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SEAC: Southern Campaign of the American Revolution


In the Footsteps of 'Light-horse' Harry; Archeology and History at Ninety Six National Historic Site

Southern Campaign of the American Revolution

strategy map

The British Strategy

By 1778, British and American combatants in the north were stalemated, and a quick end to the Revolutionary War was doubtful. The British now rekindled a plan for putting down the rebellion by first controlling the southern colonies and then sweeping north to total victory. The strategy began well. Savannah was captured in late 1778, and Charleston fell in 1780. Lord Cornwallis, the British commander in the south, then planned to move his troops through the Carolina backcountry providing encouragement to loyalists there. Cornwallis' intent was to enlist a strong loyalist militia which, supported by British regulars, would control the backcountry. This proved successful as loyalist militia units formed and maneuvered throughout the area. By the summer of 1780, British control of South Carolina seemed assured, especially after Cornwallis' crushing defeat of American forces at Camden in August, 1780. Cornwallis was ready to begin his march northward.

The British had secured Ninety Six as a base of operations in the backcountry in June, 1780, and Cornwallis believed Ninety Six would be crucial to control of the backcountry once the British Army moved northward out of South Carolina. Cornwallis left Lieutenant-Colonel John Harris Cruger, a loyalist from New York, in charge of Ninety Six. Cruger's instructions were to be "vigorous" in punishing rebels and maintaining order in the area.

tide turns image

The Tide Turns

A series of events beginning in autumn, 1780, put the success of the British Southern Campaign in doubt. In October, 1780, a patriot militia force defeated Patrick Ferguson and his corps of loyalists at Kings Mountain (see map above). Francis Marion was campaigning against British loyalists in the low country of South Carolina, and Thomas Sumter maneuvered his patriot forces against loyalists targets in the South Carolina upcountry. In addition, Nathanael Greene, the new commander of American forces in the south, had split his army to move more widely through the Carolinas.

Cornwallls, fearing for Ninety Six and overall British control of South Carolina, sent units to remove the patriot threat. The British lost many of the ensuing encounters including a significant defeat at The Cowpens In January, 1781. Cornwallis and Greene met each other in March, 1781, at Guilford Courthouse; the British won this encounter but lost nearly a third of its force including some of the best officers. Cornwallis then moved his army to Wilmington, and Greene turned his attention back to South Carolina and Ninety Six. Greene hoped to loosen the British hold on the backcountry by taking Ninety Six and forcing the enemy to Charleston.

Greene set siege to Ninety Six in May, 1781, but never took the fort. He was forced to lift the siege a month later as British reinforcements advanced toward Ninety Six. The British abandoned Ninety Six in July and moved to the coast. This signaled the end of British control of the interior. The Southern Campaign was over. British forces surrendered at Yorktown four months later, effectively ending the war.

In the Footsteps of 'Light-horse' Harry; Archeology and History at Ninety Six National Historic Site