Sunday, November 4, 2018

Episode 069: The South Joins the War

By summer 1775, the war centered around Boston or New England, with some action out in New York around Ticonderoga.  Many in London thought the rebellion could be contained to New England.  However, just as they thought the New England problem was only the result of a few bad apples, the Ministry once again underestimated the geographic scope of the problem.  So today I will give an overview of the situation in the southern colonies.

Virginia Gov. Dunmore Flees

When we last left Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore in May 1775, he had tried to take possession of colonial powder.  This led to Patrick Henry, leading 1000 militia to confront him.  Although they resolved that incident without bloodshed, Dunmore realized he was no longer safe in Williamsburg.  In June, he relocated to his hunting lodge in York County.  After a few weeks, the militia again came looking for the Governor.  Following a brief firefight, Dunmore escaped with his family, but not before taking a shot in the leg.  Without any Regulars to protect him, Dunmore took refuge with the navy aboard the HMS Fowey.  He stayed on the Fowey for several weeks.  After confirming that Norfolk remained under Loyalist control, he set up a base of operations there.

Lord Dunmore
(from Wikimedia)
In early June, about the same time Dunmore sought protection aboard the Fowey, Patriots broke into the Williamsburg armory, taking 400 guns. In July, Dunmore reported to London that Patriots had taken over the Governor’s residence in Williamsburg and converted the capital into a barracks for patriot militia.  As Dunmore put it: “the People of Virginia manifest open Rebellion by every means in their power, and declare at the Same time that they are his Majesty's Most dutyfull subjects.

Although the patriots controlled Williamsburg, the Third Virginia Convention, effectively now the patriot-run government in the colony, met again in Richmond.   It ordered the creation of two military regiments, appointed Patrick Henry the commander of Virginia’s new patriot army, and enforced the trade restrictions supported by the Continental Congress.

The Battle of Hampton

In late August and early September, mother nature impacted the war through what became known as the Independence Hurricane.  The storm devastated coastal communities in the southern colonies, killing hundreds.  It moved out to sea, leaving only rain for Philadelphia and Boston, but destroyed much of British-controlled Newfoundland.  The storm destroyed about 25 ships, mostly British navy and supply ships.   Among them was a British supply ship called the Liberty, which ran ashore near Hampton, Virginia.  Local patriots looted the ship of all supplies and then burned it to the water line.

British Cartoon showing Viginia loyalists
forced to join the Virginia Association
(from Wikimedia - Orig. British Museum)
Dunmore had set up his headquarters just across the river from Hampton, at Norfolk.  He took the raid on the Liberty as an affront, and demanded the rebels return their stolen supplies.  They said they would return the supplies when Dunmore returned their runaway slaves, which he refused to do.

While the British could not control much land in Virginia, they could control the seas.  They had enough ships to launch raids along the coast and up rivers capturing or destroying rebel property.  With this force, Dunmore raided Hampton.  It would be the largest town in Virginia that the Navy ever attempted to raid.

To prevent such an action, patriots had sunk several ships at the mouth of the Hampton River, blocking any larger ships from passing over the wreckage.  Patriots in Williamsburg also sent a regiment to defend Hampton.

On October 26, the British Navy exchanged fire with patriot militia at the mouth of the Hampton river.  After sunset, they attempted a night raid to break up the blockade on the river. The next morning two small British warships and some smaller support ships made their way to Hampton, unleashing the Royal Marines to destroy the town.  On earlier raids, the British relied on the locals fleeing in terror as a relatively small number of marines sacked the town.  At Hampton though, the Virginia militia from Williamsburg defended their ground.  The regiment included riflemen who could pick off marines on the ground, or any sailors aboard ship who might try to fire a cannon.  The two sides exchanged fire from protected defenses, with neither willing to risk a full on charge against the other line.  As a result, there were only a handful of casualties on either side.

The patriots also captured two small landing craft, taking 10 British prisoners and killing one.  Eventually, the British pulled back down the Hampton River and across the James River to Norfolk.  For Dunmore, the raid was a frustrating failure that only encouraged the patriot cause in the colony.

North Carolina Gov. Martin Flees

North Carolina Governor Josiah Martin also came under attack by patriots shortly after word of Lexington and Concord reached the colony.  Following that attack in late April, Martin sent his family to stay with relatives in New York, while he relocated to Fort Johnston, a small fort near the mouth of the Cape Fear River.  By May, patriots controlled the colony.

Mecklenburg Resolves

Having taken control, people wanted to proclaim their freedom from British rule. North Carolina often brags that it produced the first “Declaration of Independence” more than a year before Congress came around to releasing the famous declaration in 1776.  It refers to the Mecklenburg Resolves.  In late May 1775, after receiving word of the fighting in Lexington and concord, the Committee of Safety in Mecklenburg County North Carolina issues a set of resolves.  Now just about every revolutionary committee on the continent was issuing resolves around this time.  Everyone was stirred up by the fighting and wanted to define what they were fighting for.  Mecklenburg stands out though as one of the first calling rather clearly for independence.

NC Gov. Josiah Martin
(from NCpedia)
The Mecklenburg Resolves proclaimed that all British civil and military authority in the colonies was now null and void, with that power passing to the Continental Congress.  Until such time as Congress could produce a whole new legal code, the Resolves went on to set up a militia, which would also perform the duties of civil government.

This really was a radical step to take, long before even the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was willing to nullify all British rule.  For this reason, many claim that history should praise Mecklenburg for its leadership on independence.

The reality though is that the Mecklenburg Resolves were not that significant at the time, at least not outside of Mecklenburg.  They did not get much press or publicity.  Most members of the Continental Congress never even heard of them at the time.  Therefore, they had little impact on the overall movement toward independence.

What does make them interesting is that it shows that the southern colonies did have a significant radical patriot faction among them that was ready for independence by the summer of 1775.  It also shows that people even outside of radical New England were fast reaching the conclusion that compromise with the King and Parliament really was not an option.  Protection of liberties in America would require a clean break.

Tryon Resolves

Mecklenburg was not unique in its expression of outrage of British behavior in Massachusetts.  Nearby Tryon County issued its own set of Resolves a few months later.  Like Mecklenburg, Tryon also condemned the actions of the British in Massachusetts.  It also agreed to form a military organization to resist attacks on their liberty.  Tryon did not go so far as to explicitly void all government and laws, but it did make clear they were ready to go to war with the British authorities.

These resolves showed that the patriot movement in the south was alive and growing.  Soon, actual fighting in the south would reinforce those sentiments.

Capture of Fort Johnston

Governor Martin could find barely enough Tories to provide himself with a personal guard, let alone raise an army to take on the Patriot militia in the colony.  Gov. Martin set up a base of operations at Fort Johnston on the coast. From there, he sent out messengers to inform slaves that he was willing to arm them and allow them to fight for their freedom.

Fort Johnston (from
The North Carolina Committee of Safety under the command of Cornelius Harnett and John Ashe kept tabs on Martin’s activities.  Given the large number of slaves in the colony, the possibility of a slave revolt was something that really kept the white colonists up at night.  Upon learning about his attempts to arm the slaves, they moved to capture the Governor and prevent any attempt to start a slave revolt.

Martin was prepared for this. He removed the fort’s cannons and positioned them along the shore, where they sat under the protection of the naval ship HMS Cruizer.   On July 18, several hundred patriot militia stormed the fort and burned it to the ground.  They were unable to capture Martin or the ship’s guns, as storming the guns looked like suicide.  Martin took up residence aboard the Cruizer and remained at sea.  The handful of British regulars at the fort also escaped and joined the main British force in Boston.  Martin remained off the coast.  He sent reports to his superiors that he still believed he could raise a large force of loyalists to retake the colony, but could not organize such a force without help from a large force of regulars that the militia could rally around.  For now he sat and waited.

SC Gov. Campbell Arrives

When word of Lexington and Concord reached South Carolina, patriots had already effectively taken control of the government and the colonial arsenals.  Lt. Gov. William Bull nominally led the colony as the Governor had resigned and returned to London in 1773.  Bull was loyal to the crown but did not seem to put up any resistance to anything the patriots did.

On June 14, 1775, the patriots effectively formed a new government for the colony in the new Council of Safety.  It first focused on military matters in the colony, but soon took on pretty much all executive authority.

Gov. William Campbell
(from Wikimedia)
A few days later, on June 18, a new Royal Governor, William Campbell arrived.  Campbell was a member of Parliament and also a career naval officer.  During the French and Indian War he had visited South Carolina and married a local woman.  This may have motivated him to seek the governorship there when it became available.

No one seemed to know how to respond to the new governor’s arrival.  The Patriots had not officially overthrown the colonial government.  They were essentially ignoring it.  Gov. Campbell met a reception of patriot militia at the dock.  He did not get any of the usual welcomes or celebrations attending a new royal governor, but they didn’t arrest him for force him to leave either.

Campbell assumed the governorship, but knew he had no real control over the colony.  A few days later, the patriots sent him an address that informed him that they were all still loyal subjects of the crown but that the had taken up arms to defend attacks on their life, liberty, and property.  Campbell was not sure how to take the idea that his supposedly loyal subjects were in armed active rebellion.  His response indicated he could not know of any legitimate government in the colony other than the one appointed by the King, but could not speak to the immediate disputes having just arrived.  Simply by receiving and responding to the address though, Campbell lent legitimacy to them.

In reality, Campbell would have to decide whether to leave, or likely face imprisonment, as he had no plans to join the rebellion, even though most of his wife’s family were patriot leaders.  For the moment, he stalled and said he must get instructions from London.  Meanwhile, he watched the patriots form military districts, raise and train armies, and run all aspects of colonial government.

Battle of Bloody Point

Even while patriots were taking control of the colonies, the Royal Navy maintained control of the Atlantic, as well as many bays, harbors, and rivers.  South Carolina though, made plans to take on the British at sea.  In July, the Council of Safety learned that the British were sending a shipment of gunpowder to Savannah to supply the Cherokee.  The British hoped to use several local tribes against the rebels.  The Council deployed two barges to intercept the transport ship.  On their way, they were pleased to meet up with a small schooner from Georgia named the Liberty, not to be confused with the British ship Liberty that wrecked in Virginia which I just discussed, nor Benedict Arnold’s Liberty on Lake Champlain, nor John Hancock’s ship Liberty that the British captured in Boston, or any other of the roughly 1.2 million other ships named Liberty during this time period.  Georgia patriots had launched the Liberty in search of merchant vessels violating Patriot trade bans.  The Captain agreed to work with the South Carolina barges to capture the British supply ship.

Mouth of Savannah River at Bloody Point
The British supply ship, the Phillippa, carried the ammunition for British regulars in Florida, as well as for the Cherokee.  On July 7, the British convoy anchored near the mouth of the Savannah River to await a pilot to take them upriver.  The Americans discovered them there the next day.  The following evening, July 9 at around 2:00 AM, the British attempted to move upriver.  The Liberty moved to attack.  The stunned Phillippa did not put up any resistance and obeyed instructions to anchor at Cockspur Island.  The Captain Richard Maitland, also had the bad luck to be the captain of a load of tea in 1774, that the Patriots had seized shortly after the Boston Tea Party.

Now on this trip, Maitland surrendered the Phillippa at Cockspur Island, where a regiment of South Carolina provincials rode out and took possession of the ship, capturing 16,000 pounds of gunpowder, as well as lead and shot for making musket balls.  South Carolina divided up the valuable cargo, sending one fourth of the powder to Philadelphia.  From there it would travel overland to Cambridge where Washington’s Continental Army was in desperate need.  A prize crew sailed the Phillippa back to Savannah with Georgia’s share of the cargo.  Maitland eventually filed a protest with the Georgia Supreme Court to get his ship back, though no one expected that to happen.  The patriots ignored the crown appointed courts as much as they ignored the crown appointed governor.  I think Maitland mostly filed his claim so that he could get a return of his bond money, held by the Board of Trade.  The powder would take weeks to reach Washington in the fall, but was a much needed supply for the Continental Army.

Capture of Fort Charlotte

A week later, emboldened South Carolina patriots seized Fort Charlotte, a small fort on the Savannah River still commanded by less than a dozen British regulars.  On July 12, the Fort surrendered without resistance.  The Council of Safety again took much of the powder to be shipped to the new Continental Army in Massachusetts.  All Governor Campbell could do was watch.

Fort Charlotte (from Historical Marker Database)
The Council of Safety also began demanding that colonists take oaths of loyalty to the new assembly.  Those who did not were threatened with expulsion from the colony.

By September, Gov. Campbell had reached the conclusion that there was little he could do to restore royal authority without a large number of British regulars.  There was some chance that Germans living in the interior of the colony, whom I discussed way back in Episode 35, might rally to the King.  But any organization of loyalist troops would require the presence of military regulars for them to rally around.  Campbell decided he needed to leave.  He boarded the HMS Tamar and remained in Charleston Harbor.


Despite Gov. Campbell’s lack of leadership, some backcountry loyalists took their own initiative. The town of Ninety-Six, which began as a settlement at the 96th milepost on a trail leading to the Keowee Indian village, had built a fortified town there.  There was a small fort with a few pieces of artillery as well as powder and ammunition.  Moses Kirkland served as a captain in the local militia and as the town’s representative to the Provincial Congress.  He had been an outspoken supporter of colonial rights and opposed British treatment of the colonies.  But for Kirkland, outright rebellion and treason was a step too far.

As a captain in the militia, he had participated in the capture of Fort Charlotte a few days earlier.  While riding back to Ninety-Six, he learned that his commander, Maj. James Mayson intended to force all the men to take an oath of allegiance to the Association and to support the Continental Congress.  After they arrived the Fort, Kirkland spoke forcefully against the oath and convinced his entire militia company to refuse it.  They then met with Col. Thomas Fletchall, who commanded a loyalist militia for the area.  Kirkland and most of his men joined Fletchall and returned to take control of Ninety-Six, which now also contained munitions captured at Fort Charlotte.  The loyalist militia arrested Maj. Mason for theft of the King’s property, but released him a few hours later on bail.  Thanks to Kirkland, Ninety-Six remained in loyalist hands, for now.  The backcountry would remain in contention and Kirkland would go on to become a prominent loyalist officer.


Georgia was the last colony to make serious movement toward rebellion.  After receiving word of Lexington and Concord on May 10, patriot groups seized a powder magazine in Savannah the next day.  But colony-wide, royal authority under Royal Governor James Wright remained in control.  Wright, although London born, had lived in the colonies for most of his life and remained on pretty good terms with the people.  He would not be mistaken as being sympathetic to the patriot cause though.  Wright, who had been Governor since 1760, staunchly enforced royal policies, including being the only governor to oversee the sale of stamps during the Stamp Act crisis.

Thomas Brown
(from Jrnl of Am Rev)
After establishing a shadow patriot government in July 1775, the Council of Safety asserted authority, leaving Gov. Wright in the same feckless position as his fellow southern royal governors.  The Council focused on enforcing the trade embargo that the Continental Congress had approved, tarring and feathering several violators.  Georgia also worked with South Carolina to get more gunpowder to the Continental Army in Boston.  Around this time, the George patriots launched the Liberty, which, as I described earlier, would capture the British ship Phillippa, in South Carolina.

On July 7, the Patriots tested Gov. Wright, by getting him to declare a day of prayer and fasting.  While not overtly patriotic, it was a nod to the power of the Patriots in the colony.

Despite the organization and activity of the Georgia patriots, the colony likely held a majority of loyalists.  In August, Thomas Brown, who lived on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River just upriver from Augusta, openly denounced the patriots and called on loyalists to form their own association.

Patriots from Augusta captured him and attempted to force him to swear adherence to the Patriot Association.  They ended up beating Brown nearly to death, scalping him and breaking his skull, also burning the bottom of his feet.  Brown survived and would go on to form the King’s Rangers, one of the most effective Loyalist Regiments of the Revolution.  In 1775 though, after threatening an attack on Augusta, Brown and his loyalists withdrew into the backcountry and awaited the arrival of British regulars.

Royal Gov. Wright stuck it out in Savannah, and avoided direct confrontation with the Council of Safety.  Clearly though, he was not in charge.  When a small British fleet arrived in January 1776, Wright finally fled the colony aboard the HMS Scarborough.

- - -

Next Episode 70: Ousted Governors and Bermuda Powder Raid

Previous Episode 68: Congress' Olive Branch Petition

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Further Reading


The Independence Hurricane:

Lord Dunmore's Navy in Hampton Roads, 1775-1776, Part I: The Battle of Hampton,
By Matthew Krogh (2016):

Lord Dunmore's Navy in Hampton Roads, 1775-1776, Part II: The Road to Great Bridge, by Matthew Krogh (2017):

Battle of Hampton:

Mecklenburg Resolves, text:

Tryon Resolves,

Bloody Point:

Cohen Sheldon S. "The Philippa Affair" The Georgia Historical Quarterly Vol. 69, No. 3 (Fall, 1985), pp. 338-354: (free to read with registration).

Capture of Fort Ninety-Six, July 17, 1775:

Lynch, Wayne "Moses Kirkland and the Southern Strategy" Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Vol. 10, No. 2.3, April 2015:

NC Gov. Josiah Martin:

Cornelius Harnett:

John Ashe:

Fort Johnston:

Fort Charlotte:

NC Lt. Gov. William Bull:

Gov. William Campbell:

Battle of Bloody Point, Capture of the Phillippa:

Dunkerly, Robert M. "Chaos in the Backcountry: Battle of Ninety Six" Journal of the American Revolution, 2013:

Cann, Marvin L. "Prelude to War: The First Battle of Ninety Six: November 19-21, 1775" The South Carolina Historical Magazine Vol. 76, No. 4 (Oct., 1975), pp. 197-214: (payment required)

GA Gov. James Wright:

Revolutionary War in Georgia:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Chesney, Alexander (Jones, E. Alfred and Siebert, Wilbur H. eds) The Journal of Alexander Chesney: a South Carolina loyalist in the revolution and after, Columbus Ohio State University, 1921.

Drayton, John Memoirs of the American Revolution: from its commencement to the year 1776, inclusive, as relating to the state of South-Carolina, and occasionally refering [sic] to the states of North-Carolina and Georgia, Vol. 1, Charleston: A.E. Miller, 1821 (see also, Vol. 2).

Eckenrode, H.J. The Revolution in Virginia, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1916.

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1775-1780, London: Macmillan & Co. 1901.

Millspaugh, Arthur C. Loyalism in North Carolina during the American Revolution, University of Illinois-Urbana (Masters Thesis) 1910.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution,  New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Russell, David Lee The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies, Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2000 (book recommendation of the week).

Williams, Tony Hurricane of Independence, Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2008.

1 comment:

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