The Disasters of 1780
AFTER the surrender of Burgoyne, the military attitude of the British in the Northern States became, as we have seen,1 purely defensive. Their efforts were almost exclusively directed toward maintaining their foothold, at first in the islands of New York and Rhode Island, afterward in New York alone, whence their ships could ascend the Hudson as far as the frowning crags which sentinel the entrance of the Highlands. Their offensive operations were restricted to a few plundering expeditions along the coast, well calculated to remind the worthy Connecticut farmers of the ubiquitousness of British power, and the vanity of hopes that might have been built upon the expectation of naval aid from France. But while the war thus languished at the centre, while at the same time it sent forth waves of disturbance that reverberated all the way from the Mississippi River to the Baltic Sea, on the other hand the southernmost American States were the scene of continuous and vigorous fighting. Upon the reduction of the Carolinas and Georgia the king and Lord George Germaine had set their hearts. If the rebellion could not be broken at the centre, it was hoped that it might at least be frayed away at the edges; and should fortune so far smile upon the royal armies as to give them Virginia also, perhaps the campaigns against the wearied North might be renewed at some later time and under better auspices.
In this view there was much that was plausible. Events had shown that the ministry had clearly erred in striking the rebellion at its strongest point; it now seemed worth while to aim a blow where it was weakest. The people of New England were almost unanimous in their opposition to the king, and up to this time the States of Massachusetts and Connecticut in particular had done more to sustain the war than all the others put together. Georgia and the Carolinas, a thousand miles distant, might be regarded as beyond the reach of reinforcements from New England ; and it might well be doubted whether they possessed the ability to defend themselves against a well-planned attack. Georgia was the weakest of the thirteen States, and bordered upon the British territory of Florida. In South Carolina the character of the population made it difficult to organize resistance. The citizens of Charleston, and the rich planters of English or Huguenot descent inhabiting the lowlands, were mostly ardent patriots, but they were outnumbered by their negro slaves ; and the peculiar features of slavery in South Carolina made this a very embarrassing circumstance. The relations between master and slave were not friendly there, as they were in Virginia; and while the State had kept up a militia during the whole colonial period, this militia found plenty of employment in patrolling the slave quarters, in searching for hidden weapons, and in hunting fugitives. It was now correctly surmised that on the approach of an invading army the dread of negro insurrection, with all its nameless horrors, would paralyze the arm of the state militia. While the patriotic South Carolinians were thus handicapped in entering upon the contest, there were in the white population of the State many discordant elements. There were many Quakers and men of German ancestry who took little interest in politics, and were only too ready to submit to any authority that would protect them in their ordinary pursuits. A strong contrast to the political apathy of these worthy men was to be found in the rugged population of the upland counties. Here the small farmers of ScotchIrish descent were, every man of them. Whigs, burning with a patriotic ardor that partook of the nature of religious fanaticism; while, on the other hand, the Scotchmen who had come over since Culloden were mostly Tories, and had by no means as yet cast off that halfsavage type of Highland character which we find so vividly portrayed in the Waverley novels. It was not strange that the firebrand of war, thrown among Such combustible material, should have flamed forth with a glare of unwonted cruelty; nor was it strange that a commonwealth containing such incongruous elements, so imperfectly blended, should have been speedily, though but for a moment, overcome. The fit ground for wonder is that, in spite of such adverse circumstances, the State of South Carolina should have shown as much elastic strength as she did under the severest military stress which any American State was called upon to withstand during the Revolutionary War.
Since the defeat of the British fleet before Charleston, in June, 1776, the Southern States had been left unmolested until the autumn of 1778, when there was more or less frontier skirmishing between Georgia and Florida, — a slight premonitory symptom of the storm that was coming. The American forces in the Southern department were then commanded by General Robert Howe, who was one of the most distinguished patriots of North Carolina, but whose military capacity seems to have been slender. In the autumn of 1778 he had his headquarters at Savannah, for there was war on the frontier. Guerrilla parties, made up chiefly of vindictive loyalist refugees, but aided by a few British regulars from General Augustine Prevost’s force in Florida, invaded the rice plantations of Georgia, burning and murdering, and carrying off negroes, — not to set them free, but to sell them for their own benefit. As a counter-irritant, General Howe planned an expedition against St. Augustine, and advanced as far as St. Mary’s River; but so many men were swept away by fever that he was obliged to retreat to Savannah. He had scarcely arrived there when 3500 British regulars from New York, under Colonel Campbell, landed in the neighborhood, and offered him battle. Though his own force numbered only 1200, of whom half were militia, Howe accepted the challenge, relying upon the protection of a great swamp which covered his flanks. But a path through the swamp was pointed out to the enemy by a negro, and the Americans, attacked in front and behind, were instantly routed. Some 500 prisoners were taken, and Savannah surrendered, with all its guns and stores ; and this achievement cost the British but 24 men. A few days afterward, General Prevost advanced from Florida and captured Sunbury, with all its garrison, while Colonel Campbell captured Augusta. A proclamation was issued, offering protection to such of the inhabitants as would take up arms in behalf of the king’s government, while all others were by implication outlawed. The ferocious temper of Lord George Germaine was plainly visible in this proclamation and in the proceedings that followed. A shameless and promiscuous plunder was begun. The captive Soldiers were packed into prison-ships and treated with barbarity. The more timid people sought to save their property by taking sides with the enemy, while the bolder spirits sought refuge in the mountains ; and thus General Prevost was enabled to write home that the State of Georgia was conquered.
At the request of the Southern delegates in Congress, General Howe had already been superseded by General Benjamin Lincoln, who had won distinction through his management of the New England militia in the Saratoga campaign. When Lincoln arrived in Charleston, in December, 1778, an attempt was made to call out the lowland militia of South Carolina, but the dread of the slaves kept them from obeying the summons. North Carolina, however, sent 2000 men under Samuel Ashe, one of the most eminent of the Southern patriots ; and with this force and 600 Continentals the new general watched the Savannah River and waited his chances. But North Carolina sent foes as well as friends to take part in the contest. A party of 700 loyalists from that State were marching across South Carolina to join the British garrison at Augusta, when they were suddenly attacked by Colonel Andrew Pickens with a small force of upland militia. In a sharp fight the Tories were routed, and half their number were taken prisoners. Indictments for treason were brought against many of these prisoners, and, after trial before a civil court, some seventy were found guilty, and five of them were hanged. The rashness of this step soon became apparent. The British had put in command of Augusta one Colonel Thomas Browne, a Tory, who had been tarred and feathered by his neighbors at the beginning of the war. As soon as Browne heard of these executions for treason, he forthwith hanged some of his Whig prisoners; and thus was begun a long series of stupid and cruel reprisals, which, as time went on, bore bitter fruit.
While these things were going on in the back country, the British on the coast attempted to capture Port Royal, but were defeated, with heavy loss, by General Moultrie. Lincoln now felt able to assume the offensive, and he sent General Ashe with 1500 men to threaten Augusta. At his approach the British abandoned the town, and retreated toward Savannah. Ashe pursued closely, but at Briar Creek, on the 3d of March, 1779, the British turned upon him and routed him. The Americans lost 400 in killed and wounded, besides seven pieces of artillery and more than 1000 stand of arms. Less than 300 succeeded in making their way back to Lincoln’s camp; and this victory cost the British but five men killed and eleven wounded. Augusta was at once retaken ; the royal governor, Sir James Wright, was reinstated in office ; and, in general, the machinery of government which had been in operation previous to 1776 was restored. Lincoln, however, was far from accepting the defeat as final. With the energetic coöperation of Governor Rutledge, to whom extraordinary powers were granted for the occasion, enough militia were got together to repair the losses suffered at Briar Creek ; and in April, leaving Moultrie with 1000 men to guard the lower Savannah, Lincoln marched upon Augusta with the rest of his army, hoping to capture it, and give the legislature of Georgia a chance to assemble there, and destroy the moral effect of this apparent restoration of the royal government. But as soon as Lincoln had got out of the way, General Prevost crossed the Savannah with 3000 men and advanced upon Charleston, laying waste the country and driving Moultrie before him. It was a moment of terror and confusion. In General Prevost there was at last found a man after Lord George Germaine’s own heart. His march was a scene of wanton vandalism. The houses of the wealthy planters were mercilessly sacked ; their treasures of silver plate were loaded on carts and carried off ; their mirrors and china were smashed, their family portraits cut to pieces, their gardens trampled out, their shade trees girdled and ruined ; and as Prevost had a band of Cherokees with him, the horrors of the tomahawk and scalping-knife in some instances crowned the shameful work. The cabins of the slaves were burned. Cattle, horses, dogs, and poultry, when not carried away, were slaughtered wholesale, and the destruction of food was so great that something like famine set in. More than a thousand negroes are said to have died of starvation.
In such wise did Prevost leisurely make his way toward Charleston; and reaching it on the 11th of May, he sent in a summons to surrender. A strangely interesting scene ensued. Events had occurred which had sorely perturbed the minds of the members of the state council. Pondering upon the best means of making the state militia available, Henry Laurens had hit upon the bold expedient of arming the most stalwart and courageous negroes, and marching them off to camp under the lead of white officers. Such a policy might be expected to improve the relations between whites and blacks by uniting them against a common danger, while the plantations would be to some extent relieved of an abiding source of dread. The plan was warmly approved by Laurens’s son, who was an officer on Washington’s staff, as well as by Alexander Hamilton, who further suggested that the blacks thus enrolled as militia should at the same time be given their freedom. Washington, on the other hand, feared that if the South Carolinians were to adopt such a policy the British would forestall them by offering better arms and equipments to the negroes, and thus mustering them against their masters. It was a game, he felt, at which two could play. The matter was earnestly discussed, and at last was brought before Congress, which approved of Laurens’s plan, and recommended it to the consideration of the people of South Carolina; and it was just before the arrival of Prevost and his army that the younger Laurens reached Charleston with this message from Congress.
The advice was received in anything but a grateful spirit. For a century the State had maintained an armed patrol to go about among the negro quarters and confiscate every pistol, gun, or knife that could be found, and now it was proposed that three or four thousand slaves should actually be furnished with muskets by the State! People were startled at the thought, and there might well be a great diversity of opinion as to the feasibleness of so bold a measure at so critical a moment. To most persons it seemed like jumping out of the fryin g-pan into the fire. Coming, too, at a moment when the State was in such desperate need of armed assistance from Congress, this advice was very irritating. The people naturally could not make due allowance for the difficulties under which Congress labored, and their wrath waxed hot. South Carolina seemed to be left in the lurch. Was it to join such a league as this that she had cast off allegiance to Great Britain ? She had joined in the Declaration of Independence reluctantly, and from an honorable feeling of the desirableness of united action among the States. On that momentous day, of which it was not yet clear whether the result was to be the salvation or the ruin of America, her delegates had, with wise courtesy, changed their vote in deference to the opinions of the other States, in order that the American people might seem to be acting as a unit in so solemn a matter. And now that the State was invaded, her people robbed and insulted, and her chief city threatened, she was virtually bidden to shift for herself ! Under the influence of such feelings as these, after a hot debate, the council, by a bare majority, decided to send a flag of truce to General Prevost, and to suggest that South Carolina should remain neutral until the end of the war, when it should he decided by treaty whether she should cast in her lot with Great Britain or with the United States. What might have come of this singular suggestion had it been seriously discussed we shall never know, for Prevost took no notice of it whatever. He refused to exchange question and answer with a branch of the rebel government of South Carolina, but to Moultrie, as military commandant, he announced that his only terms were unconditional surrender. We can imagine how the gallant heart of Moultrie must have sunk within him at what he could not but call the dastardly action of the council, and how it must have leaped with honest joy at the British general’s ultimatum. " Very good,” said he simply ; " we ’ll fight it out, then.”
This incident is of striking interest as the only instance of an approach to flinching on the part of any American State during the whole course of the War for Independence. In citing the incident for its real historic interest, we must avoid the error of making too much of it. At this moment of sudden peril, indignation at the fancied neglect of Congress was joined to the natural unwillingness, on the part of the council, to incur the risk of giving up the property of their fellow-citizens to the tender mercies of such a buccaneer as Prevost had shown himself to be. But there is no sufficient reason for supposing that, had the matter gone farther, the suggestion of the council would have been adopted by the legislature or acquiesced in by the people of South Carolina.
On this occasion the danger vanished as suddenly as it came. Count Pulaski, with his legion, arrived from the Northern army, and Lincoln, as soon as he learned what was going on, retraced his steps, and presently attacked General Prevost. After an indecisive skirmish, the latter, judging his force inadequate for the work he had undertaken, retreated into Georgia, and nothing more was done till autumn. The military honors of the campaign, however, remained with the British : for by his march upon Charleston Prevost had prevented Lincoln from disturbing the British supremacy in Georgia, and besides this he had gained a foothold in South Carolina; when he retreated, he left a garrison in Beaufort which Lincoln was unable to dislodge.
The French alliance, which thus far had been of so little direct military value, now appears again upon the scene. During the year which had elapsed since the futile Rhode Island campaign, the French fleet had been busy in the West Indies. Honors were easy, on the whole, between the two great maritime antagonists, but the French had so far the advantage that in August, 1779, D’Estaing was able once more to give some attention to his American friends. On the first day of September he appeared off the coast of Georgia with a powerful fleet of twenty-two ships-of-the-line and eleven frigates. Great hopes were now conceived by the Americans, and a plan was laid for the recapture of Savannah. By the 23d of the month the place was invested by the combined forces of Lincoln and D’Estaing, and for three weeks the siege was vigorously carried on by a regular system of approaches, while the works were diligently bombarded by the fleet. At length D’Estaing grew impatient. There was not sufficient harborage for his great ships, and the captains feared that they might be overtaken by the dangerous autumnal gales for which that coast is noted. To reduce the town by a regular siege would perhaps take several weeks more, and it was accordingly thought best to try to carry it by storm. On the 9th of October a terrific assault was made in full force. Borne of the outworks were carried, and for a moment the stars-andstripes and the fleurs-de-lis were planted on the redoubts; but British endurance and the strength of the position at last prevailed. The assailants were totally defeated, losing more than 1000 men, while the British, in their sheltered position, lost but 55. The gallant Pulaski was among the slain, and D’Estaing received two severe wounds. The French, who had borne the brunt of the fight, now embarked and stood out to sea, but not in time to escape the October gale which they had been dreading. After weathering with difficulty a terrible storm, their fleet was divided ; and while part returned to the West Indies, D’Estaing himself, with the remainder, crossed to France. Thus the second attempt at concerted action between French and Americans had met with much more disastrous failure than the first.
While these things were going on, Washington had hoped, and Clinton had feared, that D’Estaing might presently reach New York in such force as to turn the scale there against the British. As soon as he learned that the French fleet was out of the way, Sir Henry Clinton proceeded to carry out a plan which he had long had in contemplation. A year had now elapsed since the beginning of active operations in the South, and, although the British arms had been crowned with success, it was desirable to strike a still heavier blow. The capture of the chief Southern city was not only the next step in the plan of the campaign, but it was an object of especial desire to Sir Henry Clinton personally, for he had not forgotten the humiliating defeat at Fort Moultrie in 1776. He accordingly made things as snug as possible at the North, by finally withdrawing the garrisons from Rhode Island and the advanced posts on the Hudson. In this way, while leaving Knyphausen with a strong force in command of New York, he was enabled to embark 8000 men on transports, under convoy of five ships-of-the-line; and on the day after Christmas, 1779, he set sail for Savannah, taking Lord Cornwallis with him.
The voyage was a rough one. Some of the transports foundered, and some were captured by American privateers. Yet when Clinton arrived in Georgia, and united his forces to those of Prevost, the total amounted to more than 10,000 men. He ventured, however, to weaken the garrison of New York still more, and sent back at once for 3000 men under command of the young Lord Rawdon, of the famous family of Hastings, — better known in after-years as Earl of Moira and Marquis of Hastings, and destined, like Cornwallis, to serve with great distinction as governor-general of India. The event fully justified Clinton’s sagacity in taking this step. New York was quite safe for the present ; for so urgent was the need for troops in South Carolina, and so great the difficulty of raising them, that Washington was obliged to detach from his army all the Virginia and North Carolina troops, and send them down to aid General Lincoln. With his army thus weakened, it was out of the question for Washington to attack New York.
Lincoln, on the other hand, after his reinforcements arrived, had an army of 7000 men with which to defend the threatened State of South Carolina. It was an inadequate force, and its commander, a thoroughly brave and estimable man, was far from possessing the rare sagacity which Washington displayed in baffling the schemes of the enemy. The government of South Carolina deemed the preservation of Charleston to be of the first importance, just as, in 1776, Congress had insisted upon the importance of keeping the city of New York. But we have seen how Washington, in that trying time, though he could not keep the city, never allowed himself to get his army into a position from which he could not withdraw it, and at last, through his sleepless vigilance, won all the honors of the campaign. In the defense of Charleston no such high sagacity was shown. Clinton advanced slowly overland, until on the 26th of February, 1780, he came in sight of the town. It had by that time become so apparent that his overwhelming superiority of force would enable him to encompass it on every side, that Lincoln should have evacuated the place without a moment’s delay; and such was Washington’s opinion as soon as he learned the facts. The loss of Charleston, however serious a blow, could in no case be so disastrous as the loss of the army. But Lincoln went on strengthening the fortifications, and gathering into the trap all the men and all the military resources he could find. For some weeks the connections with the country north of the Cooper River were kept open by two regiments of cavalry ; but on the 14th of April these regiments were cut to pieces by Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the cavalry commander, who now first appeared on the scene upon which he was soon to become so famous. Five days later, the reinforcement under Lord Rawdon, arriving from New York, completed the investment of the doomed city. The ships entering the harbor did not attempt to batter down Fort Moultrie, but ran past it; and on the 6th of May this fortress, menaced by troops in the rear, surrendered.
The British army now held Charleston engirdled with a cordon of works on every side, and were ready to begin an assault which, with the disparity of forces in the case, could have but one possible issue. On the 12th of May, to avoid a wanton waste of life, the city was surrendered, and Lincoln and his whole army became prisoners of war. The Continental troops, some 3000 in number, were to be held as prisoners till regularly exchanged. The militia were allowed to return home on parole, and all the male citizens were reckoned as militia, and paroled likewise. The victorious Clinton at once sent expeditions to take possession of Camden and other strategic points in the interior of the State. One regiment of the Virginia line, under Colonel Buford, had not reached Charleston, and on hearing of the great catastrophe it retreated northward with all possible speed. But Tarleton gave chase as far as Waxhaws, near the North Carolina border, and there, overtaking Buford, cut his force to pieces, slaying 113 and capturing the rest. Not a vestige of an American army was left in all South Carolina.
“ We look on America as at our feet,” said Horace Walpole; and doubtless, after the capture of Fort Washington, this capture of Lincoln’s army at Charleston was the most considerable disaster which befell the American arms during the whole course of the war. It was of less critical importance than the affair of Fort Washington, as it occurred at what every one must admit to have been a less critical moment. The loss of Fort Washington, taken in connection with the misconduct of Charles Lee, came within a hair’s-breadth of wrecking the cause of American independence at the outset; and it put matters into so bad a shape that nothing short of Washington’s genius could have wrought victory out of them. The loss of South Carolina, in May, 1780, serious as it was, did not so obviously imperil the whole American cause. The blow did not come at quite so critical a time, or in quite so critical a place. The loss of South Carolina would not have dismembered the confederacy of States, and in course of time, with the American cause elsewhere successful, she might have been recovered. The blow was nevertheless very serious indeed, and, if all the consequences which Clinton contemplated had been achieved, it might have proved fatal. To crush a limb may sometimes be as dangerous as to stab the heart. For its temporary completeness, the overthrow may well have seemed greater than that of Fort Washington. The detachments which Clinton sent into the interior met with no resistance. Many of the inhabitants took the oath of allegiance to the Crown ; others gave their parole not to serve against the British during the remainder of the war. Clinton issued a circular, inviting all well-disposed people to assemble and organize a loyal militia for the purpose of suppressing any future attempts at rebellion. All who should again venture to take up arms against the king were to be dealt with as traitors, and their estates were to be confiscated ; but to all who should now return to their allegiance a free pardon was offered for past offenses, except in the case of such people as had taken part in the hanging of Tories. Having struck this great blow, Sir Henry Clinton returned, in June, to New York, taking back with him the larger part of his force, but leaving Cornwallis with 5000 men to maintain and extend the conquests already made.
Just before starting, however, Sir Henry, in a too hopeful moment, issued another proclamation, which went far toward destroying the effect of his previous measures. This new proclamation required all the people of South Carolina to take an active part in reestablishing the royal government, under penalty of being dealt with as rebels and traitors. At the same time, all paroles were discharged except in the case of prisoners captured in ordinary warfare, and thus everybody was compelled to declare himself as favorable or hostile to the cause of the invaders. The British commander could hardly have taken a more injudicious step. Under the first proclamation, many of the people were led to comply with the British demands because they wished to avoid fighting altogether; under the second, a neutral attitude became impossible, and these lovers of peace and quiet, when they found themselves constrained to take an active part on one side or the other, naturally preferred to help their friends rather than their enemies. Thus the country soon showed itself restless under British rule, and this feeling was strengthened by the cruelties which, after Clinton’s departure, Cornwallis found himself quite unable to prevent. Officers endowed with civil and military powers combined were sent about the country in all directions, to make full lists of the inhabitants for the purpose of enrolling a loyalist militia. In the course of these unwelcome circuits many affrays occurred, and instances were not rare in which people were murdered in cold blood. Debtors took occasion to accuse their creditors of want of loyalty, and the creditor was obliged to take the oath of allegiance before he could collect his dues. Many estates were confiscated, and the houses of such patriots as had sought refuge in the mountains were burned. Bands of armed men, whose aim was revenge or plunder, volunteered their services in preserving order, and, getting commissions, went about making disorder more hideous, and wreaking their evil will without let or hindrance. The loyalists, indeed, asserted that they behaved no worse than the Whigs when the latter got the upper hand, and in this there was much truth. Cornwallis, who was the most conscientious of men and very careful in his statements of fact, speaks, somewhat later, of “ the shocking tortures and inhuman murders which are every day committed by the enemy, not only on those who have taken part with us, but on many who refuse to join them.” There can be no doubt that Whigs and Tories were alike guilty of cruelty and injustice. But on the present occasion all this served to throw discredit on the British, as the party which controlled the country, and must be held responsible accordingly.
Organized resistance was impossible. The chief strategic points on the coast were Charleston, Beaufort, and Savannah ; in the interior, Augusta was the gateway of Georgia, and the communications between this point and the wild mountains of North Carolina were dominated by a village known as “ NinetySix,” because it was just that number of miles distant from Keowee, the principal town of the Cherokees. Eighty miles to the northeast of Ninety-Six lay the still more important post of Camden, in which centred all the principal inland roads by which South Carolina could be reached from the North. All these strategic points were held in force by the British, and save by help from without there seemed to be no hope of releasing the State from their iron grasp. Among the patriotic Whigs, however, there were still some stout hearts that did not despair. Retiring to the dense woods, the tangled swamps, or the steep mountain defiles, these sagacious and resolute men kept up a romantic partisan warfare, full of midnight marches, sudden surprises, and desperate hand-tohand combats. Foremost among these partisan commanders, for enterprise and skill, were James Williams, Andrew Pickens, Thomas Sumter, and Francis Marion.
Of all the picturesque characters of our Revolutionary period, there is perhaps no one who, in the memory of the people, is so closely associated with romantic adventure as Francis Marion. He belonged to that gallant race of men of whose services France had been forever deprived when Louis XIV. revoked the edict of Nantes. His father had been a planter near Georgetown, on the coast, and the son, while following the same occupation, had been called off to the western frontier by the Cherokee war of 1759, in the course of which he had made himself an adept in woodland strategy. He was now forty-seven years old, a man of few words and modest demeanor, small in stature and slight in frame, delicately organized, but endowed with wonderful nervous energy and sleepless intelligence. Like a woman in quickness of sympathy, he was a knight in courtesy, truthfulness, and courage. The brightness of his fame was never sullied by an act of cruelty. “ Never shall a house be burned by one of my people,” said he; “ to distress poor women and children is what I detest.” To distress the enemy in legitimate warfare was, on the other hand, a business in which few partisan commanders have excelled him. For swiftness and secrecy he was unequaled, and the boldness of his exploits seemed almost incredible, when compared with the meagreness of his resources. His force sometimes consisted of less than twenty men, and seldom exceeded seventy. To arm them, he was obliged to take the saws from sawmills and have them wrought into rude swords at the country forge, while pewter mugs and spoons were cast into bullets. With such equipment he would attack and overwhelm parties of more than two hundred Tories; or he would even swoop upon a column of British regulars on their march, throw them into disorder, set free their prisoners, slay and disarm a score or two, and plunge out of sight in the darkling forest as swiftly and mysteriously as he had come.
Second to Marion alone in this wild warfare was Thomas Sumter, a tall and powerful man, stern in countenance and haughty in demeanor. Born in Virginia in 1734, he was present at Braddock’s defeat in 1755, and after prolonged military service on the frontier found his way to South Carolina before the beginning of the Revolutionary War. He lived nearly a hundred years ; sat in the Senate of the United States during the War of 1812, served as minister to Brazil, and witnessed the nullification acts of his adopted State under the stormy presidency of Jackson. During the summer of 1780, he kept up so brisk a guerrilla warfare in the upland regions north of Ninety-Six that Cornwallis called him " the greatest plague in the country.” “ But for Sumter and Marion,” said the British commander, “ South Carolina would be at peace.” The first advantage of any sort gained over the enemy since Clinton’s landing was the destruction of a company of dragoons by Sumter, on the 12th of July. Three weeks later, he made a desperate attack on the British at Rocky Mount, but was repulsed. On the 6th of August, he surprised the enemy’s post at Hanging Rock, and destroyed a whole regiment. It was on this occasion that Andrew Jackson made his first appearance in history, an orphan boy of thirteen, stanch in the fight as any of his comrades.
But South Carolina was too important to be left dependent upon the skill and bravery of its partisan commanders alone. Already, before the fall of Charleston, it had been felt that further reinforcements were needed there, and Washington had sent down some 2000 Maryland and Delaware troops under Baron Kalb, an excellent officer. It was a long march, and the 20th of June had arrived when Kalb halted at Hillsborough, in North Carolina, to rest his men and seek the coöperation of General Caswell, who commanded the militia of that State. By this time the news of the capture of Lincoln’s army had reached the North, and the emergency was felt to be a desperate one. Fresh calls for militia were made upon all the States south of Pennsylvania. That resources obtained with such difficulty should not be wasted, it was above all desirable that a competent general should be chosen to succeed the unfortunate Lincoln. The opinions of the commander-in-chief with reference to this matter were well known. Washington wished to have Greene appointed, as the ablest general in the army. But the glamour which enveloped the circumstances of the great victory at Saratoga was not yet dispelled. Since the downfall of the Conway Cabal, Gates had never recovered the extraordinary place which he had held in public esteem at the beginning of 1778, but there were few as yet who seriously questioned the reputation he had so lightly won for generalship. Many people now called for Gates, who had for the moment retired from active service and was living on his plantation in Virginia, and the suggestion found favor with Congress. On the 13th of June Gates was appointed to the chief command of the Southern department, and eagerly accepted the position. The good wishes of the people went with him. Richard Peters, secretary of the Board of War, wrote him a very cordial letter, saying, “ Our affairs to the southward look blue : so they did when you took command before the Burgoynade. I can only now say, Go and do likewise — God bless you.” Charles Lee, who was then living in disgrace on his Virginia estate, sent a very different sort of greeting. Lee and Gates had always been friends, — linked together, perhaps, by pettiness of spirit and a common hatred for the commander-in-chief, whose virtues were a perpetual rebuke to them. But the cynical Lee knew his friend too well to share in the prevailing delusion as to his military capacity, and he bid him good-by with the ominous warning, “ Take care that your Northern laurels do not change to Southern willows! ”
With this word of ill omen, which doubtless he little heeded, the “ hero of Saratoga” made his way to Hillsborough, where he arrived on the 19th of July, and relieved Kalb of the burden of anxiety that had been thrust upon him. Gates found things in a most deplorable state : lack of arms, lack of tents, lack of food, lack of medicines, and, above all, lack of money. The all-pervading neediness which in those days beset the American people, through their want of an efficient government, was never more thoroughly exemplified. It required a very different man from Gates to mend matters. Want of judgment and want of decision were faults which he had not outgrown, and all his movements were marked by weakness and rashness. He was adventurous where caution was needed, and timid when he should have been bold. The objective point of his campaign was the town of Camden. Once in possession of this important point, he could force the British from their other inland positions and throw them upon the defensive at Charleston. It was not likely that so great an object would be attained without a battle, but there was a choice of ways by which the strategic point might be approached. Two roads led from Hillsborough to Camden. The westerly route passed through Salisbury and Charlotte, in a long arc of a circle, coming down upon Camden from the northwest. The country through which it passed was fertile, and the inhabitants were mostly ScotchIrish Whigs. By following this road, the danger of a sudden attack by the enemy would be slight, wholesome food would be obtained in abundance, and in case of defeat it afforded a safe line of retreat. The easterly route formed the chord of this long arc, passing from Hillsborough to Camden almost in a straight line 160 miles in length. It was 50 miles shorter than the other route, but it lay through a desolate region of pine barrens, where farmhouses and cultivated fields were very few and far between, and owned by Tories. This line of march was subject to flank attacks, it would yield no food for the army, and a retreat through it, on the morrow of an unsuccessful battle, would simply mean destruction. The only advantage of this route was its directness. The British forces were more or less scattered about the country. Lord Rawdon held Camden with a comparatively small force, and Gates was anxious to attack and Overwhelm him before Cornwallis could come up from Charleston.
Gates accordingly chose the shorter route, with all its disadvantages, in spite of the warnings of Kalb and other officers, and on the 27th of July he put his army in motion. On the 3d of August, having entered South Carolina and crossed the Pedee River, he was joined by Colonel Porterfield with a small force of Virginia regulars, which had been hovering on the border since the fall of Charleston. On the 7th he effected a junction with General Caswell and his North Carolina militia, and on the 10th his army, thus reinforced, reached Little Lynch’s Creek, about fifteen miles northeast of Camden, and confronted the greatly inferior force of Lord Rawdon. The two weeks’ march had been accomplished at the rate of about eleven miles a day, with no end of fatigue and suffering. The few lean kine slaughtered by the roadside had proved quite insufficient to feed the army, and for want of any better diet the half-starved men had eaten voraciously of unripe corn, green apples, and peaches. All were enfeebled, and many were dying of dysentery and cholera morbus, so that the American camp presented a truly distressing scene.
Rawdon’s force stood across the road, blocking the way to Camden, and the chance was offered for Gates to strike the sudden blow for the sake of which he had chosen to come by this bad road. There was still, however, a choice of methods. The two roads, converging toward their point of intersection at Camden, were now very near together. Gates might either cross the creek in front, and trust to his superior numbers to overwhelm the enemy, or, by a forced march of ten miles to the right, he might turn Rawdon’s flank and gain Camden before him. A good general would have done either the one of these things or the other, and Kalb recommended the immediate attack. But now at the supreme moment Gates was as irresolute as he had been impatient when 160 miles away. He let the opportunity slip, waited two days where he was, and on the 13th marched slowly to the right and took up his position at Clermont, on the westerly road ; thus abandoning the whole purpose for the sake of which he had refused to advance by that road in the first place. On the 14th he was joined by General Stevens with 700 Virginia militia ; but on the same day Lord Cornwallis reached Camden with his regulars, and the golden moment for crushing the British in detachments was gone forever.
The American army now numbered 3052 men, but only 1400 were regulars, chiefly of the Maryland line. The rest were mostly raw militia. The united force under Cornwallis amounted to only 2000 men, but they were all thoroughly trained soldiers. It was rash for the Americans to hazard an attack under suck circumstances, especially in their forlorn condition, faint as they were with hunger and illness, and many of them hardly fit to march or take the field. But, incredible as it may seem, a day and a night passed by, and Gates had not yet learned that Cornwallis had arrived, but still supposed he had only Rawdon to deal with. It was no time for him to detach troops on distant expeditions, but on the 14th he sent 400 of Ids best Maryland regulars on a long march southward, to cooperate with Sumter in cutting off the enemy’s supplies on the road between Charleston and Camden. At ten o’clock on the night of the 15th, Gates moved his army down the road from Clermont to Camden, intending to surprise Lord Rawdon before daybreak. The distance was ten miles through the woods, by a rough road, hemmed in on either side, now by hills, and now by impassable swamps. At the very same hour, Cornwallis started up the road, with the similar purpose of surprising General Gates. A little before three in the morning, the British and American advance guards of light infantry encountered each other on the road, five miles north of Camden, and a brisk skirmish ensued, in which the Americans were routed and the gallant Colonel Porterfield was slain. Both armies, however, having failed in their scheme of surprising each other, lay on their arms and waited for daylight. Some prisoners who fell into the hands of the Americans now brought the news that the army opposed to them was commanded by Cornwallis himself, and they overstated its numbers at 3000 men. The astonished Gates called together his officers, and asked what was to be done. No one spoke for a few moments, until General Stevens exclaimed, “ Well, gentlemen, is it not too late now to do anything but fight ? ” Kalb’s opinion was in favor of retreating to Clermont and taking a strong position there ; but his advice had so often been unheeded that he no longer urged it, and it was decided to open the battle by an attack on the British right.
The rising sun presently showed the two armies close together. Huge swamps, at a short distance from the road, on either side, covered both flanks of both armies. On the west side of the road the British left was commanded by Lord Rawdon, on the east side their right was led by Colonel James Webster, while Tarleton and his cavalry hovered a little in the rear. The American right wing, opposed to Rawdon, was commanded by Kalb, and consisted of the Delaware regiment and the second Maryland brigade in front, supported by the first Maryland brigade at some distance in the rear. The American left wing, opposed to Webster, consisted of the militia from Virginia and North Carolina, under Generals Stevens and Caswell. Such an arrangement of troops invited swift disaster. The battle was to begin with an attack on the British right, an attack upon disciplined soldiers; and the lead in this attack was entrusted to raw militia who had hardly ever been under fire, and did not even understand the use of the bayonet! This work should have been given to those splendid Maryland troops that had gone to help Sumter. The militia, skilled in woodcraft, should have been sent on that expedition, and the regulars should have been retained for the battle. The militia did not even know how to advance properly, but became tangled up ; and while they were straightening their lines, Colonel Webster came down upon them in a furious charge. The shock of the British column was resistless. The Virginia militia threw down their guns and fled without firing a shot. The North Carolina militia did likewise, and within fifteen minutes the whole American left became a mob of struggling men, smitten with mortal panic, and huddling like sheep in their wild flight, while Tarleton’s cavalry gave chase and cut them down by scores. Leaving Tarleton to deal with them, Webster turned upon the first Maryland brigade, and slowly pushed it off the field, after an obstinate resistance. The second Maryland brigade, on the other hand, after twice repelling the assault of Lord Rawdon, broke through his left with a magnificent bayonet charge, and remained victorious upon that part of the field, until the rest of the fight was ended ; when, being attacked in flank by Webster, these stalwart troops retreated westerly by a narrow road between swamp and hillside, and made their escape in good order. Long after the battle was lost in every other quarter, the gigantic form of Kalb, unhorsed and fighting on foot, was seen directing the movements of his brave Maryland and Delaware troops, till he fell dying from eleven wounds. Gates, caught in the throng of fugitives at the beginning of the action, was borne in headlong flight as far as Clermont, where, taking a fresh horse, he made the distance of nearly two hundred miles to Hillsborough in less than four days. The laurels of Saratoga had indeed changed into willows. It was the most disastrous defeat ever inflicted upon an American army, and ignominious withal, since it was incurred through a series of the grossest blunders. The Maryland troops lost half their number, the Delaware regiment was almost entirely destroyed, and all the rest of the army was dispersed. The number of killed and wounded has never been fully ascertained, but it can hardly have been less than 1000, while more than 1000 prisoners were taken, with seven pieces of artillery and 2000 muskets. The British loss in killed and wounded was 324.
The reputation of General Gates never recovered from this sudden overthrow, and his swift flight to Hillsborough was made the theme of unsparing ridicule. Yet, if duly considered, that was the one part of his conduct for which he cannot fairly be blamed. The best of generals may be caught in a rush of panic-stricken fugitives and hurried off the battlefield : the flight of Frederick the Great at Mollwitz was much more ignominious than that of Gates at Camden. When once, moreover, the full extent of the disaster had become apparent, it was certainly desirable that Gates should reach Hillsborough as soon as possible, since it was the point from which the state organization of North Carolina was controlled, and accordingly the point at which a new army might soonest be collected. Gates’s flight was a singularly dramatic and appropriate end to his silly career, but our censure should be directed to the wretched generalship by which the catastrophe was prepared : to the wrong choice of roads, the fatal hesitation at the critical moment, the weakening of the army on the eve of battle; and, above all, to the rashness in fighting at all after the true state of affairs had become known. The campaign was an epitome of the kind of errors which Washington always avoided ; and it admirably illustrated the inanity of John Adams’s toast, “ A short and violent war,” against an enemy of superior strength.
If the 400 Maryland regulars who had been sent to help General Sumter had remained with the main army and been entrusted with the assault on the British right, the result of this battle would doubtless have been very different. It might not have been a victory, but it surely would not have been a rout. On the day before the battle, Sumter had attacked the British supply train on its way from Charleston, and captured all the stores, with more than 100 prisoners. But the defeat at Camden deprived this exploit of its value. Sumter retreated up the Wateree River to Fishing Creek, but on the 18th Tarleton for once caught him napping, and routed him ; taking 300 prisoners, setting free the captured British, and recovering all the booty. The same day witnessed an American success in another quarter. At Musgrove’s Mills, in the western part of the State, Colonel James Williams defeated a force of 500 British and Tories, killing and wounding nearly one third of their number. Two days later, Marion performed one of his characteristic exploits. A detachment of the British army was approaching Nelson’s Ferry, where the Santee River crosses the road from Camden to Charleston, when Marion, with a handful of men, suddenly darting upon these troops, captured 26 of their number, set free 150 Maryland prisoners whom they were taking down to the coast, and got away without losing a man.
Such deeds showed that the life of South Carolina was not quite extinct, but they could not go far toward relieving the gloom which overspread the country after the defeat of Camden. For a second time within three months the American army in the South had been swept out of existence. Gates could barely get together 1000 men at Hillsborough, and Washington could not well spare any more from his already depleted force. To muster and train a fresh army of regulars would be slow and difficult work, and it was as certain as anything could be that Cornwallis would immediately proceed to attempt the conquest of North Carolina.
Never was the adage that the darkest time comes just before day more aptly illustrated than in the general aspect of American affairs during the summer and fall of 1780. The popular feeling had not so much the character of panic as in those " times which tried men’s souls,” when the broad Delaware River screened Washington’s fast-dwindling army from destruction. It was not now a feeling of quick alarm so much as of utter weariness and depression. More than four years had passed since the Declaration of Independence, and although the enemy had as yet gained no firm foothold in the Northern States except in the city of New York, it still seemed impossible to dislodge them from that point, while Cornwallis, flushed with victory, boasted that he would soon conquer all the country south of the Susquehanna. For the moment it began to look as if Lord George Germaine’s policy of tiring the Americans out might prove successful, after all. The country was still without anything fit to be called a general government. After three years’ discussion, the Articles of Confederation, establishing a “ league of friendship ” between the thirteen States, had not yet been adopted. The Continental Congress had continued to decline in reputation and capacity. From this state of things rather. than from any real poverty of the country, there had ensued a general administrative paralysis, which went on increasing even after the war was ended, until it was brought to a close by the adoption of the Federal Constitution. It was not because the thirteen States were lacking in material resources or in patriotism that the conduct of the war languished as it did. The resources were sufficient, had there been any means of concentrating and utilizing them. The relations of the States to each other were not defined ; and while there were thirteen powers which could plan and criticise, there was no single power which could act efficiently. Hence the energies of the people were frittered away.
The disease was most plainly visible in those money matters which form the basis of all human activity. The condition of American finance in 1780 was simply horrible. The “ greenback ” delusion possessed people’s minds even more strongly then than in the days following our Civil War. Pelatiah Webster, the ablest political economist in America at that time, a thinker far in advance of his age, was almost alone in insisting upon taxation. The popular feeling was expressed by a delegate in Congress who asked, with unspeakable scorn, why he should vote to tax the people, when a Philadelphia printing-press could turn out money by the bushel. But indeed Congress had no power to lay any tax, save through requisitions upon the state governments. There seemed to be no alternative but to go on issuing this money, which many people glorified as the “ safest possible currency,” because “ nobody could take it out of the country.” As Webster truly said, the country had suffered more from this cause than from the arms of the enemy. “ The people of the States at that time,” said he, had been worried and fretted, disappointed and put out of humor, by so many tender acts, limitations of prices, and other compulsory methods to force value into paper money, and compel the circulation of it, and by so many vain funding schemes and declarations and promises, all which issued from Congress, but died under the most zealous efforts to put them into operation, that their patience was exhausted. These irritations and disappointments had so destroyed the courage and confidence of the people that they appeared heartless and almost stupid when their attention was called to any new proposal.” During the summer of 1780 this wretched currency fell into contempt. As Washington said, it took a wagon-load of money to buy a wagonload of provisions. At the end of the year 1778, the paper dollar was worth sixteen cents in the Northern States and twelve cents in the South. Early in 1780 its value had fallen to two cents, and before the end of the year it took ten paper dollars to make a cent. In October, Indian corn sold wholesale in Boston for $150 a bushel, butter was $12 a pound, tea $00, sugar $10, beef $8, coffee $12, and a barrel of flour cost $1575. Samuel Adams paid $2000 for a hat and suit of clothes. The money soon ceased to circulate, debts could not be collected, and there was a general prostration of credit. To say that a thing was “ not worth a Continental ” became the strongest possible expression of contempt. A barber in Philadelphia papered his shop with bills, and a dog was led up and down the streets, smeared with tar, with this unhappy money sticking all over him, — a sorry substitute for the golden-fleeced sheep of the old Norse legend. Save for the scanty pittance of gold which came in from the French alliance, from the little foreign commerce that was left, and from trade with the British army itself, the country was without any circulating medium. In making its requisitions upon the States, Congress resorted to a measure which reminds one of the barbaric ages of barter. Instead of asking for money, it requested the States to send in their “ specific supplies ” of beef and pork, flour and rice, salt and hay, tobacco and rum. The finances of what was so soon to become the richest of nations were thus managed on the principle whereby the meagre salaries of country clergymen in New England used to be eked out. It might have been called a continental system of donation parties.”
Under these circumstances, it became almost impossible to feed and clothe the army. The commissaries, without either money or credit, could do but little; and Washington, sorely against his will, was obliged to levy contributions on the country surrounding his camp. It was done as gently as possible. The county magistrates were called on for a specified quantity of flour and meat; the supplies brought in were duly appraised, and certificates were given in exchange for them by the commissaries. Such certificates were received at their nominal value in payment of Continental taxes. But this measure, which simply introduced a new kind of paper money, served only to add to the general confusion. These difficulties, enhanced by the feeling that the war was dragged out to an interminable length, made it impossible to keep the army properly recruited. When four months’ pay of a private soldier would not buy a single bushel of wheat for his family, and when he could not Collect even this pittance, while most of the time he went barefoot and half famished, it was not strange that he should sometimes feel mutinous. The desertions to the British lines at this time averaged more than a hundred a month. Ternay, the French admiral, wrote to Vergennes that the fate of North America was as yet very uncertain, and the Revolution by no means so far advanced as people in Europe supposed. The accumulated evils of the time had greatly increased the number of persons who, to save the remnant of their fortunes, were ready to see peace purchased at any price. In August, before he bad heard of the disaster at Camden, Washington wrote to President Huntington, reminding him that the term of service of half the army would expire at the end of the year. “ The shadow of an army that will remain,” said Washington, “ will have every motive except mere patriotism to abandon the service, without the hope, which has hitherto supported them, of a change for the better. This is almost extinguished now, and certainly will not outlive the campaign unless it finds something more substantial to rest upon. To me it will appear miraculous if our affairs can maintain themselves much longer in their present train. If either the temper or the resources of the country will not admit of an alteration, we may expect soon to be reduced to the humiliating condition of seeing the cause of America in America upheld by foreign arms.”
To appreciate the full force of this, we must remember that, except in South Carolina, there had been no fighting worthy of mention during the year. The Southern campaign absorbed the energies of the British to such an extent that they did nothing whatever in the North but make an unsuccessful attempt at invading New Jersey in June. While this fact shows how severely the strength of England was taxed by the coalition that had been formed against her, it shows even more forcibly how the vitality of America had been sapped by causes that lay deeper down than the mere presence of war. It was, indeed, becoming painfully apparent that little was to be hoped save through the aid of France. The alliance had thus far achieved but little that was immediately obvious to the American people, but it had really been of enormous indirect benefit to us. Both in itself and in the European complications to which it had led, the action of France had very seriously crippled the efficient military power of England. It locked up and neutralized much British energy that would otherwise have been directed against the Americans. The French government had also furnished Congress with large sums of money. But as for any direct share in military enterprises on American soil or in American waters, France had as yet done almost nothing. An evil star had presided over both the joint expeditions for the recovery of Newport and Savannah, and no French army had been landed on our shores to cast in its lot with Washington’s brave Continentals in a great and decisive campaign.
It had long been clear that France could in no way more effectively further the interests which she shared with the United States than by sending a strong force of trained soldiers to act under Washington’s command. Nothing could be more obvious than the inference that such a general, once provided with an adequate force, might drive the British from New York, and thus deal a blow which would go far toward ending the war. This had long been Washington’s most cherished scheme. In February, 1779, Lafayette had returned to France to visit his family, and to urge that aid of this sort might be granted. To chide him for his naughtiness in running away to America in defiance of the royal mandate, the king ordered him to be confined for a week at his father-in-law’s house in Paris. Then he received him quite graciously at court, while the queen begged him to “tell us good news of our dearly beloved Americans.” The good Lafayette, to whom, in the dreadful years that were to come, this dull king and his bright, unhappy queen were to look for compassionate protection, now ventured to give them some sensible words of advice. “ The money that you spend on one of your old court balls,” he said, “would go far toward sending a serviceable army to America, and dealing England a blow where she would most feel it.” For several months he persisted in urging Vergennes to send over at least 12,000 men, with a good general, and to put them distinctly under Washington’s command, so that there might be no disastrous wrangling about precedence, and no repetition of such misunderstandings as had ruined the Newport campaign. When D’Estaing arrived in Paris, early in 1780, after his defeat at Savannah, he gave similar advice. The idea commended itself to Vergennes, and when, in April, 1780, Lafayette returned to the United States, he was authorized to inform Washington that France would soon send the desired reinforcement.
On the 10th of July, Admiral Ternay, with seven ships-of-the-line and three frigates, arrived at Newport, bringing with him a force of 6000 men, commanded by a good general, Count Rochambeau. This was the first installment of an army of which the remainder was to be sent as soon as adequate means of transport could be furnished. On the important question of military etiquette, Lafayette’s advice had been strictly heeded. Rochambeau was told to put himself under Washington’s command, and to consider his troops as part of the American army, while American officers were to take precedence of French officers of equal rank. This French army was excellent in discipline and equipment, and among its officers were some, such as the Duke LauzunBiron and the Marquis de Chastellux, who had won high distinction. Rochambeau wrote to Vergennes that on his arrival he found the people of Rhode Island sad and discouraged. Everybody thought the country was going to the dogs. But when it was understood that this was but the advance guard of a considerable army, and that France was this time in deadly earnest, their spirits rose, and the streets of Newport were noisy with hurrahs and brilliant with fireworks.
The hearts of the people, however, were still further to be sickened with hope deferred. Several British shipsof-the-line, arriving at New York, gave the enemy such a preponderance upon the water that Clinton resolved to take the offensive, and started down the Sound with 6000 men to attack the French at Newport. Washington foiled this scheme by a sudden movement against New York, which obliged the British commander to fall back hastily for its defense; but the French fleet was nevertheless blockaded in Narragansett Bay by a powerful British squadron, and Rochambeau felt it necessary to keep his troops in Rhode Island to aid the admiral in case of such contingencies as might arise. The second installment of the French army, on which their hopes had been built, never came, for a British fleet of thirty-two sail held it blockaded in the harbor of Brest.
The maritime supremacy of England thus continued to stand in the way of any great enterprise ; and for a whole year the gallant army of Rochambeau was kept idle in Rhode Island, impatient and chafing under the restraint. The splendid work it was destined to perform under Washington’s leadership lay hidden in the darkness of the future, and for the moment the gloom which had overspread the country was only deepened. Three years had passed since the victory of Saratoga, but the vast consequences which were already flowing from that event had not yet disclosed their meaning. Looking only at the surface of things, it might well be asked — and many did ask—whether that great victory had really done anything more than to prolong a struggle which was essentially vain and hopeless. Such themes formed the burden of discourse at gentlemen’s dinner-tables and in the back parlors of country inns, where stout yeomen reviewed the situation of affairs through clouds of tobacco smoke; and never, perhaps, were the Tories more jubilant or the Whigs more crestfallen than at the close of this doleful summer.
- Atlantic Monthly, August, 1889, p. 221.↩