Portrait of General Nathanael Greene by Charles Willson Peale
When the war began in 1775, the British had little military presence outside Boston. Thus, outside of New England, militant patriots quickly sent the royal governors packing, and established new governments. From the British point of view, rebellious forces had overthrown legitimate government and were oppressing loyal British subjects. For the British to govern, they would have to successfully invade and occupy.
Fort Ticonderoga’s cannon and Washington’s army forced the British to retreat from New England to Nova Scotia. Saratoga and the resulting French alliance rendered Howe’s occupation of Philadelphia meaningless and swiftly impossible (as troops were now needed elsewhere), which reduced the British presence in the middle colonies to the greater New York City area. Could they recoup in the South? Well, they tried, and tried hard.
For the British, the war in the south was a bitter experience. For one thing, their expectations of extensive Loyalist recruitment throughout the area were disappointed. The South Carolina back country was, in fact, largely loyalist. But three years of patriot intimidation and control, had made loyalists chary of coming forward to aid the troops that might (and, in less than three years, did) leave them high and dry, with a choice of persecution or emigration.
Then there were the frustrations of chasing bands such as those of Francis Marion, “the swamp fox,” and other natives who knew every back trail of their native land, and were ideally poised to hit and run away. This was guerrilla warfare, in an age before guerrilla warfare was recognized.
And perhaps more frustrating than anything else was to thoroughly defeat two American generals and win battle after battle, at one time capturing 5,000 men in one operation, and then, facing Nathanael Greene, win victory after victory, with each one leaving you closer to defeat.
British strategy was elementary for a naval power. Use the Navy to capture a port for a secure base, and fan out from there. But after the failure of an attempt to capture Charleston, South Carolina, in June, 1776, they made no new attempt in the Carolinas for three more years.
In December, 1778, 3,500 troops brought down from New York captured Savannah, Georgia. The following month, additional troops joined them, by land, from St. Augustine, Florida. Out of the combined force, 1,000 men were sent to capture Augusta, and took it, but then had to abandon it when General Benjamin Lincoln, who commanded the Continental Army in the south, sent militia from North and South Carolina.
In October 1779, a combined French and Continental Army attack on Savannah failed catastrophically — 901 American and French casualties, as opposed to 54 for the British. Sir Henry Clinton, with Savannah secure, moved against Charleston early in 1780, blockading the harbor, trapping Lincoln was in the city with about 5,000 Army and militia troops, and cutting off supplies. After a siege of several weeks, on May 12, 1780, Lincoln had to surrender, and Clinton had won the greatest British victory of the war. After the fall of Charleston, the American war effort in the state was reduced to partisan warfare such as by Francis Marion, the “swamp fox,” with fewer than 100 men.
Clinton now had the South’s biggest city and seaport. He had numerical superiority, and, for a change, the taste of success. He passed control of the British effort to Lord Cornwallis, and in mid-August Cornwallis decisively defeated General Horatio Gates, who had replaced Lincoln, in the Battle of Camden. So far so good for the British.
But then Washington replaced Gates with always reliable Nathanael Greene.
Greene gave General Daniel Morgan 1,000 men, and Morgan crushed Banastre Tarleton’s troops at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781. Then Greene fought “the race to the Dan (River),” a series of skirmishes as the Continental Army retreated northward in the face of superior numbers. The British won every skirmish, but they couldn’t trap or destroy Greene’s army, and every fight cost them casualties — about 2,000 men, in all – that they couldn’t replace.
As the ratio changed, there came a time when Greene felt able to stand against Cornwallis. For the British, the Battle of Guilford Court House was another tactical victory and strategic defeat. Cornwallis held the field, but he took so many casualties that he had to retreat to the coast – Wilmington, North Carolina — for reinforcements and resupply. And at this point, Cornwallis decided to attack Virginia, as that is where most of Greene’s supplies were coming from. Without informing Clinton, who was still his commander, Cornwallis marched from Wilmington into Virginia and joined the army that was already raiding there (that army having as one of its commanders Benedict Arnold).
As soon as Cornwallis abandoned inland North Carolina, Greene began to reconquer South Carolina. By June, 1781, the British presence there had been reduced to Charleston and Savannah.
Meanwhile Cornwallis, as all the world knows, received orders to construct a fortified naval post on the Virginia peninsula. He chose Yorktown, which would have been perfectly safe had the British fleet not been defeated in the Battle of the Chesapeake. Washington came hurrying down from the north, and the Continental Army and their French allies put Yorktown under siege. On October 19, 1781, it was all over. Even though Sir Henry Clinton still commanded a British army in New York, he had no idea what to do with it. Hardly mattered. Yorktown was the last straw. A new ministry decided that Britain would have to get out of the situation it was in. If that meant letting the colonies go, so be it.
The south’s ordeal was over.