My Weekly Reader 3 June 2019.

After the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, the Revolutionary War finally ended.  It had been a long war and a hard war.  The weary nation returned to peace.

Actually, that’s not what happened.  After Yorktown, war continued in the South and on the frontier.  The war on the frontier is particularly badly understood.[1]  Now, however, the war in the South can be better understood thanks to John Buchanan.[2]

Buchanan takes up his story well before Yorktown,  Horatio Gates, the “hero of Saratoga,” led the Army in the South to disaster at Camden (August 1780).  George Washington sent Nathaniel Greene[3] to clean up the mess.  He gave him a free hand and the assistance of Daniel Morgan.  Greene and Morgan rallied what troops they could—a core of “Continentals,” a fluctuating number of state militia, and a swarm of irregulars—and began a war of attrition.  Worn down by small defeats and Pyrrhic victories, the British commander Lord Cornwallis made fatal errors.  In April 1781, he divided his forces and led one element north toward Virginia.  The rest stayed in the South to try to hold what the British had won.

Rather than follow Cornwallis northward, Greene targeted the smaller force left behind.  Between May 1781 and December 1782, Greene carried on his earlier approach to fighting the British.  He achieved much the same result.  Small defeats and Pyrrhic victories wore down the British forces.  In the end, their main forces fell back on the heavily fortified ports of Savannah and Charleston.  Here they held out until July and December 1782 respectively.

The Royal Navy had controlled the seas since the beginning of the Revolution, with the sole—catastrophic—exception of the period around the siege at Yorktown.  Had the British won the “Battle of the Capes” against the French (September 1781), then Cornwallis could have been reinforced and re-supplied.  The British would have controlled New York, the Chesapeake, Charleston, and Savannah.  Those positions could not have been taken by siege.  The bargaining for a peace treaty might have been less favorable for the Americans.

With the British confined to coastal enclaves, the main effort of the war in the South became a gory combination of civil war and race war.  Patriots and Tories fought each other with a ferocity not limited to the battlefield.  Pro-British Indians raided the frontier and the Patriots struck back in their accustomed manner by burning villages, storehouses of food, and crops in the field in order to drive their enemy far away.  African-American slaves fled to the British lines, even though savagely punished when captured in flight.  One Patriot commander later recalled the Revolution in the South Carolina Upcountry: “in no part of the South was the war fought with such asperity as in this quarter. It often sank into barbarity.”

None of this was decisive.  Yorktown had led to the opening of peace negotiations.

Over the longer term, the civil war and race war in the South may have contributed to that culture of violence that long marked the South.[4]

[1] Still, see Glenn Williams, The Year of the Hangman: George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois (2006), for a skillful introduction.  See also: “Oliver Wiswell” https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/07/27/oliver-wiswell/

[2] John Buchanan, The Road to Charleston (2019).

[3] Greene was a 38 year-old quick-learner.  His political sympathies had led him to abandon Quakerism for war.  Between 1775 and 1777, the British had helped along his learning with a bunch of hard lessons.  He profited greatly from them.

[4] See: Fox Butterfield, All God’s Children (1996).

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