Sunday, March 24, 2024

ARP304 Jacksonborough Assembly

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been covering the continued fighting in South Carolina following the British surrender at Yorktown in late 1781.  While all that fighting continued, the patriots also restored civilian rule to South Carolina and Georgia.

Governor Rutledge Returns

With the British restricted to Charleston, where navy cannons could support the garrison, the remainder of South Carolina was largely in patriot hands.  Governor Rutledge returned to the state to begin the process of reestablishing normal government functions.

John Rutledge
Rutledge had been the civilian leader in South Carolina for almost the entire Revolution.  Before the war, Rutledge had been a lawyer and a state legislator in the colonial government.  He had been a long time foe of British taxation efforts, serving as far back as the Stamp Act Congress in 1765.  He had also served as a delegate in the first and second Continental Congresses.  In early 1776, he left Congress to become the first President of South Carolina, before the Congress even approved the Declaration of Independence.

While Rutledge was a proponent of an independent South Carolina, he was not necessarily a big fan of democracy.  In 1778, Rutledge vetoed a new constitution that he deemed too democratic.  When the legislature overrode his veto, he resigned his office.  The following year, the British captured Georgia and threatened to take South Carolina.  The new governor of South Carolina resigned and the legislature called upon Rutledge to take up the governorship. They granted him considerable power to do whatever was necessary to protect the state from the British.

When the British invaded the state in 1780, Rutledge had to flee to North Carolina to avoid capture.  He continued to operate a government in exile, operating out of Hillsborough.  He spent much of his time in Philadelphia trying to get the Continental Congress to provide more military support for the state.  In his role as commander in chief of the South Carolina military, Rutledge appointed military leaders within the state, granting generalships to Sumter, Marion, and Pickens, as well as lots of lesser  officer commissions.  

For much of 1780 and 1781, Rutledge acted with dictatorial powers, without a legislature in session to perform the normal functions of government.  But as the British military threat withdrew from most of the state in late 1781, Rutledge decided it was time to return to civil government. 

The Assembly

The first step was to call for a new statewide election for the general assembly.  Given the state of war still in the state, the election was difficult. On November 23, the governor issued writs of election to his militia generals, calling on them to distribute them through the various militia districts. The elections were scheduled for December 17 and 18.

Details on the elections themselves are pretty scarce.  The 1778 constitution limited the vote to free white men who professed a belief in God, who were at least 21 years old, and who owned at least 50 acres of land, among a few other restrictions.  There were no private ballots in the 18th century, so men had to declare their votes publicly, in front of everyone.  Loyalists could not vote, and it appears that the military was in charge of the elections in many places.

Whatever the limitations, the elections marked a return to civilian government after two years without any legislature at all.  Many of those elected were also military leaders.  Generals Sumter and Marion both became senators, as did Colonels Hugh Horry, Thomas Taylor and William Thompson.  General Pickens was elected to the House, as was Continental Colonel John Laurens.  The governor’s brother Hugh Rutledge, was elected Speaker of the House.

Since the British still occupied the capital at Charleston, the legislature originally planned to meet in Camden.  General Greene encouraged the governor to meet in Jacksonborough instead.  Camden, Greene argued, was too far away from the Army and might be subject to a loyalist raid, as had happened in North Carolina recently.  The ability to get food and supplies in Camden was also limited.

Jacksonborough was much closer to Charleston, only about 35 miles inland.  At one point, Greene got word that 3000 British troops were going to land at Charleston and begin a new offensive.  Greene  then changed his mind and suggested that perhaps Camden would be a better option after all.  By that time though, it was too late to get the word out to all the delegates, so they stuck with Jacksonborough.  In the end the rumor of the British troop landing proved false, so there was no threat to the assembly.

The first major obstacle the Assembly faced was getting enough delegates to show up to form a quorum.  Although the Assembly scheduled its first meeting for January 8, 1782, it did not have enough members to do any business until January 17.

The day after they got their quorum, Governor Rutledge addressed the assembly.  The governor focused on the British depredations on the people of South Carolina, and praised the actions of Greene and the Continental Army in combating the British occupation.  Rutledge also praised the work of the militia under Sumter and Marion.  At the same time, he attacked the actions of the loyalists in assisting the British against their friends and neighbors.

The Assembly generally approved of the speech.  But one of the first actions taken up by the new assembly was to replace Governor Rutledge.  This was nothing personal. The constitution of 1778, allowed a governor to serve for only two out of every six years.  Rutledge had already served for two years.  After some debate the Assembly elected John Mathews as the new governor.  Mathews had been a militia officer, but primarily served in civil offices.  He had served in the Assembly in the past, and as a judge early in the war, and had been elected Speaker for a time.  Mathews had been elected to the most recent Assembly, after serving the prior two years in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  The outgoing Governor Rutledge would take up Mathews spot in the Continental Congress.

The legislative session focused primarily on how to continue financing the war.  Much of the debate considered what to do with the property of the loyalists.  A great many estates had already been seized.  The Assembly made that official for many, listing several hundred loyalists whose property was deemed permanently seized by the state.  These same people were permanently expelled from South Carolina.  Another group of loyalist sympathizers were fined an amount equal to 12% of the value of their estates.  With no loyalists in the legislature, and with the public sentiment strongly against them, the assembly approved these measures overwhelmingly.

A more controversial debate focused on slaves.  Senator John Laurens had long supported the idea of arming slaves to fight and offering them their freedom in exchange for service. Those suggestions had been shot down pretty overwhelmingly in the past.  This time, Laurens tried to push the idea into one that focused on the popular idea of confiscation from the loyalists.  He proposed that 2500 slaves,  confiscated from loyalist plantations, be formed into regiments that would fight under white officers. The state was under an obligation to provide more soldiers to the Continental Army and could not seem to raise them among the white population. Since no patriots would lose slaves under this plan, and because this would resolve the problem of raising more Continental Regiments in the state, Laurens hoped that it might be more palatable to the delegates.

There was no record of the legislative debate on the matter, or the count of the final vote - only that the matter was debated and rejected. Several informal accounts indicate that the plan initially looked like it would pass.  Leaders like Rutledge had to lobby hard against the plan before it finally failed.

That leaves us with the question: why did it fail? The seizures would only impact loyalist slave owners, and the patriots had already shown little concern for the property rights of loyalists.  Even so, providing arms to former slaves and also ending up with a population of freed former slaves living in South Carolina after the war, was seen as a dangerous policy.  Many expressed the fear that these freed slaves who would be comfortable with combat would form the core of a larger slave revolt in the future.

The other big slave debate during this session was over Sumter’s policy of paying militia with slaves seized from loyalist plantations.  This also proved controversial.  Sumter, as you might guess, was a vocal supporter of the bill, which authorized what he had been doing.  Marion was a leading opponent. The Assembly ended up neither approving or disapproving of the practice, which had already been in place for months.  In fact, the Assembly disbanded without coming to any decision on how to pay the state’s soldiers.  Some of the slaves seized from the loyalists under the Confiscation Act that was passed would be used to pay Continental recruits.  The Assembly also voted to grant immunity from suit for all officers who had seized private property for public use.  So, although they did not approve Sumter's practices of seizing slaves for his soldiers, they made sure he could not be sued for doing so.

The Assembly adjourned on February 26, after being in session for just over a month.  Sumter ended up resigning his commission in the army and retiring.  The Assembly offered him a seat in the Continental Congress, but he declined.  He would later return to politics, but his military career was over.  Most of the other officers who had been elected and served in the legislature returned to their military duties following adjournment.

Lee Goes Home

In addition to Sumter’s resignation, the other major departure around this time was that of Lieutenant Colonel Light Horse Harry Lee.  General Greene had relied heavily on Lee’s cavalry, particularly so after the capture of Colonel William Washington at Eutaw Springs.  Lee had enjoyed relative independence and performed actively up until this time.  

Light Horse Harry Lee
There seemed to be a number of things that contributed to his decision to resign his command on January 26, 1782, a little over a week after the South Carolina Assembly had begun its session.  Much of his pique seemed to be related to the arrival of John Laurens.

Lee had been pushing hard for the attack on John’s Island that I discussed last week.  Greene had considered it too difficult to get across the island while the British still controlled the waters around it. Even so, he granted permission to attempt the raid based on Lee’s persistence.  Greene, however, directed Lee to share the command with Laurens, who had seniority over Lee.  

Laurens, as I said before, was more than just a lieutenant colonel.  He was extremely well connected to the elite families in South Carolina, as well as a favorite of General George Washington.  Lee seemed to see Laurens’ lust for glory as pushing him aside.

Lee’s resignation letter to Greene, and subsequent letters over the next few days as Greene attempted to get him to change his mind, indicated his level of frustration.  Lee believed he had received insufficient credit for his deeds at Eutaw Springs.  He also seemed to show frustration at Laurens’ involvement in the attack on John Island.  After Greene determined that Laurens would take over Lee’s Legion after his departure, Lee criticized the appointment.  He told Greene that Laurens was not experienced enough and that he would “waste the troops very fast.” 

Although Greene attempted to get Lee to change his mind, the young lieutenant colonel seemed unwilling to reconsider.  Once that became clear, Greene hoped to offer him at least a farewell party.  Lee also declined that.  Greene then offered a letter of introduction to General Rochambeau, who was still with the French Army at Williamsburg, Virginia.  Greene hoped Lee would brief the general on the southern campaign, perhaps with the hope that Rochambeau would eventually bring his soldiers to assist Greene's army in the south.  Again, Lee declined to do that, just wanting to go home.

Lee ended up staying for a few more weeks.  His delay did not seem to be related to waiting for Laurens to complete his term in the Assembly, or because of any hesitation in his decision to leave.  It seemed to have more to do with the difficulty in obtaining a carriage to take him back to Virginia.  Lee departed South Carolina in late February, only a few weeks after his 25th birthday.

Problems in Georgia

Aside from Laurens’ new command the other big change in the south was the arrival of the Pennsylvania line.  In November, 1781, following the victory at Yorktown, Washington deployed these reinforcements to Greene in South Carolina.  He gave command of these reinforcements to Major General Arthur St. Clair.  

We haven’t heard much from St. Clair since he surrendered Fort Ticonderoga back in 1777.  At the time St. Clair said that doing so would destroy his reputation and military career.  He was right.  Although exonerated after an inquiry, St. Clair never got another field command.  He had remained an aide to George Washington.  Everyone seemed to agree that St. Clair was a pretty decent administrator, but not ready for an independent field combat command.  

After St. Clair arrived in late January, 1782, he served as second in command to General Greene, who was the more senior major general.  In the end, St. Clair would only remain in the south for a few months during a period of relative inactivity.  By summer, he would return to his home in Pennsylvania.

Along with St. Clair, the Pennsylvania line came with another general, Brigadier Anthony Wayne.  Most recently, Wayne and the Pennsylvania line had been fighting in Virginia under General Lafayette and, of course, participated in Yorktown.  With Virginia secured, and with Lafayette’s decision to return to France, Wayne and his soldiers marched south.

Greene kept most of the Pennsylvania Line with him, near Charleston, but sent General Wayne with a smaller force to Georgia.  The state still faced brutal fights between patriots and loyalists.  The British still maintained a garrison at Savannah with over 1300 regulars and hundreds more loyalist militia. They also had support from local Creek and Cherokee tribes.  

Greene tasked Wayne with trying to restore peace in most of the state, ordering him not to try to take Savannah.  Greene stressed that prudence, not attempted acts of bravery that could result in disaster, were needed in the state.  Wayne should attempt to get the loyalist to come around and accept the patriot rule, ending the continued bloodletting between neighbors.

Wayne set up his forces along the Savannah River, about 25 miles north of the city of Savannah.  His position cut off the British in the city from their Indian allies.  In late January, his army captured a Choctaw caravan on its way to bring supplies to the British in Savannah.  Wayne kept a few chiefs as hostages, but allowed the rest to return home, telling them that the new leadership only wanted their peace and friendship, but that they could no longer support the British.  Wayne also drafted a proclamation for the governor to issue a pardon to Tories who would end their opposition to patriot rule.

Despite Greene’s calls for prudence, Wayne also began raiding outposts around Savannah and riding his troops to within a few miles of the city.  In  hopes of reigning in Wayne’s aggressive tactics, Greene refused to send more ammunition and recalled some of the soldiers he had initially sent with Wayne.

Wayne’s arrival in Georgia also coincided with a political rift that was threatening to divide the patriot leadership in Georgia.  Recall that a few episodes back I recounted how a few Georgia delegates at the Continental Congress had appointed Nathan Brownson as the commander of all the militia in Georgia.  Brownson had almost no military credentials.  He was a physician by trade.  The more experienced militia officers in the state objected to Brownson’s appointment, which really didn’t have any legal standing anyway.  Despite not liking Brownson, he was appointed by delegates to the Continental Congress, who really didn't have any legal standing to make such appointments.

General Greene eventually smoothed over the differences by getting the leaders to agree that Brownson would serve as governor of Georgia while Militia General John Twiggs became the state’s commander of militia.

This seemed to work for a time, until Governor Brownson learned that Twiggs was holding councils of war without informing him and was working directly with Greene to receive supplies rather than going through the civil government.

Once again, Greene tried to smooth over differences by instructing Twiggs to keep Brownson in the loop and to forward supply requests through the civilian leadership in Georgia.  A short time later, Brownson once again wrote to Greene that Twiggs was reporting on recent skirmishes to Greene but not providing reports to the governor.  Twiggs had told Brownson that Greene had requested that he receive reports on military actions directly.

The governor dashed off another angry letter to Greene that he took as a personal insult that Greene was leaving him out of the loop. General Twiggs was also upset that Brownson was not respecting his authority in military matters.  So the governor of Georgia and the commander of the state military were both offended by the other’s actions and were barely speaking to one another.  Both of them were mad at Greene for trying to work with the other.

Fortunately for Greene, the matter eventually resolved itself.  The Georgia legislature replaced Governor Brownson in January, 1782, selecting John Martin as the new governor.  Under Martin the Georgia legislature would take actions similar to South Carolina, naming hundreds of loyalists who would be banned from the state and their property confiscated.

Fighting in Georgia and South Carolina would continue. The British garrisons at Charleston and Savannah felt increasing pressure, but remained throughout the spring of 1782.  Greene received several reports of British reinforcements, but those never proved accurate.  Both sides seemed to remain on hold, waiting for other events to impact what they would do next.

Next week: the wider war spreads as Spain captures Menorca in the Mediterranean..  

- - -

Next Episode 305 Siege of Menorca

Previous Episode 303 John's Island

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Further Reading


Constitution of South Carolina, 1778:

Members of the 4th General assembly - 1782:

Jacksonborough Assembly:

South Carolina Confiscation Act of 1782:

Gov. John Matthews

John Twiggs:

Gov. Nathan Brownson:

Gov. John Martin:

Cashin, Edward J. “Nathanael Greene’s Campaign for Georgia in 1781.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 1, 1977, pp. 43–58. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journal of the House of Representatives of South Carolina. January 8, 1782-February 26, 1782, Columbia, SC: Printed for the Historical commission of South Carolina, 1916. 

Barnwell, Robert Woodward Loyalism in South Carolina, 1765-1785, Ph.D. Thesis, Duke University, 1941. 

Bishop, Cortlandt F. History of Elections in the American Colonies, New York: Columbia College (PH.D. Thesis) (1893). 

Coleman, Kenneth The American Revolution in Georgia, 1763-1789, Athens: Univ of Ga Press, 1958 (borrow only). 

Flanders, Henry Lives and Times of the Chief justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, Vol 1 (John Jay & John Rutledge) Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1874. 

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.  

Pennypacker, Samuel W. Anthony Wayne, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. 1908.  

Simms, William G. The Life of Francis Marion, New York, Derby, 1854. 

Smith, William Henry The St. Clair Papers, Cincinnati: Clarke, 1882. 

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 unless otherwise noted)*

Bass, Robert D. Gamecock: The Life And Campaigns of General Thomas Sumter, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961 (Read on 

Buchanan, John The Road to Charleston, Univ. of Va. Press, 2019. 

Golway, Terry Washington's General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution, H. Holt, 2006 (borrow on 

Massey, Gregory D. John Laurens and the American Revolution, Univ. of SC Press,  2000 (borrow on 

O’Kelley, Patrick Nothing But Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, Vol 3, 1781, Booklocker, 2005. 

Oller, John The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, Da Capo Press, 2016. 

Southern, Ed Voices of the American Revolution in the Carolinas , Blair, 2009. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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