Southern Gambit: Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown


May 8, 2019
by Patrick H. Hannum Also by this Author


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Southern Gambit: Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown by Stanley D.M. Carpenter (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019)

In his recent book, Stanley Carpenter produced a thoughtful analysis of the British southern strategy during the American Revolution. A professor at the Naval War College, he evaluates enduring concepts and elements of warfare framed in contemporary language and operational-level warfighting concepts, to explain British military success and failure in the South between 1778 and 1781. The failed British strategy culminated with the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781, essentially ending large-scale military action in North America and resulting in the independence of the United States. Carpenter proposes the British southern strategy of clear-and-hold was sound, but the existing conditions in the operating environment made execution very difficult.

He identifies specific factors that ultimately led to the British failure in the South. Carpenter describes the lack of effective coordination of policy, strategy, and execution as “strategic incoherence.” The British southern strategy was risky because it rested upon a key planning assumption that proved false in execution. The entire plan rested upon the assumption that large numbers of Loyalists would rally to the King’s Standard and form militia units to hold the ground the British Army liberated from Patriot control. The story in the South is one of British tactical victories in conventional engagements followed by the inability of Loyalist militia, supported by regular British forces, to effectively counter more determined Patriot militia formations. The Southern Theater degenerated into a bloody civil war that necessitated an effective information campaign. The Patriots held the upper hand in the area of information warfare and effectively controlled the narrative in the countryside, countering British attempts to gain superiority in this critical area. The British were unable to win over the population and often performed in a way that drove the population to support the Patriot cause, fueling the irregular fight they were unable to win.

Carpenter also identifies key areas where the British failed, including unity of command, unity of effort and operational logistics. As the southern operations evolved, the British suffered from a lack of unity of command and effort between three key figures—George Gremain in London, Henry Clinton in New York, and Lord Cornwallis commanding in the South. The inability to harmonize actions between these three men jeopardized British success because of their differing approaches to the employment of military force to win in the South. Cornwallis’s decision to pursue and destroy Nathanael Greene’s Continental Army exceeded the ability of the British logistics system to support his force, far from the coast. Cornwallis’s tactical victory over Greene at Guilford Courthouse turned into a strategic defeat when he could not hold the ground, sustain his troops or support the Loyalist population.

Cornwallis’s move to Virginia reflects another prime example of Carpenter’s concept of “strategic incoherence.”  This incoherence allowed the Franco-American allies to mass their resources, both ground and maritime, and capture 8,000 British troops at Yorktown. While King George advocated continuing the fight, the architects of the southern strategy finally admitted its failure; the British southern strategy culminated at Yorktown. Carpenter provides an analysis of the American Revolution in the South that serves individuals interested in the revolution and those who study the linkages between strategy and tactical execution, concepts described in contemporary joint, and service military doctrine as operational art.


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  • How incredibly timely. I was notified yesterday that Amazon had shipped my copy. Quick question though, does the author talk much about the British role in both igniting and participating in the ‘bloody civil war’? I’ve noticed a lot of gloss over the role of Cornwallis and his officers in the Southern Campaigns lately. Just wondering what attitude you see in this work of that.

    1. Wayne,
      The author addresses the British pacification strategy and focuses on flawed military execution at the operational and tactical levels of war. His analysis and language are influenced by contemporary joint and service military doctrine, one could construe this as “anachronistic jargon.” These failures contribute to the “bloody civil war” because the lack of security facilitated lawlessness and retribution. As John Maass points out, there are inaccuracies, but this is not just another history of the southern campaign. This book focuses the policy, strategy and tactics mismatches. The British took significant strategic risk with their reliance on Tory militia in the south and this did not work out well for them.

      Although not specifically addressed in this text, I believe Lord Cornwallis learned a great deal from his experiences in the south and applied these lessons learned in India. Military officers from both Indian and Pakistan I have had the opportunity to talk with over the years all know Lord Charles Cornwallis. We Americans need to study the British failures in the south and learn from them, I believe Cornwallis did, but this is difficult to qualify and quantify without detailed scholarly research.

      Our contemporary environment, in specific theaters, looks a lot like the south during the revolution. Still searching for the text that puts all the pieces of the southern campaign together. It was a very complex operating environment, a “wicked problem;” hope this helps address your question.

  • Sadly this book is full of factual mistakes from beginning to end. The section on Guilford CH is particularly problematic. Even one of the maps is wrong (Camden). I would not rely on it for a reference. Also uses anachronistic jargon that takes away from the narrative.

  • John, thanks for your very helpful comments on the Cornwallis book. I was skeptical about ordering the book and you have confirmed my feelings. Reviews tend to be too positive so one never knows.

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