers, and men of status in other fields. Few though they were, their influence was profound, but sadly for the British almost all were of the revolutionary persuasion.
An endemic vice in all ranks was the excessive consumption of alcoholic liquor. Rough cider and peach or apple brandy were common beverages, rum was consumed in large quantities, but rye whiskey, favoured in particular by the Scotch-Irish, was the grand elixir. Except the temperate Germans, who preferred their beer, almost everyone drank to excess: the morning bevvy, the dinner dram, the evening nightcap, and the more or less frequent tipple in between times. Taverns, still houses, and drinking cabins did a roaring trade, whereas stores commonly held among their stock a pretty liberal quantity of something to keep the spirits up.
A recurring problem was incursions by native Americans, which led to savagery on both sides. The settlers’ experiences with such intermittent warfare would soon be reflected in the equally merciless way in which revolutionary irregulars behaved toward their loyalist neighbors.
Amid the hardships of backcountry life a high old time was had with recreational pursuits. From the simple pleasures of hunting and fishing they extended to horse racing and shooting matches, but more often than not they centred around the tavern, where drunkenness, gaming, cheating, quarrelling, and brawling were commonplace, particularly on days when court or other public business was transacted. Completing the picture were communal harvest days, dances, and occasions such as musters and vendues, all of which gave ample rein to the wild frolicking common on the frontier.
Of the factors that had led about half of the backcountry settlers to remain loyal to the Crown, a combination of three predominated. Partly it was a sense of belonging to a wider British community besides being Americans; partly it was a feeling of gratitude to the Crown for the grant of land; and partly it was antagonism to the low country élite, whose gross neglect of the backcountry only a few years earlier had turned many settlers against them and the revolutionary cause which they came to espouse. Admittedly, a framework of local government had recently been established, representation in the legislature was lately secured, but memories of past grievances were long.
Now divided politically, as well as in other ways, the backcountry was a place where emotions often ran free, unrestrained by concepts of civilised behavior. A powder keg waiting to explode, it would be ignited by the coming of the British.
Anthony Allaire, “Diary,” Appendix to Lyman C Draper, King’s Mountain and its Heroes (Cincinnati, 1881)
Carl Bridenbaugh, Myths & Realities: Societies of the Colonial South (Atheneum NY, 1976)
John Abney Chapman and John Belton O’Neall, The Annals of Newberry (Newberry SC, 1892)
William Henry Foote, Sketches of North Carolina, Historical and Biographical, illustrative of the Principles of a Portion of Her Early Settlers (New York, 1846)
Robert Gray, ‘Colonel Robert Gray’s Observations on the War in Carolina’, The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, XI (July, 1910), 139-159
George Hanger, The Life, Adventures, and Opinions of Col. George Hanger (London, 1801)
George Howe, History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina (Columbia SC, 1870)
J B O Landrum, Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina (Greenville SC, 1897)
Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (Revised edition, New York, 1869)
John H Logan, A History of the Upper Country of South Carolina (Columbia SC, 1859)
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)
Charles Stedman, History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War (London, 1792)
Henry Alexander White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders (New York, 1911)
Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution, edited by Richard J Hooker (University of North Carolina Press, 1953)
 See Journal of the American Revolution, September 2016 through March 2017.
 I use “secondary” to describe material emanating from interviews or conversations with persons who had taken part in, or lived through, the war. By “tertiary” I mean material that is neither primary nor secondary and, to the extent that it relies on other tertiary material, needs to be treated with a measure of caution.
 For a biographical note on Paterson, 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”), 1: 49.
 For biographical information on Rawdon, see CP, 1: 151-2.
 For a biographical note on Joseph Kershaw and his brother Ely, see CP, 1: 144.
 For biographical information on Ferguson and Balfour, see CP, 1: 37-8 and Ian Saberton, “The Revolutionary War in the South: Re-evaluations of certain British and British American Actors,” Journal of the American Revolution, November 21, 2016.
 See Ian Saberton, “George Hanger ― His Adventures in the American Revolutionary War end,” Journal of the American Revolution, February 17, 2017.
 meeting house.