Insurgency and Allegiance in Revolutionary South Carolina

Kastanias, Conlan, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Edelson, S. Max, History, University of Virginia

In 1778, the American Revolution in the north became stalemated. The British seemed unable to catch George Washington’s Continental Army, which in turn, lacked the strength to retake British strongholds. With the French and Spanish entering the war and threatening Great Britain on a global scale, the British Commander Sir Henry Clinton and the American Secretary Lord George Germain decided to adjust the British strategy and turn efforts toward the south. Initially, the British Southern campaign appeared unstoppable. On May 12, 1780, Charleston and the largest Continental army in the South capitulated. British military success climaxed when Lord Cornwallis routed the last Continental Army in the south at Camden in August. Despite these British victories, resistance intensified in the South Carolina backcountry. This Patriot insurgency critically undermined the British war effort, and contributed to their ultimate defeat.

Many historians have focused on the failure of British policies and the effect of violence on inciting the growing insurgency. Much less well understood in the narrative of the Revolution in South Carolina is the effect of the previous decade’s social upheaval and sectarian conflict on the allegiance of backcountry inhabitants. Few historians address the period from 1760 through 1774, and fewer still explicitly connect the social changes that occurred to the decisions made during the Revolutionary years. However, by examining British policies and the effects of violence within the context of the social discord of the 1760s and early 1770s, we can better understand why backcountry South Carolinians increasingly resisted British attempts to pacify the colony. Overtures to slaves, however vacillatory, alienated the rising planter elite that commanded the allegiance of large numbers of residents. Attempts to coordinate offensives with the Cherokee invoked memories of destruction and fear, and in a rare instance, united Patriots, Loyalists and neutrals in a campaign against the native allies of the British. The decision not to reinstate civil government and its apparatuses in the backcountry, subjected residents to the hardships that inspired the Regulation movement of the late 1760s. Lastly, the British occupation was defined by escalating violence that affected neutral civilians.

MA (Master of Arts)
American Revolution, South Carolina, Insurgency
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