For the last few weeks, I’ve been covering the defection of Benedict Arnold in New York. This week we are headed back to the Carolinas where the war is raging in the fall of 1780. After the British captured Charleston, South Carolina, the British commander Henry Clinton returned to New York City. He left General Charles Cornwallis in charge of the southern army, with Major Patrick Ferguson in charge of raising local militia.
Since Britain was, by this time, fighting a world war with France and Spain, the North American theater could not have nearly as many British soldiers as they did at the beginning of the war. Any successful strategy had to rely on local loyalist to supplement their ranks. The British managed to raise seven battalions of loyalists in the south in the months following the fall of Charleston. Clinton was confident that the stronger loyalist base in the south would be enough to secure the region with a minimum of regulars.
Despite recruiting efforts though, loyalist numbers began to fall. Partisan activity grew, while loyalists became concerned that a British victory was not a certainty. General Cornwallis thought he had secured South Carolina after his victory at Camden, and wanted to move into North Carolina. This left South Carolina in an even more precarious position.
Cornwallis sent increasingly plaintive notes to General Clinton in New York, asking for more reinforcements. But Clinton was short of men himself, and thought Cornwallis needed to rely on the loyalist regiments that he had raised. To take some of the pressure off of Cornwallis, Clinton ordered Major General Alexander Leslie to engage in a series of raids in Virginia.
General Leslie was an experienced veteran of the war. You may recall very early in this series, Lieutenant Colonel Leslie led a raid on Salem, Massachusetts to capture some rebel cannons a few months before Lexington. Leslie had been an officer in the regular arm in America since 1768.
In 1776, as the British prepared to invade New York, Leslie received a promotion to brigadier, and commanded regiments at the battles of Brooklyn and White Plains and under Cornwallis at Trenton. By 1779, Leslie rose to the rank of major general and participated in the capture of Charleston. After that, Leslie had returned to New York, along with General Clinton and most of the army.
Since Clinton took command, he was concerned that a French fleet would deny Britain control of the seas off the Atlantic coast. But by late 1780, the British had the small French fleet in America bottled up at Newport, Rhode Island, and the larger French fleet trapped in Brest back in France. Clinton felt reasonably comfortable sending Leslie to Virginia aboard navy ships where his men could raid plantations as the British had done briefly the year before. Clinton felt that this would presumably relieve pressure on Cornwallis’ army as it moved into North Carolina.
General Clinton’s orders specified that Leslie’s raids in the Chesapeake Bay were to “pursue such measures as you shall judge most likely to answer the purposes of this expedition, the principle object of which is to make a diversion in favor of Lieutenant General Earl Cornwallis.”
Leslie would establish a base in Portsmouth, Virginia and plan a series of attacks into not only Virginia, but also into North Carolina from the north, as well as move soldiers up river to inland areas around the Chesapeake that served as ammunition and supply depots for the rebels in the south. A fleet brought about two thousand British forces under Leslie, which occupied Portsmouth and Hampton Roads. While this caused some panic in Richmond, the occupation did not last long and did not really amount to anything. It did, however, give Cornwallis more confidence of support as he marched northward.
British Enter North Carolina
Following the British victory at Camden, South Carolina in mid-August, General Cornwallis took a pause. Later, General Clinton would criticize this delay since there was no real organized resistance to the British in North Carolina in the weeks following Camden. Continental General Horatio Gates had fled to Hillsboro. Most of his Continentals were killed or captured at Camden. The militia who fled the field largely returned home, meaning there was no army to contest the British under Cornwallis.
But Cornwallis had his own difficulties. In order to win Camden, he had to engage in a rapid march followed immediately by a battle, which completely exhausted his men. The South Carolina summer was brutally hot. The men needed time to recover. There were also still partisans in South Carolina which threatened British supply lines. Cornwallis had deployed forces to disperse them, before he stretched his lines even further. Another concern was that one of his top field officers, Colonel Banastre Tarleton was struck by the most relentless enemy of the war, disease. Tarleton had to take to his bed for several weeks with a bad case of yellow fever.
So it was not until September 8, that Cornwallis began to march his army into North Carolina, toward Charlotte, and with the eventual goal of reaching Hillsboro. Because he had to leave a garrison at Camden, Cornwallis commanded a force of only about 2200 men, about 1500 regulars and 700 loyalists.
Even after resting his army at Camden for weeks, the fifty mile march to Charlotte proved frustratingly slow. Disease spread through the British ranks, requiring Cornwallis to pause just south of Charlotte for several more weeks. It was not until September 26, that he felt his men were ready to take the town.
|Major George Hanger
He had attended Eaton, then went to the University of Göttingen in what is today Germany. It was common for British officers to serve alongside Prussians, who were a traditional ally of Britain, but I find it odd for a teenager to start his military career in this foreign army. It did not last long because by age 19, he purchased an ensign’s commission in the British Army. Five years later, in 1776, he purchased a promotion to lieutenant. However, after a more junior officer purchased a commission above him, Hanger resigned and returned to Europe. There, he joined a Hessian regiment that was headed to America. So this former British officer, was now a Hessian captain, who would serve under British commanders while leading a Hessian cavalry company.
By 1780, now Major Hanger was serving as a major in Banastre Tarleton’s legion. With Colonel Tarleton still sick with yellow fever, Hanger was the man who led the cavalry into Charlotte.
Battle of Charlotte
Like Colonel Tarleton, Hanger hoped that speed would give him an advantage. He rushed his 150 cavalrymen into the town ahead of the advancing infantry. The Americans, however, were aware for weeks that the British planned to attack the town and were waiting.
Although the Americans did not have enough forces to defend the town, they did leave a force to contest the British entry. The American defenses fell to the command of Colonel William Davie.
Despite his rank Colonel Davie was only 24 years old. He had been a law student in the early part of the war and had never served until 1778. Even then, it was only a brief militia force that never saw combat, and after which he returned to his studies. In the spring of 1779 though, after the British had captured Georgia, Davie helped form a new cavalry company in Salisbury, North Carolina. He started service as a lieutenant in 1779, but rose quickly in rank.
In May, 1779 Davie served under the command of General Pulaski who promoted the young officer at Charleston. Davie led a charge at the Battle of Stono Ferry where he suffered a serious wound and narrowly avoided capture. He left active service to recuperate, and found time to pass the bar in November 1779.
By the summer of 1780, Davie had recuperated from his wounds and formed a new independent cavalry company. Some time over the summer, Davie also received his promotion to colonel in the South Carolina Cavalry. His company had hoped to catch up with the army under General Gates at Camden, but arrived too late to participate. Instead of retreating with Gates and the remnants of the army, Davie continued south to recover supply wagons and scout enemy movements.
Colonel Davie received orders to cover the American withdrawal from Charlotte, North Carolina as the British Army approached. Davie’s 150 mounted militia formed the defense of Charlotte behind various stone walls near the center of town. Only a portion of his men held the center, with others, some still mounted, guarding the flanks or held in reserve. Davie was facing Cornwallis’ full army of 2200 men, so there was no expectation that the defenses would hold for long.
When British Major Hanger entered Charlotte with his 150 members of Tarleton’s cavalry on September 26, they ran straight into Davie’s South Carolina militia, who held the high ground behind stone walls. The British cavalry was used to rushing the enemy with enthusiasm in hopes of unnerving the defenders and breaking their lines. Instead, the British ran into a volley of fire and were forced to withdraw.
|Resistance to British in Charlotte
The Americans realized that if they continued to hold their position, they might be encircled and captured. Instead, Davie ordered a disciplined withdrawal. The British pursued and began a second firefight about a mile outside of town. The Americans fired back but continued to retreat, resulting in a running firefight over the next five miles.
The fighting eventually reached the camp of General Jethro Sumner, who had a much larger force of Americans. Even so, the British cavalry pushed in Sumter’s pickets and continued to press forward before finally being driven back by superior numbers.
By this time, it was getting dark, so the British legion returned to Charlotte for the night. The Americans then withdrew about sixteen miles away to avoid another battle that might involve the entire British army under Cornwallis.
The British took the town, but suffered 44 casualties. The Americans suffered only eleven.
The British occupied Charlotte but would continue to face harassing fire for weeks following the occupation. Any foraging parties would regularly come under attack from American militia. It got so bad that Cornwallis had to send half his force, about one thousand men, with the foraging parties to provide cover. The thick woods surrounding the town provided effective cover and made pursuit particularly difficult.
Cornwallis also found himself nearly cut off. Attempts to send messengers back to South Carolina, almost always resulted in their capture.
A week after taking Charlotte, General Cornwallis in a letter to another officer commented “This County of Mecklenburg is the most rebellious and inveterate that I have met with in this country, not excepting any part of the Jerseys.”
Given the violent reaction to the British Army’s presence, Cornwallis, once again, delayed any plans to march further north and take Hillsboro, which was still 140 miles away. Instead, his army hunkered down and awaited loyalist reinforcements under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson.
Ferguson Moves North
About the same time that Cornwallis had begun his march into North Carolina, Major Ferguson had also begun his own advance. Ferguson planned to move from western South Carolina, into western North Carolina. This would protect Cornwallis’ flank and also give Ferguson an opportunity to recruit loyalists in that region. A few months earlier, North Carolina loyalists had begun to form on their own, only to get shut down by the patriots at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill. So while this was hostile territory for the British, they also had good reason to believe that a fair portion of the population was ready to join them.
In some ways, this was a dangerous maneuver. Cornwallis was dividing his forces in hostile territory. Ferguson started out with only 300 men, most of them local militia, when he began his march. The British believe the risk was a reasonably small one because the American resistance had appeared to fall apart after Camden. Only small bands of rebels still roamed around. Ferguson believed that his small brigade could handle whatever they would confront.
As Ferguson moved north, the plan seemed to work pretty well. He managed to recruit another 900 loyalists as he moved into western North Carolina, bringing his total force to around 1200 men, about half of what Cornwallis commanded. If Ferguson had just marched with Cornwallis, he never would have had the opportunity to recruit these new reinforcements.
In early September, weeks before Cornwallis was able to take Charlotte, Ferguson’s men moved to Gilbert Town, NC, a small town about 55 miles west of Charlotte. They engaged in some skirmishing but found many of the locals inclined to cooperate. Many locals came in to take oaths of allegiance. What the British did not know was that American officers had told them to do this in order to protect their herds of cattle. If they had refused to take an oath, the British would have seized or slaughtered their herds. The Americans wanted these herds protected for when they took back control of the region.
Believing he had the advantage, on September 10, Ferguson released one of his prisoners with a message. He ordered the man to ride west from Gilbert Town and find American Colonel Isaac Shelby and deliver a message to all the people living in the west, known as the “Over Mountain Men”. Ferguson informed them that if they did not end all resistance, that he would march his loyalist army over the mountains, “hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”
Shelby, who we last discussed in Episode 260, led a group of patriot militia who had fought some particularly brutal fighting, including Musgrove’s Mill, before retreating further west to the frontier settlements. Colonel Shelby began coordinating with other militia leaders to get a large enough force to challenge Ferguson’s loyalist army. Over the next two weeks, the patriots assembled an army led by men such as John Sevier, Charles McDowell, and William Campbell.
The smaller bands converged at Sycamore Shoals, in what is today eastern Tennessee. These were all militiamen. Some were refugees from the battles in South Carolina. A good portion of them were Virginia militia who had been fighting in the Carolinas for some time. Still others were the Overmountain men who lived in what is today Tennessee. These men were motivated to prevent Ferguson from carrying the war to them, where Ferguson might raise Indian allies to wipe out the frontier settlements, that would all the men, women, and children.
The Overmountain men were able to negotiate at least a temporary truce with the local Cherokee. This allowed them to take their forces east, leave their homes relatively unprotected, and challenge Ferguson near his headquarters at Gilbert Town.
This force of about 1100 men crossed over the mountains, moving east. By September 30, they arrived in Quaker Meadows, where they met up with the Wilkes County Militia, which had turned out under the command of Colonel Benjamin Cleveland. By this the total force was close to 1400 men.
One important commander who was not with the army was General Thomas Sumter. As you may recall, Sumter was a South Carolina officer who had dropped out of the war, only to join after British cavalry attempted to arrest him and burned his plantation. Sumter had gathered a small army of militia under his command, and with no real legal authority, assumed the rank of general to command them.
While Sumter was still fighting in the backcountry, another officer Colonel James Williams carried several dozen British prisoners to Hillsboro, North Carolina, where South Carolina Governor John Rutledge had set up his government in exile. Rutledge commissioned Williams as general of militia.
With his commission in hand, Williams rode into Sumter's camp along the Catawba River sometime in September, and informed all of Sumter’s men that they were now under his command. The men refused, saying that they would only serve under Sumter. They voted to send a delegation to Hillsboro to get this sorted out with Governor Rutledge. The delegation, including Sumter and most of his top officers, left for Hillsboro on September 30th, at the same time the Overmountain men were assembling to attack Ferguson. While they were away, the bulk of his force remained where they were with two of Sumter’s aides in command.
After they reached Governor Rutledge a few days later, he acceded to their requests, and granted Sumter a formal commission as brigadier general and as commander of all South Carolina militia.
With his formal commission, Sumter returned to his men. But events had overtaken him. While he was away, the assembled force of Overmountain men had moved east to confront Major Ferguson’s loyalists at Gilbert Town.
Aware that an enemy force was approaching, Ferguson moved to some high ground in the area, a hill known as King’s Mountain. It was there that he would hold out until General Cornwallis could send a relief force. And we’ll have to discuss the results of that battle next week, when we finally reach the Battle of King’s Mountain.
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(from archive.org unless noted)
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999.
DeMond, Robert O. The Loyalists in North Carolina During the Revolution, Duke Univ. Press, 1940 (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).
Swisher, James K., The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Country, Pelican Publishing, 2008 (borrow on archive.org).