This dissertation examines the dynamics of political violence in the Revolutionary South from 1774 to 1776 as manifested in the rebels’ strategy to overthrow the royal provincial governments in that region. It connects the failure of the British to recapture the southern provinces beginning in 1779 to this strategy implemented early in the war. It also offers a logic to the violence of the war in the South, which is often depicted as random and lacking any broader purpose but annihilation of the American Loyalists.
British strategy for the southern colonies throughout the war was heavily reliant on the support of Loyalists, a reality that the rebels understood even before the war began. Most historians who have written on the British southern strategy have argued that the British failure was due to exaggerated reports of Loyalist strength in the South, usually the result of misleading reports from self-interested Loyalist officials or officials in London who had no better solution and grasped desperately for any proposal that looked promising. These historians have often drawn their evidence from the letters of General Charles, Lord Cornwallis, who had similar complaints about the Loyalists, who he believed were to blame for his lack of success.
Recently historians have started to question this historiographical argument, suggesting that those of Loyalist sentiment were more numerous and willing to act than previously assumed. As with their earlier counterparts, however, these historians suggest the rebels undertook an indiscriminate and brutal campaign of violence aimed at simply eradicating Loyalists in a process reminiscent of The Terror to come in the French Revolution. The rebels’ strategy instead emphasized control more than indiscriminate destruction. They were not attempting to eradicate an irreconcilable population or “purify” their society, the actions typically associated with revolutionary violence. The real threat for the rebels was the British rather than the Loyalists. As a result they used violent as well as non-violent measures to control the Loyalists and prevent them from supporting the British. So long as they could maintain that control, they often avoided expending the resources that would have been required to capture, imprison, and even execute large numbers of Loyalists.
The rebels maintained this strategy of control throughout the war, even through conventional military defeats. Though the British had a number of battlefield victories beginning in 1779, they did not understand how to leverage Loyalist support. They instead expected Loyalists to find their own way to British lines, over miles of territory controlled by the rebels. When this did not yield the expected support, the British blamed the Loyalists, calling them weak, lazy, and indifferent. The British debated whether they should organize support through conciliatory measures, including offering political incentives, or through punitive measures to punish those who did not actively support the British. The historiography mirrors this debate, but neither measure would have brought the British success. They did not understand how the rebels maintained their control over the population, did not prioritize intelligence or other measures that would allow them to tell friend from foe and isolate rebels from the population, and failed to temper expectations for the long-term process of organizing and training Loyalist militia. The British southern strategy was not a hopeless cause, even as late in the war as 1779. The fundamental mistake the British made was instead in failing to first understand their opponent’s strategy.