Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
Last week, the British turned the focus of the Revolutionary War south, first capturing Savannah, Georgia in 1779, and then taking Charleston, South Carolina in May 1780. After taking these two key ports, the plan was to extend British influence inland and then move like a wave up through North Carolina into Virginia, clearing out Patriots and putting loyalists back in charge.
Now finally in control of his own army, British General Charles Cornwallis was sure he could take the Carolinas without too much difficulty. And according to the conventions of European war, his campaign got off to a nearly flawless start. His forces quickly controlled a network of strategic strong points across South Carolina, and then, as we were about to see, he whipped the Continental Army sent to stop him without breaking a sweat.
But despite these early successes, Cornwallis soon discovered that these ignorant American rustics, not having been educated properly at Oxford, could not even do simple math. Triumph in the field plus control of all strong points is supposed to equal conquest. Instead, the smart-aleck Americans had answered the triumph in the field plus control of all strong points equals permanent ulcer.
One of the big factors that led Cornwallis to develop this permanent ulcer was the terrible paradox implicit in using force to put down a rebellion. Because brute force only tends to make more rebels. So defeating these rebels militarily and winning them over politically were all but mutually exclusive goals. He also had to deal with a loyalist population strong enough to hold its own in a bitter civil war that was breaking out in the Carolinas. A civil war defined by small scale raids, torching of houses, murderous run ins between neighbors, brutal skirmishes without quarter – there was just no opportunity for Cornwallis to play the benevolent conqueror, even if he had wanted to. Both the Patriots and the Loyalists were pretty well passed being able to go back to the way things were before the war.
This little civil war only picked up heat after the siege of Charleston, which put the Loyalists back in power and drove the Patriots to ground, where they launched a guerrilla campaign that did nothing but stymy, frustrate and ultimately undo the British dream of controlling the south.
On the Patriots side, the most famous leader of these irregular guerrilla forces was, of course, Francis Marion the Swamp Fox. Many of you out there will remember that Disney produced a TV series about the Swamp Fox back in the 1960s that is revered among Revolutionary War historians for its painstakingly accurate portrayal of Marion and his campaigns. I am sometimes told my humor is too dry, but I’ll leave it to you to judge.
Marion was in his mid-40s and had learned his trade battling, often brutally so, Cherokee Indians during the French and Indian War. Slave owner like most of the other Southern officers, he had joined the South Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army as a captain in 1775 and was soon promoted to Colonel. He was present for the disastrous attempt to retake Savannah in 1779 and only missed being captured at Charleston because he had left the city to recuperate from a broken ankle. When the last of the Continentals were pushed out of South Carolina in May, which we’ll talk about in a second, Marion was practically the only officer left in the state, and he organized a small force of no more than 100 volunteers to carry on the fight. But for how long and to what end they did not yet know.
On the Loyalist side, the most famous unit was the British Legion, a unit composed entirely of American volunteers under the command of British Colonel Banister Tarleton. Tarleton’s Raiders, as they were informally known, were a ruthless and effective arm of the British regular army, earning instant infamy in the Patriot presses for their conduct during the Battle of Waxhaws, which soon became known as the Waxhaw Massacre. Brought at the end of May near the North Carolina border, the small battle ended with the Americans first refusing to surrender but then throwing down their arms after being charged by Tarleton’s cavalry. The gist of what follows is that the Americans offered the white flag, Tarleton’s horse was shot out from under him, and then Tarleton’s men started mowing down the surrendering Americans and methodically killing wounded men as they lay prone in the field.
Accounts of the massacre, why it unfolded, and to what extent it was in fact a massacre are, of course, all contradictory. But the upshot was that the Legion became particularly feared and hated and led American irregulars to start offering the British what they like to call Tarleton’s Quarter. That is, no quarter at all!
The Battle of Waxhaw pushed the last of the Continentals out of South Carolina, forcing the Continental Congress to scramble a response to stop the British before they could spread further north. Who to put in charge of this response seemed like an easy choice. Though the Conway Cabal had failed to oust Washington, the sentiment still persisted that the war would be won only if Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga, led the way. Since there was no question that Washington had to stay outside of New York City, Gates’ allies in Congress found little opposition to putting their man in charge of the Southern Department, even as Washington himself recommended Nathaniel Greene.
Gates was given his orders in May 1780, and off he went. It would take just under three months for everyone to realize what a terrible mistake they had just made. Before Charleston fell, Congress had dispatched two regiments of Continentals from Maryland and Delaware to go relieve the besieged city. But these forces had not made it in time. So this group of about 1,400 wound up forming the core of Gates’s new army, and he linked up with them in Hillsborough, North Carolina, at the end of July 1780. What he found was not a pretty sight. These guys were worn out, badly supplied and poorly armed. Even the camp itself was a mess of crew, disorganized huts, so it was clear the first order of business would be resting these men and organizing a proper supply chain, because they were, for the moment, in no shape to be fighting. Which is why, the minute he showed up, Gates first forced the men to turn out for a parade and then ordered them to march towards the city of Camden, South Carolina, one of those strategic strong points the British controlled on the border between the Carolinas.
Nearly every officer present begged him not to do it, but Gates believed Camden was held by just 700 men and could be taken easily, so off this bedraggled army went. And just to make sure that things went from bad to worse, Gates ordered them all down a road flank on both sides by swampland, cutting off access to any supplies. Not that there was much to be had anyway, given the loyalist leanings of the local population. So it was a sick, tired and hungry mob who shuffled toward Camden in the brutal summer heat of 1780. Oh, did I mention they also don’t have any artillery or cavalry? Yeah, there’s that, too.
It was not all bad news, though. As Gates marched, his army was reinforced by companies of North Carolina and Virginia militia. They all neared Camden on August 7. The nominal strength of the Americans was up to about 4,000 though sickness and malnutrition left this number deceptively inflated. Incredibly, though, Gates was totally ignorant about his own strength, and he believed he commanded some 7,000 men. With this number lodged in his head, he was supremely confident that he could take Camden, even if it was reinforced, which, oh, by the way, Cornwallis was personally rushing to do after Loyalist supplies tipped him off to Gates movements. Cornwallis was soon in Camden with about 2,000 able bodied men. As the Americans made their final approach a week later, Gates was alerted that an official head count put his numbers at something like half of what he thought. But already committed to the battle in his heart, Gates just let this revelation pass without changing his plans.
At 10:00 p.m. on the night of August 15, 1780, both Cornwallis and Gates put their armies in motion. Gates was still under the impression he was on his way to envelop a much smaller British force inside the city and had no idea that he was about to run smack into a British army roughly the same size as his own. But at about 2:30 in the morning, that’s exactly what happened. As the advanced guards of both armies banked right into each other, both generals called an alarmed halt. When the sun rose, Gates and Cornwallis discovered not only were they camped just 300 yards apart, but also that the numbers were far more even than either had previously suspected because Cornwall is no less than Gates thought, the Americans would have a big numerical advantage. I mean, why else would Gates be rushing into battle?
Gates did have more troops, but most of the militiamen from Virginia and North Carolina had never even sniffed a battle. So to put it bluntly, the Battle of Camden was not a battle Gates should have been fighting, but now he was here and there was nowhere else to go.
With the strategic blunder in place, Gates then started making tactical blunders. He lined up the untested Virginia militia against what he thought was the Loyalist militia, but which turned out to be the best regular troops Cornwallis had.
Then, when Gates spied those best regular troops Cornwallis had futzing around and still forming up, he ordered the Virginia militia to advance except the movements that Gates spied were not the British forming up at all, but the British preparing to advance. So they were more than ready to square off against the approaching Virginians. A sharp volley stopped the Virginia militia in its tracks and the British fixed bayonets and charged. With no bayonets of their own, the Virginians simply turned and ran. Most never even fired a shot.
The panic of the Virginians quickly spread to the North Carolina men who had been nervously holding a line beside them, but who were now often running too. The whole left flank collapsed in a matter of minutes. On the right, the Delaware and Maryland regiments held their ground and even managed to charge, but they were now badly outnumbered. And when Cornwallis ordered Tarleton to take in the cavalry and clear out the Americans, it didn’t take much convincing to force them all into a chaotic retreat.
Meanwhile, General Gates had pulled back about a quarter of a mile to stand resolute as the rallying point for his panicked and beaten men, proving once again the American ability to maintain coherence and dignity even after a crushing defeat. Haha. Just kidding. When the Virginia militia ran, Gates bolted. By nightfall, he was 60 miles north. A few days later, he was back in Hillsborough, another 120 miles further up the road. He left behind 900 killed and wounded, another 1,000 captured and a beleaguered remnant that didn’t know what they were supposed to do now and so most just went home.
The Battle of Camden was in every way a crushing defeat. It was pretty much the end of Horatio Gates. He would survive the call for an inquiry of his conduct and later even wound up on Washington staff but his reputation died on the battlefield along with so many of his men, he was never again given a field command.
On the other side, Cornwallis basked in the glow of this decisive victory, a victory that had the added bonus of avenging British honor by crushing Horatio Gates. But that glow soon dimmed under the realization that it seemed to change the political situation in the Carolinas not a bit. The raids and skirmishes and guerrilla attacks between loyalists and patriots continued as if nothing had happened and the Continental Congress simply got to work organizing another army. The Battle of Camden was a great triumph for Cornwallis, but in the end, practically nothing came of it.
But that said, things in South Carolina were looking good enough for the moment for Cornwallis to start making plans to move up into North Carolina. But this is where the relationship breakdown between Cornwallis and Henry Clinton starts getting in the way. As I mentioned, the two were now reduced to exchanging passive aggressive letters. Cornwallis wanted Clinton to launch a diversionary campaign to make sure North Carolina didn’t receive much in the way of Continental reinforcements. Clinton was happy to do it, but only after Cornwallis hit the road. But Cornwallis didn’t want to hit the road until after he was assured the diversion had been launched. This petty little back and forth ended when Cornwallis decided to just move up to North Carolina. He was over the border in Charlotte by the end of September 1780, but would find that North Carolina was not as hospitable nor South Carolina as pacified as he had previously believed. As it turned out, the grand strategy to choke off the rebellion from the south was not the sure thing everyone in the Ministry had desperately convinced themselves that it would be.
But before we go on in the south, where Nathaniel Greene is about to take over for the Americans and exacerbate Cornwallis’ ulcer, we need to peel off and deal with the utterly shocking treason of American war hero Benedict Arnold – unquestionably the most famous bit of treason in American history.
At his best, Arnold was an utterly fearless leader, a man who dreamed up bold strokes and then personally led the way. But at his worst, Arnold was an easily disgruntled hothead who could find a way to rub practically everyone the wrong way. From day one, he had stewed over the slow advance of his career, always believing he was at least one or two ranks below his merit. He gets sympathy points for probably being right about that, but gets those points taken away by complaining about it relentlessly. So by the time he was appointed military governor of Philadelphia in May 1778, Arnold had both a huge chip on his shoulder and a ton of enemies just waiting for him to slip up. This combination was disastrous for his loyalty to the American cause.
The angle of attack Arnold’s numerous enemies took was the reputation he had earned over the years for making sure that every campaign was a profitable campaign, if you know what I mean. Starting with his early adventures in Canada, there were whispers that Arnold was as much interested in lining his own pockets as he was in defeating the British. His conduct as governor of Philadelphia only increased the volume of those whispers. He lived in lavish style and got into the business of transporting war material around for the Continental Army, which wasn’t illegal, but it did run him afoul of local merchants whose business he was cutting into.
Adding fuel to the fire was Arnold’s courtship of Peggy Shipton, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia judge with well known Loyalist ties. Soon his political opponents were gathering evidence of Arnold’s misconduct and misappropriations. The courtship of young Miss Shipton, who was about to become young Mrs. Arnold, also moved Arnold into Loyalist inclined social circles in Philadelphia. And those social circles put him in contact with British intelligence officers, intelligence officers like Major John Andre, who had just recently been courting the same Ms. Shipton during the British occupation of Philadelphia. Seems that by at least July 1779, the disgruntled and disenchanted Arnold was passing along information about American troop deployments. While this secret correspondence was underway, Arnold’s enemies finally had enough to take to Congress and demand that he be brought up on charges.
When Arnold was informed of all this, he demanded the Court Marshall to clear his name and defend his besmirched honor. This while he was telling Henry Clinton that for the right price, he would switch sides.
Arnold’s court martial was initially set to begin in June, 1779, but Clinton’s advance up the Hudson to Stony Point, threw it back six months. So it wasn’t until January 1780 that the trial began. The various charges levied against him went all the way back to his early days up in Canada. And the embittered Arnold was further embittered when his expense reports from that campaign couldn’t be verified because all the records had gone down with his ship during the Battle of Valcour Island, which, you know, I’m sorry, I don’t have the receipts. I was too busy stopping the British army from invading and wiping you all out!
In the end, Arnold’s record outshone his reputation, and he was cleared of all but two small charges. This was mostly a vindication, but it left him on the hook to the Congress for 1,000 unaccounted pounds, and that pretty much sealed the deal for Benedict Arnold.
Despite these unseemly charges, Washington tried to keep Arnold in the fold. I mean, after all, he was a great officer. And in June 1780, he offered Arnold command of Fort West Point up on the Hudson River, which Arnold immediately turned around and used his leverage with Clinton. He offered to turn over the Fort for 20,000 pounds as indemnification for financial losses he would no doubt sustain as a result of his treason.
Clinton thought this over, stuck mostly on the issue of indemnification, which was way too wide open a financial commitment. By the end of August, though, Clinton agreed to the 20,000, but not the indemnification. Arnold accepted and set to work, deliberately weakening the defenses of West Point. This went on for a good month, which no one the wiser, though I’m sure there were a few puzzled looks among soldiers about some of the stuff they were being told to do or more importantly, told not to do.
On September the 21, 1780, Arnold finally had a face to face meeting with Major Andre, who snuck behind enemy lines to pick up the plans for the Fort, along with some other thoroughly incriminating documents. But two days later, Andre was captured in civilian clothes, trying to make his way back to New York City. Coincidentally, the morning after Andre was captured, Arnold was set to have breakfast with General Washington and review how things were going at West Point. Arnold learned of Andre’s capture literally minutes before Washington was due to arrive. When the Commander in Chief showed up he, of course, could not find Arnold anywhere because he was running like a madman for New York City. Washington did, however, find an inconsolable Peggy Shipton (now Peggy Arnold) who couldn’t believe that her husband would commit treason like that. She was shocked, shocked tell you, to discover that there was gambling going on in this establishment.
The gentlemanly Washington consoled her in her grief, suspecting not even a bit that she was basically the one who had arranged the whole thing.
Though Washington raged privately, publicly he took the sudden betrayal in stride and calmly offered to hand over Andre in exchange for Arnold. But Henry Clinton refused, though it seems like an awfully cold decision, given how much he apparently loved Andre and despised Arnold, as traitors are almost always despised by everyone, even the side they’re helping. So remember, kids, no one likes a traitor.
The charismatic and charming Andre, meanwhile, soon endeared himself to his captors, and influential men on both sides tried to get him spared, or at least shot, as was befitting an officer and a gentleman. But Washington refused to yield to sentimentality, and he had Andre hanged on October the second as a spy. Arnold, meanwhile, was commissioned as a brigadier general in the British army, but never saw much of the 20,000 he had been promised, as the plot had obviously failed. He will show up again next week in command of troops in Virginia, where American officers will be under orders from Washington to summarily hang him if he ever fell into their hands.
So, with the most famous case of treason now wrapped up, we can return to the southern theater, where just a few days after Major Andre was hanged, a particularly brutal little battle was fought between 1,000 patriot militiamen and 1,000 loyalist militia men at King’s Mountain in backcountry South Carolina. The American militia companies, working without an overall commander, managed to surprise and then surround a loyalist camp. After an hour of fighting and their commander dead, the Loyalists tried to give up, but either from confusion or from a desire to extend their enemy Tarleton’s quarter, the Americans continued firing until 300 loyalists laid dead and another 160 wounded.
Eventually, the killing stopped, and the remaining 600 loyalists were taken prisoner. But a few days after the battle, the viciousness continued as patriot militiamen started holding summary court marshals of captured loyalists, and nine men were hanged before one of the patriot leaders stepped in and put a stop to it.
The immediate impact of King’s Mountain was to turn the tide into Carolina backcountry, marking the rise of the Patriots and the decline of the Loyalists and forcing Cornwallis to reconsider his plans. After receiving very little in the way of support from North Carolina Loyalists, and now sensing trouble in his rear, Cornwallis pulled out of Charlotte and headed back to South Carolina.
Meanwhile, the Continental Congress, suitably chastened by their decision to ignore Washington’s advice and put Gates in charge of the south, passed a resolution leaving it to the Commander in Chief to select the next leader of the Southern Department. Washington appointed Nathaniel Greene the same day he received the order.
Greene, as you will recall, had started as an eager young officer who had promised to hold Fort Washington and then promptly lost Fort Washington. He then moved on to being a pretty competent subordinate commander during the campaigns in New Jersey and Philadelphia. Near the end of the winter at Valley Forge, Greene was appointed quartermaster general of the Continental Army, a thankless and grueling task that he performed well, despite sulking a bit that no one has ever heard of a quartermaster general in history. He was let out on parole to go take part in the siege of Newport and then successfully resigned the quartermaster post in 1780. As we just saw, Washington tried to get him appointed to the Southern Command but it took Gates botching the job for Greene to get his chance to earn the spot in history he had been craving.
Greene took with him Baron Von Steuben who wound up in Virginia organizing the supply lines, a job I’m sure Greene relished not having to deal with himself. He also had with him a guy whose name I tried to shield you from since we’ve already got way too many names flying around but now he’s unavoidable. Daniel Morgan. Morgan was the leader of that cracked sharpshooter company that had done so much damage at Saratoga. He technically had retired in 1779 after being passed over for promotion. But when Congress offered him a brigadier generalship he took it and headed for the Carolinas. When Greene and Morgan arrived at the Hillsborough camp in late November 1780 they found a scene not unlike the scene that had greeted Horatio Gates earlier in the year – 1,400 men in bad shape with little to eat, rags to wear the usual lot for the common Continental soldier.
Greene then moved down to the American camp outside of Charlotte and found it not only smaller and more pathetic but also plagued by internal rivalries between the various leaders of the North Carolina militias. In all, Greene commanded now about 2,000 men, most not in great shape.
In an ultimately inspired but what looked, according to every rule in the book as a lunatic decision, Greene decided to divide his smaller and weaker army into two branches hoping that by doing so he could not only drum up recruits in multiple areas simultaneously but also hoping that it would force Cornwallis to divide up his own forces. The more divided the British, the better.
So in late December 1780, Daniel Morgan and about 600 men, a mix of Continental and militiamen, went west up the Catawba River. On January 2, Cornwallis sent Colonel Tarleton and his legion off in pursuit. The two forces maneuvered around each other with Morgan picking up recruits and Tarleton receiving reinforcements until both were leading just over 1,000 men.
Morgan eventually decided that Tarleton was good enough a tactician to trap him one of these days so he selected a site to make a stand at a spot called Hannah’s Cowpens. Morgan’s choice was a terrible one by conventional standards as his flanks were wide open to cavalry attacks and he put a river in his back, making retreat impossible. But Morgan later said that this was the idea. The problem with the militiamen is that they run. If they don’t have anywhere to run, maybe they’ll fight. Then he added another dimension asking the militiamen only to fire two volleys and then fall back behind the sterner Continentals. So I’m not asking you to stand up to the cream of the British army here, just fire two volleys and then you can get the hell out of there. You can do that much, can’t you? And it turns out that they could.
On the morning of January 17, Tarleton led his men up in a conventional line on a frontal assault of Morgan’s position on a low hill at the Cowpens. The militiamen did their job, firing two volleys into the British and then falling back. Tarleton took this understandably as the Americans once again running for it and he ordered his men to charge in but all they found was the core of Continentals waiting for them. Gunfire gave way to a bayonet charge and suddenly it was the British, not the Americans, who were falling back. Then the militiamen who had supposedly run off reappeared on their flanks and the British started getting enveloped and then they started surrendering.
After an hour of fighting, they lost 100 dead, another 200 wounded and over 800 captured. Tarleton himself managed to just barely get away and bring to Cornwallis the thoroughly unhappy news that most of their best troops had just been captured. Cornwallis immediately took off in pursuit of Morgan but his intelligence network was by now in total collapse and he set off down the wrong road in the wrong direction.
Meanwhile, Nathaniel Greene got word of the Battle of Cowpens and rode off with a small escort to link up with Morgan and guide him back to the rest of the army which Greene had ordered to start pulling back to Virginia to regroup. What followed was the so-called Race to the Dan, the Dan River marking the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia.
Greene linked up with Morgan on January 31. Cornwallis shed all his baggage and the two armies spent the next week racing north, often just miles apart through terrible weather with every ford at every river swollen by rain. As they approached the Dan, Cornwallis was once again tripped up by bad intelligence. Thinking there was no good place to cross downstream, Cornwallis swung west to head off Greene and Morgan. But there was a spot to cross downstream where the rest of the Americans were waiting for their comrades to appear.
Now at full strength, Greene wanted to make a stand right there but he was talked out of it and the Americans started crossing into Virginia. When Cornwallis finally appeared after being led around on a wild goose chase, he had no way himself to cross the river as all the boats had been pulled to the other side. Frustrated, Cornwallis pulled back to Hillsborough where he tried and basically failed to raise some loyalist militia companies to augment his forces. By now, he was totally despairing of his ability to hold on to the Carolinas.
But about a week after the Americans crossed into Virginia, Greene received some bad intelligence of his own that the recruitment drive in North Carolina was working and that if he didn’t act fast, Cornwallis might command an unbeatable army. So on February 23, Greene led his men back into North Carolina. The two armies maneuvered around each other for another two weeks and it was soon apparent that the Americans actually now outnumbered the British something like 4,500 to 2,000. But even with this disparity, it was Cornwallis who decided to finally press for an attack on March 15 at the American camp at Guilford Courthouse in northern North Carolina.
Greene was ready for the attack and had superior numbers but the British were, as always, more disciplined than the American militia companies. And despite being outnumbered two to one, the British just kept coming and coming until the Americans retreated, most in good order, the rest not so much.
But for Cornwallis, the Battle at Guilford Courthouse was the quintessential pyrrhic victory. He had won the battle and held the field, but he had lost something like a quarter of his men in the process. He couldn’t pursue Greene and he couldn’t stop the spread of news that the British were spread thin and losing control of the Carolinas. Loyalist morale was devastated. The Patriots were exuberant. The momentum had shifted decisively.
Next week, we will see what both Cornwallis and Greene thought of their respective chances in the Carolinas as Cornwallis pulled out and Greene dove in. Not that Cornwallis’ troubles were over when he ditched the Carolina swamp, his next base of operations would be on the Chesapeake Bay in a place called Yorktown, Virginia.
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