Cornwallis and the autumn campaign of 1780 ― His advance from Camden to Charlotte

Detail of a 1775 map of South Carolina and North Carolina (Library of Congress) See full map

As events would prove, the autumn campaign was a very risky venture indeed, yet despite the operational difficulties attending it Cornwallis saw no option but to go on to the offensive after his victory at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina, on August 16, 1780. As he had explained to Clinton, “It may be doubted by some whether the invasion of North Carolina may be a prudent measure, but I am convinced it is a necessary one and that, if we do not attack that province, we must give up both South Carolina and Georgia and retire within the walls of Charlestown.”[1]

Throughout the campaign a pressing concern would be the sickliness of the troops, whether they were those who marched with Cornwallis or those who were intended to join him later from Camden.

An immediate problem, which delayed the march, was the formation of supply trains. Waggons there were aplenty, what with those taken in recent engagements and others pressed from Orangeburg and Ninety Six, but sadly horses, gear, conductors and drivers were wanting.

Another cause of delay was the severe lack of provision at Camden, exacerbated by additional mouths to feed after the recent battle. On August 31 Cornwallis remarked to Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour,[2] “Hitherto, so far from being able to get a few days’ [provision] beforehand, which is absolutely necessary for our march, we are this day without either flour or meal and Tarleton’s horses have had no forage since the action.”[3]

Against all the odds Cornwallis managed to assemble a proviant train of thirty-eight waggons by September 7, twenty of which were loaded with a puncheon of rum in each and the rest with flour and salt. At daybreak, accompanied by two 3-pounders, he marched towards Charlotte with the 23rd Regiment (Royal Welch Fusiliers), 33rd Regiment and Volunteers of Ireland, leaving behind material numbers of their dead, sick and wounded. Two days later he reached the border settlement at the Waxhaws and was joined by Col. Samuel Bryan’s North Carolina militia. The troops soon set up camp on Waxhaw Creek, living on wheat collected and ground from the plantations in the neighbourhood, most of which were owned by Scotch-Irish revolutionaries who had fled.

On September 8 Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton crossed the Wateree at Camden Ferry and advanced with the British Legion and a detachment of the 71st Regiment’s light troops towards White’s Mill on Fishing Creek. While there on the 17th, he fell ill of a violent attack of yellow fever. His entire command was now needed to protect him and it was not until the 23rd that he became well enough to be moved to Blair’s Mill on the eastern side of the Catawba. Crossing on the same day at the ford there, which was six hundred yards wide and three and a half feet deep, the Legion joined Cornwallis. All in all, Tarleton’s illness was one of the main reasons for setting back the entry into Charlotte. It took place on the 26th.

By then Cornwallis had been reinforced by the 71st, but both battalions were much depleted, not only by their dead and wounded in the Battle of Camden, but also by their sick who had fallen down earlier at Cheraw Hill. Many, who were recovering, had relapsed before their march and returned to the hospital at Camden. Accompanied by a detachment of artillery with two 6-pounders, a few pioneers, the convalescents of the 33rd, and two supply trains, one of rum and salt, and the other of artillery stores, arms and ammunition, the remains of the 71st arrived at the Waxhaws on the 21st, but they too were in poor shape, adding considerably to the sick of the other regiments there, who by that date amounted to above 120 and were daily increasing. When Cornwallis advanced to Charlotte, the debris of the 71st was left at Waxhaw Creek to form a staging post.

Meanwhile Lt. Col. James Wemyss[4] and Major James Moncrief had been engaged on their two expeditions designed to pacify the vast expanse of territory east of the Wateree and Santee that was no longer under British control. They failed miserably and both returned to Camden by early October.[5]

Like Wemyss and Moncrief, Major Patrick Ferguson, the Inspector General of Militia, had been busy too. In compliance with Cornwallis’s instructions he left Sugar Creek for Camden on August 23 to discuss the part to be played by his corps and the backcountry militia in forthcoming operations. He rejoined his corps on September 1 near Fair Forest Creek, having obtained Cornwallis’s approval to his making a rather hazardous advance into Tryon County, North Carolina, the purpose of which was to secure the left of Cornwallis’s march. He was then to join the troops at Charlotte so that his corps and the militia might accompany the onward advance. Having crossed the frontier on the 7th, he proceeded to pass some time in and around Gilbert Town, defeating Col. Charles McDowell at Cane Creek on the 12th. He then attempted to settle the county by disarming the disaffected and putting their arms into the hands of loyalists who came in. On the 14th he had some 650 militia with him, but they were old and infirm and part neither armed nor trained. By the 28th, when he was seeking to intercept Lt. Col. Elijah Clark, his militia had increased to under 800, but of what quality he does not say. In the meantime he had mustered 500 loyalists within twenty-five miles of Gilbert Town, “half of whom are of the first class and arm’d,” while another body nearly as numerous had been formed on the Catawba from its head forty miles downwards. Aware by now of the revolutionary parties gathering to oppose him, he was confident that, centrical as he was, he would prevent a general junction and remain master of the field. He could have not been more egregiously mistaken.

As Cornwallis lingered at the Waxhaws, Clark, who had returned with about 200 men to the Ceded Lands in Georgia, incited some 500 more to join him and on September 14 made a surprise attack on Lt. Col. Thomas Brown’s post at Augusta. It was a close-run thing. Brown held out courageously but was saved only by the spirited and active conduct of Lt. Col. John Harris Cruger, who came promptly from Ninety Six to his relief. Clark with many of his party fled across the Savannah River and crossed some two weeks later into North Carolina, going off at the head of Saluda at a gap beyond Ferguson’s reach. After the attack severe measures were taken to pacify the Ceded Lands.[6]

Of the 2nd division intended to reinforce Cornwallis at Charlotte, only the 7th Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) came up, much depleted by 106 sick left behind at Camden. Accompanying it were 150 convalescents ― some for the 23rd, some for the 33rd, and the rest for the 71st ― and a supply train of ten puncheons of rum and fifty-six bushels of salt. On October 5 they all arrived at the Waxhaws, and two days later the 7th, but not the convalescents, advanced to Charlotte. The rest of the 2nd division consisting of the 63rd Regiment and the Royal North Carolina Regiment never came up. Of the 71st, which had been posted at the Waxhaws, the 2nd Battalion was ordered forward on the October 1, whereas the 1st Battalion, which had initially been intended to meet Ferguson at Armour’s Ford,[7] was given its marching orders on the 8th. Together, they would have brought to Charlotte the numerous sick and convalescents left behind with them.

On October 7 Cornwallis explained his plan of campaign to Wemyss:

The object of marching into North Carolina is only to raise men, which, from every account I have received of the number of our friends, there is great reason to hope may be done to a very considerable amount. For this purpose I shall move in about ten or twelve days to Salisbury and from thence invite all loyalists of the neighbouring countys to repair to our standard to be formed into Provincial corps and armed, clothed and appointed as soon as we can do it. From thence I mean to move my whole force down to Cross Creek [to raise the Highlanders]. As it will then be about the middle of November, I hope the lower country will be healthy. I shall then be in full communication with our shipping and shall receive all the arms and clothing that Charlestown can afford.[8]

Wemyss, who had been intended to command an intermediate post at Charlotte, now to be abandoned due to the inveteracy of the locality, was instructed to operate again east of Camden before joining Cornwallis at Cross Creek, but his orders were almost immediately countermanded.

For Cornwallis, overstretched as he was, it was now that the chickens came home to roost.

Of the risks he was running, some would have been apparent to him at the start of the campaign, aware as he was that it might be an imprudent measure. Among the greatest risks was that of losing control of much of South Carolina and Georgia, so few were the troops that he left behind. Charlestown and Savannah were safe, but what about the rest of the country? If we leave aside the relative backwater of Georgetown, there were only two principal posts in South Carolina outside Charlestown ― at Camden and the village of Ninety Six. Left to garrison Camden were the New York Volunteers and the South Carolina Royalist Regiment under the overall command of Lt. Col. George Turnbull, who, in the words of Cornwallis, “tho’… not a great genius, … is a plain rightheaded man.” According to Turnbull, the South Carolina Royalists, who did not arrive until September 17, made a very sorry appearance and on the 22nd did duty for no more than 160 rank and file. By October 2 only 91 of them were fit for duty, as some had fallen down with the small pox and others presumably with the other illnesses prevalent there. Two days later those fit for duty in both corps came to a total of 247. Admittedly, part of the Royal North Carolina Regiment was also at Camden in September, as was the debris of the 63rd, and both were augmented by the arrival of Wemyss’ party at the beginning of October. Yet neither corps formed part of the garrison, for both were awaiting orders (which never came) to reinforce Cornwallis. On October 20, as Wemyss and the remains of the 63rd were about to depart next day for Ninety Six, the three British American regiments afforded no more than 300 men fit for duty. All in all, given the need to maintain the post of Camden itself, the garrison had precious few troops for exerting control over the vast expanse of territory dependent on it or for supporting the royal militia to this end. Alone, the royal militia were in Turnbull’s eyes a busted flush. As he would soon observe, “… our officers of militia in general are not near so active as the rebells, and great numbers of their privates are ready to turn against us when an opportunity offers … Depend on it, militia will never do any good without regular troops.”[9] With so few troops in the garrison to support them, the militia were, if attacked, an edifice waiting to crumble, far beyond the reach of Cornwallis to sustain them if he had penetrated deeper into North Carolina, taking Ferguson and Hamilton with him. That was the risk. Nor would it have been markedly lessened if an intermediate post under Wemyss had been established at Charlotte, so composed would it have been of convalescents. The risk was in fact low for only so long as Cornwallis remained within reach, Wemyss and Hamilton were not brought up to reinforce him, and Ferguson continued to protect the northern border against incursions. Even so, control of the area east of Camden had long been lost, and despite Wemyss’ and Moncrief’s expeditions, nothing could be done to reassert it. Cornwallis desperately sought to scrape the barrel at Camden for a further foray there, but it was all to no avail. Nothing really effective could be done but to advance Col. Samuel Tynes’ militia to the forks of Black River, where they were promptly routed by Lt. Col. Francis Marion, and to await Tarleton’s punitive but brief incursion in November.

The situation at Ninety Six was pretty parlous too. Garrisoning the village were the 1st Battalion, De Lancey’s Brigade, and the 3rd Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, under the overall command of Cruger. He had with him near 300 men fit for duty. As with Camden, the problem was not so much the post itself as the vast hinterland. Split as it was into tracts of loyalists and revolutionaries, the most worrying parts were the Long Canes settlement and the tract contiguous to it, being the catchment areas of Col. Richard King’s and Lt. Col. Moses Kirkland’s regiments. There the inhabitants were preponderantly disaffected and the bulk of the two regiments was not to be relied on. Of almost equal concern was a rebellious tract of fifty miles about the Tyger and Enoree, where the inhabitants had mostly fled and were waiting for Cornwallis and Ferguson to move on before they returned and commenced hostilities. In general the royal militia left behind by Ferguson were reluctant to turn out, and in any event Cruger was exceedingly short of men to support them. With Ferguson on the northern border and on his march to join Cornwallis, Cruger was of opinion that, if a tenuous hold on the district was to be maintained, a body of regular or British American troops was essential to occupy the area between the Broad and Saluda Rivers vacated by Ferguson. Unfortunately, none was available, and so there was a high risk that the district would be overrun. An intermediate post, if established at Charlotte, would have been too remote to have any effect.

Despite the defeat of Clark, the British hold on the back parts of Georgia remained tenuous. We have no record of the casualties sustained at Augusta, but at the time of Clark’s attack Brown’s garrison consisted of 199 men of the King’s Rangers fit for duty, 35 members of the Indian Department, 100 convalescents of the King’s Rangers and New Jersey Volunteers, and 500 native Americans who happened to be visiting the village. After the attack Cruger left upwards of 200 militia to complete the work of scouring the Ceded Lands. With so remarkably few troops and militia to maintain control of Augusta and the hinterland, the door remained open to enemy incursions.

Overall, the situation was most precarious and ripe for disaster. What transpired next, and its knock-on effect, are, however, matters for another day.

 

[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”), 1, 177. Cornwallis’s dispatches to Germain and Clinton have for the most part been long in the public domain and have been relied on by historians to provide a broad outline of Cornwallis’s advance to Charlotte. As in this article, those accounts may now be supplemented with much more detailed information based on the CP.

[2] Biographical information on Balfour and other persons mentioned in this article may be found in the CP.

[3] CP: 2, 66.

[4] Pronounced “Weems.”

[5]  For an account of the expeditions and a justification for them, see Ian Saberton, “The Revolutionary War in the South: Re-evaluations of certain Revolutionary Actors and Events,” Journal of the American Revolution, December 6, 2016.

[6] “The Ceded Lands” was an expression commonly used to refer to part of the territory ceded to Georgia by the Cherokees and Creeks in 1773. It was located in the up country above Augusta, extending from the headwaters of the Oconee downwards and between that river and the Savannah.

[7] The ford lay near the mouth of the south fork of the Catawba. It was deep and crossing was at times dangerous.

[8] CP: 2, 222.

[9] CP: 2, 250.

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5 Comments

    • Charles, if you want to find answers to questions such as this, you will really need to dig into your pocket and purchase “The Cornwallis Papers” (CP) from The Naval & Military Press (6 vols). Fortunately, if you decide to place an order by 6 pm BST, Tuesday, 29 August, you will receive the discount of 20% that applies during their summer sale. Please refer to the publisher’s website via Google.

      To answer your query, it was indeed a detachment of the 71st’s light troops that accompanied Tarleton and the British Legion to White’s Mill. See Cornwallis’s letter of 20 September 1780 to “Lt Archibald Campbell 71st Regiment”, the commander of the detachment there (CP: 2, 284-5).

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