At the beginning of the 1770s, the Commons House of Assembly was embroiled in the latest in a series of fierce power struggles with royal officials, known as the Wilkes Fund Controversy. Coupled with new imperial initiatives, these clashes convinced the colony’s elite that if it wanted to control the political destiny of South Carolina, then separation was the only answer.
The decision of South Carolinians to leave the British Empire was as much the result of local grievances as it was of changes in imperial policy that occurred after the French and Indian War. At the beginning of the 1770s, the Commons House of Assembly was embroiled in the latest in a series of fierce power struggles with royal officials, known as the Wilkes Fund Controversy. Coupled with new imperial initiatives, these clashes convinced the colony’s elite that if it wanted to control the political destiny of South Carolina, then separation was the only answer.
While the Wilkes Fund Controversy was still boiling, news arrived of the Tea Act granting a monopoly to the British East India Company. In late 1773 the arrival of a ship with a cargo of tea led to the call for a “Mass Meeting” of the populace on December 3. At the meeting, all present agreed to boycott the tea and to establish a committee to enforce the boycott.
The Mass Meeting laid the groundwork for an independent government in South Carolina. At subsequent gatherings, the Mass Meeting established a General Committee to enforce its resolutions and the nonimportation association. When word arrived of the Intolerable Acts–Parliament’s response to the Boston Tea Party– South Carolina had in place an organization that could react.
When the Boston town meeting asked for assistance and the New York General Assembly suggested an intercolonial congress, the General Committee issued a call for a “General Meeting” of delegates from all corners of the province. The General Meeting, in Charleston on July 6, 1774, adopted a series of resolutions, elected five delegates to the First Continental Congress, and created a Committee of 99 to act on behalf of the General Meeting. This committee quickly became the de facto government of South Carolina as lowcountry residents responded to the Committee of 99–not the king’s appointees. The Commons House fully supported the actions of the General Meeting and appropriated funds for the congressional delegation.
In November 1774 the General Meeting called for the election of a Provincial Congress, which convened in Charleston in January 1775. Over the next nine months, the Provincial Congress and its committees consolidated their hold on the colony. It authorized the seizure of arms and ammunition from royal powder magazines and the Statehouse, the issuing of paper currency to support its operations, the raising of three regiments to defend the colony, and the creation of a Council of Safety with unlimited authority.
Although a majority of congress approved these actions, it was a slim one. Not everyone was ready to make the break with the empire in the summer of 1775; however, the new revolutionary government was in no mood to tolerate dissent. Those who disagreed with congress were dealt with harshly.
The backcountry was a real concern. Nearly two-thirds of the colony’s white population resided there, and backcountry residents had more of a beef with the provincial government in Charleston than they did with the British. After backcountry Loyalists ambushed a revolutionary raiding party, congress sent William Henry Drayton and a delegation to the interior settlements, and they achieved an uneasy truce.
While Drayton and his team were in the backcountry, Lord William Campbell, the last royal governor, arrived. He refused to recognize the Provincial Congress as a legitimate body, and a meeting with the Commons House accomplished nothing. In September 1775 Campbell officially dissolved the assembly and fled for his life to a British warship in Charleston harbor. There was no one now to challenge the authority of the Provincial Congress, and it moved swiftly to suppress any opposition.
Renewed tensions in the backcountry led to the mobilization of both Loyalist and patriot militia units. In November 1775, at Ninety Six, there was a skirmish and the first blood of the Revolution in the state was shed. In retaliation, Colonel Richard Richardson raised a force of more than four thousand patriot militiamen to subdue backcountry Loyalists. In what became known as the “Snow Campaign,” he defeated the Loyalist militia and tracked down and captured those who had fled.
The new year began with the Provincial Congress in control of all of South Carolina. The backcountry was quiet, and British war ships had left Charleston harbor. In March 1776 South Carolina became the first southern colony and the second of the thirteen to draft a state constitution. The Provincial Congress declared itself to be the new General Assembly of South Carolina and elected John Rutledge as president of the state.
South Carolina’s new government was concerned with the defense of the state–and with good reason. There were incessant rumors that the British intended to attack Charleston and to incite the Cherokees to invade the frontier settlements. On June 28 a British invasion force launched a combined naval and amphibious assault against revolutionary forces on Sullivan’s Island. Led by William Moultrie and William Thomson, the revolutionaries repulsed a British landing force and the sand and palmetto-log fort rendered the naval bombardment ineffective. At the end of the day American casualties were light, and the British withdrew in disarray. The Battle of Sullivan’s Island gave a tremendous boost to the revolutionary cause and the upper hand to those who favored a more resolute course of action.
The British fleet remained off Charleston until August. Its presence, and the urging of northern Indian nations, spurred the Cherokees and some Tories to launch a series of raids in July. The response was immediate and brutal. Andrew Williamson led backcountry militia units against the Native Americans, destroyed most of their towns east of the mountains, and then joined with the North Carolina militia to do the same in that state and Georgia. For the remainder of the war, the Cherokees were not a factor.
While the backcountry was subduing the Cherokees, news arrived on August 2 of the Declaration of Independence. That, however, may have been the high tide of revolutionary fervor for a while. After the twin threats of invasion and Indian war had been defeated, the state entered a two-year period of calm that bordered on apathy.
After independence the state needed a new constitution, and a new one was adopted without fanfare in March 1778. Maintaining zeal for the revolution was difficult. So many legislators absented themselves that it was difficult for the General Assembly to meet a quorum. Enlistments declined, and in order to fill its quotas for the Continental army, the legislature offered land and cash bonuses to volunteers. In 1778 the militia law was revised so that one-third of the militia could be slaves (only in support roles). Some black Carolinians, however, were more than engineers or sailors. There were black soldiers in Francis Marion’s partisan band and in militia units at King’s Mountain and Cowpens.
The lull in the war in the South ended in autumn 1778 when the British captured Savannah. With a base of operations, they could now execute their “southern strategy” to roll up the southern colonies one by one. Throughout 1779 the British made a series of probing attacks against South Carolina almost to the walls of Charleston. In September a French fleet arrived, and the next month the allies launched an unsuccessful attack on Savannah. After the battle the French sailed away, leaving the Americans to fend for themselves.
The new year did not bode well for the American cause in the South. The already thin ranks of the Continentals had been further depleted at Savannah. Benjamin Lincoln, the commander of American forces, under pressure from South Carolina politicians, let himself be convinced that he should move his army behind the walls of Charleston.
Sir Henry Clinton, commander of British forces, brought a large, well-supplied army and a powerful fleet to South Carolina in February 1780. By the end of March, the British army had begun a siege of Charleston and the Royal Navy a blockade by sea. Lincoln’s army was trapped.
On April 13 Governor John Rutledge and several members of his council slipped out of the city so that state government could continue. Two months earlier he had been granted extraordinary powers by the General Assembly to prosecute the war. On May 12, 1780, Lincoln surrendered his army of more than 5,500 men. When word of the capitulation reached interior garrisons, they too surrendered.
The capture of Charleston was celebrated throughout the British Empire. But within weeks, blunders by Clinton and his subordinates led to the undoing of his victory. Under the terms of surrender, which applied to civilians as well as military personnel, all adult males were paroled. They agreed that they would not take up arms against the British, and in turn they would not be molested. That suited many Carolinians who simply wanted to go back to their farms and families. However, on June 3 Clinton abrogated the parole of most Carolinians and issued a proclamation that they must take a new oath of allegiance that would require them to take up arms against their fellow Carolinians–something most were loath to do. He then announced the confiscation of the estates of leading revolutionaries and looked the other way as his army plundered the lowcountry. Encouraged, Tories launched a campaign of retribution.
To solidify his hold on the province, Clinton dispatched units to occupy Ninety Six and Camden. He then left South Carolina for New York, placing Lord Charles Cornwallis in command. Cornwallis ordered his men to “take the most vigorous measures to extinguish the rebellion.” As they moved into the interior, British troops followed his orders. They executed individuals almost at whim and harassed and maltreated virtually everyone. One commander declared that Presbyterian meetinghouses were “sedition shops” and burned those he encountered. Rather than cowing the populace, these wanton acts of cruelty roused them.
In less than three months, the British and their Tory allies turned what appeared to be a brilliant triumph into a dicey situation. In the northern districts along the North Carolina border, hundreds of Scots-Irish settlers flocked to join partisan bands headed by Thomas Sumter, William Hill, and others. On July 12, 1780, at Williamson’s Plantation, partisans defeated elements of the hated British Legion. Over the next ninety days there were sixteen engagements in the northern districts. With the exception of defeats at Camden and Fishing Creek, the remainder were all partisan victories culminating in the smashing victory at King’s Mountain. Losing more than one thousand soldiers killed, wounded, or captured so unnerved the British that Cornwallis delayed a planned invasion of North Carolina.
The situation deteriorated throughout the remainder of the year as partisans attacked isolated outposts and supply trains. Francis Marion operated at will in the northeastern portion of the state. Andrew Pickens led forces in the Savannah River Valley, and William Harden did the same in the lowcountry south of Charleston. Thomas Sumter continued his operations in the central and northern districts.
In December, Nathanael Greene appeared with a new Continental army. It was a turning point in the war. Unlike most regular military men who disliked and dismissed partisans, Greene coordinated their efforts with his own and kept the British continually off balance. By trading space for time, he planned a war of attrition that would eventually defeat a superior enemy force.
Shortly after his arrival in South Carolina, he divided his command, sending a large detachment under Daniel Morgan toward Ninety Six. As he had hoped, Cornwallis divided his army. On January 17, 1781, Morgan made a stand on the Broad River in Spartan District at Hiram Sanders’s cowpens. For the first time in the Revolution, a regular British force broke and ran. Nearly one thousand of the enemy were killed or captured along with most of their supplies. The successful partisan operations, coupled with the victories at King’s Mountain and Cowpens, had turned the tide in South Carolina in the Americans’ favor. But the war had not yet been won.
After Cowpens, Morgan moved swiftly into North Carolina to rejoin Greene’s main army with Cornwallis right behind him. Eventually, after racing to the Dan River, Greene doubled back to Guilford Courthouse, where he engaged the British. When the fighting ended, the British held the field, but they had suffered heavy casualties. Cornwallis withdrew his tattered army to Wilmington and from there marched north to Virginia.
Greene headed back to South Carolina. Facing him was a combined regular-Loyalist force of about eight thousand stationed in Charleston and at outposts from Georgetown to Ninety Six. The British may have controlled the strong points, but the countryside belonged to the partisans. With Greene’s army to keep the main British forces occupied, the partisans picked off the enemy garrisons one by one.
During the spring and summer of 1781 there were three major battles in the state. On April 25 at Hobkirk’s Hill, the British won the battle but withdrew their garrison from Camden. At Ninety Six, Greene conducted an unsuccessful siege from May 22 to June 19, but the British abandoned the fort in June. At Eutaw Springs on September 8, in what was the bloodiest battle of the southern campaign, Greene initially held the field, but the British counterattacked and, at the end of the day, drove the Americans back. There were other battles after Eutaw Springs, but none of any strategic significance. On November 14, 1782, the last of the 137 battles fought in South Carolina and the last battle of the American Revolution occurred on Johns Island.
Because the British still occupied Charleston in January 1782, the General Assembly met in Jacksonborough. Under the protection of Greene’s army, the legislature elected a new governor and passed two acts identifying and punishing Loyalists. The state was able to reassert its authority everywhere except for James Island and the Charleston peninsula.
In September 1782 a British fleet sailed into Charleston harbor to transport the remaining troops and the 4,200 Loyalists who wished to leave the state. On December 14, 1782, the last of the occupying troops withdrew block by block, and the city was turned over to Greene’s army. At 3:00 p.m. Greene escorted Governor John Mathewes and other officials into the city. For South Carolina, the war was over.
After thirty months of bloody fighting and brutal occupation, South Carolinians were once again in control of their own affairs– thanks to Nathanael Greene and local partisan leaders. The war may have begun and ended in Charleston, but it was won in the forests and swamps of the backcountry.
From Ninety Six to Charleston the countryside was in ruins. Dwellings, farm buildings, and mills had been burned. Fields had been abandoned and had become overgrown. Livestock had been taken by one side or the other. There were thirty thousand fewer slaves in the state than there had been in 1775. The state’s economy was in shambles.
Not only were the means of production damaged or destroyed, but individuals and the state faced huge debts. South Carolina, with a white population of less than 100,000, had spent $5.4 million on the war effort. In spite of the difficulties facing it, the state had regularly met its financial obligations to the Continental Congress. In 1783 it was the only state to pay its requisition in full. The financial losses were nothing compared to the personal ones. In 1783 a visitor noted the large number of widows in Charleston, but there were far more in the backcountry. In Ninety Six District it was estimated that there were at least twelve hundred widows.
The American Revolution in South Carolina was a bloody, desperate struggle–America’s first civil war. Because of the nature of the conflict, it is impossible to know exactly how many Carolinians perished. However, of the total number of American casualties for the entire war, eighteen percent of those killed and thirty-one percent of those wounded fell in South Carolina during the last two years of fighting. Given the material and human losses, it is no small wonder that the American historian George Bancroft would write: “Left mainly to her own resources, it was through the depths of wretchedness that her sons were to bring her back to her place in the republic . . . having suffered more, and dared more, and achieved more than the men of any other state.”
Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas. New York: Wiley, 1997.
Edgar, Walter. Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict That Turned the Tide of the American Revolution. New York: Morrow, 2001.
McCrady, Edward. The History of South Carolina in the Revolution. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1901–1902.