The Southern Campaign

Cowpens in the context of other Battles in the South

By: Scott Withrow, Park Ranger

The Southern Campaign of the American Revolution has often been depicted in literature in a glamorous and romantic fashion with emphasis on the exploits of native-son militia in each colony. Granted, brave and daring militia leaders played a crucial role in the War for Independence, but they were part of a much larger and oft-neglected drama-a bloody civil war often pitting neighbor against neighbor -- evident in the South, especially in the Carolina backcountry 1. The lower South, a region more often associated with the American Civil War of 1860, was ravaged as no other section. The war in the South went far in deciding the final Patriot victory.

The Southern Campaign began with British concern over the course of the war in the North. Failure at Saratoga, fear of French intervention, and over-all failure to bring the rebels to heel persuaded British military strategists to turn their attention to the South. Some in Britain even suggested that New England, that hotbed of sedition, was a lost cause anyway and not worth the effort, temporarily or even permanently. The British did have some success in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but failed to consolidate their efforts. They appeared, in fact, to lack any over-all strategy to crush the rebels 2

Early on, British military strategists saw the South as a Loyalist 3 stronghold. There were the Highland Scots of the Cape Fear Region in North Carolina, strong Anglicans in coastal areas, those with grudges against colonial governments, Indian traders, mercantilists 4, , late-arriving immigrants, and those running from the law - all having reason to remain loyal to the Crown. The South, however, was more sharply divided than British estimates. The strengthening of Loyalist sentiment and consequent Patriot hostility resurrected age-old animosities and loyalties as regions, individuals, or even families chose sides. Consequently, the war took on the nature of a violent civil war. Raids, murders, and reprisals became the order of the day. Even, at times, families were fractured as members differed over the war. Plantations were plundered and crops, destroyed. With civil government virtually collapsed, violence and hatred grew to the point of hope for victory as the only solution. Forced to choose between collaboration or rebellion, many Americans chose the latter. More and more, guerilla warfare replaced orthodox fighting.

From the beginning, the British were undaunted. With such perceived Loyalist support, British victory over the rebels was to be an easy one - a quick expedition south to restore the "King's Friends" to power over Patriots who had earlier wrested control from royal governors. With the Georgia and South Carolina under firm Loyalist control, red-coated British troops could then subdue North Carolina and Virginia. British General Henry Clinton, in his memoirs, The American Rebellion, stated that the British goal in the South "was to support the Loyalists and restore the authority of the King's government". Intense British political pressure emphasized Loyalist-related strategies as a means of victory. Additionally, some British strategists envisioned a "Chesapeake squeeze" in which British forces in the North would drive south toward Virginia, creating a pincers movement and trapping American forces. The Chesapeake, wrested from American control, would serve as a base for British naval operations.

The British had additional motives for the South. Southern agricultural products -- notably tobacco, rice, and indigo -- were important to British mercantile interests. British strategists saw the Carolinas, Georgia, East Florida, the Bahamas and Bermuda as an important post-war trade grouping and an integral part of the West Indies sugar trade. Savannah and, more importantly, Charleston would fit well into such a grouping. Charleston was coveted, especially, as the most important southern port and the fourth largest and richest city in North America.

The fall of Charleston on May 12, 1780, was perhaps the worst defeat Americans suffered during the entire Revolution. Subsequent British victories at the Waxhaws 5, Camden 6, and Fishing Creek 7 eliminated much of the southern Continental army 8 and made the British confident that the South was theirs. Events in the North and South led to a feeling of Patriot desperation by the summer of 1780.

The tide of battle was soon to turn, however, in a sequence of events. First, overmountain men 9 defeated forces under Patrick Ferguson 10 at Kings Mountain 11 on October 7, 1780. General Cornwallis 12, in command in the South, abruptly stopped his push into North Carolina and fell back to South Carolina to protect its western borders. About the same time, George Washington selected General Nathanael Greene 13 to salvage the situation in the South. Greene, against contemporary military wisdom, split his army so that they could move more widely throughout the Carolinas. Greene's decision to put Daniel Morgan in command of one division led to a Patriot victory at Cowpens, where British losses were staggering: 110 dead, over 200 wounded and 500 captured. Cowpens was followed by a stand-off at Guilford Courthouse 14 where, it is estimated, the British lost one-third of their force and some of their best officers. Siege of the British fort at Ninety Six 15 put additional pressure on the British. Subsequent Cornwallis blunders and British failure to provide naval superiority led to his entrapment and Patriot victory at Yorktown. The blow was decisive; the war was lost, and American forces in the South played a great part in the final victory. Additionally, historians point to numerous militia skirmishes in the backcountry and to Greene's long-term strategy of disrupting British logistics 16 as crucial to final victory.

The Battle of Cowpens, in context of the Southern Campaign, was the turning point of the war in the South. Moreover, it contained the tactical masterpiece of the entire war—Morgan's unique deployment of troops, including effective use of the militia and maximization of their strengths. Like Kings Mountain before, the victory at Cowpens was decisive and complete. But there was a difference: Kings Mountain had been an important victory over Tories 17; Cowpens was a victory over crack British regulars 18. Kings Mountain and Cowpens had both been political and psychological victories for the hearts and minds of the population, in effect blunting recruitment of Loyalists. The Cowpens victory also boosted northern morale, resulting in additional and greatly deserved military assistance for General Greene. These battles stopped a long string of retreats by American forces and initiated a chain of events leading to eventual Patriot victory at Yorktown. In truth, the Revolution was won in the South, and Cowpens played a major role in the victory.

The Revolution as A Civil War - Fractured Families
The American Revolution can be considered in broader terms than just great heroes, political, and military events. There were certain social results of warfare and hostilities - often-overlooked events that profoundly altered colonial society. Powerful forces often affected families as various family members differed over the war. Examples abound.

One of the more famous examples, perhaps, is the story of the famous Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin, and, his son, William. The latter, appointed royal governor of New Jersey through his father's influence, remained loyal to the Crown. His father, on the other hand, even though an envoy to London, grew embittered against the Crown. At war's end, William fled to England, virtually disowned by his Patriot father he apparently still loved. In the process, a father's dreams for his son were shattered.

There, too, were examples of brother against brother. One of the better known documentations in the Carolinas is of the Goforth brothers at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Preston Goforth, from Rutherford County, North Carolina, an ardent Patriot, was killed in battle. Three of his brothers, all on the Tory side, were also killed at Kings Mountain. No one has documented the cause of the split in this family.

Also, at the Battle of Kings Mountain, the historian Draper writes that, after the battle, a wounded Tory by the name of Branson (Brandon, actually) asked his Whig relative, James Withrow, for help. Withrow's reply was "look to your own friends for help". This response to his brother-in-law (his wife's brother) most certainly played a major part in the divorce petition of James and his wife, Sydney Brandon Withrow, in 1798.

In the backcountry of South Carolina, south of Ninety Six, comes the story of two sisters, Katy and Anna Adolph, daughters of Palatine German immigrants. Their story, pieced together from family documents and memorabilia, letters, and historical records, tells of Katy's marriage to Abraham Frietz, a Loyalist, and, Anna's, to Peter Dorst, a Patriot. A great drama unfolds as the two sisters, following their husbands' politics, find themselves at odds with each other. Ostracized in the community, Katy and other Loyalist families started a new life in Nova Scotia. The true story has a marvelous ending-the two sisters, then elderly, reunited and dealt with all the bitterness and strife of the past.

Many families, of course, were united. Fractured families were, however, at times part of the civil war aspect of the revolution-father against son, brother against brother, sister against sister, and husband against wife. This was part of a larger social drama just as much a part of the Revolution as battles and heroes. Lives were changed forever by the American Revolution.


1 backcountry - South Carolina area west of the coastal area, especially west of Camden.

2 rebels - The British term for those Americans fighting against the king.

3 loyalists - Those Americans loyal to Britain during the American Revolution.

4 mercantilists - Those people engaged in mercantilism, a system of trade beneficial to the mother country.

5 Waxhaws - On May 29, 1780, Tarleton's Legion overtook and defeated Colonel Abraham Buford and his Third Virginia Continentals as they retreated through the Waxhaws area toward North Carolina after the fall of Charleston. (Known also as Buford's massacre) There is some contention over the origin of the name Waxhaws. It was the name of Native Americans of the region, derived, some historians, believe, from native language. Others believe it is an English corruption of the original and described not only the Native Americans of the region but also the waxy-looking haw and "hawfields", (shrubs, either Black Haw ( vibernum prunifolium )or hawthorns ( crataegus linnaeus)prominent in the region. The Waxhaw settlement, just off the Great Wagon Road, today covers parts of both Carolinas in an area southeast of Charlotte.

6 Camden - Fought on August 16, 1780, near Camden, South Carolina, the Battle of Camden was a disastrous defeat for the Patriots. Gates, the American general, gained a reputation as a "fool and coward" for his actions and fleeing the battle site. Reports of the results made Banastre Tarleton a national hero in Britain.

7 Fishing Creek - A British victory on August 18, 1780 near present-day Great Falls, South Carolina. Tarleton surprised and routed Americans under Sumter.

8 Continentals - Regular, trained uniformed soldiers of the American Continental Army, as distinguished from local militia in each colony.

9 Overmountain men - American militia from the mountains of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina who traveled over the mountains to fight at Kings Mountain.

10 Patrick Ferguson - Scotsman and British commander (Major) at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Killed in battle at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780.

11 Kings Mountain - The Overmountain men and other militia defeated loyalists forces on October 7, 1780.

12 General Cornwallis -- Commander of the British army in the South.

13 Nathanael Greene -- General who commanded the southern patriot army.

14 Guilford Courthouse - On March 15, 1781, a British army under Cornwallis attacked Nathanael Greene's patriot forces at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina. Although Greene's forces were forced to retire from the field; the British were badly battered with many men killed or wounded.

15 Ninety Six - British outpost in the South Carolina upcountry. Greene's army besieged Star Fort there in May and June, 1781. The town of Ninety Six was so-named because traders on the Cherokee Path believed it was ninety-six miles from the Cherokee village of Keowee in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

16 logistics - Methods of getting, maintaining, or replacing needed materials in a military operation.

17 Tories - Another name for loyalists.

18 regulars - The regular, full-time army as distinguished from the local militia.


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*Available for purchase at Cowpens National Battlefield Visitors Center.