From Savannah to Eutaw Springs
We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.
British power had made one determined effort to secure the American south back in 1776: a land and sea operation to seize Charleston that had been shot up and driven off by a vigorous American defense. In the aftermath of this check, the British refocused the serious campaigning on the battlefields of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. This did not quite mean peace in the southland, though. Throughout the Carolinas and Georgia a civil war was raging. In a sense it had no more to do with a republican revolution than did the Indian wars on the frontier. Instead the revolution in the south incited and gave violent expression to old animosities. In small partisan bands the fighting went on, Whig against Tory, upcountry yeoman against Tidewater planter, “Nabour against Nabour.” In roving bands, they burned and pillaged and killed, and often it seemed that the partisans were motivated by nothing more than the free-booter’s appetite for plunder.
The British, however, consistently misread the meaning of this civil strife in the south. As always, British planners were gazing into a false fire: the belief that Tory legions were everywhere, simply awaiting the arrival of the king’s colors. In a sense the British were shaping a myth into a military policy: using Americans to conquer Americans. This policy arose from a refusal to face some hard facts: that Tories had yet to appear in any significant numbers; that when they had marched with Regulars, they had not made a decisive contribution anywhere; that while southern Tories might want to injure their Whig neighbors, they did not necessarily mean to strike a blow for the crown in doing so. British conviction seems to have blinded hard calculation. John Burgoyne had been no very shrewd analyst, but he had seen with his own eyes a salient fact in the north country and reported the same to London. When he turned the Germans east toward Bennington in ’77, the countryside had turned out swiftly enough, but not in support of the king’s colors. Wherever the king’s forces turned, Rebel militia, not Tories, were sure to swarm, and these part-time soldiers had slammed the door shut on whatever chance Gentleman Johnny had to escape his last post at Saratoga. It was possible that support for the king’s cause was deeper in the south. But there was a more substantial and strategic reason for the British to turn their energies and attention south in 1778. The entrance of France into the conflict meant that the West Indies would be a crucial theater of war, for neither empire could afford to lose the wealth-producing sugar islands. The British troops and supplies needed to defend their Caribbean posts would, it seemed, have to sail from southern ports. To that end, Sir Henry Clinton in November of 1778 sent a force of 3,500 British, Hessian, and Tory troops southward under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell. Two days before Christmas they were landed at the mouth of the Savannah River about fifteen miles south of Savannah. It was, as far as Sir Henry Clinton was concerned, the first step in bringing the American south back into the empire.
And a remarkably easy step it was, too. The defense of the city fell to the American commander in Georgia, Robert Howe, and he was plainly in a fix. His command was small to begin with, 700 Continentals and 150 local militia, and the enemy power arrayed against him was formidable. While Campbell’s force was coming ashore at Tybee Island, more British troops were on the march north from St. Augustine. Howe left a small detachment at Sunbury to check the British advance from the south and prepared the bulk of his force for the defense of Savannah. He shook out a ragged line east of the city, but when Campbell struck it in two columns on 29 December, it simply collapsed in sudden disaster. Killed and wounded numbered upwards of a hundred with another 500 captive. The British counted three killed and ten wounded in their conquest of Savannah. Three weeks later Augustine Prevost marched up from Florida, scattered the little garrison at Sunbury, and hiked on to take command in Savannah. He pushed a detachment under Campbell up the Savannah River to seize Augusta, and by the middle of February 1779 all of Georgia appeared to be firmly in British hands. Prevost, at any rate, was satisfied that Patriot power in Georgia was wholly broken. Throughout the spring and summer, he was content to consolidate his control and repair the none-too-formidable defenses of the city. It looked as if Georgia was genuinely back in the empire: the state legislature met under the authority of the British government.
The trouble here was not unanticipated by Congress, and that body sent General Benjamin Lincoln south at the end of ’78 to see what might be done to check the British initiative. Lincoln was a big, beefy, resolute soldier, but what he found when he arrived in Charleston in mid-December was not promising. There were only 1,500 troops immediately at hand, and reinforcements in the weeks ahead would bring his numbers to no more than 3,500. Still, he could hardly sit on his hands while the British subdued Georgia and geared up for a push into the Carolinas. He made a lunge at Savannah early in January, but given his offensive weakness and Prevost’s defensive strength, it was necessarily half-hearted and inconclusive. He took up a position just up the Savannah on the north bank. A month later there was a sharp little American success upcountry, where Colonel Andrew Pickens and a homespun force struck and routed Loyalist militia at Kettle Creek. The success now encouraged Lincoln to think he might retake Augusta and western Georgia. At the end of February he sent General John Ashe with a force of 1,500 off to the northwest. Augusta fell easily enough, but when Ashe crossed the Savannah River and pushed on to strike Campbell at Briar Creek he was himself struck front and rear. The battle on 3 March was short and savage: at a trifling loss to themselves, the British inflicted 400 casualties and routed the rest. Only 400 of the original 1,500 ever made it back to Lincoln’s camps. When Prevost sallied out of Savannah in May and threatened Charleston, Lincoln had to count himself lucky that the defenses of that city were fairly strong. He gave chase, hustling up from his position opposite Savannah, and made Prevost think better of his foray, sending the British back toward Savannah down the coastal islands. Though Lincoln managed to strike the enemy rearguard a sharp blow at Stono Ferry, Prevost escaped serious harm, and by June both sides settled into a stalemate.
Though Lincoln’s initial efforts had been unavailing in either Georgia or South Carolina, in September fresh troops and fresh hope arrived under sail from the West Indies: the Comte d’Estaing’s fleet with 4,000 infantrymen. The Frenchman was returning from the Caribbean flush with success, having had a hand in the capture of Granada and St. Vincent. He might have added Savannah to his conquests as well if he had gone briskly to work then and there, for Prevost’s force was now outnumbered and his defenses still in sorry disrepair. As it was, d’Estaing landed his white-coated infantry below the city on 12 September, delivered a demand to surrender, which was refused, and then went rather leisurely to work to establish a siege by regular approaches. As for cooperating with Lincoln, he treated his American counterpart with the same disdain that had enraged John Sullivan in Newport. (D’Estaing, it seems, was international in his arrogance; he infuriated his countrymen as hotly as his American allies.) It was two full weeks before he broke ground for his siege train, and well into October before he was ready and an allied plan of attack agreed to. In the meantime, Prevost’s garrison had been digging like miners, and a post that might have been taken in a single determined assault back in September was now a formidable position. On 5 October the French guns opened up without appreciable effect. The plan now called for American militiamen to demonstrate on the British left while the business-end of the battle was fought on the right: one French column would hug close to the swamp at the western reach of the British lines and drive for the Sailor’s Battery on the British extreme right; a combined French and American column under Lincoln and d’Estaing would at the same time drive for the Spring Hill redoubt at the southwest corner of the British defenses. On the map it was a sound battle plan, but such plans often look promising on the map.
The allied attack jumped off in a grey and foggy dawn on 9 October and ran immediately into trouble. The demonstration that the militiamen were to make on the right of the assault did not fool anyone and was easily beaten back. On the far left the French went astray in the bog, and when they emerged from the mire they were shot to pieces and sent stumbling back. D’Estaing’s and Lincoln’s columns pushed on with a resolute will, but an American deserter had revealed to the British the point of attack and the defenders at the Spring Hill position were well-prepared. Blasts of grapeshot and crashing volleys of musketry flamed out in the mist and tore at the heads of the attacking columns. Staggered but not broken, they pushed on. Some units managed to plant their colors on the enemy works, but a swift and savage counterattack drove them back and into enfilade fire from both flanks. And that was that, except for counting the casualties, which had been severe: 800 out of the 5,000 engaged. The British lost in all ranks just a hundred. Lincoln wanted to renew the fighting the next day, but d’Estaing, who had been twice wounded, had had enough. He was likewise properly anxious about his fleet in an exposed anchorage with the gales of November due to roar in at any time. On 28 October d’Estaing sailed for Martinique, and Lincoln’s bruised little army began trudging up the sandy roads to Charleston. As at Newport, a bright opportunity had come and gone with the French fleet. Americans might wonder if their allies were always going to leave them in the lurch. Still, no man could fault the French foot soldiers. They had suffered three casualties for every one American.
While the American camp brooded over their failure at Savannah, Sir Henry Clinton far to the north was taking heart. The real prize in the south was Charleston, and with the French fleet once more at sea it seemed a prize for the taking. Clinton’s first move early in October was simply to call in the Newport garrison, which had been doing little but staring at sea and sand for some time now. With these reinforcements he could manage an invasion force of 7,500. The day after Christmas 1779 they put to sea in a fleet now commanded by Vice Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot. As it happened, Britain, that great sea-faring nation, was suffering an acute shortage of first-rate fighting admirals just then. Arbuthnot was old, indecisive, and disagreeable, hardly a good choice to partner with Clinton in this venture since Clinton could be prickly himself and hated the sea and sea-faring. Indeed, Clinton’s agonies were probably as intense as anyone’s as the fleet ploughed southward through gale after winter gale. At length the storm-tossed ships put in off the Tybee, well south of Charleston on 1 February. With dry land under foot, Clinton went to work quite capably now, pushing on to the south bank of the Ashley River and seizing Fort Johnson at the mouth of Charleston Harbor on 6 March. When 1,200 reinforcements came in from Georgia, he moved again, marching a dozen miles up the Ashley and crossing to the Cooper. By the end of March he was well on his way to investing the city from the south, west, and north along the approaches between the two rivers.
In closing off the city from the seaward side, Clinton was determined not to make the same mistake he and Parker had made back in 1776. In that campaign Parker had attempted to blast his way into the haror by beating down the batteries at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, and the British warships had gotten much the worse in the exchange. This time Arbuthnot would simply cross the bar, run the batteries at Moultrie, and sail up the harbor. When the British warships did so on 9 April, the city was all but doomed. The only line out of the city now was being held open by a small force of cavalry and militia twenty miles up the Cooper at Monck’s Corners. Three days after the warships ran the batteries, Clinton sent a big, bold, sometimes brutal cavalryman, Colonel Banastre Tarleton, upriver after them. (Tarleton, then a lieutenant, had captured Charles Lee back in ’76). When Tarleton scattered the militiamen in a swift night attack on 14 April, that door was slammed shut and the city’s fate sealed. By the time Lord Rawdon came down from New York with reinforcements in the middle of April, Clinton would command some 14,000 soldiers and seamen against Lincoln’s 5,500 Continentals and militia.
It might be argued that Lincoln should have seen from the beginning that the city could not be held. The thing to do would be to move his army upcountry and make Clinton give chase where the Americans had room to maneuver. Washington had after all surrendered both New York and Philadelphia, and in doing so had saved his army and kept his revolution alive. But there was enormous pressure on Lincoln to defend the place. He was a Yankee in command of southerners, and the Carolinians wanted the city held despite the long odds. Clinton was in no particular hurry, but each day he pushed his lines closer to the American works, and each day his big siege guns continued their battering. By the first part of May the circle was closing fast. Rawdon took Haddrell’s Point on Hogg’s Island, and soon after Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island fell to a powerful attack by land and sea on 6 May. On 12 May, with his works nearly blasted flat now, Lincoln surrendered the city and his army: 5,500 irreplaceable troops lost in a single stroke.
Clinton had taken his prize at a cost of 76 killed and less than 20 wounded. It was the greatest American disaster of the war, and a great indignity for so stubborn a fighter as Lincoln to have to suffer. (It would stand as America’s largest capitulation until General Julius White surrendered Harper’s Ferry to Confederates in 1862.) That winter in Parliament there had been a rather nasty inquiry into the conduct of the war. William Howe had insisted on it, demanding to know whether Parliament thought Britain’s failure thus far “lay in the commanders of his Majesty’s fleet and armies, or in the ministries of state.” Politicians being politicians, this inquiry dragged on bitterly but inconclusively until June. By then, though, both commanders and ministers might with reason think that they saw light at the end of the tunnel. With Savannah, Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown in hand, the British war effort seemed poised to take all of the American south from the St. Mary’s River to the banks of the Dan out of the rebellion.
Sir Henry Clinton at any rate was sure that the tide had turned in the south. As he wrote to Lord George Germain, “I may venture to assert that there are few men in South Carolina who are not either our prisoners or in arms with us.” In the first week of June, Clinton, satisfied with what he had accomplished thus far, sailed for New York with 4,500 troops. The rest of his army–about 8,000 in sum–would remain under the command of Lord Cornwallis who would finish the work of subduing South Carolina and push north. Cornwallis, however, would soon discover that his chief had been somewhat overconfident in his assurances to Lord Germain. First, there was the plain geographical fact that the upcountry he must subdue was big country with bad roads. More important, along the upper reaches of its great rivers active and aggressive Rebels still swarmed. Above the fall line of the Saluda, the Congaree, the Wateree and Great Pee Dee, Cornwallis would have to string a line of posts and keep open their lines of supply to the sea. Fighting all along the frontier flamed up and sputtered out through the summer of 1780. There were sharp but generally indecisive encounters at Waxhaws, McDowell’s Camp, Williamson’s Plantation, Rocky Mount, Hanging Rock, and a dozen other obscure woodlots and crossroads. These collisions, though minor, represented a constant abrasive threat to Cornwallis’ left.
But the most significant obstacle in the path of Cornwallis’ conquest was already on the march from North Carolina. This was an organized force, not a partisan band, and while it was not large, it had spine represented by Delaware and Maryland Continentals. It was also ably led by a giant of a man, Baron de Kalb. He had sailed from France with Lafayette in ’77 as an unapologetic soldier of fortune, but he had come to embrace the cause of American liberty as his own. Another capable Frenchman, the Marquis de la Rouerie, know simply as Armand, commanded his cavalry. The expedition had originally set out to relieve the pressure on Lincoln in Charleston, but despite a punishing march through hard and barren country they had arrived too late to do anything to save Lincoln’s army. And that was only the beginning of bad luck for the American cause. Congress in its wisdom (and without consulting the commander-in-chief) got it into its collective head that a foreigner ought not to command an American army, small though it was. In mid-summer they sent Horatio Gates to take command of De Kalb’s column. Congress was apparently still under the spell of Gates’ Saratoga victory. It did not see–then or after–that John Burgoyne had perished in a trap set by Schuyler and sprung by Arnold. In appointing Gates, it also politely ignored Gates’ shabby conduct in the effort to unseat Washington in the so-called Conway Cabal in ’77. In any case, Gates reached Deep River in North Carolina in July of 1780 and took a reckoning of his new command. He didn’t like what he saw: “an army without strength, a military chest without money, a department apparently deficient in public spirit and a climate that increases despondency.” In truth, it was an impoverished army on lean rations, but there was genuine strength in the Continental Line and vitality of public spirit was attested to by the Virginia and North Carolina militia, who were on the march and would soon increase his effectives to 3,000. It was a good instrument if someone would use it purposefully.
Gates began his push south with a perfectly sensible decision. His army had to eat and there was no food to speak of in the neighborhood; hence, he resolved to march for Camden and the British supply post there. That would be Gates’ last sensible command decision. In planning his advance on Camden, Gates held for the most direct route, while De Kalb was quick to point out that the most direct route would take the column through North Carolina pine barrens, where even the crows had to forage hard to feed themselves. A line through Salisbury and Charlotte was longer, it was true, but there were supplies to be had along the way. Gates, however, had his map on the table and his plan in his head, and thus the column trudged out on 27 July. A miserable march it was, too, the men limping along ankle-deep in the sandy roads and sustained by little else but parched corn and green peaches. This blunder was soon exacerbated by ignorance. First, though he had a reputation as an able administrator, Gates had not even counted his command carefully; he was under the impression that he had 7,000 men in his column. When shown returns that numbered just 3,000, he simply sputtered, “there are enough for our purpose.” Further, he did not judiciously weigh the fitness of the 3,000 he did command. At the point of collision ahead two-thirds of his force would be raw militia.
Given the road-worn, half-starved, and half-trained condition of his army, the move he plotted next was almost incredible. He ordered a night march and a surprise attack on the British on 15 August. Up ahead Lord Rawdon with a thousand Regulars and Tories was already well aware of Gates’ approach and had sent a rider galloping for Cornwallis and support. So much for the element of surprise. Cornwallis, pushing upcountry hard, would be on the field that night with another thousand. As it happened, both Gates and Cornwallis had devised the same plan–a night attack. The combatants collided in the piney woods five miles north of Camden about two o’clock in the morning. Armand’s cavalry ran into the British advance guard and fell back in disorder; then infantry on both sides came up and pitched into the dark confusion. There was some pushing and shoving, but neither side could make heads or tails of the struggle, and the fighting sputtered out. This little collision was actually an opportunity for Gates, a chance to withdraw, regroup, and above all feed his exhausted men. De Kalb urged him to do so as did several others that night, but Gates was determined to fight.
So was Lord Cornwallis. When dawn broke on the 16th the British came on in high spirits and good order. They were advancing to take advantage of Gates’ final and most fatal blunder. He had posted all his Continentals on his right and all his militia on his left. When the Regulars and light infantry came crashing down on the untested Virginia and North Carolina militia, they simply shattered into panicked fragments, their flight washing over the 1st Maryland and unhinging their left. Two-thirds of Gates’ force were on the run within minutes. On the right, however, De Kalb stood his ground with some 600 Maryland and Delaware men. In hard but hopeless fighting these veterans beat back one attack and then another, reformed and then went forward in a bayonet attack of their own. But the weight of the British assault was too heavy. At length Cornwallis wheeled his right against De Kalb’s left and then sent Tarleton’s dragoons crashing down on this right rear. After an hour or so of struggle, De Kalb himself went down, and the Continentals were broken. No one was sure which of his eleven wounds had slain the giant. Granny Gates, however, had long since left the field, headed north with the first wave of fugitives and considerably outdistancing them. He reached Hillsboro, almost 200 miles north of the battlefield, three and a half days later on 19 August. The last of his 700 survivors did not come in until 6 September. No Patriot returns were compiled in the chaotic aftermath, but Cornwallis estimated that the Americans lost 800 in killed and wounded and another 1,000 captive. The Battle of Camden was a thoroughly destructive and utterly demoralizing rout.
And yet repeated British victories–at Savannah and Charleston and now Camden–did not really pacify the countryside. Just five days after the battle, a party of Regulars and Tories were hiking a column of Camden prisoners down the road to Charleston. At dawn American horsemen galloped out of a swamp and struck with a sudden shock. Before the British quite knew what hit them, the captors were prisoners of war and the captives free men again. The British column had been overwhelmed by a force of just seventeen under the command of a dark, grisly, taciturn little man, Colonel Francis Marion. His gift for striking hard and slipping swiftly away would earn him a name: the Swamp Fox. In league with Marion were two other important partisan outfits under Andrew Pickens and Thomas Sumter. Never strong enough individually or collectively to risk a pitched battle, these bands conducted genuine guerilla war, snapping up supplies, slashing at patrols, and compelling the enemy to commit troops to the pursuit of an elusive antagonist. Cornwallis, like Clinton before him, was somewhat premature in assuring Lord Germain that “the internal commotions and insurrections in the province will now subside.” One of his junior officers saw a great deal more clearly than his chief: they were “in a d–d rebellious country,” he wrote. The blows struck by the insurrectionists in the western counties were not heavy; indeed, the Rebels lacked the strength in South Carolina to do much more than hit and run just now. But these swirling attacks were more than a nuisance; they threatened Cornwallis’ control of the country he believed he had won. Just as important, he could not safely advance into North Carolina and Virginia beyond with these guerilla bands digging at his flanks.
Accordingly, as Cornwallis marched north to Charlotte in September, he pushed a column of Tories west to protect the left flank of his advance. This column was a thousand-strong and under the command of an able and ambitious Scot, Patrick Ferguson. Ferguson was a man of many parts really, having invented a breech-loading rifle that might have revolutionized British arms at the moment of imperial crisis. But armies are as a rule deeply conservative in outlook, and the British foot soldier would carry some version of the Brown Bess for generations to come. Ferguson also had a gift for leadership, and in the last year his Loyalist outfits had enjoyed a fair measure of success against Rebel bands. But just now he was about to go too far. Cornwallis had sent him west to secure his flank, and so long as Ferguson stayed strongly posted at Gilbert Town he could do so without particular difficulty or danger. But from that upcountry crossroads he issued an arrogant ultimatum to the “over-mountain men.” If they did not desist in their resistance to British authority, he would march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and “lay waste their country with fire and sword.” The sinewy pioneers of the Watuga and Nolichucky settlements in what is now Tennessee were a very great deal more infuriated than intimidated. On 26 September, the same day that Cornwallis reached Charlotte, the over-mountain men in a half-dozen parties started down the mountain to see to the Scotsman.
Four days later Ferguson learned that a thousand Rebels were on the march. This intelligence seems to have cooled his hot fighting blood a few degrees, and he prudently withdrew eastward, closing the distance between his exposed force and Cornwallis’ main body at Charlotte. He got as far as King’s Mountain, which straddles the border of the Carolinas, when his pursuers caught up to him on 7 October. If Ferguson had shown some bad judgment, no one, friend or foe, doubted his courage. He shook out his lines all along the wooded reach of King’s Mountain and settled in for a fight. The mountaineers were quick to oblige him. About three o’clock that afternoon, 900 of their ablest men started up the slopes with a rattle of rifle fire. Pushing ahead in eight loose columns, five against the northwest face and three against the southeast face, the attackers slipped from tree to tree up the steep slope and poured a deadly fire into Ferguson’s ranks. Completely surrounded, Ferguson fought back with a will, sending his battle lines down the slope in bayonet charges. But as soon as the Tories began to drive the Rebels before them, they were in turn struck on their flanks by sharp and deliberate rifle fire. Two more bayonet attacks went forward and came stumbling back bloodied. Ferguson was everywhere in that rattling fire, encouraging his men and blowing on a silver whistle until a dozen rifle balls blew out his last breath.
With Ferguson down, the Tories lost heart and the battle was over–all but the superfluous brutality. No knows how many Loyalists were shot or stabbed as they called for quarter. The Americans’ answer to these appeals was the vengeful cry “Tarleton’s Quarter”: they had not forgotten the cold-blooded butchery their comrades had suffered when they attempted to surrender to Tarleton down on Waxhaws Creek the previous spring. Indeed, many old scores were being settled on King’s Mountain. After the battle nine Tories were hanged in reprisal for the earlier British hanging of some of their deserters taken in arms with the Americans. Those Tories lucky enough to be taken prisoner were herded off on a punishing forced march, pushed along two full days without food. It had been a destructive day to be sure. While the over-mountain men lost less than a hundred, Ferguson’s command virtually ceased to exist, counting 400 killed and wounded and another 600 prisoners. Cornwallis’ left flank now hung in the air. King’s Mountain was also a fairly rare illustration of a cherished American myth; that is, that America won her revolution by fighting “Indian-fashion” against conventional British tactics. In truth, America would win her revolution by mastering British tactics and confronting the Regulars at the point of the bayonet, but King’s Mountain was won by woodsmen with rifles. More immediately relevant to the British effort, though, was the consideration of another myth: the gauzy belief that the crown might beat Americans with Americans. It would have been well worth noting in London that the only Briton on King’s Mountain’s bloody slopes had been a Scot, Patrick Ferguson.