Chapter 3 – The First American War for Independence
By Vance Caswell of N. C., S.I.S.H.
The Great Seal of the Confederate States of America carries the image of George Washington. The Americans who fought in 1861-1865 against Northern Republican conquest very much felt themselves to be following the example of the earlier War of Independence against British conquest. The American Revolution had been only two generations past. It was to them not a matter of theoretical speculation about what it meant but a living heritage clearly understood.
It will be helpful to clarify briefly the often discussed history of the path that led from 1763 to the 13 colonies’ fight for independence. Many colonial families had been in America for several generations. Most Americans did not regard themselves as clients or servants of the British government. They had come on their own initiative and at risk of life, limb, and capital to conquer a wilderness. They were willing to allow the British to make rules for external matters but very much insisted on the right of Englishmen to govern themselves by elected representatives and to be free of arbitrary power. Every colony had an elected assembly. These bodies were sometimes in conflict with the governors sent from Britain, especially over matters of taxes, land, and Indian relations. It was a burden to wait months for the laws they passed to be approved in London. The colonies were full of very able, successful, well-educated men. They resented that third-rate politicians were sent from Britain to fill offices that Americans could fill more ably.
A New British Agenda
At the victorious conclusion of a world war with France in 1763, Britain was deeply in debt while shouldering far-flung imperial responsibilities. It was also suffering from an unusual period of low-quality statesmanship. Unwisely, the government attempted to clamp down on the North American colonies, insisting on more taxes and more obedience, setting off a chain reaction that led to revolt and war.
The factors driving Americans toward independence were many. All had a strong sense of their hereditary right as Englishmen to be ruled by consent. For Northern colonies, where shipping was the primary industry, there were economic grievances – they resented restrictions on who they could trade with and what commodities they could ship. They wanted more access to European and American colonial markets. New Englanders feared that the Church of England might send bishops that would interfere with their Puritan churches.
Southerners had no economic loss in being part of the British Empire. For the right of self-government they sacrificed economic benefits. For example, the indigo industry was deprived of British subsidy and never recovered. By contrast, New England temporarily lost government subsidy of its fishing industry. It demanded in the very first U.S. Congress that the federal government continue the British subsidies, which was granted.
Besides the right of self-government the matter of access to new land was large in the thinking of Southerners. Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, from their colonial charters, held vast unsettled lands, all the way west to the Mississippi river and north to the Great Lakes. Here was clearly the future strength, prosperity, and freedom for their burgeoning population. But, in 1763 the British government issued a Proclamation forbidding settlement on all land west of the Appalachian mountain watershed divide – an unacceptable restriction to free and adventurous Southerners.
Armed opposition confronted British military force in 1775. The revolting Northern States badly needed the support of the Southern States. The Continental Congress chose George Washington of Virginia to lead its army. In a brief modest speech Washington accepted this daunting mission, for which he refused any pay. The war at times seemed hopeless, but Washington was able to keep an army in the field despite defeats and hardships and finally achieved victory. He certainly deserved the tribute that was made by Robert E. Lee’s father: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Incidentally, Southern volunteers fought in all the Northern campaigns of the war, but no units from north of Delaware fought for the Patriot cause in the South. Later historians have tended to minimize the extent to which the States financed and fought the war with little help from the Continental Congress.
Many Americans were reluctant to break ties with the beloved Mother Country. But, support for self-government solidified when, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, British troops were sent “having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” In a very similar way, in 1861, those Southerners initially reluctant to secede would become solid in their resistance when Lincoln made clear he would send armies to enforce obedience to his rule.
We suggest that students of American history undertake to actually read the Declaration of Independence from start to finish, without any preconceptions of what it says. Not long after the American Revolution, the French Revolution, a very different affair, broke out. French Revolutionaries sought to overthrow society and remake it through a government with total power. The people who achieved American independence were not at all like that. But many later commentators, dwelling on “All men are Created Equal” have asserted that the Declaration initiated a world revolution for “equality.” Abraham Lincoln suggested such in the Gettysburg Address, but he misstated history and put an interpretation on the Declaration not at all intended by those who signed it. The Declaration is about government by “consent of the governed.”
American Independence is Won in the South
New York and Philadelphia were occupied during most of the war, but the situation in the North was stalemated. The British could not control the countryside or eliminate Washington’s army. The Southern colonies had been relatively free of British rule for the first four years. South Carolinians by their own efforts had driven off a major British attack on Charleston in May, 1776, and NC Patriots had defeated a Tory uprising by recent Scots immigrants at Moore’s Creek Bridge. The Southern colonies of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia were crucial in the third and final phase of the conflict.
The third phase began at the dawn of 1779 when 3,500 British troops under Archibald Campbell landed at Tybee Island and advanced to successfully conquer Savannah. Georgia had never before been threatened. On September 2 a French fleet under Comte d’Estaing joined with Continentals under Benjamin Lincoln in an attempt to liberate Savannah. But the effort failed. The French lost 637 men, the Continentals lost 264, the well-protected British lost only 54.
Four months later, 7,600 British troops under Henry Clinton, having departed from their New York base, succeeded in forcing the surrender of Charles Town, South Carolina in January 1780. From these two seaport bases, British set out to conquer Georgia and the Carolinas with the help of Loyalists and the Cherokee. The British effort to defeat the Revolution by conquering the South was fearsome, but holding two seaports and establishing a string of inland forts did not ensure the conquest of that vast region and its rugged inland settlers, already experienced in battle with Native Americans.
Yet, British advances were impressive, even after Clinton left and British commander Charles Cornwallis took over. British troops were brutal to Patriot civilians, especially cavalry commander Banastre Tarleton. When 270 of Tarleton’s men swooped down upon 400 Virginia militia under Abraham Buford at Waxhaw, near Charlotte, NC, the Virginians, caught by surprise, attempted to surrender. Not allowed. All 400 were slaughtered. One of Tarleton’s men would later write of “a scene of indiscriminate carnage never surpassed by the ruthless atrocities of the most barbarous savages. The demand for quarters, seldom refused to a vanquished foe, was at once found to be in vain. Not a man was spared.” There would be one more British triumph. On August 15, at Camden, SC, 2,000 British troops under Cornwallis engaged 3,050 Continentals under Horatio Gates. Tarleton’s cavalry was key to the British victory, killing 1,000 and capturing 1,000 Continentals. Then Tarleton’s cavalry located Thomas Sumter’s 800-man partisan force and scattered it, killing 150 and capturing 200. News of the American defeats at Camden and Waxhaw shook Patriot resolve in many sections. Not so among partisans under Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter and other heroic leaders. Not so among settlers beyond the mountains on the Watauga region of what is now East Tennessee. The toughest had just begun to fight and British forces had just enjoyed their last victory.
Cornwallis advanced into North Carolina with 1,000 troops, arriving at Charlotte on September 26 and finding the town resembled “a hornet’s nest.” Not surprising, since five years earlier, on May 20, 1775, Mecklenburg County had declared its independence from British rule, an action not challenged until Cornwallis’ arrival and one still celebrated as “Meck Dec Day.” Meanwhile, a thousand man force of Loyalists under Patrick Ferguson crossed into NC and found itself being pursued by the “Over the Mountain Men,” a volunteer army made up of rugged settlers west of the King’s Proclamation Line, men with long rifles and keen marksmanship. Ferguson’s army climbed King’s Mountain and prepared to defend itself on the high ground. It was October 6, 1780. No match for the “Over the Mountain Men,” the Loyalists were soundly defeated, 225 killed and 879 taken prisoner. Ferguson was killed. “This battle dispirited Loyalists and almost demolished their hopes.” A month later, on November 9, Tarleton lost a fourth of his cavalry at Blackstock’s Farm. By this time George Washington had sent his best general, Nathanael Greene, to take over from the disgraced Horatio Gates, setting up his headquarters in Charlotte. Now the Continentals in NC had an excellent leader. On January 17, 1781 Continentals under Daniel Morgan dealt a severe blow to the British cause at Hannah’s Cowpens, near Spartanburg, SC, killing 110 and capturing 800. Meanwhile, Maryland, satisfied that Virginia would give to the general government its claim to its vast land north of the Ohio River, signed the Articles of Confederation – by Maryland’s pen those United States of America were born. Cornwallis consolidated his troops into one force and set out after Nathanael Greene’s forces. On March 15 a terrific fight involving 4,500 patriots took place at Guilford Court House, NC. Weakened, Cornwallis decided to retreat toward the coast and further consolidate his forces.
By summer Cornwallis had 7,000 men at Yorktown to build a British military base on the Chesapeake Bay. On August 14 George Washington learned that a large French fleet of 29 ships, under de Grasse, had left the Caribbean for the Chesapeake – capable of blocking a British retreat or re-enforcement by sea. So, the armies of Washington and French Commander Rochambeau began a rapid march south to join up with French forces under Lafayette and Southern continentals. Consolidating a 16,000 man army at Williamsburg, Washington lay siege to Yorktown while the French navy blocked entrance into the Chesapeake. The British surrendered on October 19. Marie-Joseph Marquis de Lafayette turned to a friend and remarked, “The play, sir, is over.”
Although the British had a 30,000-man force in America, Parliament decided to abandon its recolonization effort. On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris granted independence to each of the 13 former British colonies, each clearly recognized as an independent, sovereign state. From this point forward you learn how these independent states united under a Federal Government with clearly limited powers and how settlement of land west of the Appalachians accelerated. Kentucky would be a state in 9 years, Tennessee in 13.
Suggestions for Class Discussion
Compare the importance of two passions motivating Patriots to fight and die for Independence: 1) for American control of land out to the Mississippi River, versus 2) for American control over international commerce (escaping British mercantilism).