Loyalists in the Southern Colonies at the End of the Revolutionary War

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  • 0:05 The Southern Strategy
  • 2:03 The High Point of…
  • 4:27 The Tables Turn
  • 6:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

After surrendering their northern army in the American Revolution, British leaders looked to the Southern Strategy. General Charles Cornwallis hoped that loyalist forces would hold territory so he could sweep north and end the war in Virginia.

The Southern Strategy

Opponents of King George III included the American colonies, France, Spain and Holland
King George Opponents

In 1773, Britain had a management problem in its colonies. In 1776, it had a war. By 1778, Britain was losing that war. Its northern army - under the command of General Burgoyne - had surrendered to George Washington at the Battle of Saratoga. King George's list of opponents had grown to include not only the American colonists, but France, Spain and Holland, as well. In desperation, Britain abandoned the war in New England and turned their attention to the South.

Colonists in the South were much more likely to be pro-British, and the Southern Strategy counted on these Loyalist, or Tory, forces to help them hold territory while the regular army moved on. Tories and Patriots had already clashed in Virginia and North Carolina earlier in the war; the crown now hoped to intensify that conflict.

Back in 1775, the royal governor of Virginia had offered freedom to slaves who fought for the British. That move backfired. When the so-called 'Ethiopian Regiment' was crippled by a smallpox outbreak, the slaveholding elites banded together and expelled both the governor and his freedmen from Virginia. But by 1779, the new commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America decided that the idea deserved to be revisited. General Henry Clinton issued the carefully drafted Philipsburg Proclamation, effectively freeing any slaves owned by Patriots. In this way, he could bolster his troop numbers without angering slaveholding Loyalists and disrupt the Patriot economy. The proclamation had mixed results. Estimates vary widely, but by war's end, the British evacuated 3,000-4,000 freedmen out of as many as 100,000 slaves who attempted to leave their owners. Not all of them were successful in escaping. Not all of them were Loyalists. Many of them never joined any army. Of course, others died in the war.

The Philipsburg Proclamation freed slaves owned by Patriots
Philipsburg Proclamation

The Highpoint of British Success

In late 1778, a British force, transported from New York, took control of Savannah, Georgia and within a year held most of the state. By 1780, Britain captured the port of Charleston, defeated the main forces of the Southern Continental Army and was poised to secure all of South Carolina. The Americans saw this problem, but General Horatio Gates, who had been given credit for the victory at Saratoga, was overconfident and way too hasty in his response.

After reforming the Patriot army in North Carolina, Gates ignored good advice and marched his untested troops south. He planned to attack a major crossroads at Camden, South Carolina and secure the back country of the state. In all respects, the Battle of Camden was one of the worst defeats in American military history. Before they even fired a single volley, the inexperienced militia on the American left flank literally ran from the battlefield in the face of British bayonets, and General Gates went with them. The battle-tested right flank held its ground for a time but couldn't withstand the onslaught of the full British army. Their commander was killed, and the state was lost.

The Americans lost another skilled battlefield leader in 1780 - Benedict Arnold. Since the beginning of the war, Arnold had been embroiled in military rivalries, was the victim of political machinations and had his waning family fortune further depleted by Congress's refusal to repay his expenses at the same time he married a young, pro-British socialite. No one knows exactly what pushed Benedict Arnold over the edge, but it may have been the Battle of Saratoga. He was crippled during his unauthorized (but victorious) charge, yet all credit for the victory went to General Gates.

Benedict Arnold was to be given command of West Point, but he planned to surrender it to the British
Benedict Arnold

The Tables Turn

While it might have seemed that the British fortunes were turning in the war, the best years of the Southern Strategy were behind them. Beginning in late 1780, a series of events successively weakened the British forces. Patriots from the frontier had crossed the Appalachian Mountains (earning them the nickname the Overmountain Men) and defeated Tories in North Carolina.

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