The War in the Southern Colonies
British strategy in the War of American Independence shifted after France formally allied itself with the rebelling colonies in 1778. Great Britain now had to defend its imperial lands around the world, and in order to do so, they had to commit less men and less resources to the war effort in North America.
The Southern Strategy was the British plan to recruit loyalists in order to bolster their numbers in the South and reclaim the profitable colonies of the region. If all went well, the momentum of victory could be pushed out of the Carolinas and into Virginia.
Starting with the capture and defense of Savannah in 1778-79, major operations began in 1780 when Sir Henry Clinton led an expedition that captured Charleston and the American army defending the city. Momentum continued into the summer of 1780 as the British army under the command of Lord Charles, Earl Cornwallis, established fortified posts throughout South Carolina, and achieved another crushing victory at the Battle of Camden in August 1780.
From this point though, the British tide began to slow. Cornwallis would be fiercely resisted in Charlotte, North Carolina by both American militia and by camp fever in the ranks. British supply lines and outposts were mercilessly harassed by partisan forces in South Carolina. And with the loss of his most competent body of loyalists at the Battle of Kings Mountain, things came to a grinding halt.
Turning the Tide in the Southern Campaign
Many years after the war Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander in Chief during the Southern Campaign, referred to the battle of Kings Mountain as "an Event which was immediately productive of the worst Consequences to the King's affairs in South Carolina, and unhappily proved the first Link of a Chain of Evils that followed each other in regular Succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America."
King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Guilford Courthouse were the “chain of evils” that shifted the tide of war in the south and made the shocking victory at Yorktown possible.
In October 1780, a loyalist force under Major Patrick Ferguson was annihilated at the Battle of Kings Mountain. This was a major blow to British recruiting efforts, and left Cornwallis’ army vulnerable to threats from the western backcountry.
In December 1780, General Nathanael Greene arrived in the south to take over command of American forces in the region. He split his smaller army and sent a portion under General Daniel Morgan into western South Carolina. This was done to make it easier for the American forces to acquire food and forage during the winter months, and the force was meant to protect and enliven the patriots of the backcountry. To the British, it appeared as a significant threat their fort at Ninetysix, South Carolina and the vulnerable western areas.
In January 1781, Col. Banastre Tarleton was sent west to counter the threat posed by Morgan’s force. His aggressive tactics which had served him well up to this point in the war, would lead Tarleton into disaster at the Battle of Cowpens. Almost all of his force of 1,100 was killed wounded or captured. It would also serve as the catalyst for the Guilford Courthouse Campaign.