History & Culture

The War in the Southern Colonies

The Southern Campaign Begins

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 the coming year, Cornwallis was determined to counter the threat from General Greene, and try again to invade North Carolina

In July 1781, David Fanning received a commission as a provincial Colonel of loyalist troops. With the departure of Greene and Cornwallis a few months earlier, a vacuum was left in the state that Fanning hoped he could exploit. Fanning had been fighting for the loyalist cause throughout the war, and now he led a desperate effort to revive British influence in the state.

Fanning led raids against rebel leaders and freed tory prisoners who were on trial. A large skirmish occurred when Fanning’s men defeated notable rebel leader Philip Alston at House in the Horseshoe in late July.  In September 1781, Fanning’s largest raid occurred when he took the temporary capital of Hillsboro and captured Governor Thomas Burke in the process. Soon after rebel and loyalist forces skirmished at Lindley’s Mill. Despite yet another loyalist victory, North Carolina rebels redoubled their efforts to suppress Fanning’s violent raids.

The turning point came in November 1781, when British forces evacuated Wilmington. Fanning lost his support and access to supplies and ammunition. Early in 1782 he tried to negotiate a pardon but ultimately fled to Charleston, then to Canada with the conclusion of the war. In 1783 North Carolina General Assembly passed an Act of Pardon and Oblivion, but Fanning was one of 3 loyalists explicitly denied pardon for “willful and deliberate murder, robbery and house-burning”.

While Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781 it took two years for the war to come to a close. The British did not evacuate Charleston until December of 1782 and they did not leave New York until November of 1783!

News of Cornwallis’ surrender caused the reigning government of Lord North to fall early in 1782 after almost 12 years in power. They were replaced with the opposition coalition lead by the Marquess Rockingham. This new government sought to end the war and recognize American Independence, and opened negotiations with the American commissioners in Paris.

The American had eight main goals, four of which were considered to be essential to any peace settlement, and the other four to be favorable additions. The four essential terms included 1) Independence from Great Britain and removal of all British troops from United States territory; 2) Settlement of all boundaries; 3) Canadian territory to revert to those boundaries before the Quebec Act; and 4) American rights to fish in the Grand Banks and use of Canadian shores to dry and cure the catch. (The optional terms included Britain ceding all of Canada to the United States, British payment for damage caused by British military action, a formal apology by Parliament admitting that Britain was wrong to have caused the war, and allowing American ships and merchants to have the same rights and privileges of commerce as their British counterparts within the British Empire.)

By November 1782, the British and American commissioners had reached agreement and signed preliminary terms of peace. However, under the terms of the Franco-American alliance, this peace treaty could not go into effect until Britain and France reach agreement. In turn, France had an additional alliance with Spain, so no Anglo-French treaty could go into effect until Britain and Spain also reach agreement. Because of Spain's contribution to the war they desired the return of Gibraltar by Great Britain.

The French proposed that Gibraltar be returned to Spain, that Great Britain be compensated by awarding her several French islands in the Caribbean, and that Spain cede control of Santa Domingo to France. The war-weary British expressed interest in this plan.

In September 1782, Spain had mounted an expedition, attempting to retake Gibraltar. Negotiations were frozen as all eyes turned expectantly to view the result. It was a humiliating failure, which, together with the French naval defeat in the Caribbean, reinvigorated the British and hardened their negotiating position. Spain and France were now forced to be more accommodating at the negotiating table.

The British put forth a proposal in which they would retain Gibraltar, but Spain would be bought off by awarding her East and West Florida. The Spanish were also reluctant to accept the Mississippi River as the western border of the United States, having their own claims to the territory between the Mississippi and the Appalachian Mountains. (Spain had gained control of Louisiana after the Seven Years War.) France, on the verge of bankruptcy, pressured Spain to accept this settlement and thus end the war.

Finally, on January 20, 1783, all parties reached agreement and an armistice was declared. A change of British government and minor modifications to the French and Spanish treaties, as well as Anglo-Dutch negotiations, delayed the final ratification of the Treaty of Paris until September 3, but on that day the War for American Independence officially concluded.

100 Days: The Guilford Courthouse Campaign

Check out our ongoing video series on the Guilford Courthouse Campaign. The series will cover the 100 days around the battle over the course of 6 videos.

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    Last updated: March 22, 2024

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