When we last left the south in Episode 251, British General Henry Clinton had departed with most of the army to return to New York. Clinton had received word that the French Army would be arriving soon and wished to contend with that. He left Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis in command at Charleston, South Carolina.
General Cornwallis has been a part of our story in many earlier episodes. But since this is his first really big independent command, and since he plays such a key role in the southern theater, I thought a refresher was in order.
Cornwallis came from the top of British aristocracy. He was the son of the 5th Baron Cornwallis. His mother was the daughter of a Viscount. His uncle was the Archbishop of Canterbury. As a boy, Cornwallis attended Eton. He purchased his first military commission as an ensign at the age of 17. Rather than go into service as most young officers learned their profession, Cornwallis traveled to Europe where he enrolled in the military academy at Turin. After that, he toured central Europe.
When the Seven Years War began, Cornwallis’ regiment shipped out for America before he could reach it. Instead, he attached himself as an aide to Lord Granby, commander in chief of British forces in Europe. He fought at the battle of Minden and shortly afterwards purchased a captaincy. Before long he had been brevetted to lieutenant colonel.
While he was still fighting in Europe, his family got Cornwallis elected to Parliament. He only spent a little over a year as a member of the House of Commons before his father died, and he took up his father’s seat in the House of Lords. In Parliament, Cornwallis showed a strong sympathy for the colonies. He voted against the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, and the Intolerable Acts. Yet, by the time the war began, Cornwallis, a major general, volunteered to go to war, and even proposed a campaign to retake the southern colonies. He received promotion to lieutenant general in America in 1776, shortly before shipping off with General Clinton to retake the Carolinas.
I won’t go through all the details of Cornwallis’ leadership in the war, but I will note that he frequently wanted to return home to be with his ailing wife. He had planned to leave for London in late 1776, when he was called back from his ship to go fight Washington at Trenton. In late 1777, after the fighting season had ended, he returned home. He did the same at the end of the 1778 fighting season. While in Britain, his wife became much sicker.
During one visit home, Cornwallis had an audience with the king, in which he told George III that the war’s success was hopeless. Despite his assessment, he received a permanent promotion to lieutenant general and became second in command to General Clinton. The following year, he returned to England once again and resigned his commission to be by his wife’s side as she lay on her deathbed. After her death in 1779, Cornwallis once again offered his services to the king.
He returned to service in America, not because he thought he could win the war, but simply because he was too depressed to remain in Britain following his wife’s death, and wanted to be back with his army buddies in America. When he returned, everyone, including General Clinton, thought that Cornwallis would shortly replace Clinton as commander in North America, following Clinton’s resignation.
Clinton and Cornwallis had their personal disagreements, but Clinton seemed ready to bring Cornwallis up to speed on everything so that Clinton could go home and be rid of this war. When word came from London that Clinton’s letter of resignation had been rejected and that he would continue in command, things seemed to fall apart. Cornwallis basically left headquarters and told Clinton to consult with other officers. Clinton was offended that Cornwallis had basically checked out after learning he would not succeed to command.
Despite this falling out, Clinton took Cornwallis to Charleston. Their personal relationship seemed to get even worse during the siege of Charleston, when Clinton came to believe Cornwallis was undermining him with the other officers, by spreading rumors that Clinton was about to resign. Cornwallis refused to provide Clinton with any advice and asked that Clinton not consult with him on strategy. Clinton saw this as a way of distancing himself in case the campaign failed. During this time, Cornwallis wrote to London asking to be reassigned to any other theater in the world where Clinton was not in command. During the siege, Cornwallis took command of a corps that separated from Clinton’s main army. Both men were happy when Clinton returned to New York, leaving Cornwallis with his own command in the south.
As I already outlined in Episode 251, the British pacification strategy hinged on the assumption that there were a great many southern colonists who could be coaxed into serving the king by joining loyalist militias. Clinton had relied on that when he issued his edict in June, 1780, just before leaving for New York, that all colonists, even rebels on parole, would be expected to join loyalist militias or be considered traitors.
By the time Clinton left for New York on June 5, the British had moved into the backcountry, setting up outposts that covered most of the state. These included Georgetown, a little over 50 miles up the coast from Charleston, then extending inland northwest to Camden, near the North Carolina border, across to Fort Ninety-Six, which had been a center of rebel activity, and then down to August, Georgia. Spreading out the army was designed to facilitate recruiting loyalist militia, and keeping troops of soldiers close to any area where small groups of rebels might try to organize or fight back.
In the backcountry, Clinton had given primary responsibility to Major Patrick Ferguson, who you may remember played some key roles in several northern battles before sailing south with Clinton. Ferguson had received an appointment as Inspector of Militia in South Carolina. His primary mission was to organize loyalist militia groups in the backcountry to supplement Cornwallis’ army, and to put down any rebel activity.
Ferguson has a reputation for honor and gallantry, exemplified by his refusal to shoot an American officer in the back at Brandywine, who may have been George Washington. He noted in South Carolina that they were not there to harm women and children, but to relieve their distress. Ferguson was not afraid to use force and violence against rebels, but also saw the need to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population.
To Ferguson’s north in the backcountry, Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s legion took a rather different approach. I already discussed Tarleton’s massacre at Waxhaws. His legion also roamed the countryside, killing suspected rebels, and burning their homes. They were not above roughing up civilians, including women and children, whom they suspected of aiding the rebels. At one point, Ferguson wanted to shoot several of Tarleton’s men who had raped Tory women.
Despite their very different methods, both Ferguson and Tarleton managed to recruit and organize large numbers of loyalist militia, while at the same time forcing unrepentant rebels to flee into the swamps or into North Carolina.
As the British pacification plan in South Carolina was taking hold, it inspired loyalists in North Carolina to organize more openly, with the expectation that a British army would soon enter North Carolina.
Cornwallis had sent representatives into North Carolina, to spread the word that the British would arrive soon, but that loyalists should continue to lay low so that the patriots would not take them out before the British army arrived in force. Instead, Cornwallis wanted the loyalists to harvest and store their crops, which the British army would need when it moved into North Carolina.
Lieutenant Colonel John Moore of the North Carolina Loyalist Militia, had been fighting under Cornwallis in South Carolina. He rode into North Carolina to known Tory strongholds around Ramsour’s Mill, about 30 miles northwest of Charlotte, to pass along Cornwallis’ instructions. Another officer from Moore’s loyalist regiment, Major Nicholas Welch also began speaking to local loyalists, spreading word of the British victory at Waxhaws and began gathering up volunteers for a Tory regiment, despite the orders against it. By June 20, about 1300 loyalist volunteers from the region had assembled on a ridge near Ramsour’s Mill. Many had brought their own arms, but about one-quarter did not have weapons. They expected the Regulars would provide them with arms when they arrived.
A few miles away in Charlotte, North Carolina militia General Griffith Rutherford received news of the Tory gathering. Since he did not have soldiers on-hand to challenge this growing threat, he ordered Colonel Francis Locke to raise the local patriot militia and disperse the loyalists. On June 13, Locke had about 200 militia volunteers assembled at Ramsour’s Mill. Within a few days, the arrival of other militia units doubled his numbers to about 400. Locke planned to meet up with additional reinforcements being gathered by General Rutherford, and launch a night attack on the loyalists. On the appointed night, Rutherford was a no-show. His forces had gotten lost somewhere on the back roads in the North Carolina countryside.
With the “c” word out there, none of the officers could support pulling back. They agreed to launch an attack at daybreak. Since almost all the militia on both sides were wearing civilian clothes, the loyalists put twigs in their hats to identify themselves. The patriots put scraps of white paper in their hats. Just before dawn, the patriots were within a mile of the enemy lines.
They marched forward, driving in loyalist pickets, who fired warning shots and alerted the loyalist camp. The loyalists scrambled from their tents and were still trying to form a line when the patriot horseman had gotten within about thirty yards.
Despite the confusion, the loyalists realized that there were only a few enemy cavalry, and managed to drive off the attackers. The horseman turned and retreated. As they did, some of the approaching infantry believed this was an all-out retreat and turned around before even getting to the battlefield. Loyalist riflemen began picking off the advancing patriot militia who had to cross a flat open field to engage with the enemy. No patriot officers were really in charge, but the men kept advancing anyway. Several small units made their way against both loyalist flanks and began to turn them.
Amazingly, the militia advance continued, despite taking heavy casualties. They reached the enemy lines about the same time the flanking companies attacked on both sides. The fight devolved into brutal hand to hand combat by the former neighbors in both militias. Despite having far greater numbers, the stunned Tories fled the field. Some of them simply removed the twigs from their hats and pretended to be patriot militia until they had a chance to escape safely.
Some distance away, the fleeing loyalists reassembled and viewed their opponents from a distance. They realized they far outnumbered the enemy and prepared for a counterattack. The patriots prepared to defend against a counter attack but had just over 100 men. They had taken about 170 casualties in the initial assault. The remainder had fled the field.
Locke ordered two of his officers to ride hard and see if they could find Rutherford’s reinforcements. The general was still about seven miles away from the sound of the fighting when the officers reached him. He immediately deployed his 65 dragoons on horseback to ride at a gallop and support Lock’s militia.
As the patriot militia awaited the counterattack by overwhelming numbers, a loyalist came forward under a flag of truce. He asked for a suspension of hostilities so that they could care for their wounded on the field and bury their dead. The patriot major sent out to speak with them sensed a tone of defeatism and countered with a demand that they surrender within ten minutes or be attacked.
As it turned out, no one wanted to attack. Colonel Moore had used the negotiation time to tell his loyalists to scatter and find safety wherever they could. By the time the officer who had ridden out under a flag of truce returned to his camp, the loyalist army of over 1000 men had dwindled to about 50, and those soon fled as well. In total, about 140 men were killed and over 200 wounded, with about equal casualties on both sides.
Colonel Moore returned to the British base at Camden with only about thirty men, and news of the disaster. British officers, apoplectic that he had disobeyed orders and allowed the large group of loyalist militia to rise and gather before they were ready, considered a court martial. In the end, they decided against it, realizing that punishing well-meaning but incompetent loyalist volunteers might have a negative impact on future recruiting efforts.
Back in South Carolina, patriot militia were still organizing and hiding from mostly loyalist militia who were assigned to crush any such gatherings. They needed to prevent these smaller outfits from moving north to combine with the gathering army of militia and Continentals that would inevitably mount some attack at some point.
One of the militia officers that the British had arrested was Colonel John Thomas who commanded the Spartan militia regiment from the area around Spartanburg, South Carolina. They had taken him to be held at the prison at Fort Ninety-Six, under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson.
Thomas’ capture, however, did nothing to dissuade his regiment from continuing to organize. His son, Colonel John Thomas, Jr. simply took his father’s position in commanding the regiment. The younger Colonel Thomas continued to keep his men, four companies totaling about 60 men, in the field near Cedar Springs. They hoped to join up with the gathering patriot militia army under Thomas Sumter.0
The patriots had been tipped off. News of the attack became a topic of discussion among some of the loyalist wives camped at Fort Ninety-Six. Presumably many of their husbands were with the loyalists who had been deployed to contend with these rebels. One of the wives who overheard these discussions was not a loyalist. Jane Thomas was the wife of Col. John Thomas, and had been at the fort to visit her husband in prison.
Upon hearing that the British planned to attack her son’s regiment, Mrs. Thomas mounted her hours and rode at a brisk pace, covering the sixty mile distance in one day. She managed to beat the loyalists back to Cedar Springs, and warned her son that night, July 11. Colonel Thomas then ordered his men to stoke the fires but then move into position in the forest near the camp. When the loyalists struck the camp, his men were ready to ambush them.
The battle was over almost before it started. The surprised loyalists immediately fled despite still outnumbering the patriots. The patriots did not have the numbers to pursue and engage them, so they simply packed up and moved on before the loyalists could strike again.
Throughout July, there were many of these little raids back and forth. Another group of patriots attacked a loyalist force at Stallions Plantation the same night the loyalists at Cedar Spring. I already mentioned the attack on Christian Huck’s men in an earlier episode, which happened also around this time. A day later, a group of about 35 Georgia patriots attacked a loyalist camp at Gowen’s Fort. A few days later a loyalist force hit a group of patriots at Earle’s Ford. There were probably another then or so incidents over the next couple of weeks, all involving no more than a few dozen men.
The fighting was relatively uncoordinated and involved small units on both sides, both intent on obstructing the enemy from doing whatever they were trying to do. Although the British claimed to be in control of South Carolina, these many skirmishes told another story.
I will continue my discussion of these skirmishes next time. But much like the British in New Jersey during the forage wars of 1777, the British in South Carolina were quickly discovering that defeating a large army and claiming control of a region would not end the resistance.
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Runyan, Conner “Did the first Cedar Springs Skirmish Really Happen?” Journal of the American Revolution, May 12, 2016. https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/05/did-the-first-cedar-springs-skirmish-really-happen
Battle of Ramsour's Mill: https://amrevnc.com/battle-ramsours-mill
Battle of Ramsour’s Mill: https://www.ncpedia.org/ramsours-mill-battle
Battle of Ramsour’s Mill: http://www.lincolncountyhistory.com/ramsours-mill-battleground
Battle of Ramsour’s Mill: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1780/battle-ramsours-mill
(from archive.org unless noted)
Fanning, David Col. David Fanning’s Narrative of his Exploits and Adventures as a Loyalist of North Carolina in the American Revolution, Toronto: (reprint form The Canadian Magazine) 1908.
McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.
Millspaugh, Arthur Loyalism in North Carolina during the American Revolution, University of Illinois, Master’s Thesis, 1910:
Moultrie, William Memoirs of the American Revolution, so far as it related to the states of North and South Carolina, and Georgia, Vol 1 and Vol 2, New York: Printed by D. Longworth, 1802.
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.
Simms, William G. The Life of Francis Marion, New York, Derby, 1854.
Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 1970 (borrow only).
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Bass, Robert D. Gamecock: The Life And Campaigns Of General Thomas Sumter, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961 (borrow on Archive.org).
Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999. (borrow on Archive.org).
Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The southern conflict that turned the tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (borrow on archive.org).
Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.
Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on archive.org).
Oller, John The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, Da Capo Press, 2016 (borrow on archive.org).
Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000 (borrow on archive.org).
Wickwire, Franklin B. Cornwallis and the War of Independence, Houghton Mifflin, 1971 (borrow on archive.org).
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.