Scads of books abound about the Revolutionary War in South Carolina. One book collector in Columbia has more than 100 books about all aspects of the Revolutionary War as it happened in the state, and many more are published each year. Two of his favorites are Partisans & Redcoats: The Southern Conflict that Turned the Tide of the American Revolution by Walter Edgar (2001) and From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South by Henry Lumpkin (1981).
Men from South Carolina emerged before and during the conflict as military leaders who helped win the war against the British. They led South Carolinians who were known by several titles (many thanks to Walter Edgar for his excellent glossary in Partisans & Redcoats):
Partisans were militia units that fought a guerrilla or partisan war against the British, led by South Carolinians Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens. Francis Marion primarily fought in the eastern third of the state, Thomas Sumter led the middle third of South Carolina, and Andrew Pickens focused on the northwest third of the state, near Indian territory.
Whigs and Patriots were South Carolinians who fought for the cause of independence.
The Continental Army was formed by the Continental Congress in 1775 and led by George Washington, who was the first commander in chief. It was commanded in South Carolina by various generals including Nathanael Greene and Horatio Gates.
Rebel was the name the British and Tories gave to anyone who opposed the British army’s occupation in South Carolina.
Joining the War of Independence as a soldier was controversial in South Carolina. The citizens in the Lowcountry tended to be resentful of the British heavy-handed rule and were in favor of fighting for independence. Charleston was the center of government in South Carolina, so every marriage certificate, every will, and every property sale had to be carried to Charleston. No courts existed in the backcountry until approved in 1768 and implemented about 1772. If an arrest was made, the accused, the victim, and the witnesses had to travel to Charleston for trial. By the time of the Revolution, the folks in the backcountry, who felt like second-class citizens, had had enough of the Charlestonian elite, and many were just as unhappy with the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly as with the British Parliament.
The British supporters in South Carolina also went by multiple titles (from Partisans & Redcoats):
Regulars were military units from Great Britain, variously led by Sir Henry Clinton, Lord Charles Cornwallis, and Augustine Prevost.
Loyalists and Tories were South Carolinians who chose to fight for the king, including William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham.
British Legion was a cavalry regiment of provincial troops variously led by Banastre Tarleton and Christian Huck.
Provincial Troops were South Carolinians who enlisted in British army units.
Some South Carolinians may have changed sides four or five times during the war, sometimes fraudulently so as to sneak through enemy lines or to spy on the enemy. Early in the war, the British would capture patriots in South Carolina and make them sign an agreement to go home and stay neutral for the balance of the war. The backcountry leaders also sent loyalists home with a pledge of neutrality.
In an effort to convince backcountry leaders to join the patriots, the folks in Charleston sent a delegation to the backcountry consisting of preachers Oliver Hart and William Tennent, William Henry Drayton (born at Drayton Hall), and backcountry partisans Joseph Kershaw and Richard Richardson. Not many backcountry men were convinced to support the revolution, but a large number of backcountry loyalists were willing to accept neutrality in the Treaty of Ninety-Six as a way of being left alone; however, William Henry Drayton then taunted backcountry loyalist Robert Cunningham, and the South Carolina Council of Safety had Cunningham arrested and hauled off to Charleston in chains. The citizens of the backcountry were then uncertain whether they could trust the treaty.
After the British captured Savannah in 1778, their forces headed northeast, arriving just outside Charleston before turning back when British Gen. Augustine Prevost heard that an American army was approaching. On his way back to Savannah, his troops surrounded partisan soldiers in a militia camp on John’s Island. The Americans requested “quarter” and were granted it; however, as soon as they surrendered their weapons, the British and loyalists attacked the prisoners with bayonets and killed or wounded them. After leaving John’s Island, the British burned many homes along the way, as well as Sheldon Church, a chapel of ease built about 1750. Many local loyalists were angry at the British behavior and became patriots.
Charleston was overrun by the British in 1780, and 5,000 American men surrendered. The patriots who surrendered were allowed to return to their homes with a promise to stay neutral, as was the custom; however, later on, British military commanders tried to intimidate the Carolinians by forcing them to take an oath of allegiance to the king and to agree to fight their neighbors and family members who were patriots. This tactic was a mistake that caused reluctant backcountry residents, who just wanted to stay out of the fighting, to show up for battle on the side of the patriots and then go home when finished.
In one case in point, the infamous British General Tarleton went to Thomas Sumter’s home above the Santee River, but Sumter was not there. Sumter’s wife, disabled since childhood, was sitting on the porch. Tarleton’s troops took what they wanted from the house, barn, and smokehouse; carried Mrs. Sumter to the front yard; and set fire to her house. This act of violence against his home and wife inspired Thomas Sumter to go to North Carolina and organize troops to fight the loyalists and the British in a guerilla-style hit-and-run. Sumter went on to become one of the most significant military leaders of the Revolution in South Carolina, earning the nickname “The Gamecock.”
Roughing up the backcountry women was a common technique to intimidate the families of the men who left to fight. Loyalist Captain Huck’s troops went to patriot William Adair’s home and took everything they could find, including his wife’s shoe buckles and rings. When the patriots came by later, she told them the British had taken all of her food, leaving “not meal enough to make a hoe-cake.”
Maj. James Wemyss was a British officer who burned Presbyterian churches as sedition shops, fueling resentment and anger by people in the backcountry. The British army officers were supposed to give receipts for anything taken from citizens but often did not, further aggravating the anger of the backcountry men who saw their families hassled, their property stolen, and their homes and churches burned.
One patriot, Edward Lacey, had a family problem. His home was only 2 miles from the plantation where loyalist Captain Huck was staying with the British Legion and where “Huck’s Defeat” was about to occur. Lacey’s father was a die-hard loyalist, and he told his son he had every intention of telling Huck the patriots’ plans. Lacey put his dad under a guard of four soldiers, but his dad somehow slipped out of the house and ran toward the provincial troops. The partisans captured Lacey’s father and tied him to his bed to prevent him from warning the British. Captain Huck was killed during the battle. Some loyalists surrendered and requested “quarter,” while others ran into the woods. The Americans then retaliated for the British cruelties and atrocities. Huck’s Defeat in July 1780 was the first American victory in South Carolina since Charleston had fallen two months earlier. The British controlled Ninety-Six, Camden, Beaufort, Charleston, Cheraw, and Georgetown.
Then came the Battle of Camden. American Gen. Horatio Gates gathered his troops at a farm in North Carolina, preparing to march his new Southern army into South Carolina. He intended to kick British General Cornwallis out of Camden, where the British troops had been stationed almost a year. Francis Marion arrived with about 20 militia volunteers, some white and some black, and some as young as teenagers. Francis Marion was 48 years old, 5 feet, 2 inches tall, and he weighed 110 pounds. He walked with a limp. Gates, trained to fight in an open field, was not inclined to practice the ambush tactics that Marion employed. His men made fun of Marion and his irregulars.
Meantime, a militia was forming near Kingstree, so Gates took the opportunity to accept Marion’s offer to lead them, moving Marion out of the way for the disaster awaiting Gates in Camden. Francis Marion became known as the “Swamp Fox” as he effectively engaged in guerilla warfare, darting in and out of his headquarters somewhere in the Pee Dee swamps. Following the Gates’ defeat at Camden, he was the only force remaining between Cornwallis and complete capture of the state. Current day archaeologists still have not confirmed the location of his primary camp.
Gates pushed his army south through sparsely settled areas where food was hard to find in order to get to Camden as quickly as possible. His troops were exhausted by the time they arrived near Camden, and many were fighting diarrhea. Cornwallis heard Gates was heading his way and decided to meet him 8 miles north of Camden so he could choose the battlefield. The fight did not go well for the Americans. As soon as the Americans saw the British soldiers advancing with fixed bayonets, the exhausted troops broke and ran. General Gates hopped on his horse and fled, not stopping until he arrived in Charlotte, 70 miles away.
The British chased down the Americans running through the woods, killing them with bayonets and guns. An archaeological dig in 2022 discovered the buried remains of 14 soldiers —12 patriots, one loyalist, and one British soldier; many, many more are in the woods. The American bodies were buried in shallow graves, tossed in together, with dirt barely covering their knees to protect them from vultures and pigs. The British soldier was found buried correctly, deeper than the rest with his arms crossed and his legs straight. A reinternment ceremony for the 14 soldiers was conducted with full honors in April 2023.
The highlight of the South Carolina experience in the Revolutionary War was the Battle of King’s Mountain, a ridge that runs along the border of North and South Carolina. The ridge is 60 feet above the countryside, 600 yards long, and 250 yards wide. Trees covered the steep slopes. Scottish Maj. Patrick Ferguson, who commanded a loyalist militia unit, had been issuing insulting proclamations to the men of the backcountry, suggesting they let their women turn their backs on them and look for real men to protect them. He also sent a message to a partisan colonel that if residents of the area did not stop resisting British rule, he would hang their leaders and set their country on fire.
Major Ferguson set up camp on King’s Mountain. He was the only British soldier in the battle; all others on both sides were South Carolinians, either partisans or loyalists. The partisans worked their way up the ridge, firing from behind trees while the loyalists fired over the heads of the Americans who were kneeling behind rocks. The battle was brief. Major Ferguson tried to rally his soldiers by riding his horse down the ridge but was shot many times by the sharpshooting backcountry men. Several loyalist officers tried to surrender and asked for “quarter” but the revenge-minded partisans were in no mood to stop killing. Ferguson’s body was stripped and left where he died, his clothes and effects souvenirs for the victors. A wounded loyalist saw his partisan brother-in-law and asked for help. The patriot’s cold reply was to tell his brother-in-law to look to his friends for help.
The Americans followed up victory at King’s Mountain with the Battle of Cowpens just three months later. Led by Daniel Morgan, a company of 600 men moved through the backcountry, aware that Tarleton was tracking their progress. Morgan chose the Cowpens site, just 32 miles from Kings Mountain, to combat Tarleton’s British regular troops. Knowing Tarleton would aggressively attack and expect the militia to flee before the regulars, Morgan set up a trap with a mock retreat, luring the British soldiers into a major defeat before the waiting Continental Army; however, over the next few weeks, bands of loyalists visited the homes of those patriots involved at Cowpens, killing fellow South Carolinians in front of their families.
The British invaded South Carolina during the American Revolution at the same time Carolinian partisans and loyalists were fighting each other. The men and women of our state did not know whom to trust, and the fighting was brutal. Citizens lost their homes and churches. The American Revolution truly was South Carolina’s first civil war.
Interest in this pivotal period of our nation’s history is high as we approach her 250th birthday on July 4, 2026. The United States Congress created the America 250 Foundation in 2018 (America250.org) and is funding programs and events in each state, many of them going on now.
For more information, visit the website of the South Carolina American Revolution Sestercentennial Commission at SouthCarolina250.com. The organization, funded by the South Carolina General Assembly in 2018, is partnering with the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism; the South Carolina Department of Archives and History; and the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust at SCBattlegroundTrust.org.
Other organizations involved in the celebration of our 250th anniversary include the Revolutionary War Visitor Center in Camden (SimplyRevolutionary.com) and the South Carolina Historical Society (SCHistory.org). The annual South Carolina Archives and History American Revolution Symposium is planned for Nov. 18, 2023 (scdah.sc.gov).
Multiple stories in this article came from the very fine book by Walter Edgar, Partisans & Redcoats. Other stories can be found in those pages.