John Rutledge: Governor of South Carolina, 1779

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

March 25, 2021
by Eric Sterner Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

John Rutledge had been prominent in South Carolina politics virtually since establishing his Charleston law practice in 1761. He served in the General Assembly, tousled with the governor over colonial governance, represented the colony in the Stamp Act Congress, then again in the First and Second Continental Congresses. A moderate, he was instrumental in drafting South Carolina’s wartime constitutions and often found himself as the state’s wartime chief executive, making him the commander in chief of South Carolina’s military forces. He had been involved in successfully repelling Britain’s 1776 attack on Charleston, basking in that early victory’s glow beside South Carolina Col. William Moultrie and Continental Maj. Gen. Charles Lee. In 1778 he resigned his post in a disagreement over the state’s proposed constitution. Scaling down his political engagement, Rutledge focused on his business interests, which had suffered.

Rutledge’s modest withdrawal from public life proved only temporary. In 1778 the British invaded Georgia. In January 1779 South Carolina’s governor resigned on the grounds that dealing with the military emergency was beyond his capability. The General Assembly then elected Rutledge to the position on February 5, 1779.[1] Facing the British in Georgia, loyalist militia and Native Americans in the west, and the British Navy off the coasts, Rutledge appealed to the Continental Congress and nearby states for aid. Only Pulaski’s Legion was available. South Carolina’s leaders concluded they had been abandoned. Rutledge responded by calling up the militia and ordered mustering troops to gather at Orangeburg, where he joined them at the end of March. While the assembly proved disappointing, enough men gathered for Continental Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, commanding the Southern Department, to try and liberate upper Georgia by marching up the Savannah River in April.

After repelling Franco-American expeditions and largely conquering the state, the British began advancing into South Carolina under the command of Maj. Gen. Augustine Prevost. Unfortunately, Rutledge as commander-in-chief of South Carolina’s forces and Lincoln did not coordinate well. While both agreed on the importance of an offensive, they sent conflicting orders to forces in South Carolina. (When informed of this, Rutledge countermanded his own orders, deferring to Lincoln, but the failed meeting of minds undermined the coherence of American strategy.) Rutledge’s focus remained with General Lincoln and Augusta, Georgia. Brig, Gen, William Moultrie and Lt. Gov. Thomas Bee at Charleston were left to mobilize the state’s resources against Prevost.[2]

Prevost swept Moultrie and his forces away and they finally retreated into Charleston on May 9. Rutledge hurried eastward with his troops from Orangeburg and arrived the next day, after declaring martial law and adopting a scorched earth policy before the advancing British.[3] With the city’s militia and some troops dispatched by Lincoln, Moultrie and Rutledge had assembled some 2,400 troops in the city; Prevost was approaching with a like number, although American officials estimated that some 4,000 or more were coming.[4] The tension was palpable. When Rutledge came across militia troops languishing about the unfinished defenses, he cursed and struck some, only to return and apologize the next day.[5]

The overlapping chains of command between Continental and state troops that Rutledge had smoothed over with General Lee in 1776 and again with General Lincoln in 1779 reared their ugly heads. In the earlier cases, Rutledge had addressed them in practice by issuing his own orders to follow the orders of Continental officers without subordinating himself to the principle of unity of command. But on May 11, he or his aides sent state troops outside of Charleston’s lines to skirmish with British troops approaching the city without first consulting Moultrie. Count Pulaski ventured forward with some militia and skirmished with Prevost’s advance guard. The Americans lost, something Charleston’s inadequate defenders could ill afford.[6] That night, another party forward of the primary line of defense was accidentally fired upon, killing Maj. Benjamin Huger and a handful of his men.[7] Moultrie exploded:

This party was sent without the lines by the governor, as I was told, to stop a gap that was left open for a passage through the abbettis. This time the command was unsettled; the governor looking upon it as his right to command the militia; and I knew it to be my right to command the continental troops. The governor’s orders were carried about by some of his aids, in this manner . . .’you are to obey the orders of the governor; of Gen. Moultrie; and of the privy council,’ (8 of them).”

Moultrie countermanded the direction to obey orders from the privy council, but the word still spread up and down the lines of defenders.[8] Moultrie was in the midst of this confusion when word of the latest fiasco reached him, at which point he insisted on unity of command. Rutledge, who had denied ordering the militia forward, and the privy council, promptly ceded authority to him, but the damage was already done. As was the case in 1776, when it was expedient Rutledge deferred authority in practice that he would not surrender in principle.

In the predawn hours of May 12, Rutledge summoned Moultrie for a meeting and asked whether the brigadier thought they should parley with the British then outside Charleston’s landward defenses. According to Moultrie, South Carolina’s civil authorities were under the impression that Prevost had seven to eight thousand men with him, whereas the city’s defenders numbered under two thousand. Fearing that British occupation would result in wanton murder and property damage, they sought terms from Prevost for surrendering the city.[9] Prevost expected the city to surrender and promised to “do all in his power” to prevent the horrors of war and take necessary measures to prevent public disorder. Those who declined British authority would be treated as prisoners of war.

Rutledge and the privy council convened to discuss Prevost’s offer. Moultrie took a quick tally of his own forces and summarized the latest intelligence about the British, concluding that they only slightly outnumbered the Americans roughly 3,600 to 3,200.[10] Then, he invited Col. John Laurens and Count Casimir Pulaski to join him and meet with the privy council at the governor’s home. Rutledge still did not accept Moultrie’s tally.[11] The Adjutant General of the State still argued that Prevost had seven to eight-thousand men and Rutledge believed the Americans were closer to 1,800. Meanwhile, the state’s engineer argued that the lines opposing Prevost were indefensible.[12] Although Moultrie, Laurens, and Pulaski wanted to fight, Rutledge and the council reached a different decision. Prevost’s offer was unacceptable, but by a vote of five to three South Carolina’s governing authorities made a stunning offer:

To propose a neutrality, during the war between Great-Britain and America, and the question, whether the state shall belong to Great-Britain, or remain one of the United States? To be determined by the treaty of peace between those two powers.[13]

South Carolina would sit out the war. Moultrie had difficulty finding an officer willing to carry those terms to the British, who eventually declined them as a political question beyond Prevost’s military authority. Prevost would only discuss military matters. That put the matter back into Moultrie’s hands and he was determined to defend the town. Moultrie noted that two members of the privy council, Christopher Gadsden and Thomas Ferguson, had been opposed and later approached him offering to fight.[14]

Rutledge’s position on the matter is unclear. Whether he opposed the offer and deferred to the council or fully embraced it is open to debate. As governor, he was not a voting member of the privy council, which would suggest he deferred to the council. (Even the lieutenant governor’s status as a member was tenuous under the 1778 constitution.)[15] After all, he had taken the field himself when the British moved into Georgia. When informed of a similar British proposal for Georgia, Rutledge replied to Moultrie: “Lieut. Col. Provost’s proposition of a temporary neutrality, for a part of Georgia, is really too absurd, and ridiculous to require a moments consideration: Indeed it scarce merits an answer.”[16]

The privy council was an advisory body only; decisions, particularly on matters of war and peace, were the purview of the governor as commander-in-chief. Thus, he was not constitutionally bound by the five to three vote. (Indeed, Article XXXIII of the 1778 state constitution precluded the governor from commencing a war or concluding a peace without the legislature’s consent.)[17] But, likely sharing the feeling of abandonment, he accepted the advice well enough to allow the proposal to go forward to Prevost. Indeed, as the British moved off, the governor remained concerned about Charleston’s security, not pursuing them.[18]

David Ramsay, a member of South Carolina’s General Assembly and one of the first historians to chronicle the state’s wartime experiences, argued that the entire episode was a ruse to buy time.[19] The discussions did indeed take all of May 12 and Ramsay knew the participants. He was in a position to offer insight into their thinking. It would not be surprising to find Rutledge pursuing exactly that tactic, using the negotiations to put off Prevost, likely knowing that the British officer lacked the authority to accept such an offer, while also assuaging the concerns of a nervous privy council as General Lincoln’s army approached. On the other hand, Moultrie did not read developments that way and Laurens reportedly exclaimed, “Thank God, we are on our legs again” when Moultrie informed the governor and privy council that he intended to fight rather than surrender. In short, he and Laurens took the offer seriously enough. We can only speculate now.

The next morning, Charleston’s defenders woke to find Prevost and his army had decamped and were withdrawing back to Georgia. They had intercepted a letter from Lincoln to Moultrie saying he was on his way with the Continentals. Prevost had no interest in being sandwiched between two forces.[20] Whether through political manipulation or blind luck, South Carolina remained in the war.


[1]Henry Flanders, The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, Vol. I (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1874), 555; Edward McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1775-1780, Vol. 1 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1901), 280-281.

[2]Flanders, The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices, 1: 556; Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1981), 31; James Haw, John & Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1997), 125; McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1: 351-352.

[3]Haw, John & Edward Rutledge, 125.

[4]Flanders, The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices, 1: 559; William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, Vol. 1 (New York: David Longworth, Printer, 1802), 408-409. Moultrie arrived on the 7th, but his men trickled in. Haw, John & Edward Rutledge, 125. Rumors put Prevost’s numbers as high as 7,000.

[5]Haw, John & Edward Rutledge, 125-126.

[6]McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1: 357-358.

[7]Ibid., 359.

[8]Moultrie, Memoirs, 1: 425.

[9]Ibid., 1: 426-427; Walter Edgar, Partisans & Redcoats, special preservation ed. (New York: William Morrow, 2001), 45-46.

[10]Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, 429-430.

[11]Moultrie, Memoirs, 1: 429.

[12]McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1:365.

[13]Moultrie, Memoirs, 1: 433-434; McCrady,The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1:367. McCrady indicates that ten people from the governing council actually attended the meeting, counting Governor Rutledge and Lt. Gov. Thomas Bee, but not counting Moultrie and the other military officers.

[14]Moultrie, Memoirs, 1: 434.

[15]Article IX, South Carolina Constitution of 1778,

[16]Moultrie, Memoirs, 1: 372-373. Moultrie was referring to a similar offer by Prevost’s son, a subordinate officer under his command.

[17]See note 13.

[18]Haw, John & Edward Rutledge, 127.

[19]David Ramsay, The History of the Revolution of South Carolina, Vol. II (Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785), 27-28; Haw, John & Edward Rutledge, 127.

[20]Flanders, The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices, 1: 563; George Vant Santvoord, Sketches of the Lives and Judicial Services of the Chief Justices (New York: Charles Scribner, 1854), 124. Vant Santvoord attributes the neutrality proposal to the officers of the garrison, i.e., Moultrie, rather than Rutledge and the privy council, but these seems unlikely.


  • Excellent work on this. This Yankee is convinced that many important contributions of the southern colonies to the Revolution have been overlooked in the popular narrative, probably because of the cultural, economic (and military) dominance of the north at the time of the centennial. You have elevated some of that neglected history here.

  • Eric,
    I am looking for some information, if it is out there, regarding John Rutledge’s relationship with Thomas Sumter and Nathanael Greene in the Winter and Spring of 1781. I have a theory that Rutledge is more active in the military affairs of that period than we tend to give him credit for. Particularly, how strongly did he feel toward civilian oversight of the military? Is there any record of him meeting with Greene (or corresponding) around January 19, 1781? How active (or not) was John Rutledge in the decision to recruit Sumter’s Brigade (terms known as Sumter’s Law)? Any ideas on where such info might be.

    1. Hi Wayne:

      It is a bit of a challenge and one I can’t claim to have tackled. Honestly, if I was trying to answer those questions I’d probably ask you and some of the other JAR writers! After most of the leading rice kings surrendered with Charleston in 1780, Rutledge was pretty much a governor without a government or access to the real levers of power. Rutledge did make Sumter, Marion, and Pickens generals in the state militia under the 1779 militia law and gave them military districts, but he was essentially officially recognizing the facts on the ground. My guess is he was trying to co-opt Sumter and keep him within the state fold and subordinate to civilian authority. The lawyer in him would have compelled him it. But, it’s only speculation.

      He headed north to Philadelphia looking for help from the Continental Congress after Charleston fell. They provided it in the form of money. (Gates and the few Continentals available were already headed south.) Returning to SC, he rendezvoused with Gates and the survivors of Camden in Hillsborough, NC and then pretty much followed the army wherever it went. So, when Greene arrived south the two would have been in close proximity. After Greene joined the army in Charlotte, he clearly met with Rutledge at some point and they seemed to get along well, but Rutledge had little to offer in the way of resources. They appear to have had a meeting of minds about the need to keep the political cause alive in SC without allowing the backcountry militias to become too independent and making sure that northerners didn’t forget there was a war on in the Carolinas. A tricky balancing act, to be sure. In late-winter/early-spring ’81 Rutledge set out again for Philadelphia to do that. He rejoined Greene in late July/early August ’81.

      One of Rutledge’s biographers noted that Rutledge was not a copious note taker, correspondent, or diary keeper. So, there’s a relative paucity of material by him about that time. He did interact with others, so you can find some material about his activities in their correspondence and actions, like figuring out what dinosaurs looked like and how they behaved based on footprints and a few bones. During WW1the South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine also serialized some of his letters, edited by Joseph Barnwell. They’re on JSTOR an I found them through the Internet Archive. If you can find it, thought James Haw’s John & Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (University of GA Press, 1997) was an excellent dual biography. Very small press run, so it sells at outrageously high prices. I waited a few years to scarf one up at a merely obnoxious price. His notes and bibliography are pretty thorough.

      Hope that helps some.

  • Delighted to hear your input even if no hidden/unknown sources have appeared. Gov Rutledge is an interesting character, wish we had a bit more to go on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *