BOOK REVIEW: March to Independence: The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies, 1775-1776 by Michael Cecere (Yardley, Pa.: Westholme Publishing for Journal of the American Revolution Books, 2021)
Historian Michael Cecere has written an overview of the coming of the Revolutionary War in the South, from the months immediately leading up to the outbreak of fighting to the battles in the summer of Independence. As his book’s subtitle announces, his focus is not only regional but also on a discreet timetable, that is, from the spring of 1775 to the summer of 1776, when American independence was proclaimed. An addition to the Journal of the American Revolution Books series, March to Independence is an enjoyable read with a primary focus on military matters, and to a lesser extent, political developments in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. Each chapter covers a specific season or month in which events in the aforementioned five colonies are described seriatim, with section headings that make for easy reference. Cecere also includes a brief final section on the 1776 Cherokee Campaign that involved all of the southern provinces. This new title is a welcome focus on the Revolutionary War’s early months in the South, something of a corrective to a long overemphasis on affairs in New England and New York in 1775 and 1776. “The consequence of placing so much attention on the War in the South from 1778 onward,” the author notes, “is that people assume that nothing happened in the southern states before 1778.” (xii) The book’s publisher should also be praised for including six maps, which, with the exception of the final one, are excellent, notably those of the battles of Great Bridge and Moore’s Creek Bridge.
Cecere starts his workmanlike narrative by detailing the conflicts in 1775 between the colonies’ royal governors and newly-created provincial governing bodies, which escalated quickly into armed conflict. Virginia governor Lord Dunmore’s lengthy, bitter argument with Virginia’s assembly, particularly over the colony’s gunpowder supply in Williamsburg, provoked high tensions, and eventually led to his flight to a Royal Navy vessel in the James River for his personal safety. Eventually he alienated Virginians by encouraging enslaved people on Patriot plantations to run away to join a Black loyalist regiment he recently created. Dunmore eventually sailed for New York. Similar trials were endured by Gov. Josiah Martin in North Carolina, and William Campbell in South Carolina. As Cecere notes, the key to maintaining royal control of the colonies, at least for the governors, was the Crown’s ability to place navy ships in American rivers to shore up loyalty to the king in Williamsburg, New Bern, Charleston, Savannah, and Saint Augustine—and to protect the governors.
In this reviewer’s evaluation, Cecere’s most valuable contribution to the story of the early war in the South is his well-written descriptions of the battles of Great Bridge, Moores Creek Bridge, and Sullivan’s Island, each of which have helpful, detailed maps to accompany the text. Great Bridge, near Norfolk, Virginia, was an important early Patriot victory on December 9, 1775, which forced Lord Dunmore to abandon the area and dampened Loyalist support for months thereafter. Similarly, at Moores Creek Bridge in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River Basin, Patriot troops routed a force of Loyalists (almost all of which were Scottish Highland emigres) in February, 1776, largely putting an end to the Tory threat in the new state for years. And in South Carolina, a major attack on Charleston in late June 1776 by a British joint army/navy operation was turned back decisively at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. No major British campaign to operate in the southern states was seen for several years thereafter. The author should also be complimented for including a short but incisive description of the 1776 Cherokee Campaign in September and October, which is often overlooked by other military histories.
Cecere’s writing style is easy to read, and his descriptions of the battles are also well done; as avid readers know, this is a skill not all writers of military history have mastered. The author clearly has spent time with primary sources. For example, he offers numerous block quotes within the narrative, many of which are rich first person accounts of the battles and campaigns—and their destructive aftermath.
Regarding the sources the author relies upon, Cecere has used the published colonial and state records and laws of the southern provinces, along with memoirs and recollections, and many newspapers of the period. With regard to many secondary sources, however, it is surprising that the book does not engage with much previous scholarship. The bibliography lists no modern works of Wayne Lee, Jim Piecuch, Rachel Klein, Michael McDonnell, Jeffrey Crow, and others who have published on the South at the outbreak of War. Additionally, the so-called (and likely spurious) “Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence”of May 22, 1775 is not discussed or debated, and the attempts by patriot leaders to secure the support of former North Carolina Regulators is also not covered. Nevertheless, the author has provided students of the Revolutionary War in the South a valuable overview of an often overlooked part of the contest for independence.