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South Carolina during the American Revolution

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Prior to the American Revolution, the British began taxing American colonies to raise revenue, particularly outraging South Carolinians with the Townsend Acts that taxed tea, paper, wine, glass, and oil. To protest the Stamp Act, South Carolina sent wealthy rice planter Thomas Lynch, 26-year old lawyer John Rutledge, and Christopher Gadsden to the Stamp Act Congress, held in 1765 New York. Other taxes were removed, but tea taxes remained. Soon South Carolinians, in emulation of the Boston Tea Party, began to dump tea into the Charleston Harbor, shortly followed by many boycotts and protests.

Many of the South Carolinian battles fought during the American Revolution were with loyalist Carolinians and the Cherokee tribe which had allied itself with the British. This was to General Henry Clinton’s advantage, whose strategy was to march his troops north from St. Augustine and sandwich George Washington in the North. Clinton alienated loyalists and enraged Patriots by attacking a fleeing army of Patriot soldiers that posed no threat. He also threatened to take away the parole of Patriot prisoners of war unless they took up arms against their fellow Americans.

After its capture, Patriots regained control of Charleston and South Carolina with untrained militiamen by trapping Tarleton’s troops by trapping them along a river. In 1787, John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Pierce Butler went to Philidelphia where the Constitutional Convention was being held and constructed what served as a detailed outline for the U.S. Constitution.


1 Prewar causes
2 Battles begin
3 General Clinton’s mistakes
4 Tides turn for the Americans
5 The Consitution

Prewar causes

After a poverty-stricken crown began taxing the American colonies to raise revenue, to protest the Stamp Act, South Carolina sent wealthy rice planter Thomas Lynch, 26-year old lawyer John Rutledge, and Christopher Gadsden to the Stamp Act Congress, held in 1765 New York. Gadsden, leader of the pro-Independence “Liberty Boys,” is often grouped with James Otis and Patrick Henry as the prime agitators for American independence by historians. Gadsden designed the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, first used on December 3, 1775 on the Alfred, featuring a rattlesnake with 13 rattles representing each colony.

In 1767 the Townsend Acts made new taxes on glass, oil, wine, tea, paper, and other goods. Gadsden led the opposition, and, although Britain removed the taxes on everything except tea, Charlestonians mirrored the Boston Tea Party by dumping a shipment of tea into the Cooper River. Other shipments were allowed to land, but they rotted in Charles Town storehouses.

Delegates from the colonies, except for Georgia, came together for the First Continental Congress in 1774. Five South Carolinians, including those who represented the colony in the Stamp Act Congress, headed for Philidelphia, and Henry Middleton served as president for part of Congress. The following January the South Carolina colonial assembly was disbanded by Royal Govenor William Cambell, and it was reformed as the extralegal Provincial Congress. During this meeting and following meetings, in June 1775 and March 1776, the South Carolinians created a temporary government to rule until the colony had settled things with England. The state declared its independence from Great Britain and set up its own government on March 15, 1776. Henry Laurens and John Rutledge were voted “president” of the state.

Most loyalists came from the Upcountry, which thought that domination by the rich, elitist Charles Town planter class in an unsupervised government was worse than remaining under the rule of the British Crown. Judge William Henry Drayton and Reverend William Tennent were sent to the Back Country to gain support for the “American Cause” and Lowcounty’s General Comittee and Provincial Congress, but did not have much success. In September 1775, the Royal Governor William Campbell dissolved the last-ever Royal Assembly in South Carolina and left for the safety of the British warship Tamar in the Charleston Harbor.

Battles begin

Throughout the course of the American Revolution, 137 significant battles were fought within South Carolina, more than in any other state. On November 19, 1775, revolutionists fought loyalist forces in the old western Cherokee lands at 96 District, spilling the first South Carolinan blood of the war. Colonel Richard Richardson sent a large party of Whigs, or revolutionists, to the Upcountry to stop uprisings there and to assert the power of the revolutionary General Committee over the entire colony.

Britain’s strategy was to take advantage of strong loyalist support in the South, begin a military drive in Charleston, and perhaps sweep through the Upcountry, North Carolina, and Virginia while gathering men to take on Washington in the North along the way. Under William Moultrie, the South Carolinans defeated the British Navy at Sullivan’s Island in late June 1776 and brought the American army its first major victory. In Philidelphia, the news reached Colonial delegates a few days later and emboldened them to write and sign the Delcaration of Independence from England. The battle at Sullivan’s Island also caused the British to rethink their strategy and leave the South for approximately three years.

The new state legislature met the next December to complete the state constitution made the previous October, de-establishing the Anglican Church. In the Upcountry, the British had convinced the Cherokee to fight on their side. Although the British officer in charge of the operation had told the Cherokee to attack only patriot soldiers in organized groups, soon murder and cabin burnings were widespread on the frontier. The Whigs Andrew Williamson, Andrew Pickens, and James Williams, who had been battling loyalists in the Upcountry, launched a successful campaign against the Cherokee. In 1777 they ceded their remaining lands to the South Carolina government. On February 5, 1778 South Carolina became the first state to ratify the first constitution of the United States, the Articles of Confederation. In 1780, the British had returned to South Carolina, causing the loyalists and patriots to fight the state’s first civil war.

In 1780, the British attempted to try their original strategy a second time. They planned to trap George Washington’s troops by pushing their troops up from the South while Washington defended himself in the North. The British moved up from St. Augustine, Florida, landing on John’s Island, moving to James Island, and attacked Charles Town. General Benjamin Lincoln had allowed his men to get bottled up on the peninsula, and, after a two month siege, he was forced to surrender practically every Continental soldier in the Carolinas to British General Clinton. Another army of Continentals under General Gates came into the state to reclaim it for the patriots, but were defeated at Camden. Henry Middleton, once president of the Continental Congress, was forced to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown as prisoner.

Lincoln begged John Rutledge and the rest of the state’s council to leave Charles Town while there was still time, and they did. Rutledge traveled around the state, printing proclaimations and other state papers on a printing press he had with him, and sending numerous letters demanding that the Continental Congress send the Continental Army to relieve South Carolina.

General Clinton’s mistakes

General Clinton thought that South Carolina was a loyalist colony that had been bullied into Revolutionary actions by a small minority. His idea was to increase British presence in the entire state and bring back the confidence of moderates in the area so that they would fight for the British. Clinton alienated royalists by spending all of the money on extra arms and soldiers rather than doctors.

Colonel Buford and his body of Virginia patriots had set south in hopes of defending Charles Town, but turned back when they realized they were too late. Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton was unwilling to let the rebels escape back to the North and chased after them, another act that alienated more loyalists. Tarleton caught up with them on May 29 near the present town of Lancaster, and Americans were told to surrender, but refused. They were attacked furiously by the British, and, realizing that they had no chance of victory or escape, threw down their arms and begged for quarter, or mercy. The British refused and butchered the unarmed Americans. This spawned the battle cry that Southern patriots would use for the rest of the war, “Tarleton’s quarter!”

The second British blunder was Clinton revocating the Carolinians’ paroles. He broke his promise that, if the Carolinians who surrendered did not actively seek to harass the British government, he would leave them and their paroles alone. On June 3, he proclaimed that all prisoners of war could either take up arms against their fellow Americans or be considered traitors to the Crown. Many soldiers, whose pride had already been bruised, reasoned that if they were going to have to take the chance of getting shot again, they might as well fight on the side they wanted to win.

The third British mistake was burning the Stateburg home and harassing the incapacitated wife of an inconsequential colonel named Thomas Sumter. Because of his fury toward this, “The Gamecock” became one of the fiercest and most devastating guerilla leaders of the war. The Lowcountry partisans fighting under Francis “The Swampfox” Marion and Upcountry partisans fighting under Andrew Pickens, whose home had also been burned, plagued the British by using guerilla warfare in the mountains, woods, and swamps of the state.

Tides turn for the Americans

On October 7, 1780, at Kings Mountain, Pickens led a body of North and South Carolinians and attacked British Major Patrick Ferguson and his body of American loyalists on a hilltop. America’s first major poet, William Cullen Bryant, described the homefield advantage that led to the Patriot victory in one of his poems. This was a major victory for the patriots, especially because it was won by militiamen and not trained Continentals. It was provided a great swing of momentum for the moderate Uplanders who had grown tired of British brutality. Kings Mountain is considered to be the turning point of the Revolution, especially since it forced General Cornwallis to split his troops, sending Lieutenant Colonel Banastre “No Quarter” Tarleton into the South Carolina Upcountry to recapture it. This made Cornwallis’s plan for a major push north impossible because it had required a strong body of loyalists to stay behind and keep the peace in the Carolinas.

That December, General Nathanael Greene arrived with an army of Continental troops. When Green heard of Tarleton’s approach, he sent Daniel Morgan and his backwoodsmen over the Appalachian Mountains to stop him. On January 17, 1781, the two forces met at an enclosure being used as a cow pen. Pickens and his guerilla soldiers joined Morgan directly before the battle. Morgan still felt they were not strong enough to take on Tarleton’s trained troops and wanted to cross a river that would separate them from the British and secure them a chance to retreat. Pickens convinced Morgan that staying on the British side of the river would force his men to fight it out in what some historians consider the best-planned battle of the entire war. The patriots defeated the British and later victories at Hobkirk’s Hill and Eutaw Springs would further weaken the Redcoats.

In December 1782, the British evacuated Charles Town. The overjoyed residents changed the name to “Charleston” because it sounded “less British.”

The Consitution

In 1787, John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Pierce Butler went to Philidelphia where the Constitutional Convention was piecing together the Constitution. 30 years old, Charles Pinckney had long been a critic of the weak Articles of Confederation. Although he was wealthy by birth and quite the epicurean, Pinckney became the leader of democracy in the state. On May 29, 1787, he presented the Convention with a detailed outline for the United States constitution, and John Rutledge provided valuable input. Pierce Butler’s only contribution was the clause for the return of fugitive slaves.

The federal, and Federalist-leaning, Constitution was ratified by the state in 1787, and the new state constitution was ratified in 1790 without the support of the Upcountry. The Lowcountry elite, who only had a quarter of the state’s white inhabitants, still ruled the state, controlling three-quarters of South Carolina’s wealth.

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