Patriot Nancy Hart glared at the five-armed Loyalists who burst into her Georgia cabin. Tradition says that the men had shot her last turkey and ordered her to cook it for them. Raids like this were common in the South, where feuding neighbors used the war as an excuse to fight each other. Both Patriots and Loyalists took part in the raids. Many women and children had moved out of Georgia, but the six-foot-tall, freckled Hart chose to stay and fight. She could shoot a gun as accurately as any man.
As she prepared the food, Hart planned her attack. When dinner was ready, the men sat down to eat. Seizing one of their muskets, Hart quickly shot and killed one man and wounded another. She kept the gun aimed on the others as her daughter ran for help. A group of nearby Patriots arrived and hanged the Loyalists.
As Nancy Hart’s story demonstrates, the fighting between Patriots and Loyalists in the South was vicious.
Savannah and Charles Town
The British believed that most Southerners were Loyalists. Because of this, in 1778 the British decided to move the war to the South. After three years of fighting in the North, the British were no closer to victory. Although they had captured Northern cities, they couldn’t control the countryside because they did not have enough troops to occupy it. The British believed that if they gained territory in the South, Southern Loyalists would hold it for them.
The British also expected large numbers of Southern slaves to join them because they had promised to grant the slaves freedom. Although thousands of African Americans did run away to join the British, not all of them were set free. Instead, some British officers sold African Americans into slavery in the West Indies.
Britain’s West Indian colonies were a third reason the British invaded the South. Southern seaports were closer to the West Indies, where British troops were stationed. If the British captured Southern ports, they could move troops back and forth between the two regions.
In December 1778, the British captured the port of Savannah, Georgia. Using Savannah as a base, they then conquered most of Georgia. In 1780, a British army led by General Henry Clinton landed in South Carolina. They trapped American forces in Charles Town (now Charleston), which was the largest Southern city. When the city’s 5,000 defenders surrendered, the Americans lost almost their entire Southern army. It was the worst American defeat of the war.
The Swamp Fox and Guerrilla Fighting After that loss, Congress assigned General Horatio Gates—the victor at Saratoga—to form a new Southern army. Continental soldiers led by Baron de Kalb formed the army’s core. Gates added about 2,000 new and untrained militia. He then headed for Camden, South Carolina; to challenge the army led by the British general Lord Cornwallis.
On the way, a band of Patriots from South Carolina approached Gates. “Their number did not exceed 20 men and boys, some white, some black, and all mounted, but most of them miserably equipped,” wrote an officer. Their leader was Francis Marion, called the “Swamp Fox.” He provided Gates with helpful knowledge of South Carolina’s coastal swamplands. Gates sent Marion to destroy boats on the Santee River behind Camden. This would cut off British communications with Charles Town.
In August 1780, Gates’s army ran into British troops outside Camden. The Americans were in no condition to fight. They were out of supplies and half-starved. Even worse, Gates put the inexperienced militia along part of the frontline instead of behind the veterans. When the British attacked, the militia panicked and ran. Gates also fled, but Kalb remained with his soldiers and received fatal wounds. This second defeat in the South ended Gates’s term as head of an army and caused American spirits to fall to a new low.
After Camden, a small British force set out for Charles Town with a column of American prisoners. Marion’s band overwhelmed the British and freed the prisoners. Fighting from a base in the swamps, Marion’s men cut the British supply line that led inland and north from Charles Town. Marion used the methods of a guerrilla. Guerrillas are small bands of fighters who weaken the enemy with surprise raids and hit-and-run attacks. Both Patriots and Loyalists formed guerrilla bands in the South. They carried out vicious raids.
The Tide Turns
Even battles in the South sometimes turned vicious. One example was the Battle of Kings Mountain, fought on the border of North and South Carolina in October 1780. After surrounding a force of about 1,000 Loyalist militia and British soldiers, the Americans slaughtered most of them. James P. Collins, a 16-year-old American, described the scene.
A VOICE FROM THE PAST
The dead lay in heaps on all sides, while the groans of the wounded were heard in every direction. I could not help turning away from the scene before me with horror and, though exulting in victory, could not refrain from shedding tears.
James P. Collins, quoted in The Spirit of Seventy-Six
Many of the dead had been shot or hanged after they surrendered. The Americans killed them in revenge for Loyalist raids and an earlier incident in which the British had butchered Americans. Kings Mountain was one of Britain’s first losses in the South. It soon suffered more.
The Battle of the Cowpens was the second serious disaster, which occurred to the British Army, operating in the Southern States. After Gates’s defeat at Camden, Washington put a new general, Nathaniel Greene, in charge of the Southern army. Greene was one of Washington’s most able officers. He had been a Quaker, but his church had cast him out because of his belief in the armed struggle against the British. Most Quakers are pacifist, or opposed to war.
Under Greene’s command, the American army avoided full-scale battles, in which the British had the edge because of superior firepower. So the American forces let the British chase them around the countryside and wear themselves out. When the Americans did fight, they did their best to make sure the British suffered heavy losses.
As the fighting dragged on into its sixth year, opposition to the war grew in Britain. As a result, some British leaders began to think that American independence would not be so bad.
The End of the War
In 1781, most of the fighting took place in Virginia. In July of that year, the British general Cornwallis set up his base at Yorktown, located on a peninsula in Chesapeake Bay. From there, his army could receive supplies by ship from New York.
Washington saw Cornwallis’s decision as a golden opportunity. In August 1781, a large French fleet arrived from the West Indies and blocked Chesapeake Bay. These ships prevented the British from receiving supplies—and from escaping. They also allowed Washington to come from the North and trap Cornwallis on the peninsula. Washington had enough men to do this because a large French force led by General Jean Rochambeau had joined his army.
Washington and Rochambeau moved south. When British ships tried to reach Cornwallis, French ships drove them back. In the Battle of Yorktown, the American and French troops bombarded Yorktown with cannon fire, turning its buildings to rubble. Cornwallis had no way out. On October 19, 1781, he surrendered his force of about 8,000.
Although some fighting continued, Yorktown was the last major battle of the war. When the British Prime Minister, Lord North, heard the news, he gasped, “It is all over!” Indeed, he and other British leaders were soon forced to resign.
The victorious American forces accept the British surrender at Yorktown. George Washington is to the left of the American flag.