As seen in The Post and Courier: Citadel historian explains how Revolutionary War was unique down South
As seen in The Post and Courier
Article by Robert Behre
The Revolutionary War not only led to the founding of the United States but also thrust South Carolina into turmoil — a part of state history often overshadowed by the Civil War decades later.
The fighting unfolded uniquely down South and still holds lessons for the nation today.
David Preston, a Citadel history professor, joined several other leading Revolutionary War historians to pen the new book “Theaters of the American Revolution.” Here's an abridged version of his recent talk with a Post and Courier reporter.
Has South Carolina’s role in the Revolutionary War been overlooked?
Most historians of the American Revolution understand that the southern theater, and the southern campaigns in particular, were truly decisive in creating the circumstances for the ultimate British defeat. ... The significance of the southern campaigns has not always gotten the degree of attention that it truly deserves. The work that’s come out in the past decades has really changed that previous neglect of the southern story.
Why has the North's role received more attention?
There are a few reasons, actually. One is the presence of George Washington. With the exception of the siege of Yorktown in 1781, he didn’t command in the southern theater. Also, for much of the war, the northern or the middle theaters really were the focal point of the main army’s efforts. It wasn’t until late in the conflict that the British shifted the bulk of their military efforts to the Carolinas, but that arguably was the most decisive phase of the war. The British staked so much on obtaining victory in the southern colonies late in the war.
How did your new book set out to continue that shift of appreciating the South's role in the war?
In the southern theater, this is where the British attempted for the first time in the war a true wide-scale pacification effort. ... This was a really major undertaking on the part of the British — to attempt to control, under force of arms, such a huge swath of territory. The British had never attempted anything like this until they captured the Continental army at Charleston in 1780. That’s really what creates so many additional problems for the British that ultimately lead to their defeat at Yorktown.
How was the southern theater different?
There was really an absence of any government. The rebel governments were more governments in exile, especially after the fall of Charleston, of course. That meant real order fell into the hands of the armies, or more commonly, the different rebel or loyalist militias running around the countryside. It was really a much more lawless type of environment ... than in, say, Massachusetts.
Another distinguishing factor about the southern campaign was as the British were trying to extend control over the colony of South Carolina. They’re establishing forts and garrisons deep into the interior, and they’re discovering the demographic fact. ... The population that’s most likely going to resist British rule and this pacification effort is in the Upcountry. ... The bulk of the resistance is further to the interior.
I like to say that in the South there were three wars occurring simultaneously. One was the struggle between the armies, the Continental army and the British army. Beneath that, you have this very vicious and destructive civil war taking place between rebel militias and loyalist militias. And then another layer that often is forgotten is that the war in the Southern colonies was also like a slave rebellion, as well. So many African slaves in the colony ran away to British armies and sought refuge and freedom among British armies that were operating in the region.
What might now be the most overlooked aspect of the war?
The naval theater was greatly under-appreciated, and it did have a decisive influence ... The best example of that is that American privateers who were picking off British merchant ships on the high seas. ... They would take these captured British merchant ships back to French ports and auction them off.
The American privateers became such a threat to British merchant shipping that two things happen: British maritime insurance rates go through the roof, so the war becomes economically problematic for many British merchants. Secondly, the presence of those American privateers in French ports drives a wedge between the British and French governments diplomatically. These pesky privateers are part of the reason why the British and French will eventually declare war against each other in 1778.
Do you think the Revolutionary War is less remembered in the South than the Civil War and, if so, why?
The Civil War was a much more revolutionary type of outcome for the people of South Carolina. It was a revolution in their entire economy and social system to include the emancipation of slaves. Certainly, the Revolutionary War in the South had a lot of upheaval and similar dynamics: the presence of marauding armies and intense destruction to the countryside — incredible dislocation. But I think part of the reason the Civil War is more remembered is the consequences were all the greater.
Why study the Revolutionary War today? What can we learn?
The British experience in America through the entirety of the Revolution very much parallels the U.S. experience in recent wars, from Vietnam down to Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the dynamics of these conflicts are similar and have a lot of instructional bearing for our military in modern counter-insurgency warfare. Here’s just an example. In 1780, the British achieved what they had long sought in the Revolutionary War, which was the destruction of an entire American army (in Charleston).
They indeed bagged the entire southern Continental army of around 6,000 men, and they believed the destruction of that army would almost guarantee them possession of the interior of the colony. ... They also believed the bulk of, or a good proportion of, the Carolina population was loyal to the crown and needed only the presence of a major British army to bring them out, and that proves to be a very fatal assumption. ... The British made several fatal assumptions that led them into a war they didn’t fully understand.
Who did understand the war?
Gen. Nathaniel Greene, who was the victorious American officer who won the war in the South. ... Sadly, Greene died in 1786, and his memory greatly faded. Had Greene lived, I think people would have recognized him more as the George Washington figure of the South that he really was.
Greene’s leadership is notable in two ways. No. 1, Greene, perhaps better than any other American officer save Washington himself, understood the real nature of the conflict. He understood, to use our modern language, it really was an insurgency, and he had to cooperate not only with patriot militias but he had to gain the support of the population that simply wanted to be left alone, the neutrals. Greene took efforts to gain their loyalty.
The other fascinating thing about Greene is he loses, in a tactical sense, every single engagement he fights with the British army, but this is the man who, through those battlefield defeats, achieves strategic victory by draining the British of their strength and vitality and ultimately making their occupation of South Carolina untenable. Greene is the officer who liberates Charleston in December of 1782.