BOOK REVIEW: South Carolina Provincials: Loyalists in British Service During the American Revolution by Jim Piecuch (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2023)
In his recently published text, South Carolina Provincials, Jim Piecuch provides a well-researched and informative account of South Carolina’s Provincial Loyalists units and their actions in the southern theater during the American Revolution. These units are often referred to as royalists. Provincial units formed a substantial part of the British military establishment and filled the void between regular British army units and local militia. Provincial forces were raised to serve for the duration of the war, and as such were better trained, more capable and professional than most militia. These units often augmented regular British army forces, and also operated independently or in conjunction with militia. Late in the war, many South Carolina Provincial Loyalists units were mounted on horseback.
Piecuch’s detailed discussions of people and events begins in 1775 as Loyalists resisted the actions and demands of revolutionaries. He outlines the challenges faced by the South Carolina revolutionaries in attempting to gain support of various groups of backcountry leaders who held strong Loyalist convictions and opposed the actions of the “association,” some forming a “counter-association.” He describes initial events that occurred primarily within the geographic boundaries of South Carolina. As the revolutionaries gained political and military control in South Carolina numerous Loyalists went underground or become refugees, with many refugees ultimately seeking refuge and assembling in East Florida.
The Royal Governor of East Florida, Patrick Tonyn, using his authority as the colony’s commander in chief of military forces, and lacking adequate forces to protect the colony, organized the East Florida Rangers, sometimes called the King’s Rangers. With a substantial number of South Carolina Loyalists ready to defend the interests of the crown in the south, he commissioned Thomas Brown a provincial lieutenant colonel to command the unit.
As the narrative unfolds, readers will find Piecuch addresses the events using numerous primary sources supplemented by credible secondary sources. He presents the events in a balanced approach, referencing Loyalist and, where appropriate, Patriot perspectives. He highlights the initial challenges of the awkward command structures and leadership conflicts that prevented forces from achieving unity of effort. Ultimately it is the mission and individual soldier who suffers when leadership and management of military forces lacks full cohesion. Although these organizational failures are not the primary focus of his narrative, they echo the enduring challenge associated with going to war with a non-cohesive military force. Nonetheless, in time the provincial forces proved their value.
As the war progressed leaders began to overcome the challenges associated with integrating regulars and provincials as training, resourcing and an appreciation of the value of provincial forces improved. This resulted in the organization of multiple South Carolina provincial units that operated extensively in East Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas as the war continued. The war took its toll on the South Carolina Provincial forces and during the 1780 occupation of South Carolina by British forces, just when indigenous force could make significant contributions, their effective numbers dwindled due to fatigue, combat casualties and illness. The author states that the loss of good officers and experienced combat veterans “sapped the morale of a force still in the process of being organized and trained.”
Piecuch’s research and analysis identifies the contribution of these units and names individuals who participated in many engagements, skirmishes and battles throughout the south. He addresses their contributions and actions at some of the more well-known actions in the southern theater as well as lesser-known engagements with provincial involvement. Piecuch provides excellent analysis and a balanced and informed perspective. He achieves this by placing the South Carolina Provincial Loyalists in context with the larger events and campaigns in the southern theater. He does not oversell their actions and accomplishments but highlights their sustained military contributions in efforts to return royal authority in the south.
Piecuch makes no attempt to identify the total number of individuals that served in South Carolina Provincial units or the numbers of casualties during the war because records are fragmentary, but it was clearly a substantial number. With the British evacuation of Charleston in December 1782, 242 men were organized into one regiment, the South Carolina Royalists. They set sail for St. Augustine; it was the largest of three provincial regiments sent there. Many of the men were discharged from service in the Spring of 1783. These former soldiers were apprehensive about living in Florida under control of the Spanish. In the fall of 1783, as the Colony of East Florida passed to Spanish control, some South Carolina Provincials returned to family, while others took land grants in Canada or relocated to the Bahamas. A few settled in Great Britian while others continued in service of Great Britian’s regular army.
Piecuch concludes these South Carolina Provincials served honorably for a cause in which they believed. He produced a detailed, well researched and comprehensive account of the service of South Carolina’s Loyalist Provincial units. His text serves as a welcome addition to documenting the contributions of these units and placing them in the larger context of the southern theater.
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