The precise extent of Loyalist strength in South Carolina will never be known because many people switched allegiances as circumstances dictated during the protracted war.
Historians have correctly labeled the American Revolution as the nation’s first civil war. No greater example of this internecine struggle can be found than in South Carolina, where the Revolution degenerated into a bitter-brothers war that was fought with little compassion or restraint. A leading factor contributing to this inner conflict was the relatively large number of inhabitants who professed a continuing allegiance to the king of Great Britain. The precise extent of Loyalist strength in South Carolina will never be known because many people switched allegiances as circumstances dictated during the protracted war.
Complicating the task of measuring Loyalist sentiment is the difficulty in defining loyalism. The most conspicuous expression of loyalism was the bearing of arms against patriot forces. At least five thousand South Carolinians took up arms against the Whig government during the Revolution. Thousands more Loyalist-leaning Americans helped to cripple the American cause in South Carolina by spying for the British, supplying them with provisions, attacking stores and supplies belonging to Whig authorities, and other acts of resistance.
Perhaps twenty-five percent of white South Carolinians either actively opposed the movement for independence or supported British authority against the state government during the war. But a far greater number of people resisted the Whig government in subtle but no less debilitating ways, either by refusing to pay their wartime taxes and sell their supplies to the army or by deserting the army as soon as they could and avoiding conscription. Whig leaders saw little distinction between the more ardent Loyalists and the Loyalist-neutrals, those who simply refused to help the patriots unless forced to do so. The Provincial Congress in June 1775 urged all citizens to sign an “Association” as proof of their allegiance to the Whig government and branded any person refusing obedience to its authority as “an enemy to the liberties of America” and subject to patriot vengeance.
Nearly equally troublesome as determining the number of Loyalists in South Carolina is explaining their continued allegiance to the king of Great Britain. Most Loyalists, like the rebels, opposed Parliament’s claims to tax America. Unlike the rebels, however, Loyalists doubted that Parliament intended to undermine the colonists’ rights as Englishmen. They also thought that separation was illegal and feared that it would lead to a civil war in America.
Other Loyalists sided with the British for more self-serving reasons, particularly crown-appointed officials and former British officers and enlisted men who owed their jobs to the empire and major city merchants who depended on British trade. Loyalists were disproportionately represented among non-English ethnic minorities. In addition, many backcountry settlers opposed the Whig government because of influential local men who cast their lot with Britain, and because their long-standing struggle with the coastal aristocracy for schools, roads, courts, and political representation made them unsympathetic to the patriots’ cries of ministerial abuse.
One common element among Loyalists in South Carolina is that nearly all immigrated to the province after 1765; only about one in six was native born. As recent arrivals, they were unlikely to support a movement that was defying the authority from which they had obtained their lands. In short, Loyalists came from every sector of society, with approximately forty-five percent comprised of small farmers; thirty percent of merchants, artisans, and shopkeepers; fifteen percent of large farmers and planters; and ten percent of crown officials and professionals.
Loyalist strength in South Carolina varied according to region. It was weakest in the lowcountry, where the king’s friends were greatly outnumbered and where Loyalist leaders failed to organize among themselves and to cultivate public opinion by offering a reasonable alternative to rebellion. Their passive disapproval of Whig measures allowed the patriot party to carry out its revolutionary program there with remarkably little intimidation and violence. However, Whig leaders faced much stronger resistance in the backcountry, where a large party of Loyalists, led by influential men of high intelligence and determination, formed themselves into military units and openly defied Whig measures. To counter resistance there, patriot leaders in Charleston penned and distributed throughout the interior pamphlets explaining the American cause and appointed scores of local leaders to prominent positions in the Whig government and military. Still, large areas of resistance remained in the backcountry.
To confront this serious threat, the Council of Safety in July 1775 appointed William Henry Drayton and William Tennent, both active leaders of the radical faction in the Provincial Congress, as emissaries to the backcountry. Using one-sided arguments, economic coercion, and military threats, Drayton and Tennent convinced some Loyalist leaders in the region to sign a neutrality pact at the village of Ninety Six on September 16. However, other Loyalist leaders, such as Thomas Fletchall, Moses Kirkland, and Robert Cunningham, were upset with Drayton’s Machiavellian tactics and raised a large force of king’s men (approximately four thousand) to seize Whig munitions in the region and attack their small military outpost at Ninety Six. In response, the Provincial Congress ordered Colonel Richard Richardson to raise an army to crush the backcountry dissidents. In December 1775 Richardson’s forces engaged and defeated the Loyalist army at the Great Cane Break near the Cherokee Indian line. This defeat marked the end of Loyalist resistance in the interior until British occupation in 1780.
Despite this defeat at the Great Cane Break, the Loyalist uprising in 1775 had an important effect on British military strategy by convincing English politicians and generals that Loyalists were numerous and pugnacious in the southern backcountry. Thus, when British military efforts faltered in the northern colonies by early 1778, British leaders created a new “southern strategy” to seize key southern ports and, with the aid of Loyalist militiamen, move back toward the north, pacifying one region after another.
The southern strategy succeeded in its earliest stages. The British quickly captured Savannah in December 1778 and occupied Charleston in May 1780 after a lengthy siege. Several hundred South Carolinians, mostly lowcountry merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans interested in maintaining their business operations, signed the oath of allegiance proffered by the British. However, when British forces moved into the interior to liberate and organize the loyal population, they discovered that the king’s friends were not so numerous or as steadfast as they had expected. British officers in South Carolina managed to muster only 2,500 men into eighteen poorly supplied militia regiments. Moreover, excesses committed by the British military and their Loyalist allies in their attempt to conquer the backcountry drove many of the uncommitted into the Whig camp and ignited a virulent and bloody civil war that involved people of all ages and both sexes.
Despite the acrimonious and personal nature of fighting in South Carolina during the last years of the conflict, the victorious Whig government treated the defeated Loyalists with relative leniency. However, approximately 4,200 white Loyalists from the state decided that they could not live under a government independent from the king and emigrated from South Carolina to the British Caribbean, East Florida, England, and Canada. Their property, along with that of Loyalists remaining behind, was subject to confiscation by the General Assembly. At their meeting at Jacksonborough in January–February 1782, legislators considered placing as many as seven hundred people on a “confiscation list.” The legislature was quickly flooded with petitions for relief from the confiscation law. The assembly, realizing that it was impractical to punish such a large number of Loyalists, most of whom were natives or long-standing residents of the state who found themselves vulnerable after the fall of Charleston, followed a policy of moderation. In most cases, the assembly removed petitioners from the confiscation list and, instead, fined them twelve percent of the value of their property. Although a few people were upset with the legislature’s lenient policy toward the former Loyalists, this policy generally helped to restore the state to a relative degree of harmony by eroding much of the bitterness engendered by the protracted war.
Barnwell, Robert W., Jr. “Loyalism in South Carolina, 1765–1785.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1941.
Brown, Wallace. The King’s Friends: The Composition and Motives of the American Loyalist Claimants. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1965.
Coker, Kathryn Roe. “The Artisan Loyalists of Charleston, South Carolina.” In Loyalists and Community in North America, edited by Robert M. Cal- hoon, Timothy M. Barnes, and George A. Rawlyk. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994.
Lambert, Robert Stansbury. South Carolina Loyalists in the American Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.
Singer, Charles. South Carolina in the Confederation. 1941. Reprint, Philadelphia: Porcupine, 1976.