A Capsule History of the Revolutionary War

 1778-1781 – The British Adopt a Southern Strategy

The year 1778 brought a major change in British strategy. Britain had failed to subdue New England in the war’s first phase, and conventional warfare in the middle colonies had not reinstated the crown’s authority. Following France’s entry into the war, Britain decided to concentrate on holding the southern colonies. It also made sporadic raids on northern ports and, with the help of Indian allies, on the frontier. Meanwhile, General Henry Clinton replaced General Howe as an overall British commander.

To counter the British activity in the West, which centered on their forts at Detroit and Niagara, George Rogers Clark in the spring of 1778 assembled a force of about 200 men. Through forced marches, bold leadership, and shrewd diplomacy with Indian leaders, Clark captured the British posts of Cahokia and Kaskaskia in present-day Illinois on the Mississippi River. He then moved on to take Vincennes, Indiana on the Wabash River. The British recaptured Vincennes but held it only briefly. Although he never captured the British stronghold at Detroit, Clark’s actions relieved much of the pressure on the frontier and were the first steps in breaking Britain’s hold on the Northwest Territory.

Attack on Charleston South Carolina, June, 1776

Attack on Charleston South Carolina, June 1776

Believing the South to be home to many secret loyalists and hoping to keep the region’s timber and agricultural products for the Empire, the British sent an expedition that captured Savannah, Georgia, in December 1778. At first, the British concentrated on taking territory with regular army forces, then organizing loyalist militia bands to hold the territory while the army moved on. This strategy largely succeeded in Georgia but broke down in the Carolinas. The British scored a major victory with the capture of Charleston, South Carolina, and its 5,500 defenders in May 1780. Instead of discouraging patriot resistance, the fall of Charleston stirred it up and led to the formation of irregular militia bands to make hit-and-run attacks against the occupiers. The British had enough soldiers to move through the Carolinas and establish forts, but not enough to protect their loyalist supporters or establish effective control. As soon as the British army moved on, loyalists were at the mercy of their pro-independence neighbors.

After General Clinton sailed for New York in June 1780, General Charles, Earl Cornwallis, took command of British forces in the South and soon routed a patriot force under General Horatio Gates at Camden, South Carolina Even the virtual elimination of a second American army just three months after their triumph at Charleston did the British little lasting good. Small militia bands under commanders like Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens continued to attack isolated British forces. In October, patriot militia from both the Carolinas and Virginia defeated a loyalist army under British Colonel Patrick Ferguson at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, putting an end to organized loyalist activity in the state, and giving a large boost to American hopes.

Following Kings Mountain, General Nathanael Greene arrived in North Carolina to reorganize the southern American forces. Soon thereafter, in January 1781, a combined force of Continental and militia troops under Daniel Morgan beat a British army at Cowpens, South Carolina. In March, Cornwallis and Greene tangled at Guilford Courthouse (present-day Greensboro), North Carolina. Cornwallis won a tactical victory, but one-quarter of his men were killed or wounded. After shifting to the coast at Wilmington, North Carolina, he decided to move his army north to Virginia. Greene then turned his attention to retaking South Carolina, capturing one by one the isolated British posts, including a 28-day siege that resulted in the British abandoning the town of Ninety Six.

Cornwallis’s shift to Virginia resulted from frustration with the situation in the Carolinas and hope that he could combine with General Clinton’s forces and win a decisive victory over Washington’s army. Washington was then encamped in New Jersey, engaged in planning for an attack on the British in New York in combination with the Comte de Rochambeau’s French army. A large French fleet under the Comte de Grasse had already left France with orders first to take control of the seas in the West Indies and then to support Washington and Rochambeau’s operations. In August, Washington learned that de Grasse was headed for the Chesapeake Bay and saw a chance to destroy Cornwallis before he could be reinforced. Leaving a small force to watch over New York City, Washington moved his remaining Continentals and the French troops toward Virginia.

Meanwhile, Cornwallis occupied and fortified Yorktown and Gloucester on opposite banks of the York River. A small Continental and militia force under the Marquis de Lafayette kept Cornwallis’s army occupied until Washington could concentrate his forces in Virginia. The British sent a fleet under Admiral Graves from New York to relieve Cornwallis, but the French fleet engaged it at the Naval Battle of the Capes. Graves returned to New York with his damaged fleet, leaving Cornwallis trapped at Yorktown. At the end of September, with heavy cannons landed under the protection of the French ships, the allied forces began the siege of Yorktown. As the bombardment grew heavier and his attempt to break out from the Gloucester beachhead failed, Cornwallis had no choice but to order his subordinate Brigadier General Charles O’Hara to surrender his army of 8,000 to Washington on October 19, 1781.

End Game

Benjamin Franklin and Richard Oswald discussing the Treaty of Paris

Benjamin Franklin and Richard Oswald discussing the Treaty of Paris

Yorktown was a great victory for Franco-American arms, but it was not conclusive. The British still occupied New York City, Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah, and there was no immediate prospect of the Americans taking these cities. However, the British were hard-pressed by years of war, and the government in London saw that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace Cornwallis’s army. The British public was also reaching the limits of its willingness to pay taxes to support the American war. Realizing that the costs of the war were greater than the potential gain, the British government entered into peace negotiations, with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay representing the United States. The Treaty of Paris, signed in September 1783, officially ended hostilities, recognized American independence, and made the Mississippi River the new nation’s western border. It also allowed Britain to retain Canada and returned Florida to Spain. The failure of the British to withdraw from forts in the northwest with “all convenient speed” and difficulties with Spain over the navigation of the Mississippi River would require more negotiations, but American independence, virtually unthinkable in 1763, had been achieved.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September 2019.

Also See:

American Revolution Index

American Revolution Timeline

Causes of the American Revolution

Initial Battles for Independence

American History Main Page

Heroes and Patriots of America

Source: National Park Service

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