Besides dealing with events elsewhere, this article relates in particular the plight of the Carolina loyalists and the way in which British ascendancy in South Carolina—achieved only by June 1780—began so soon to unravel in the face of internal uprisings and an external threat.
By mid July Major Gen. Johann Kalb had advanced from the northward to Coxe’s Mill on Deep River, North Carolina. Under his command were 1,400 Delaware and Maryland Continentals, three companies of artillery, and Col. Armand’s corps of 60 horse and 60 infantry. Also in the field were some 1,450 poorly armed Virginia militia besides a body of 1,200 North Carolina militia under Major Gen. Richard Caswell.
Fearing that his post at Cheraw Hill might be taken out in detail, Col. Francis Lord Rawdon commanding in the Upcountry promptly ordered Major Archibald McArthur to withdraw with the 71st (Highland) Regiment to Black Creek and eventually to the vicinity of Camden. It was an inevitable but fateful decision. Apart from Georgetown, the High Hills of Santee, Kingstree and the high road south and north of Camden, the British would never again command the expanse of territory to the east of the Santee and Wateree. Forays into it would be made, for example by Major John Harrison, Major James Moncrief, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, Lt. Col. John Watson Tadwell Watson, and Major James Wemyss, but for all practical purposes British authority there had ended.
Elsewhere in South Carolina there appeared on the scene a revolutionary leader whom the British considered one of their greatest plagues. A slave owner, extensive land speculator and man of property, Thomas Sumter, a one-time commander of a Continental rifle regiment, had repaired in June to Tuckaseegee Ford on the northern border between the Carolinas, where he was elected leader of a band of irregulars and began to style himself as a general. After sending parties in mid July across Broad River, he led 500 men to attack Lt. Col. George Turnbull’s post at Rocky Mount on July 30. Repulsed, he attacked with Major William Richardson Davie the post at Hanging Rock one week later. Again repulsed, he nevertheless did great execution, demolishing the Prince of Wales’s American Regiment, which ceased from then to be an effective fighting force. Later, on August 15, he marched down the Catawba with 700 men and 100 Continentals, capturing Cary’s Fort, about thirty prisoners, a number of horses, and thirty-eight waggons filled with supplies. During the same day he went on to capture about seventy regulars going from Ninety Six to Camden.
Wishing to act independently, Sumter was disinclined to cooperate wholeheartedly with Major Generals Horatio Gates and Nathanael Greene, respectively the Continental General Officers Commanding in the South, for example by uniting his force with those under their immediate command. Proud and supercilious, though affectionate, open-handed and loyal to his friends, he possessed a sarcastic tongue, but one tempered with a sense of humor. Yet it was a dark side of his nature which came to the fore in coming months, for he would consistently display a marked streak of ruthlessness which did not scruple to employ measures such as cold-blooded murder on a grand scale in furtherance of his ends.
As other bands of revolutionary irregulars, notably ones under Lt. Col. Elijah Clark, Col. Charles McDowell and Col. Isaac Shelby, took to the field north of the Congaree and Saluda, the British hold on the rest of the Backcountry also began to weaken. Amid the rising unrest there, four events in particular exemplified the worsening situation: on July 12 Captain Christian Huck of the British Legion, while commanding a party near Bratton’s plantation, was defeated and killed; on July 15 Prince’s Fort on a branch of the North Fork of Tyger River had to be abandoned by Captain James Dunlap of Major Patrick Ferguson’s corps after he found himself greatly outnumbered in an action at Earle’s Ford on North Pacolet; on July 30 the royal militia surrendered Thicketty Fort near Goucher Creek without firing a shot; and on August 8 Dunlap, and later Ferguson, took part in an action near Cedar Spring, eventually forcing a large body of revolutionary irregulars to flee over Pacolet River.
Events began to take a turn for the worse in the Low Country too. On July 8 Wemyss occupied Georgetown with no more than half of the 63rd Regiment, but when the country to the north was overrun by revolutionary irregulars after the withdrawal of McArthur from Cheraw Hill, he found it out of his power to attain his principal objective, the formation of a battalion of royal militia in the Georgetown District. Therefore ordered by Cornwallis to join the rest of the 63rd on the High Hills of Santee, he and his men quit Georgetown on August 9. By then bands of thirty or forty revolutionary irregulars had threatened even the Low Country west of the Santee, an area not previously troubled by them.
Throughout large parts of South Carolina we begin to see the revolutionary irregulars adopting what would become a consistent practice of “breaking up,” as they termed it, the habitations of loyalists, whom they detained, drove off, or, as the months progressed, maltreated, mutilated or murdered in cold blood. “Breaking up,” or plundering as the British called it, inevitably attracted many in pursuit of gain to the revolutionary cause, but the underlying aim was of course to cleanse the areas in which the revolutionaries operated, or over which they exerted control, of members of the opposing party, who might act against them.
In their own way the British were rigorous too. In September the homes of many who had taken up arms would be burnt by Wemyss and Moncrief during their punitive expeditions to the east of the Wateree and Santee. Elsewhere the estates of others who, inter alia, had gone off to the enemy or had continued openly to avow rebellious principles would soon become liable to sequestration, and in the meantime supplies were appropriated wholesale from their estates. A measure of supplies was also appropriated from the estates of the disaffected who remained quiescently at home, or who were on parole or in confinement, in lieu of their service in the royal militia. In addition, unauthorised plundering was practised by loyalists, regulars and British American troops.
Increasingly apparent, as the summer advanced, was the fragility of the royal militia. 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 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.
Amid the mounting unrest the command at Camden could not have been in safer hands. The eldest son of the Earl of Moira in the Irish peerage, Rawdon was only in his twenty-sixth year. Educated at Harrow and University College, Oxford, he entered the army as an ensign on August 7, 1771, distinguished himself as a lieutenant at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and took part as a captain in the New York campaign. While at Philadelphia he raised at his own expense a British American regiment called the Volunteers of Ireland, of which he became Colonel. Promoted to the regular rank of lieutenant colonel on June 15, 1778, he began to serve as Clinton’s Adjutant General, but in autumn 1779 the two quarrelled and Rawdon quit the post.
Charged mistakenly by some with being a martinet, Rawdon emerges from his service in the South as a discriminating officer of outstanding military ability. Combining high courage with keen strategic and tactical awareness, he dealt unerringly with every situation, whether it called for exceptional enterprise, due caution or retrenchment, or simply the routine and efficient conduct of his command.
An imposing figure with a stately manner, Rawdon was tall, dark, and in his younger years athletic. A full-length portrait of him by Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted in 1789-90, is in the Royal Collection.
Another exceedingly able British American officer soon succeeded to the command at Ninety Six in place of Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour. John Harris Cruger, Lt. Col. of De Lancey’s 1st Battalion, would soon gain a well deserved reputation for courage, activity, decisiveness, resolution, resourcefulness, vigilance, and exceptional leadership in the face of adversity. His measure was rightly taken by Lt. Col. Alured Clarke, the officer commanding in Georgia and East Florida, when he observed to Cornwallis, “If I may be allowed to judge from a very short acquaintance, I am convinced your Lordship will not be disappointed in your expectations from this gentleman, who will be greatly assisted by the zeal and good sense of Lt Colonel Allen and the harmony that subsists between them.” Isaac Allen, Lt. Col. of the 3rd Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, would ably serve as Cruger’s second throughout the coming months.
Writing to Cruger on August 5, Cornwallis remarked, “The keeping possession of the Back Country is of the utmost importance. Indeed, the success of the war in the Southern District depends totally upon it.” They are words which would come to haunt Cornwallis in 1781, when he absurdly forsook South Carolina and Georgia and marched from Wilmington into Virginia.
A false calm continued to prevail in Georgia, where, according to the Governor, Sir James Wright, “the flame of rebellion is pretty well extinguished at present, yet it may revive and break out again if we are not very circumspect.” A worrying problem were the settlers on the Ceded Lands. Hardy, numerous and ill disposed, they were ready to give trouble as soon as an opportunity offered. It would not be long before they rose.
Besides the small garrison of Savannah, the only military post in Georgia was at Augusta, the seat of the Indian trade for forty years. Between the coast and Augusta the Savannah River was navigable by boats up to sixty tons, but not for three or four months from mid September,and the journey was tedious, lasting on average more than three weeks. Occupying the village were 250 men of the King’s Rangers, a British American regiment under the command of Lt. Col. Thomas Brown, who was also Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Southern Department.
An inspirational leader, Brown had migrated only six years earlier from Yorkshire to Georgia, where, as he himself relates, he was savagely treated in the Upcountry for his loyalism. A controversial figure, he in turn has been accused of severity.
Despite the approach of the British, the loyalists in North Carolina began to suffer worse than ever. Comprising a half to two-thirds of the population there, they had sat idly by, relying on the Crown to act, while nascent revolutionaries had organised themselves and put in place a framework of control which eventually usurped the royal government. Too late, the Scots Highlanders rose, but were defeated at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in February 1776. Repression had by then become the order of the day and was so successful that loyalists were cowed into submission for the next four and a half years. Unwilling to forego their allegiance to the Crown, many were imprisoned, brought to the whipping post, banished, subjected to confiscation, and executed for treason, particularly under an Act of 1777. However, it was not so much the revolutionary authorities whom the loyalists came to fear as mobs of revolutionary irregulars who, unrestrained by concepts of civilised behavior, took advantage of the disordered times and practised all sorts of enormities ranging from plundering and destruction of property to severe chastisement, murder, and rape. Lawlessness was rife, and nothing could be done by the revolutionary authorities to suppress it. Indeed, matters were so bad that many loyalists took to lying out in the woods or swamps for safety.
Correspondents of the day were led by delicacy to cloud over the fact that rape and other sexual villainy were widely committed by the revolutionary irregulars of the Carolinas, and later writers tacitly followed suit. We owe it to the Reverend E. W. Caruthers for peeling away the layers of obscuration, acquainted as he was with those who had lived through the war. Yet even he, though unmistakable in his meaning, could only bring himself to generalise when, for example, he described the treatment of Scots Highlanders in and near Cross Creek: “. . . individuals and irresponsible companies, who acted without any special authority, seemed to think that, because the Highlanders had risen in arms against the country and had been vanquished, they were at liberty to insult them, plunder them and trample upon them as they pleased. In this way a great many cruelties and outrages on decency were practised which were too disgusting to appear on the pages of history, and we pass them over with the names of the actors, leaving them to the imagination of the reader, but assuring him that when he has given his imagination full play he will hardly go beyond the reality.”
Yes, it may be said, but Caruthers was speaking about North Carolina. What basis do I have for concluding that such acts were committed in its neighboring state to the south? If I were to talk as one who is a legislative draftsman, I would say that history often cannot meet the requirement of the criminal law that matters be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If it had to do so, much of history would not be written. Rather, it has frequently to rely, like the civil law, on establishing facts and forming conclusions “on a balance of probability.” As we look farther into the past, it is like looking down on a landscape through a patchwork of clear sky and clouds. Some features are clearly visible, whereas others, as in the present instance, are partially obscured. Yet the features we can see often allow us to form conclusions about those we cannot see or can see only imperfectly. It would of course be possible to opt out of the exercise but the public at large looks to historians to try and if possible find the answers.
When public order totally breaks down, it is a fact of life that the dregs of society creep out of the woodwork (to mix my metaphors) and take advantage of the disordered times to perpetrate all sorts of enormities. A little more than a decade before 1780, as the Reverend Charles Woodmason reveals, such a situation obtained in the South Carolina Backcountry, where freebooters committed all kinds of villainy ranging from robberies, murders and torture to rapes, gang rapes and the abduction of girls and young women. It is stretching credulity to believe that such villainy did not break out again in 1780 and 1781, particularly as so many people continued to be unrestrained by concepts of civilised behavior. Plundering, maltreatment, mutilation and murder of loyalists are on record, and in the light of what had occurred only a few years earlier it is unlikely that matters stopped there. Out of delicacy, as I say, correspondents then and later were led to cloud over rape and other sexual villainy, but there is no reason to suppose that revolutionary irregulars in South Carolina were unlike their neighbors over the northern border. So the clear pictures portrayed by Woodmason and Caruthers serve to cast light on the clouded events in the South Carolina Backcountry of 1780 and 1781. On a balance of probability the picture there was the same.
Further evidence of the plight of North Carolina loyalists is given by Charles Stedman, Cornwallis’s commissary during the winter campaign of 1781: “The commissary, who considered it as his duty not only to furnish provisions to the army but also to learn the disposition of the inhabitants, fell in about this time with a very sensible man, a Quaker, who, being interrogated as to the state of the country, replied that it was the general wish of the people to be reunited to Britain; but that they had been so often deceived in promises of support, and the British had so frequently relinquished posts, that the people were now afraid to join the British army lest they should leave the province, in which case the resentment of the revolutioners would be exercised with more cruelty; that although the men might escape or go with the army, yet such was the diabolical conduct of those people that they would inflict the severest punishment upon their families. ‘Perhaps,’ said the Quaker, ‘thou art not acquainted with the conduct of thy enemies towards those who wish well to the cause thou art engaged in. There are some who have lived two and even three years in the woods without daring to go to their houses but have been secretly supported by their families. Others, having walked out of their houses under a promise of being safe, have proceeded but a few yards before they have been shot. Others have been tied to a tree and severely whipped. I will tell thee of one instance of cruelty: a party surrounded the house of a loyalist; a few entered; the man and his wife were in bed; the husband was shot dead by the side of his wife.’ The writer of this replied that those circumstances were horrid but under what government could they be so happy as when enjoying the privileges of Englishmen? ‘True,’ said the Quaker, ‘but the people have experienced such distress that I believe they would submit to any government in the world to obtain peace.’ The commissary, finding the gentleman to be a very sensible, intelligent man, took great pains to find out his character. Upon enquiry he proved to be a man of the most irreproachable manners and well known to some gentlemen of North Carolina then in our army, and whose veracity was undoubted.”
Though it is difficult to conceive, repression of North Carolina loyalists became even more severe in the summer of 1780, initiated when they rose prematurely in Tryon County and were defeated at Ramsour’s Mill. Faced with joining the revolutionary militia or going to jail, Col. Samuel Bryan and near 800 loyalists were forced to flee the forks of the Yadkin and joined McArthur at Cheraw Hill on June 30.
In South Carolina the communication between Charlestown and Camden soon became a matter of concern. As Cornwallis observed to Rawdon, “The great difficulty of our communication is that we can have no fixt posts on any of the rivers, or indeed in any part of the lower country. No way occurs to me but sending some of those loose corps to make incursions and intimidate.” Accordingly Tarleton and thirty of the British Legion cavalry, who were in Charlestown, were placed under orders to march for this purpose, though ultimately bound for Camden.
In the late evening of July 31 the detachment set off, passing through the great gate of Charlestown covered by a strong horn-work of masonry constructed by the besieged and now being improved by Moncrief as part of his strengthening of the lines. On they marched past the Quarter House, five and a half miles distant, a place of festivity and refreshment frequented by British officers and their female admirers, before passing by the Eight-Mile-House, a tavern on the Goose Creek Road. From there they began to make very slow progress indeed. Battered by violent winds and heavy rains which had been raging for the past eight days, the Low Country was so completely flooded that the detachment, joined by a party of militia, did not cross the Santee at Lenud’s Ferry until August 6. Before crossing, Tarleton reported to Cornwallis:
August 5th 1780
Earl Cornwallis etc. etc. etc.
I have the honor to inform you of my reaching this place this morning. The incessant rains having rais’d the water and destroyed the small bridges render’d the journey hitherto tedious.
Colonel Ball is here. His militia are not numerous. He will, I believe, be able to furnish me with about 25 young men to assist in allaying this commotion near Black River and intermediate to Lenew’s and Murray’s Ferrys. They likewise will be able to point out the instruments of disaffection.
I cannot ascertain whether Major Wemyss is marched from George Town. I shall if possible communicate with him. For that purpose I shall dispatch a man to him this afternoon.
The country, my Lord, I found scared. I prais’d the militia, tho’ not large, for their alacrity in turning out.
They talked of the enemy crossing to this side the Santee. Their fears multiplied their dangers. A man is just come in who informs me that they lye in bodies of 30 and 40. Many of the insurgents, having taken certificates and paroles, don’t deserve lenity. None shall they experience. I have promis’d the young men who chuse to assist me in this expedition the plunder of the leaders of the faction. If warfare allows me, I shall give these disturbers of the peace no quarter. If humanity obliges me to spare their lives, I shall convey them close prisoners to Camden. Fire and confiscation must take place on their effects etc. I must discriminate with severity.
I shall cross the ferry tomorrow, my Lord, and make use of every exertion and precaution in my power. I send all my baggage to Nelson’s under the escort of the old militia on this side.
My Lord, I have the honor to be with the greatest respect
Your Lordship’s devoted servant
Advancing to Black River, the detachment began to punish those in that quarter who had revolted. The detachment, but not the militia, then moved on to Camden, which they reached by the 10th. There Tarleton found that the situation for the British was becoming critical.
Preparations had long been afoot for the autumn campaign in North Carolina, yet by August 6 a great part of the supplies for the campaign were still not very far advanced on their way to Camden. They were being conveyed, not by land carriage, which their extent, the length of the journey, and the wear and tear on horses made impractical, but almost entirely by water: along the Cooper River and Wadboo Creek from Charlestown to Wadboo Landing, and from Cooke’s Landing on the Santee to Camden, with only the fifteen miles between the two landings being covered by road. By now all preparations for the campaign were at risk as Gates menaced Camden.
Gates, a major general in the Continental Army, had been appointed on June 13 to supersede Johann Kalb. On July 13 he arrived at Hillsborough, North Carolina, and twelve days later joined Kalb at Coxe’s Mill. Despite the wretched state of his troops, he immediately ordered a direct march across Deep and Pee Dee Rivers through barren terrain towards Camden. Joined by Caswell and 1,200 North Carolina militia on August 7, he marched on, but finding four days later that Rawdon occupied a very strong position on Little Lynches Creek, he moved westwards to Rugeley’s Mills. There he was joined by Brig. Gen. Edward Stevens and some 800 Virginia militia. Meanwhile Rawdon concentrated his force and fell back to Camden, towards which Gates advanced from Rugeley’s in the late evening of the 15th. It lay only thirteen miles to the south.
As the British hold on South Carolina gradually weakened, Cornwallis was preoccupied in Charlestown with regulating the civil and commercial affairs of the town and country, endeavoring to form a militia in the lower districts, and forwarding the preparations for the autumn campaign. After handing over the business to Balfour, who arrived as Commandant on August 3, he set out for Camden one week later. In the night between the 13th and 14th he arrived there with a fixed resolution to attack Gates at all hazards.
Coincidentally, as Gates advanced south towards Camden in the late evening of the 15th, Cornwallis marched north to meet him.
John Richard Alden, The South in the Revolution 1763-1789 (Louisiana State University Press, 1976)
The Reverend E W Caruthers, Interesting Revolutionary Incidents and Sketches of Character, chiefly in the “Old North State”: Second Series (Philadelphia, 1856)
Robert O DeMond,The Loyalists in North Carolina during the Revolution (Duke University Press, 1940)
Dictionary of National Biography (London, 1885-1901)
Lyman C Draper, King’s Mountain and its Heroes (Cincinnati, 1881)
Sir John Fortescue, A History of the British Army, vol III (Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1902)
Anne King Gregorie, Thomas Sumter (The R L Bryan Co, 1931)
Paul David Nelson,General Horatio Gates, a Biography (Louisiana State University Press, 1976)
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)
Franklin and Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis: The American Adventure (Houghton Mifflin Co, 1970)
The Reverend Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution, edited by Richard J Hooker (University of North Carolina Press, 1953)
“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 Upcountry above Augusta, extending from the headwaters of the Oconee downwards and between that river and the Savannah.
For a discussion of the reasons for Tarleton’s policy of deterrence, see Ian Saberton, “Was the American Revolutionary War in the south winnable by the British?” in his The American Revolutionary War in the south: A Re-evaluation from a British perspective in the light of The Cornwallis Papers (Tolworth UK: Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd, 2018), 16-19.