Last week we discussed the efforts of the South Carolina militia to keep the British and loyalists trapped in and around Charleston, South Carolina, denying them access to the rest of the state. This week, I want to take a look at an incident in British-occupied Charleston at this time, the summer of 1781, which became a major point of contention in the war.
Isaac Hayne was a member of South Carolina’s planter class. His family had lived in South Carolina for three generations. He owned a substantial plantation and other properties.
|Hanging of Isaac Hayne
Hayne served briefly in South Carolina’s royal assembly, beginning in 1770, but did not seem to take much interest in the debates of the day. In 1777, Hayne learned that he had been elected to the new General Assembly, even though he had not been aware he was under consideration. Hayne was more interested in simply running his plantation.
As a major land owner, Hayne was expected to serve as an officer in the local militia. He was a captain in 1776 when the British threatened to invade Charleston. Captain Hayne brought his militia company to Charleston at that time, where they helped prepare defenses. He did not engage in any combat.
Like most people in South Carolina, as the revolution raged to the north, Hayne went about his life, running his plantation and investing in an iron foundry. The foundry later became a supplier of cannonballs for the Charleston Artillery. Years later, after the British recaptured the colony, Colonel Banastre Tarleton raided, looted, and destroyed the foundry.
Hayne was still a militia captain in 1780, when the British returned and captured Charleston. He was not in Charleston when the city fell, but he disbanded his militia and went home after the British captured the city.
A short time later, Hayne traveled to Charleston to get medicine after his family contracted smallpox. He simply traveled as a neutral private citizen to buy medicine for his wife and child.
While in Charleston, Hayne was detained and brought before Brigadier General James Patterson, who informed Hayne that he must take an oath of allegiance to the king or be imprisoned. Despite his reluctance, Hayne’s desire to return to his home with the needed medicine compelled him to sign the declaration of allegiance to the king.
Part of the document obligated him to take up arms to support the royal government if necessary. Hayne told others at the time that General Patterson and others assured him that this would not be an issue, and that he would not be called upon to serve in a loyalist militia. After signing, Hayne was permitted to return home, where his wife died of smallpox shortly afterward.
When the patriots once again took control of the region around his plantation, Hayne once again received pressure to take a commission. It became clear to him that he had to pick a side. Patriots were also threatening to imprison him and confiscate his property if he refused to join.
Hayne finally accepted Colonel Marion’s commission and raised a militia regiment of about 200 men. Hayne’s militia disrupted supply lines and communications between Lord Rawdon’s army in Camden, and later Orangeburg, and the main British command in Charleston.
As Colonel Hayne led his militia, he received orders to capture Andrew Williamson. Before the war, Williamson had been another South Carolina plantation owner, but further west on the frontier, near Fort Ninety-Six. He had led patriot militia against the Cherokee in 1776, and also fought at Briar Creek, Stono Ferry, and other skrimishes. He also served under General Lincoln at the Siege of Savannah. Williamson was serving as a militia general by 1780.
When the British took Charleston, Williamson also took parole and signed an oath of allegiance. Like Hayne, he remained on his plantation, trying to remain neutral. As with Hayne, neither side would accept his neutrality.
Williamson eventually fled the patriots and made his way to British-occupied Charleston. Williamson’s high rank and his decision to seek British protection led many to call Williamson the Benedict Arnold of the south. Unlike Arnold, however, Williamson did not become an active military leader for the British.
He settled on a plantation just outside of Charleston, but within British lines. It was near where Hayne’s militia were active. They were tasked with trying to capture Williamson and bring him back to the patriots for trial.
On the night of July 5, 1781, Hayne led a night time raid on Williamson’s plantation. The mounted militia surrounded the home and took him by surprise.
Almost immediately, the British dispatched Major Thomas Frasier to recover Williamson. Three days later, Frasier’s mounted militia raided Hayne’s camp near Horse Shoe, a few miles from Parker’s Ferry. The patriot militia managed to fight off the attack and keep Williamson prisoner. But somehow Frasier learned that Hayne was away from his regiment, staying at the nearby Woodford plantation. Hayne was having breakfast with his second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas McLaughlin, when loyalist militia raided the home.
The men leapt to their horses and attempted to escape. The mounted loyalists were too fast, and managed to catch their prey, killing McLaughlin and taking Hayne as a prisoner. Frasier brought Hayne back to Charleston, where the colonel was imprisoned in the city jail. He remained there for several weeks while his captors considered his fate.
Fate of a Traitor
In command at Charleston was Lieutenant Colonel Nisbet Balfour. In his mid-thirties, Balfour was an experienced officer. The son of a Scottish laird, Balfour received an ensign’s commission at the age of 17. By 1770, he had risen to captain. Balfour had been injured in the assault at Bunker Hill in 1775. He recovered in time to fight in the New York Campaign of 1776 and the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777. In 1778, after the British evacuated Philadelphia, Balfour returned home on sick leave, by this time a lieutenant colonel
He returned to America in time to participate in the British capture of Charleston in 1780. Afterward, he received command of Fort Ninety-Six, where he was part of Patrick Ferguson’s effort to raise an army of loyalist militia. The men raised an army of over 4000 loyalists. It was around this time that Balfour got to know Andrew Williamson, the former militia general whose plantation was only a few miles from Fort Ninety-Six.
After General Cornwallis left Charleston for Camden, and what began his lengthy chase of Nathanael Greene across the Carolinas, he assigned command of Charleston to Balfour. As commander, Balfour attempted to maintain order with a certain firmness. In August of 1780, he ordered thirty known patriots in Charleston arrested and exiled to St. Augustine so that they could not plot further insurrection against South Carolina. All of the men had been on parole and complying with the terms of parole.
In June 1781, he ordered the removal of all wives and children of patriot soldiers who had been captured and exchanged. Balfour confiscated the property of these expelled families, leaving them destitute and dependent on the charity of others for survival.
He placed prisoners on prison ships on Charleston Harbor. The heat and miserable conditions aboard the ships resulted in many of them dying in agony. In an attempt to force General Greene to accept a prisoner exchange, Balfour threatened to ship his prisoners to the West Indies, where the remainder would almost certainly die. On multiple occasions, Balfour sought permission to execute prisoners who were found guilty of atrocities. His commanders, aware that this would result in reprisals against British prisoners held by the Americans, denied these requests.
Also in Charleston at this time as Lord Rawdon. In July, Rawdon had left his command in Orangeburg and was trying to recover his health enough to take a ship back to Britain. Both men had known each other throughout the war. Like Balfour, Rawdon had been wounded at Bunker Hill. Balfour held seniority over the two and was a decade older than Rawdon. Even so, Cornwallis had left overall command of South Carolina to Rawdon, which led to tension between the two officers.
In May of 1781, Balfour and Greene had agreed to a cartel for the exchange of prisoners. The cartel, however, only applied to prisoners captured through June 15. Hayne had been captured on July 8.
Balfour was feeling increasing pressure from the patriots raids around Charleston. He thought that making some examples might discourage more people from taking up arms with the patriot militia.
When Major Edmund Hyrne came to Charleston on General Greene’s behalf in June 1781, he found that Balfour refused to release six officers covered by the cartel because Balfour wanted to try them as criminals. Two of the prisoners were to be tried for taking up arms after taking the oath of allegiance.
On July 26, Hayne received a note saying that he would be subject to a “Court of Enquiry” the following morning. This was the same method the patriots had used a year earlier to convict and hang British Major John Andre.
Balfour conferred with Rawdon, who seemed to believe the only thing necessary was to confirm that Rawdon had taken the oath and had afterward taken up arms. Everything else was irrelevant. Rawdon was used to the brutality going on in the South Carolina fighting. He personally had ordered the hanging of numerous people without trial, who were suspected of participating in the rebellion.
Hayne was given a right to an attorney. He chose one, but when the attorney could not be found, they proceeded without him. Hayne could have called witnesses, but did not do so. He did not have access to any of them, and assumed he could do so later when would be tried at a court martial after the court of inquiry
The court of inquiry met on June 27 and 28. There is no record from the hearing, but a witness later reported that it was pretty much just a confirmation that Hayne had taken the oath of allegiance and confirmation that he had taken up arms afterwards. The following day, Sunday July 29, Hayne received a notice informing him that the board had resolved that he would be executed on Tuesday July 31 at 6:00 AM.
Realizing that there would be no more hearings, Hayne quickly summoned his attorney who drafted and delivered a brief that same day explaining why Hayne had been denied due process and demanding a real trial. The brief noted that Hayne had not been informed of the charges against him. He thought the hearing was to determine whether he was a spy. It also noted that as a prisoner of war, he should not be executed unless found to be a spy. Since he was not in the British military, he could only face capital punishment after conviction by a jury of his peers. The hearing against Hayne was unlawful and did not justify execution.
Balfour responded the following day informing Hayne that he was not being executed based on any sentence from the court of inquiry. Instead, Balfour was simply ordering his execution on his own authority as military commander of South Carolina.
Hayne then requested that sentence be delayed so that he could send for his children and say goodbye. This also was denied, but after Lieutenant Governor William Bull and others intervened, Balfour offered a reprieve of forty-eight hours.
|Isaac Haynes, walked to Execution
On Friday evening August 3, Hayne received a note saying “the many Cruelt[ies] exercised upon numberless Officers & men of the British Militia, extending even to Death (in many instances) an hour after capture, have induce Lord Rawdon & the Commandant to order his Execution may take place tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock.”
That evening, Hayne was permitted a meeting with the three of his children who had gotten to Charleston in time. The following morning, a guard marched him behind a wagon carrying his coffin to the place of execution - about a mile away, just outside the city limits. He was placed on a wagon, the noose put around his neck, and the wagon pulled away. Within minutes, Colonel Hayne was dead.
South Carolina had seen many executions of enemy combatants. Even so, the hanging of Isaac Hayne became a particular rallying point for the Americans. Part of it was Colonel Hayne’s rank. It was probably also due to the fact that he was hanged in Charleston rather than simply out in the field following some battle. Whatever the case, the incident drew international attention.
Hayne became known as the Nathan Hale of the South, referencing the Connecticut officer hanged as a spy in New York back in 1776. It reinforced views that the British were bloodthirsty tyrants who sought to rule by terror.
All of this led to calls for Greene to retaliate. On August 20, a few weeks after Hayne’s execution, all of Greene’s Continental offices signed a letter requesting that Greene “retaliate in the most effectual manner.” Greene wrote to Colonel Balfour demanding an explanation for Hayne’s execution and threatening immediate retaliation unless Balfour could provide some legitimate justification.
Despite the angry words, Greene was loath to take immediate action. For starters, he was in the middle of a prisoner exchange and wanted to be sure he received his promised prisoners before an act of retaliation might spur the British to respond to that retaliation with even more brutality toward their prisoners. There was also the difficult decision about executing an innocent officer for the wrongful actions of others.
Some Continentals argued that the loyalist general who Hayne had captured, and which resulted in Hayne himself being captured, should be the target of reprisal for the murder of Hayne. But that loyalist prisoner, Andrew Williamson, had actually been spying for Greene while he was in Charleston. Other officers did not know that, but Greene certainly was not going to execute his own spy.
Greene wrote to General Washington, requesting approval to retaliate. Washington responded that Congress was considering the matter and urged Greene to wait for Congress’ decision.
Congress investigated the hanging, even taking depositions from eyewitnesses. Members debated the issue of retaliation. A committee sent a letter to General Greene to investigate further and to execute a British officer if Greene determined that Hayne’s execution was “contrary to the laws of war.”
Colonel Balfour responded to Greene’s initial letter, arguing that his actions were based on Lord Cornwallis’ general instructions to hang those who accepted British commissions and then participated in the revolt. Of course, Hayne had never accepted a British commission, so that argument rang hollow.
A few weeks after the hanging, the British Colonel Lord Rawdon, boarded a ship for England. His ship was attacked by French privateers and he was taken prisoner.
The idea of executing Lord Rawdon in retaliation struck many as a fair bargain. Rawdon was not just some innocent officer. He had participated in the decision to hang Isaac Hayne and was, therefore, a guilty party.
The privateers who captured Rawdon turned him over to the French Navy under Admiral de Grasse. After learning this, Congress sent an emissary to de Grasse, demanding that Rawdon be turned over to answer for the hanging. Admiral de Grasse refused this demand, and quickly shipped Rawdon to Paris so that he would not have to deal with this issue. French officials, agreeing that Rawdon should not be turned over to the Americans, granted the officer parole and permitted him to return to England. Rawdon would eventually be exchanged for General Charles Scott of Virginia in the summer of 1782.
British officials still feared that the Americans might pick another officer as the subject of reprisal. That fall, the British managed to capture Colonel William Washington, the American commander’s cousin. They also captured North Carolina Governor Thomas Burke. The transferred both men to Charleston. They held these prisoners and let the Americans know that if the Americans executed any British officers, that these men would be executed in retaliation.
British officials hoped that the execution would have intimidated other men who had taken the oath of allegiance from rejoining the patriot ranks. Instead, it had the opposite effect. As word circulated about what happened, recruits rushed to join the patriot ranks. In the weeks following Hayne’s death, Greene’s forces swelled to over 2000 men.
In the end, the Americans took no retaliation against British prisoners. The matter dragged on for the remainder of the war. Hayne would be remembered as an American martyr.
Next week: We look at British officials trying to deal with a growing world war, and an increasing isolation with the rest of Europe.
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VIDEO: Author C.L. Bragg, The Execution of Isaac Hayne During the American Revolution: https://www.c-span.org/video/?425005-3/hanging-isaac-hayne-american-revolution
(from archive.org unless noted)
Blanchard, Amos American Military Biography: Containing the lives and characters of the officers of the Revolution, Cincinnati: Printed at the Chronicle Office 1830.
Frost, John Lives of the Heroes of the American Revolution, Boston : Phillips & Sampson, 1849.
Lee, Henry Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, Washington: Peter Force, 1827.
McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.
Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, 1749-1815, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Bragg, C. L. Martyr of the American Revolution: The Execution of Isaac Hayne, South Carolinian, Univ. S.C. Press, 2016. (borrow on archive.org)
Buchanan, John The Road to Charleston, Univ. of Va. Press, 2019.
Nelson, Paul D. Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Marquess of Hastings, Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2005.
(borrow on Archive.org) https://archive.org/details/francisrawdonhas0000nels
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.