The Liberty Trail: The Southern Campaigns of the Revolutionary War
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Over the Bloody Swamps and Through the Woods
Many historians consider the Revolutionary War to have been decided in the swamps, fields, woods and mountains of the South, won by the resilience and determination of Continental soldiers and Patriot militia. Soon, the Liberty Trail will create a unified path of preservation and interpretation across South Carolina, telling this remarkable story.
The fascinating stories of the Revolutionary War’s Southern Campaigns represent a largely untold account of the founding of our nation. Here, the British faced a crippling guerilla war, largely waged by American militia — citizen-soldiers who lacked training and supplies, but possessed a passion for defending their homes and an intimate knowledge of every river, creek and swamp in the region.
The first British goal in the South was to seize a deep-water port to support their campaigns into the region. On June 28, 1776, British warships attempted to take Charles Town (now Charleston), S.C., but were repulsed by a determined defense mounted from Fort Sullivan, afterward renamed Fort Moultrie in honor of its commander, William Moultrie. Unable to make headway in the Northeast, British strategists shifted their focus to the Southern colonies in late 1778 and turned their eyes to Savannah, Ga., which fell in late December. The fall of Savannah launched the British “Southern Strategy,” which intended to subdue the colonies in the south, where it was felt there would be more Loyalist support, before turning attention back to the north. Savannah’s capture allowed the British to move north against Charles Town in 1780, accepting the surrender of the city and its roughly 3,000 defenders following a six-week siege and associated engagements. From the fall of Charles Town until the end of the war, the South was the primary theater of the Revolutionary War.
The triumphant British pursued remnants of the American forces inland, but the tactics they employed at battles like Moncks Corner, Waxhaws and elsewhere inspired fierce resistance. Following their disastrous loss at Camden, the Patriot cause was reinvigorated by the stunning October 7, 1780, victory at Kings Mountain, on the border between North and South Carolina, during which the rugged “Overmountain Men” tracked, ambushed and destroyed Loyalist forces. Meanwhile, a civil war continued between the Patriots and Loyalists, with many small battles between militias raging throughout the countryside.
In early 1781, the British rallied from their sound tactical defeat at Cowpens, where Daniel Morgan had led the most complete American victory of the war, to win a pyrrhic victory at Guilford Court House. Following additional clashes at Hobkirk’s Hill, Ninety Six and Eutaw Springs, the British withdrew to Charles Town where they were unable to move to reinforce Cornwallis who had already redeployed to Virginia. With the British pinned down at Charles Town and Savannah, the Patriots were taking control of the situation in the South — even as combined French and American forces lay siege to Yorktown, Virginia where Cornwallis and his army was positioned.
THE LIBERTY TRAIL
Although the full story of the Southern Campaigns is not widely known, the events of 1779–1782 in the Carolinas directly led to an American victory in the war. These great stories deserve to be told. These important battlefields, still largely unspoiled, deserve to be preserved. That’s why the American Battlefield Trust has partnered with the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust to accomplish these goals.
More than 200 battles and skirmishes occurred in South Carolina during the war. Recently, a panel of historians and archaeologists selected the most significant actions to form the Liberty Trail, an innovative driving route designed to connect these battlefields and tell the captivating and inspiring stories of this transformative chapter of American history. The American Battlefield Trust is currently working closely with the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust to establish the initial phase of the Liberty Trail.
It is important to appreciate that the goals here are not just to preserve the land, but also to interpret these sites for the public and bring their stories to life. Using driving-tour battle apps, onsite interpretation, social media and special teacher institutes, these dramatic stories about the founding of the country will be told in a manner as never before. These are just some of the highlights of the Liberty Trail’s first phase:
The Liberty Trail will start at the Moncks Corner home of rice planter Henry Laurens on the Cooper River. When South Carolina declared its independence and formed a republic, Laurens was its vice president. He succeeded John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress, and it was during his tenure that the Articles of Confederation were passed. After his presidential term, Laurens served as minister to the Netherlands. While at sea in 1780, his ship was intercepted by a British frigate and Laurens was taken prisoner. He was charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London, the only American held there during the war. Laurens was released in exchange for Lord Cornwallis on December 31, 1781, and continued to Amsterdam to raise money for the American cause.
Laurens’ son John was an aide-de-camp to General George Washington early in the war. He returned to South Carolina in 1779 and was captured during the siege of Charles Town. In late 1780, the Continental Congress dispatched him to France seeking supplies and financing. He returned home in time to see the French fleet join Washington at Yorktown.
In October 1781, Laurens returned to South Carolina in command of a battalion of light infantry, but was killed in August 1782 at the Battle of the Combahee River. Together with Alexander Hamilton, Laurens was a proponent of freeing the slaves in America, advancing a plan that would have granted African Americans their liberty in exchange for military service.
Overnight, Tarleton and Ferguson advanced 18 miles to Moncks Corner. En route, they captured a slave carrying a Patriot dispatch describing the deployment of American forces at Biggin Bridge, the primary crossing point for the west branch of the Cooper River, and nearby Biggin Church. The letter also detailed that the militia arriving from North Carolina were poorly armed — some lacking ammunition, others basic weapons.
At 3:00 a.m., the dragoons and mounted infantry of the Legion charged the Patriot cavalry on the western end of the bridge. Catching them completely by surprise, the Legion aggressively pushed through to the Patriot main camp. Many Patriot officers, including the force’s commander, Brigadier General Isaac Huger, fled into the swamp. Some Continental light dragoons escaped into the darkness.
Meanwhile, Major Cochrane and the British Legion infantry charged with fixed bayonets at the church and chased the poorly supplied militia into the swamp. The British captured 42 wagons of arms, clothing and ammunition and several hundred horses. The brutal saber and bayonet attack used in the battle became a hallmark of Tarleton’s tactics in the Southern Campaigns, as did refusing to give quarter to wounded troops.
The following July, during the Dog Days Raids, a detachment of Patriot South Carolina dragoons passing through the area across the Cooper River from where the Americans and British had clashed in April were alerted to the presence of British troops loading seized goods aboard riverboats by the quick-thinking lady of Lewisfield Plantation. The dragoons, attacking from the rear, utterly surprised the British — taking 78 prisoners and recapturing the booty. The remains of the two ships they burned are still present near the banks of the Cooper River.
Fair Lawn Plantation
Several miles outside Moncks Corner is, arguably, the most significant extant Revolutionary War site in South Carolina. British-built Fort Fair Lawn was strategically placed at the head of the Cooper River and the intersection of an important coastal road and the Congaree Road. As the most significant British outpost between Charles Town and Camden, the fort protected British troop maneuvers, deployment and communication lines through South Carolina. Built in 1780, the fort was instrumental in a number of key battles and skirmishes during the Revolutionary War.
Fair Lawn played an important role in the British attack led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton against South Carolina Brigadier General Isaac Huger in the April 14, 1780, battle, today known as the Battle for Moncks Corner (see above). It also was a key staging and recovery point related to the Battle of Eutaw Springs. Brigadier General Francis Marion, Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee and Colonel Wade Hampton harassed the British post in the week following the British retreat from Eutaw Springs. On November 17, 1781, Colonel Hezekiah Maham, with 180 men, and Colonel Isaac Shelby, with 200 frontiersmen, were dispatched by Marion to attack nearby Fair Lawn Plantation. The attack resulted in the capture of 300 stands of arms and other stores and 150 prisoners. The British evacuated Fort Fair Lawn by late 1781, burning the Colleton Castle — the fortified home of a Loyalist family — behind them.
Today, this significant earthworks fortification is in remarkable condition, with the parapet walls extending to two meters tall, and the surrounding moat, two meters across and one meter deep, still present. Fort Fair Lawn is one of only two extant Revolutionary War fortifications in the state and is the most complete surviving structure of the two. Together we have saved 80 acres, including this original extant redoubt, at Fort Fair Lawn.
Battle of Waxhaws
In the spring of 1780, Colonel Abraham Buford’s 350 Virginia Continentals were marching from Hillsborough, N.C., to reinforce Major General Benjamin Lincoln in the defense of Charles Town. Buford made it as far as the Santee River, when he received news of the disastrous American surrender of the city. While stopped at Lenud’s Ferry on the river, Buford received orders to return to Hillsborough.
On May 27, Lord Cornwallis sent Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his force of 170 British Legion and British Army dragoons, plus 100 mounted British infantry and a three-pounder cannon to overtake Buford and attack the Virginians. Overtaking Buford by the afternoon of May 29, Tarleton sent Captain David Kinlock to demand Buford’s surrender. Tarleton’s message stated, “Resistance being vain, to prevent the effusion of human blood, I make offers which can never be repeated.” Buford is reported to have responded, “I reject your proposals, and shall defend myself to the last extremity.”
Although exhausted from covering more than 150 miles in 54 hours, Tarleton’s column formed up and charged Buford’s single battle line. The dragoons quickly seized the advantage over the inexperienced Continental troops. Buford attempted to surrender, but whether Tarleton never received the request or refused it is unknown. Patriot surgeon Brownfield would later write that Tarleton’s men attacked with “indiscriminate carnage never surpassed by the most ruthless atrocities of the most barbarous savages.” Tarleton’s men, refusing to take any prisoners, continued to bayonet the wounded after the fight subsided, treatment that came to be referred to as “Tarleton’s Quarter.” The battle became a symbol of British war atrocities and a rallying cry for Patriot troops.
After the May 1780 Battle of Waxhaws, the British established a series of outposts to control the South Carolina up-country — the most northerly of these at Hanging Rock, located on the road between Camden and Charlotte.
On August 1, Colonel Thomas Sumter attacked the British at Rocky Mount, while Major William Richardson Davie made a diversionary attack at Hanging Rock. After failing to capture the British fort at Rocky Mount, Sumter turned his attention back to Hanging Rock.
On August 6, after a 16-mile night march, 800 men crossed Hanging Rock Creek in a dawn attack on the British camps. Within a half hour, the Americans had taken the center, but the British Legion infantry charged with bayonets. Sumter’s men took cover and maintained a fire into the British lines, quickly taking down most of the British officers. The southernmost British camp, held by the Prince of Wales Regiment, put up a solid defense supported by two field guns. After three long hours, the battle ended when the Americans, low on ammunition, turned their attention to plundering the British camp.
Noted 19th-century historian Lyman Draper later wrote that “Cornwallis was heard to say that no battle fell heavier on the British, considering the numbers engaged, the Battle of Bunker Hill excepted.”
Together, we have saved 139 acres at Hanging Rock.
After the fall of Charles Town and the devastating American defeat at Waxhaws in May 1780, Continental troops began reforming at Charlotte, N.C., with Major General Horotio Gates, the “hero of Saratoga,” arriving in July to take command. Both armies understood that Camden was essential to the British plan to control the South Carolina backcountry, and Gates quickly moved to establish a camp at nearby Rugeley’s Mill.
On August 16, Gates moved on Camden, but in what is considered among the worst American tactical decisions of the war, he placed his most inexperienced militiamen opposite the most experienced British regulars. Predictably, the Patriot militia was routed, and the attempted assault on the British militia failed when Continental Major General Baron Johann de Kalb was mortally wounded. When Tarleton and the British Legion made a saber attack on the rear of the American line, the Continental regiments broke and fled the field. Gates’s army suffered more than 2,000 casualties in the one-hour rout and hastened the 60 miles back to Charlotte. In the aftermath, Gates was removed from command and replaced by Major General Nathanael Greene.
Fort Watson, built atop a Santee Indian burial mound, was a critical link in the British supply chain between Charles Town and Camden. Patriot Brigadier General Francis Marion and his men began laying siege to the British post on April 14, 1781, cutting off access to its water supply at Scott Lake. Unfazed and with plenty of food, British Lieutenant James McCay had his men dig a well and trench for water.
The Americans possessed no artillery, which made a traditional bombardment impossible and the siege very difficult. In lieu of artillery, Major Hezekiah Maham instructed his men to construct a 40-foot wooden tower so they could gain a vertical advantage over the British. Hidden by trees and under the dark cover of night, Maham’s men hewed logs and erected the tower, which allowed sharpshooters to fire down on the British in the fort. With the British thus pinned down, Patriot troops began tearing down the exterior works and planned to charge into the fort. Foreseeing the inevitable, McCay surrendered the fort.
Battle of Eutaw Springs
At 4:00 a.m. on September 8, 1781, Major General Nathanael Greene’s army began a seven-mile march from Burdall’s Plantation toward British Colonel Andrew Stewart’s encampment at Eutaw Springs. As he did every morning, Stewart sent out foraging parties that, at about 8:00 am, were ambushed and captured.
As Greene’s forces advanced toward Stewart’s camp, they formed two lines, with militia in the front followed by the Continentals. When the British broke through the Patriot center, the Virginia and Maryland Continentals attacked and stopped the British advance. The Americans pursued a disorderly British retreat through their camp, but their assault on a strongly defended brick house failed and they retreated. The fierce battle was inconclusive, but did force the British back to Charles Town. Greene — who received one of only seven gold medals for exceptional achievement during the Revolutionary War for his leadership at Eutaw Springs — suffered more than 500 casualties, but British losses were almost twice that number.
Together, we have saved 14 acres at Eutaw Springs.