The Turning of the Tide in the Revolutionary War
John Ferling, author of Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence is the author of nine books and numerous articles on the American Revolution and early American wars. In the article below Ferling looks at the turning point in the Revolutionary War. Be sure to check back tomorrow for a Q and A with Ferling.
1776 was not America’s low ebb in the Revolutionary War, the nadir came in 1780 and 1781. The war was stalemated and there was bad news on nearly every front. France, America’s ally since 1778, had gained nothing by entering the conflict, leaving Congress to worry – not without good reason – that it might jump at the chance to make peace. The American economy had collapsed. War weariness gripped the land. With morale waning and the means to wage the war evaporating, General Washington warned that the American Revolution had never been “in such eminent danger.” But the worst news, at least in 1780, came from the battlefield.
Great Britain had shifted strategy after suffering a terrible defeat at Saratoga in 1777. No longer convinced that it could not win the war in the North, the ministry of Lord North switched to what became known as the Southern Strategy. Seeing the retention of the Southern colonies as crucial – the region produced vital cash crops, including tobacco and rice – and believing that the region abounded in Loyalists, Britain thereafter focused on the reconquest of Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. If successful, Britain might yet emerge from the war with a vast and profitable American empire that stretched from Canada though the trans-Appalachian West, onto the four rebel Southern provinces, and finally to Florida (won in the Seven Years’ War) and several sugar islands in the Caribbean. What is more, the United States, encircled by British colonies, would consist of only nine states. Its chances of survival would be slight. By August 1780 it appeared that Great Britain’s Southern Strategy was going to be a roaring success.
A British force had retaken Savannah late in 1778, and within eighteen months royal government had been reestablished in Georgia. In May 1780 a huge British force landed below Charleston. The city fell after a lengthy siege and nearly 7,000 American soldiers and sailors were killed or captured. Congress immediately rushed General Horatio Gates, America’s hero at Saratoga, to take command of a revamped Continental army in the South, but only weeks after his arrival he suffered a devastating defeat at Camden, South Carolina. More than 600 of his men were lost. For the third time in twenty months an American army had been destroyed in the South.
In the summer of 1780 the British high command made General Charles Cornwallis responsible for pacifying the remainder of South Carolina. Given a force of more than 6,000 men, he made rapid progress. Within a few weeks British posts were garrisoned all across the backcountry. Brimming with confidence, the British command announced that resistance in Georgia and South Carolina had been broken save for “a few scattering militia.” Both rebels and Cornwallis agreed that the loss of those two states would be fatal for North Carolina’s independence, and if it too was retaken, Virginia might be beyond salvation. Britain’s Southern Strategy appeared certain to succeed. The fate of the United States appeared bleak in the summer of 1780.
But Britain’s mission accomplished statement was premature. During that summer a great partisan rebellion stirred through South Carolina’s backcountry, and before long it forced Cornwallis into fateful choices that in time led to his undoing, and to a decisive American victory.
The Southern rebels who reached for their arms in 1780 were driven by myriad hopes and fears. Some fought to save the American Revolution, which they believed offered the promise of liberating political, social, and economic change. Others were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who long had loathed Great Britain and its state church. Some were adventurers or opportunists. Many sought revenge against the heavy handed actions of the British, who had jailed suspected rebels, liberated their slaves, and even burned churches. But nothing had stirred the South Carolinians as much as the bloody attack led by Colonel Banastre Tarleton against a force of Continentals in the Waxhaws north of Charleston late in May. Tarleton’s American Legion, a Loyalist force, had overwhelmed the Continentals, and then massacred up to 75 percent of them as they tried to surrender.
Some South Carolina rebels joined with guerrilla bands led by the likes of Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion, and Andrew Pickens. These guerrilla warriors emerged from dark swamps and thick forests to strike enemy supply lines and ambush British forage parties. Others, in small vigilante packs, terrorized Loyalists, hoping to keep them from aiding the British.
As the summer waned, Cornwallis no longer called the shots. The “whole country” was “in an absolute state of rebellion,” the once confident British general now said. Nearly 25 engagements were fought in the last two months of the summer. British losses soared above 650, including one entire Loyalist regiment, and Cornwallis was no longer assured that vital supplies would reach his men. Faced with a heavy attrition rate and unable to suppress the rebellion in South Carolina’s backcountry, Cornwallis made a portentous decision.
As the summer of 1780 ended, he took his army into North Carolina to sever the supply lines that sustained South Carolina’s partisan fighters. If that was not done, Cornwallis said, “we must give up both South Carolina and Georgia , and retire to the walls of Charleston.”
But Cornwallis was now on a treadmill to disaster. In the next six months his army suffered major defeats at King’s Mountain and Cowpens, and absorbed heavy losses in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. In the 10 months since the fall of Charleston, Cornwallis had lost some 3,500 men, and in April he marched what was left of his field army, some 1,400 men, further north. He had now decided that the Carolinas and Georgia could be pacified only if the supply routes that ran through Virginia could be shut down. Besides, he could unite with redcoats who were already in Virginia and possibly be reinforced by the main British army in New York.
It was a disastrous decision. Within four months of entering Virginia, Cornwallis with more than 8,000 men was trapped at Yorktown, bottled up by a French navy under Comte de Grasse and the combined armies of Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau. Unable to escape, Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781.
The stalemate that had endured since Saratoga was at last broken. Britain’s Southern Strategy had failed and London knew that it was hopeless to continue the war. America had won the Revolutionary War. The United States would consist of all 13 states and its borders would stretch to the Mississippi River. It would have a chance to survive and flourish.
The events that set in motion the turning of the tide in the Revolutionary War had occurred in the crucial summer of 1780. The turning point had come far from Washington’s headquarters and had not involved the Continental army. The inhabitants of the South Carolina backcountry, a people that wanted change and yearned to drive out the invading British redcoats, had risen up and changed the course of the war, and American history.