South Carolina | Jan 17, 1781
By late 1778, the British high command proceeded with their “Southern Strategy.” Why did they choose this new “Southern Strategy?” Simply put, economics. The New England colonies produced many of the same products and goods as the British Isles, but the Southern Colonies were a different story. Rice, indigo, tobacco, and other cash crops abounded. Crops that could not be produced in the British Isles. The institution of chattel slavery helped to keep the wholesale prices of these products low, and British mercantilism could profit from cornering the market and selling the goods for substantial profits. Many leaders in London felt that the Southern people supported Toryism, and by default were more apt to take up arms as loyalists. These loyalist forces could be relied upon to bolster the British war effort lending manpower to an army that had been at war with their own colonists since 1775. However, in the South Carolina Low Country, British soldiers freed southern planters’ greatest source of labor and income—enslaved workers. While in the Backcountry, British officers used threats and intimidation against the population. Thus, by alienating the population, the British had difficulty rallying sympathetic allies to their cause, while exacerbating the civil war within a civil war. With little loyalist support, they faced greater challenges in battle as the campaign in the South continued.
The South Carolina backcountry turned out to be Britain’s undoing. The colonial population there was split between patriots and loyalists. The territory was essentially engaged in civil war, with neighbor pitted against neighbor. Both sides organized militias and engaged in armed raids and reprisals. Into this hostile arena, General George Washington sent Major General Nathanael Greene to take command of the Southern Army. Greene, just two weeks into his command, split his force, sending Brigadier General Daniel Morgan southwest of the Catawba River to cut supply lines and hamper British operations.
General Cornwallis, the British commander in the South, countered Greene’s move by sending Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to block Morgan’s progress. Tarleton was only 26 years old, but he was already an able commander. He was also feared and hated. At the Battle of Waxhaws in 1780, Tarleton was alleged to have attacked Continental Army troops who were trying to surrender. His refusal of offering “no quarter,” is said to be the derivation of the derisive term “Tarleton’s Quarter,” meaning “taking no prisoners.” Morgan’s brilliant victory over Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens was humiliating for the elite British army officer. His loss directly contributed to Cornwallis’s defeat in the southern colonies, the British surrender at Yorktown, and American independence.
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