After the fall of Charleston in May 1780, bands of partisans, or irregular soldiers, sprang up to fight royal control of South Carolina during the Revolutionary War. Subsequently, many back-country militiamen surrendered and were paroled to their homes instead of serving as prisoners of war. Some refused, however, and fled across the Savannah River to join rebel forces in Georgia. In the meantime, crown forces established garrisons in key parts in the interior of the state, all the while committing depredations against the conquered, including the massacre at the Waxhaws. Moreover, British commander Sir Henry Clinton revoked the paroles of rebel militiamen and required them to join Loyalist militias or be considered fugitives.
In an attempt to preserve state government, Governor John Rut- ledge fled Charleston in April, and he later moved into North Carolina as the British army advanced inland. With the perception of no real civil authority, many chose to oppose the British and Tories on their own “by force of arms,” using organizations loosely based on the state’s militia system. In the New Acquisition District (in the Catawba River Valley), patriots began almost immediately to organize and equip themselves for a campaign. In the first days of June 1780, Whig commanders John McClure and William Bratton struck successful blows against Tory forces gathering at Alexander’s Old Field and Mobley’s Meeting House.
Over the next few months partisan forces, under such commanders as Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion, began to make significant gains against occupying forces. These irregular forces sometimes met the enemy in open battle and other times made hit- and-run raids on vital supply and communication lines. By year’s end, Lord Cornwallis, the British commander in the South, was hindered in his intended advance into North Carolina. Practically all of Cornwallis’s resources were engaged in pursuing partisan forces in portions of South Carolina. When General Nathanael Greene took command of the Continental army in late 1780, he wisely sought to incorporate partisan forces into his strategic plan for the following year. A prime example of this was his detaching Henry Lee’s Legion to Brigadier General Francis Marion’s command for the siege of Fort Motte in May 1781.
Several factors have been attributed to partisans’ successes. Chief among them was their mobility as they were by and large inseparable from their horses. Although serious fighting was done dismounted, they were able to ride swiftly into and out of conflict and harass the enemy whenever and wherever possible. Some of them were trained, experienced soldiers, and the partisans were primarily residents of the South Carolina backcountry and were accustomed to hunting and defending themselves against Native Americans. Therefore, the frontiersmen were well trained with the weapons and tactics required for unconventional warfare. The partisans also had their particular problems. Oftentimes leaders, such as Sumter, refused to follow directives from General Greene. With little or no financial backing, partisans were plagued with reduced turnouts and desertions. Despite these difficulties, the partisans played a key role
in derailing Clinton’s southern strategy and in driving the British from South Carolina.
Edgar, Walter. Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict That Turned the Tide of the American Revolution. New York: Morrow, 2001.
Ferguson, Clyde R. “Functions of the Partisan Militia in the South during the American Revolution: An Interpretation.” In The Revolutionary War in the South—Power, Conflict, and Leadership: Essays in Honor of John Richard Alden, edited by W. Robert Higgins. Durham, N.C.: Duke Uni- versity Press, 1979.
Weigley, Russell F. The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780–1782. Columbia: South Carolina Tricentennial Commission, 1970.