This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782

This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782

by John S. Pancake

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An exciting and accurate portrayal of the military action in the southern colonies that led to a new American nation.

A companion to Pancake’s study of the northern campaign, 1777: The Year of the Hangman, this volume deals with the American Revolution in the Carolinas. Together, the two books constitute a complete history of the Revolutionary War.

Pancake tells a gripping story of the southern campaign, the scene of a grim and deadly guerilla war. In the savage internecine struggle, Americans fought Americans with a fierceness that appalled even a veteran like General Nathanael Greene.

"Utilizing extensive manuscript collections, John Pancake explains not why the colonists won the War of Independence, but rather why the British lost. Yorktown, he argues, was not the result of a momentary oversight by the British navy, but the final consequence of the longstanding failure of British military and political leadership." So said the Journal of Southern History when This Destructive War was first published in 1985. The Florida Historical Quarterly further opined, "Pancake has given us a well-researched and beautifully—and tightly—written book."

General readers as well as scholars and students of the American Revolution will welcome anew this classic, definitive study of the campaign in the Carolinas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817391966
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 06/01/2018
Series: Alabama Fire Ant
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 1,110,738
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

John S. Pancake was a native of Virginia, Professor of History at The University of Alabama, and author of studies on Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

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Great Britain in Adversity

Nothing so characterized the ministry of Lord Frederick North as its propensity for raising critical questions of strategy only to postpone the hard decisions needed to deal with them. Since the beginning of the rebellion in America, England had been aware of the menace of French intervention. It was no secret that France was still smarting from the defeat of 1763 and that she was eager to exploit any opportunity to weaken Great Britain and its vast colonial empire. When the gloomy news of the failure of Burgoyne and Howe reached London in December 1777, French intervention was almost certain. Yet Parliament recessed for almost six weeks, and not until mid-February 1778 was Lord North willing to discuss publicly the possibility of a war with France. This was more than a week after Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues in Paris had agreed to the terms of the Franco-American alliance.

The Test of Sea Power

The often-accepted version of the American victory at Yorktown is that a singular and accidental lapse on the part of the British navy gave the French admiral, the Comte de Grasse, brief control of the Chesapeake so that Lord Cornwallis' army was trapped at Yorktown between the French fleet and Washington's army. In fact, only incredible good luck and cautious French naval strategy had allowed the British to escape several such potential disasters before 1781. After 1777 Britain rarely had complete mastery of the western Atlantic, and even in European waters she faced frequent threats from the French and Spanish fleets. How was it that England, victor in the Seven Years' War and "mistress of the seas," found herself in such dire straits?

At the end of what Lawrence Gipson calls the Great War for Empire, England was burdened with a staggering national debt. It was an economic and political problem that plagued successive ministers after 1763 and led to the several abortive attempts to tax the American colonies. There had also been serious cutbacks in naval expenditures. The vast fleet that existed in 1763 included a number of old, decrepit vessels whose usefulness was at an end and others that had been hastily built of green timbers. So although it may have been the largest fleet in British history, it was certainly not the best. And as with most fleets, peacetime maintenance did not keep pace with peacetime decay. Many of the ships carried on the active list were little more than hulks, virtually useless for sea duty. When the threat of war finally stirred the Admiralty to action, it was discovered that there were also serious shortages of timber, cordage, masts, and other naval stores needed to refurbish the fleet. Building ways were crowded to capacity, and skilled labor was insufficient to meet the unusual demand.

The Earl of Sandwich, who became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1771, performed prodigious labors, and by 1779 he had brought the fleet nearly to the strength of 1759, that is, about 155,000 tons and including 100 vessels of fifty guns or more. But from the point of view of naval strategy England faced problems far more difficult than those of the earlier war.

The Duc de Choiseul, Louis XV's foreign minister, who had presided over the defeat of the Seven Years' War, was determined that France would one day have its revanche. Even before the conclusion of the Treaty of Paris, Choiseul had begun the reformation of the French navy. His efforts and those of his successors resulted in the emergence of a French fleet superior to any in its history. Although it was not yet quite a match for the British in guns and tonnage, it was a formidable force. Presuming that Spain would shortly join France as a belligerent, the combined Bourbon fleets would have naval superiority. Moreover, for the first time in many decades neither nation had Continental quarrels to distract it and both had adequate financial resources (although Louis XVI's financial minister was deeply pessimistic about the long-range effect of an expensive war).

It should also be noted that for the first time in more than one hundred years England found herself without a single Continental ally. Prussia, the most steadfast of England's friends, felt that it had been arbitrarily deserted when Parliament cut off subsidies to Frederick the Great in 1761, two years before the end of the Seven Years' War. By 1776, moreover, Frederick was much more concerned with the partition of Poland and other problems that commanded his attention in eastern Europe.

Russia and the Baltic states were nervous about the threat to their shipping and trade routes, especially after the high-handed way Britain had enforced the Rule of 1756. Indeed, the rule itself — a nation could not trade in time of war where it was not allowed to trade in time of peace — was typical of the international hauteur with which England conducted its foreign policy. Even those nations that had not been her enemies often had their ports blockaded, their ships stopped and searched, and their commerce threatened by "the mistress of the seas." England's isolation, then, resulted partly from the fact that the interests of potential allies were focused elsewhere. But it also resulted from the colossal arrogance that characterized the conduct of British diplomacy. As Benjamin Franklin noted, "Every nation in Europe wishes to see Britain humbled, having all in turn been offended by her insolence." The only assistance that England received from abroad was the troops hired from the German princes of central Europe, and for this aid the ministry paid a stiff price. Nearly 30,000 mercenaries served with the British army during the course of the war at a cost of more than £600,000 a year.

By 1779 England had committed more troops to America than at any time during the Seven Years' War, and logistical support was much more difficult. More than 40,000 mouths had to be fed and, unlike the experience of the previous war, only insignificant amounts of supplies were available from America. Between the spring of 1777 and the surrender at Yorktown, shipments to the Atlantic coast (exclusive of Canada and the West Indies) included 40,000 tons each of bread, flour and rice, 5,000 tons of beef, nearly 20,000 tons of pork, 2,000 tons of butter, 3,600 tons of oatmeal, 176,000 gallons of molasses, and 2,865,000 gallons of rum. Horses were always in short supply for the British forces because the animals were difficult to ship and because feeding them required shipment of 14,000 tons of hay and 6,000 tons of oats from England each year.

Even before France entered the war the navy had had its hands full. The mobility of General William Howe's army — from Halifax to New York in 1776, from New York to Pennsylvania in 1777 — depended on the transport and protection of Admiral Howe's fleet. This fleet was also expected to prevent rebel supplies from abroad from reaching America and to curb privateers from raiding Britain's supply line. In Germain's opinion, Admiral Howe failed to perform these tasks adequately, and he followed his brother into retirement in 1778. That the American Secretary may have erred in his judgment may be seen in the fact that Richard Howe became First Sea Lord before the war ended.

With the widening of the war the responsibilities of the navy seemed insuperable. There was now the burden of protecting a colonial empire that reached from India to Gibraltar to Canada to the Lesser Antilles. The foe might strike at any point on this vast perimeter, forcing British strategists to guess at the disposition of the enemy and the focus of attack.

There was also the overriding necessity of guarding the waters around the British Isles. Englishmen recalled not only the great victory over the Spanish Armada but also how swiftly the enemy fleet could assemble and descend on their coasts. In fact, the war with France was little more than a year old when her fleet appeared off the coast at Plymouth and an invasion seemed imminent. Overseas operations were always hamstrung by the necessity — or cries of alarm from the Opposition in Parliament — for the home fleet to be kept in sufficient strength to guard the Channel.

To forestall the enemy, then, required a naval administrative system that was capable of repairing and resupplying ships so that existing fleet units could be used at their maximum capability. Above all, England needed a naval command that could act with boldness and decision to overcome the disparity of forces. It was the failure of the command and support systems as much as the limitation of its size that accounted for the ultimate failure of the British navy.

The events of 1778 were a clear forewarning of England's dilemma. At the beginning of the summer, French naval power was concentrated in two forces, the main fleet at Brest on the tip of Brittany and a squadron at the Mediterranean port of Toulon. The obvious strategy seemed to be to blockade the fleet at Brest and send a squadron to Gibraltar to prevent Admiral d'Estaing and the Toulon force from leaving the Mediterranean. But this would mean weakening the home fleet guarding the Channel against invasion, especially perilous if Spain entered the war and the Cadiz fleet joined the French.

The other possibility was to wait until the enemy made a commitment of forces and then move to check it. But this called for accurate intelligence and swift, decisive movement. While the cabinet in London debated, d'Estaing sortied from Toulon early in April with nine months' provisions, clear indication that he was headed overseas. Although Germain was certain that his destination was America, Sandwich hesitated, unwilling to risk command of the Channel. Finally, over Sandwich's strenuous objection, a relief squadron under the command of Admiral John Byron was ordered to America. When he received his orders, Byron was on the point of leaving for India. His vessels had to be reprovisioned for America. Other ships from the Channel fleet were assigned to his command and had to take on additional stores for overseas service. False intelligence caused a further delay, and it was not until June that Byron finally sailed. He was directed to look for the French at Halifax, then at the Chesapeake, and finally the West Indies.

D'Estaing's destination was actually the Chesapeake. Only Clinton's decision to move the army overland to New York allowed Admiral Howe's convoy of supplies and Loyalist refugees to clear the Delaware Capes ten days before the arrival of the French fleet. Clinton's army reached Sandy Hook barely in time to be ferried across to Manhattan, allowing Howe to take a defensive position inside the anchorage.

The arrival of d'Estaing led General Washington to decide to attack the British base in Rhode Island. A force commanded by John Sullivan struck at Newport while the French fleet moved in from the sea. Admiral Howe meanwhile had been joined by a few scattered units, which gave him a force strong enough to challenge the enemy. He hurried to the relief of Newport, and his arrival disrupted the allied attack. D'Estaing, anxious to bring the British to battle, followed Howe out to sea. As the two fleets maneuvered for position, a North Atlantic gale struck and dispersed both fleets. D'Estaing's force was damaged so severely that he had to retire to Boston for repairs. He then set out for his station in the West Indies, but by the time of his arrival Byron had finally made his crossing, reinforcing the British West Indian squadron sufficiently to enable it to challenge the French threat in the Caribbean. One final fillip was added to this run of British luck. As d'Estaing moved south, a British convoy carrying 5,000 reinforcements from New York to the Antilles was also sailing south on a parallel course just over the horizon to the west. For five weeks the British transports sailed undiscovered, arriving safely at their destination.

By such narrow margins was England saved from disaster in America. But there was still no resolution of the basic dilemma — how to maintain troops and ships to meet the threat of attack from Halifax to Jamaica. Except for Clinton's army in New York, dispersed garrisons were safe only if they were supported by the fleet. And the fleet was constantly hauled and pulled by conflicting demands: supplies to North America; convoys from the West Indies, India, and the Baltic; privateers raiding from the Bay of Biscay to Halifax; and always the terrifying prospect that the Bourbon fleets would join forces and sweep into the Channel. So far, good luck and frantic, makeshift strategy had dealt with the sudden new demands of an international conflict. It was now time to overhaul strategic thinking and concert plans for a new effort, including a plan to deal with the rebellion in America.

A New War Strategy?

It was never quite clear to Sir Henry Clinton why his superiors in Whitehall continually thwarted his plans and denied him the opportunity for victory. Although he understood the importance of sea power and may even have caught glimpses of the war in its wider context, Sir Henry had a theater commander's characteristic tunnel vision of the American war. For different reasons, many military historians of the War of Independence have shared Clinton's myopia. From a purely American point of view, for example, not much happened in 1778 and 1779. The only major battle, Monmouth Court House, was inconclusive, and during the next year and a half the British commander in chief spent his time either planning operations that were never executed or carrying out minor forays that contributed little to a successful termination of the war. So at the beginning of 1779, Clinton was both gloomy and apprehensive. Calls for reinforcements from both Canada and the West Indies were making serious inroads on his troop strength, and he wondered how he was to meet the new demands that Germain and the ministry were certain to make on him.

If affairs in America appeared to be at standstill, London was the scene of frantic activity, violent political quarrels, and crises that threatened to overwhelm the King and his ministers. The return of Gentlemen Johnny Burgoyne and Sir William Howe was the signal for the Opposition to renew its attacks on Germain's conduct of the war. Little attention was paid to Burgoyne, but a parliamentary inquiry into the Howe command resulted in a bitter and inconclusive squabble that lasted until the summer of 1779.

Far more sensational was the court-martial of the commander in chief of the fleet, Admiral Augustus Keppel. The charges were brought by a subordinate officer, and the whole affair was shot through with political overtones that had little to do with whether or not Keppel was guilty of misconduct. He was exonerated, but several senior officers struck their flags, refusing to serve under him. The episode left the navy rife with internal dissension.

In the midst of these factional skirmishes, Lord Germain was trying to remedy the obvious weaknesses in Britain's military command. It was increasingly clear that the King's personal control of the army was impractical. Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who was already commander of the home forces, was induced to assume direction of the entire army and was given a seat in the cabinet. Amherst was still the sensible, competent man who had commanded in America during the Seven Years' War but, like the First Lord of the Admiralty, he tended to allow his concern for the defense of England to override considerations of global strategy.

Commanders for the American theaters were in short supply. Sir Guy Carleton had resigned as governor-general of Canada in the summer of 1778, and Lord Cornwallis returned at the end of the year, pleading the illness of his wife. Of the senior generals who had commanded in America since 1775 only Clinton remained. If Germain was inclined to heed his own doubts about Sir Henry's competence or the latter's frequent requests to resign, he would find himself at a loss for a replacement. Not until March 1779 did the cabinet decide on a successor to Admiral Howe, and he did not reach America until August.

The war plans for America had not only been drastically altered by the necessity for the safety of England. There was also the alluring prospect of despoiling French overseas possessions. It should be remembered that the West Indian sugar islands were considered far more valuable than the thirteen mainland colonies. A noisy and powerful lobby of planters and merchants in Parliament was a constant reminder that the islands were the classic example of mercantilist theory in practice. One hundred thousand hogsheads of sugar and 11,000 puncheons of rum a year came into London alone. West Indian imports were estimated at £4,500,000 annually, more than twice the value of imports from the mainland colonies. Not only must these riches be protected, but there was the prospect of conquering the equally valuable French and Spanish possessions.


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Table of Contents

Contents Preface Prologue Chapter 1. Great Britain in Adversity Chapter 2. The Evolution of Southern Strategy Chapter 3. Rebels and Bloodybacks Chapter 4. Charleston: 1780 Chapter 5. Whigs and Tories Chapter 6. Camden Chapter 7. King's Mountain Chapter 8. Greene Takes Command: The Cowpens Chapter 9. Doubt, Discord, and Despair Chapter 10. Retreat Chapter 11. Guilford Court House Chapter 12. The Reconquest: Hobkirk's Hill Chapter 13. The Reconquest: Ninety Six to Eutaw Springs Chapter 14. "If Ponies Rode Men" Conclusion Notes Essay on Sources Index

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