An American History Online Exclusive

How an ‘ill-armed peasantry’ crushed Clinton, Cornwallis, and a raft of professional soldiers 

Great Britain has “conquered the two Carolinas in Charleston,” Sir Henry Clinton, commander of the British army in North America, giddily remarked the moment that city fell to the king’s troops in May 1780. Clinton had reason to exult. He had just scored Britain’s greatest triumph in a six-year-old rebellion, capturing an important American city and taking more than 5,000 prisoners. His victory, Clinton believed, assured that Britain would emerge from this war again in control of several of its southern colonies.  

General John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga spelled the end of the British strategy to separate New England from the other colonies. Painting by Joshua Reynolds. (Peter Newark American Pictures/Bridgeman Images)

The British government had reconsidered its strategy following General John Burgoyne’s surrender of his army at Saratoga in October 1777. That calamity had sparked a debate within Whitehall over whether to continue the war and, if so, how to wage it. During the intervening three years Britain had failed to crush the rebels in the northern colonies, and now France was entering the war as an ally of the insurrectionists.

Deliberating for weeks in the wake of Saratoga, British officialdom reached several crucial decisions. The empire would remain at war, but with a new approach. Formulated principally by Lord George Germain, secretary of state for America, what came to be known as the “southern strategy” posited that large numbers of southerners were eager “to return to their allegiance” to the Crown. The strategy assumed some would enlist in provincial regiments to be incorporated in the British army, while others would serve in Loyalist militias. Germain spoke of reclaiming Georgia, South Carolina, and possibly North Carolina. Success would leave Great Britain with an extensive American empire that included Canada, all territory west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River, everything south of Virginia—including Florida—and several Caribbean colonies. However the war might end, the subsequent ten or 11 united states, so encircled, would be fatally weak.

To pursue this goal, Britain not only changed commanders—Clinton replaced General William Howe in May 1778—but Germain, anticipating the French threat, ordered 8,000 men redeployed to other theaters. Clinton’s army would be 40 percent smaller than the force which had campaigned in America a year earlier, but his superiors expected him to keep holding New York and Newport, Rhode Island, to bring General Washington to battle, and to launch the southern strategy. “My fate is hard,” Clinton sighed on reading his orders.

Clinton was 48, softly handsome, and of average height. The son of an aristocrat and royal governor of New York, he had spent half of his youth in Manhattan before entering the army at 15. He had fought in two wars before the War of Independence, displaying legendary courage under fire and suffering a serious wound in an engagement in Germany in 1762. He exhibited an almost scholarly interest in the art of war, reading deeply on the subject and even traveling to observe hostilities between Russia and the Turks. Clinton wed at 37, but the marriage ended after five years when his wife, 26, perished delivering their fifth child. That same year, 1772, Clinton achieved the rank of major general. In early 1775 he was deployed to America. By the time he arrived, war had erupted between Britain and its American colonists, and before long Clinton was in the thick of the fighting, adding to his reputation for bravery and earning repute as a masterful strategist.  

Clinton once bizarrely described himself as “a shy bitch.” He had close friends, but was introverted, liking nothing better than to withdraw to read, practice his beloved violin, or study nature. He disliked confrontation and appears to have felt most comfortable with younger officers unlikely to take issue with him. A devotee of exercise, he rode regularly and enjoyed spurring his mount to a gallop to leap fences. Homesick and aching to see his children, Clinton after 1778 knew all too well the loneliness of commanding an army at war.         

Sir Henry Clinton, commander in chief of British forces during the American Revolution, believed his 1780 takeover of Charleston, South Carolina, would be the end of the rebellion. (The Picture Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photos)

Much of Clinton’s first two years in command involved real or potential French and American threats to British garrisons at Manhattan and Newport. Late in 1778 he initiated the southern strategy by capturing Savannah, Georgia. In 1780, at last able to apply the new strategy in earnest, he personally led 8,700 men to take Charleston. The undertaking was, he said, “the most important hour Britain ever knew.” Accompanying him to Charleston was his second in command, Charles, Earl Cornwallis.  

Cornwallis, 41, was the most aristocratic British general in America, not jumped up but born into the nobility. He had studied at Eton and Cambridge, as well as at a military academy on the Continent. He entered the army at 18 and, like Clinton, served gallantly in the Seven Years’ War. Cornwallis arrived in America a year later than Clinton, and repeatedly saw action in 1776 and 1777. The eve of the Charleston campaign found him freshly returned to America, having attended to his dying wife. A bold and fearless leader given to aggressive action, he was known for personally leading assaults that he ordered.

Clinton sailed for South Carolina hoping the foe would defend Charleston rather than retreat into the backcountry. He got his wish. Following a month-long siege, the American army capitulated, a calamity nearly on par with the British debacle at Saratoga. The victory provoked celebrations throughout England. For a time, Clinton was thought to be the most popular man in the country.

Assigning Cornwallis to pacify interior South Carolina, Clinton left his subordinate with 6,753 troops, a number expected to grow as Loyalists rallied to arms. At the outset, things could hardly have gone better. Large numbers of Loyalists did agree to serve, the British army established outposts dotting the backcountry, and in August at Camden, South Carolina, north of Charleston, Cornwallis scored a sensational victory over an American army under General Horatio Gates. An ebullient Cornwallis notified Clinton that there was “an end to all resistance in South Carolina.” Clinton, equally buoyant and confident, reported to London that there was “little resource for domestic insurrection.”

The jubilation was premature. Bands of rebels soon formed under Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, and other partisan leaders. These units plundered Loyalist properties, attacked royal militias, and on occasion harried isolated elements of Cornwallis’s army. Before summer ended, Cornwallis informed Clinton that “[a]ffairs . . . do not look so peaceful as they did.” Indeed, parts of the backcountry were “in an absolute state of rebellion.” The best chance of suppressing the lowcountry insurgency, Cornwallis concluded, was to lead his army into North Carolina, there to recruit Loyalists, destroy the tattered remnants of Gates’s army, and above all else close routes through which supplies from the northern states were flowing to rebel forces in Georgia and South Carolina.  

Disaster followed. Within 30 days of entering North Carolina, a division of Cornwallis’s army was trapped at King’s Mountain. Nearly 1,000 men were lost—according to Clinton, the defeat was Cornwallis’s Trenton, in the mode of Washington’s Christmas 1776 victory over the Hessians.  

In December, General Nathanael Greene arrived in North Carolina and took command of the 2,600-man American army in the South. Greene was not optimistic. “I think the American cause is at deaths door,” he told a friend, and perhaps because of those apparently dire prospects he pursued a risky strategy, dividing his army in the face of a superior adversary. Greene sent General Daniel Morgan with 600 men—Continental regulars and militiamen from Virginia and North Carolina—into western North Carolina. Greene took the remaining 2,000 men into eastern South Carolina. He reasoned that, should Cornwallis pursue him, Morgan would find Britain’s backcountry posts easy targets. If Cornwallis pursued Morgan, Greene planned to move against weakly defended posts above Charleston.

Charles, Earl Cornwallis, rallied Loyalists and defeated the Continentals at Camden, South Carolina, in August 1780. (Painting by John Singleton Copley)

Cornwallis did come after Morgan, again taking his army into North Carolina. A division of 1,200 men under Colonel Banastre Tarleton crossed to the west shore of the Broad River in search of Morgan. The main force under Cornwallis stayed on the east bank. Cornwallis was hoping to intercept Greene if he hurried to Morgan’s rescue or to cut off Morgan if he retreated east to reunite with Greene. It was a propitious but doomed plan. Morgan whipped Tarleton in a January 1781 clash at Cowpens in northwestern South Carolina, then outran Cornwallis and linked up with Greene and the main army near Salisbury. Cornwallis refused to give in. His stripped-down army pursued Greene in a grueling two-week, 100-mile chase that only ended when the Americans crossed the Dan River into safety in Virginia.

Both commanders still longed for a fight. Once Virginia militiamen joined him, Greene returned to North Carolina. Cornwallis came after him. The clash came on March 15 at Guilford Courthouse, a savage and bloody brawl with profound implications. At day’s end, Cornwallis controlled the battlefield—at brutal cost. His losses since January had exceeded 1,600, a quarter of those who had marched into North Carolina seventy-five days earlier. 

Long before learning of Guilford Courthouse, Clinton—shaken by news of partisan activities and Cornwallis’s previous setbacks—had begun formulating and implementing a new southern strategy. In December, he committed to Virginia an army of 1,800 men under his new general, Benedict Arnold (“Chasing Benedict Arnold,” October 2017). Arnold’s force was to raid at will, destroy rebel magazines, close supply routes, recruit Loyalists, and establish a fortified base on the Chesapeake. Arnold’s presence, Clinton hoped, would compel Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson to keep his militia at home and out of the Carolinas.

When Washington countered the Arnold gambit by sending the Marquis de Lafayette to Virginia with an army of roughly equal size, Clinton in March sent General William Phillips with 2,000 men to take command of Arnold’s force. Upon receiving reinforcements from England, Clinton sent more troops to Phillips; the army in Virginia eventually totaled 6,000. Phillips was to carry on Arnold’s tactics with, Clinton hoped, an additional gain. Greene, he anticipated, would feel duty bound to link up with Lafayette and so abandon the Carolinas.

Clinton had always made clear to Cornwallis that he was to pacify South Carolina. Cornwallis had leave to “recover North Carolina,” but only in a manner “consistent with the security” of the region. Clinton had never wavered from his initial orders, and the fulcrum of his strategy in 1781 was that Phillips’s large army in Virginia would be facilitating Cornwallis’s suppression of the insurgency in South Carolina and Georgia.

General Daniel Morgan was credited with the Americans’ brilliant cavalry victory over Colonel Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina, January 17, 1781. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The South was only one thread in the knot Clinton was attempting to unsnarl.  A French army of some 4,000 men under Comte de Rochambeau had landed in New England in July 1780; a large French naval squadron under Comte de Grasse was expected late in the summer of 1781. Foreseeing a Franco-American campaign to retake New York, Clinton planned to recall most of Phillips’s army to New York during the summer, leaving around 2,000 men in the Old Dominion—sufficient, he thought, to parry Lafayette’s small force and the “ill armed peasantry” in the rebel militia. With a garrison of roughly 16,000 in Manhattan, Clinton felt, he could prevail, provided the Royal Navy maintained its supremacy. If his strategy succeeded, by year’s end New York would have repulsed an Allied attack and Cornwallis would have crushed the lowcountry rebellion.  

Clinton saw out 1780 thinking 1781 was likely the war’s final year, as the rebellion “was at its last gasp.” America’s economy had collapsed. Morale among troops and civilians was waning. Credible rumors had it that if the Allies failed to score a decisive victory in ’81 France would drop out of the fray. Clinton doubted the rebels could persevere beyond a year and believed they could not continue without French assistance. He seems to have been picturing a negotiated peace in 1782, a settlement that would restore Georgia and South Carolina, and conceivably North Carolina, to the Empire. Everything hinged on an Allied defeat at New York and victory for Cornwallis in South Carolina.

In April, Clinton learned that Cornwallis’s army, battered at Guilford Courthouse, was in Wilmington, North Carolina, for reconditioning. Clinton immediately wrote his subordinate reiterating that Cornwallis’s “presence in [South] Carolina” was imperative. By the time that communique arrived, Cornwallis’s army was marching not south but north, to Virginia.  

For weeks Cornwallis had been wrestling with his next move. He vowed that should Greene enter South Carolina, he would “run all hazards” to find and destroy him. As time passed, Cornwallis waffled. “I am quite tired of marching about the country in quest of adventures,” he declared, an expression of relent. The offensive-oriented Cornwallis abhorred the thought of returning to South Carolina to assume a defensive crouch and await Greene’s attack. Something else was gnawing at Cornwallis. He longed to restore a reputation tarnished by defeat at King’s Mountain and Cowpens and by his Pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse. He saw little hope of achieving that end by chasing Greene around South Carolina.

Cornwallis, like Clinton—and Washington—thought 1781 was to be the conflict’s decisive year. Cornwallis saw little to achieve in South Carolina that would assure a glorious end to this war for Great Britain. Learning that Phillips was in Virginia with a large army, Cornwallis made up his mind to take his 1,435 men there and assume command of Phillips’s force. On the eve of his departure, he urged Clinton to abandon New York and bring most of his troops to Virginia. The insurgency in South Carolina could not be crushed, he claimed, until “Virginia is in a manner subdued.”

By the time Cornwallis set off, he knew that Greene had entered South Carolina. Although he told Germain that the British troops in South Carolina were capable of defending what Britain possessed, Cornwallis, in his more candid moments, acknowledged that the “worst of consequences” was bound to happen.  He was prescient. Within weeks Greene had captured nearly every British installation outside of Charleston. Bastions “were daily dropping into the enemy’s hands,” was how a distraught Clinton put it.

Clinton never considered bringing his army to Virginia. He was not about to abandon New York and he knew that he lacked the resources to conquer Virginia. He believed his strategy offered the best chance for suppressing the rebellion in South Carolina before year’s end, but upon hearing that Cornwallis had gone to Virginia, he knew in an instant that his subordinate had taken a wrecking ball to his intricate construct.   

General Nathanael Greene’s tactics at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse cost the British 25 percent of their forces. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Although Clinton expected “implicit obedience” from his officers, he did not order Cornwallis to return to South Carolina. Clinton had recently received several letters in which Germain lavished praise on Cornwallis’s “decisive” manner and “vigorous exertions.” Germain further stated that he and the king earnestly favored “pushing our conquests” in Virginia, adding that retaking all the southern colonies—including Virginia—“is to be considered as the chief and principal object” of Clinton’s army. In this context, Clinton dared not order Cornwallis back to South Carolina.

Reaching Virginia in mid-May, Cornwallis tried and failed to bring Lafayette to battle. Tarleton came up mostly empty-handed when he raided Charlottesville intent on capturing Virginia’s legislature and Governor Jefferson. The lone feather in Cornwallis’s cap was a foray against a supply depot west of Richmond.

Meanwhile, Clinton improvised. He conceived a surprise raid on Philadelphia, a principal rebel provision depot and the conduit through which the rebel supply chain ran from New England down to the Carolinas. His plan was for Cornwallis to bring 3,000 men from Virginia and rendezvous with 3,000 troops and a naval task force sent from New York. With Washington’s army an estimated 10 days away, Clinton believed a lightning raid would sow widespread destruction, further erode American morale, and obliterate precious rebel stores “before they could be put into motion against me” in the coming Allied campaign for New York. The action might have changed the course of the war, but in June Cornwallis—whether from sincere doubt of the sally’s prospects or from stubborn commitment to conquering Virginia—responded negatively. Again, Clinton chose not to overrule his subordinate.

Late in June, mindful that the expected Allied campaign for New York was likely only weeks away, Clinton ordered Cornwallis to send 3,000 men and “a proportion of artillery” to New York. Cornwallis complied, sending the men and equipment to Portsmouth, Virginia, where transports waited. Loading for the voyage to New York was in progress when new orders arrived from Clinton canceling the “sailing of the expedition” to New York. Instead, Cornwallis’s army was to remain in Virginia and “maintain…a respectable defensive” installation on the York River, perhaps at Yorktown, a locale Phillips and the Admiralty thought serviceable for protecting British interests on Chesapeake Bay. Clinton had about-faced after receiving another letter from Germain. The secretary of state had expressed his “great mortification” at the removal of any troops from Virginia and iterated the king’s “unalterable” conviction that Virginia was be retaken.

Clinton was furious. Germain’s latest communique followed one written 60 days earlier in which he had ludicrously asserted that the enemy was so weak as to be unable to prevent “the speedy suppression of the rebellion.” Clinton knew better. He feared, too, that London’s meddling would deny him resources he needed to defend New York against a looming Allied onslaught. A dutiful soldier, he did as ordered. On August 1, Cornwallis’s army arrived in Yorktown.

When Washington learned that a French fleet had arrived in the Chesapeake Bay and was keeping the British bottled in in Yorktown, he concocted a plan to make it appear the Continental Army was going to besiege the British in New York and instead marched south. After surrounding the British lines and inflicting a month-long artillery barrage, Washington accepted Cornwallis’s surrender. (Painting by Rembrandt Peale)

Britain’s fate in this war was now all but sealed. Since the spring, Allied leaders had been contemplating either an attack on New York or an assault on the British army in Virginia. Washington advocated retaking Manhattan while Rochambeau—seeming to doubt that the British in New York could be defeated—leaned toward assailing the enemy in the Old Dominion. Three weeks after Cornwallis occupied Yorktown, Washington and Rochambeau learned that Admiral de Grasse’s task force had sailed for the Chesapeake. In a flash, their armies began their descent toward Yorktown.

On assuming command in 1778, Clinton had lamented that he was doomed to fail, but his circumstance was not inevitable. An accomplished strategist, he had fashioned a solid plan for 1781 to bring off Britain’s original southern strategy. Had what he imagined been implemented, not only might the rebellion been crushed in South Carolina and Georgia, but by late summer Virginia would have been home to so tiny a British army that the Allies might have sought a decisive victory in New York rather than at Yorktown. Clinton’s plan perished on the horns of two fatal choices: Cornwallis’s disobedience in abandoning South Carolina and misguided intrusion by officials in faraway London. Against his better judgment, Clinton was obliged to leave a large army on Virginia’s peninsula. Unbeknown to him in late August 1781, the pivotal moment of this long war, the British army in Virginia was in the bulls-eye of a gathering and superior Allied force.