American Revolution: The War Moves South

A Shift in Focus

Battle of Cowpens, January 17, 1781
Battle of Cowpens, January 17, 1781. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Alliance with France

In 1776, after a year of fighting, Congress dispatched the notable American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin to France to lobby for aid. Arriving in Paris, Franklin was warmly received by the French aristocracy and became popular in influential social circles. Franklin's arrival was noted by the government of King Louis XVI, but despite the king's interest in assisting the Americans, the country's financial and diplomatic situations precluded providing outright military aid. An effective diplomat, Franklin was able to work through back channels to open a stream of covert aid from France to America, as well as began recruiting officers, such as the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Within the French government, debate quietly raged regarding entering into an alliance with the American colonies. Aided by Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, Franklin continued his efforts through 1777. Not wishing to back a losing cause, the French rebuffed their advance until the British were defeated at Saratoga. Convinced that the American cause was viable, King Louis XVI's government signed a treaty of friendship and alliance on February 6, 1778. The entry of France radically changed the face of the conflict as it shifted from being a colonial uprising to a global war. Enacting the Bourbon Family Compact, France was able to bring Spain into the war in June 1779.

Changes in America

As a result of France's entry into the conflict, British strategy in America quickly changed. Wishing to protect other parts of the empire and strike at France's sugar islands in the Caribbean, the American theater quickly lost importance. On May 20, 1778, General Sir William Howe departed as Commander-in-Chief of British forces in America and command passed to Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton. Unwilling to surrender America, King George III, ordered Clinton to hold New York and Rhode Island, as well as to attack where possible while also encouraging Native American attacks on the frontier.

To consolidate his position, Clinton decided to abandon Philadelphia in favor of New York City. Departing on June 18, Clinton's army began the march across New Jersey. Emerging from its winter encampment at Valley Forge, General George Washington's Continental Army moved in pursuit. Catching up to Clinton near Monmouth Court House, Washington's men attacked on June 28. The initial assault was badly handled by Major General Charles Lee and American forces were pushed back. Riding forward, Washington took personal command and salvaged the situation. While not the decisive victory Washington had hoped for, the Battle of Monmouth showed that the training received at Valley Forge had worked as his men had successfully stood toe-to-toe with the British. To the north, the first attempt at a combined Franco-American operation failed in August when Major General John Sullivan and Admiral Comte d'Estaing failed to dislodge a British force in Rhode Island.

The War at Sea

Throughout the American Revolution, Britain remained the world's foremost sea power. Though aware that it would be impossible to directly challenge British supremacy on the waves, Congress authorized the creation of the Continental Navy on October 13, 1775. By the end of the month, the first vessels had been purchased and in December the first four ships were commissioned. In addition to buying vessels, Congress ordered the construction of thirteen frigates. Built throughout of the colonies, only eight made it to sea and all were captured or sunk during the war.

In March 1776, Commodore Esek Hopkins led a small fleet of American ships against the British colony of Nassau in the Bahamas. Capturing the island, his men were able to carry off a large supply of artillery, powder, and other military supplies. Throughout the war, the primary purpose of the Continental Navy was to convoy American merchant ships and to attack British commerce. To supplement these efforts, Congress and the colonies issued letters of marque to privateers. Sailing from ports in America and France, they succeeded in capturing hundreds of British merchantmen.

While never a threat to the Royal Navy, the Continental Navy did enjoy some success against their larger foe. Sailing from France, Captain John Paul Jones captured the sloop-of-war HMS Drake on April 24, 1778, and fought a famous battle against HMS Serapis a year later. Closer to home, Captain John Barry led the frigate USS Alliance to victory over the sloops-of-war HMS Atalanta and HMS Trepassey in May 1781, before fighting a sharp action against the frigates HMS Alarm and HMS Sibyl on March 9, 1783.

The War Moves South

Having secured his army at New York City, Clinton began making plans for an attack on the Southern colonies. This was largely encouraged by a belief that Loyalist support in the region was strong and would facilitate its recapture. Clinton had attempted to capture Charleston, SC in June 1776, however, the mission failed when Admiral Sir Peter Parker's naval forces were repulsed by fire from Colonel William Moultrie's men at Fort Sullivan. The first move of the new British campaign was the capture of Savannah, GA. Arriving with a force of 3,500 men, Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell took the city without a fight on December 29, 1778. French and American forces under Major General Benjamin Lincoln laid siege to the city on September 16, 1779. Assaulting the British works a month later, Lincoln's men were repulsed and the siege failed.

Fall of Charleston

In early 1780, Clinton again moved against Charleston. Blockading the harbor and landing 10,000 men, he was opposed by Lincoln who could muster around 5,500 Continentals and militia. Forcing the Americans back into the city, Clinton began constructing siege line on March 11 and slowly closed the trap on Lincoln. When Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's men occupied the north bank of the Cooper River, Lincoln's men were no longer able to escape. Finally on May 12, Lincoln surrendered the city and its garrison. Outside the city, the remnants of the southern American army began retreating towards North Carolina. Pursued by Tarleton, they were badly defeated at Waxhaws on May 29. With Charleston secured, Clinton turned over command to Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis and returned to New York.

Battle of Camden

With the elimination of Lincoln's army, the war was carried on by numerous partisan leaders, such as Lieutenant Colonel Francis Marion, the famed "Swamp Fox." Engaging in hit-and-run raids, the partisans attacked British outposts and supply lines. Responding to the fall of Charleston, Congress dispatched Major General Horatio Gates south with a new army. Promptly moving against the British base at Camden, Gates encountered Cornwallis' army on August 16, 1780. In the resulting Battle of Camden, Gates was severely defeated, losing approximately two-thirds of his force. Relieved of his command, Gates was replaced with the able Major General Nathanael Greene.

Greene in Command

While Greene was riding south, American fortunes began to improve. Moving north, Cornwallis dispatched a 1,000-man Loyalist force led by Major Patrick Ferguson to protect his left flank. On October 7, Ferguson's men were surrounded and destroyed by American frontiersmen at the Battle of King's Mountain. Taking command on December 2 at Greensboro, NC, Greene found that his army was battered and ill-supplied. Splitting his forces, he sent Brigadier General Daniel Morgan West with 1,000 men, while he took the remainder towards supplies at Cheraw, SC. As Morgan marched, his force was followed by 1,000 men under Tarleton. Meeting January 17, 1781, Morgan employed a brilliant battle plan and destroyed Tarleton's command at the Battle of Cowpens.

Reuniting his army, Greene conducted a strategic retreat to Guilford Court House, NC, with Cornwallis in pursuit. Turning, Greene met the British in battle on March 18. Though compelled to give up the field, Greene's army inflicted 532 casualties on Cornwallis' 1,900-man force. Moving east to Wilmington with his battered army, Cornwallis next turned north into Virginia, believing that the remaining British troops in South Carolina and Georgia would be sufficient to deal with Greene. Returning to South Carolina, Greene began to systematically re-take the colony. Attacking British outposts, he fought battles at Hobkirk's Hill (April 25), Ninety-Six (May 22-June 19), and Eutaw Springs (September 8) which, while tactical defeats, wore down British forces.

Greene's actions, combined with partisan attacks on other outposts, compelled the British to abandon the interior and retire to Charleston and Savannah where they were bottled up by American forces. While a partisan civil war continued to rage between Patriots and Tories in the interior, the large-scale fighting in the South ended at Eutaw Springs.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: The War Moves South." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: The War Moves South. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: The War Moves South." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).