Why South Carolina was the most important theater in the Revolutionary War

A few days ago, I referred readers to Kevin Honold’s essay on the rewards of studying history. In that essay, he talks about how reading a biography of the Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion as a child kindled his love of history. I had not read much about the famous warrior, so I bought and have been working my way through John Oller’s excellent book The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution.

It takes a lot of effort to write a biography on Marion, Oller notes. Mason Weems wrote a largely embellished biography of Marion in the early 1800s that turned him into a Rambo-esque guerrilla fighter not unlike the protagonist played by Mel Gibson in the godawful, historically inaccurate movie The Patriot. Weems was the same person who gave us the fictional story of Washington cutting down the cherry tree that countless kindergartners have been taught in US schools.

(FYI, absolutely nothing like the church scene in The Patriot happened during the American Revolution, even though it was a brutal conflict for soldiers and civilians alike. I guess in the eyes of a German director, every antagonist is a Nazi psychopath. Also, Colonel Banastre Tarleton – whom Mel Gibson’s military foil is based upon – did not die in the American Revolution at all. He lived 50 years beyond the war to become a member of Parliament representing Liverpool. The son of wealthy merchants from Liverpool, he was an ardent supporter of the slave trade, which was a boon to the shipping industry there. A truly terrible human being, but he wasn’t taken out by the swamp fox and his clan as the film suggests. He was the origin of the “swamp fox” moniker, however. And speaking of slaves, if the film were accurate, the main character would have owned slaves. Marion himself had a favorite black valet who accompanied him everywhere.)

At any rate, one of the things that makes this book so fascinating is Oller starts off with the argument that South Carolina was the most significant theater of conflict in the Revolutionary War.

Living as we do outside of St. Augustine, Florida, I complain a lot about how oddly obsessed with Yankee settlements American history textbooks are. American kids are raised talking about Plymouth and Jamestown, when the oldest settlement (by several decades) in what is now the United States is St. Augustine. St. Augustine was a bustling city before the people on the Mayflower were even born.

This has the effect of making American history seem very small and settlers homogeneous. This behavior is not particularly limited to American history either. When schools teach world history, they usually start with the civilizations that will eventually become relevant to the Judeo-Christian wisdom traditions. There is no attention paid to, say, China or India. There is no curiosity that a vast metropolis that had over a million inhabitants was revealed by satellite imagery of the Amazon rain forest.

Anyway, I digress. Back to South Carolina and the “swamp fox”:

More battles, engagements, and skirmishes were fought in South Carolina during the Revolution than in any other colony. Conservative estimates place the number of combat actions in the state at more than two hundred, a third of all that took place in the entire war. No other colony had as many inches of territory affected by battle: of the state’s forty-six present-day counties, forty-five ended up seeing Revolutionary War actions. Nearly 20 percent of all Americans who died in battle in the Revolution died in South Carolina during the last two years of the war.

Ever since the shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the South had been mostly untouched by the conflict, which was famously fought at places such as Bunker Hill, Fort Ticonderoga, Trenton, and Brandywine. But by 1779 the war in the North had reached a stalemate, with the British firmly in control of New York City under Sir Henry Clinton, and the Americans, led by George Washington, camped out thirty miles away in Morristown, New Jersey, desperately hoping for help from a French navy anchored in the West Indies [i.e. the Caribbean]. The last significant engagement in the North had been in June 1778 at Monmouth Courthouse, where Washington and his most dependable officer, Nathaniel Greene, battled Clinton and his lieutenant general, Charles Corwallis, to a draw. But while the Americans were hard-pressed, Britain had grown increasingly weary of war. Its coffers nearly bankrupt and its military stretched thin by an expanded conflict with France and Spain, Parliament agreed to finance one final effort to end the American rebellion.

It came to be known as Britain’s “southern strategy.” Jointly agreed on by Clinton, King George, and Lord Germain, the British secretary of state for America, the plan was eloquent in both logic and economy. The British would begin by occupying and pacifying Georgia, where revolutionary sentiment was weakest among the thirteen colonies. They would then subdue South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia while gathering men to confront George Washington in the North.

Hence you have the fall of Savannah and the long siege of Charleston (Charles Town), where from the Continentals’ standpoint, the war looked finally lost. Most of the locals were desperate to show they were still loyal to the crown. The British believed they could save money by getting Tories in the southern colonies to fight the war for themselves. Oller likens this to the military strategy in the Vietnam War.

It was in the Carolina lowcountry and backcountry that the war would finally change direction, with many casualties.

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