War in the South

Learning Objectives

  • Outline the British southern strategy and its results
  • Analyze the relative military strengths and weaknesses of England and the colonies during the war
  • Describe key American victories at the end of the war

By 1778, the war had turned into a stalemate. Although some in Britain, including Prime Minister Lord North, wanted peace, King George III demanded that the colonies be brought to obedience. To break the deadlock, the British revised their strategy and turned their attention to the southern colonies, where they could expect more support from Loyalists. The southern colonies soon became the center of the fighting. The southern strategy brought the British success at first, but thanks to the leadership of George Washington and General Nathanael Greene and the crucial assistance of French forces, the Continental Army defeated the British at Yorktown, effectively ending further large-scale operations during the war.

Georgia and South Carolina

The British architect of the war strategy, Lord George Germain, believed Britain would gain the upper hand with the support of Loyalists, slaves, and Indian allies in the South, and indeed, this southern strategy initially achieved great success. The British began their southern campaign by capturing Savannah, the capital of Georgia, in December 1778. In Georgia, they found support from thousands of enslaved people who ran to the British side to escape their bondage. As the British regained political control in Georgia, they forced the inhabitants to swear allegiance to the king and formed twenty Loyalist regiments. The Continental Congress had suggested that enslaved people be given freedom if they joined the Patriot army against the British, but revolutionaries in Georgia and South Carolina refused to consider this proposal. Once again, the Revolution served to further divisions over race and slavery.

After taking Georgia, the British turned their attention to South Carolina. Before the Revolution, South Carolina had been starkly divided between the backcountry, which harbored revolutionary partisans, and the coastal regions, where Loyalists remained a powerful force. Waves of violence rocked the backcountry from the late 1770s into the early 1780s. The Revolution provided an opportunity for residents to fight over their local resentments and antagonisms with murderous consequences. Revenge killings and the destruction of property became mainstays in the savage civil war that gripped the South.

In April 1780, a British force of eight thousand soldiers besieged American forces in Charleston. After six weeks of the Siege of Charleston, the British triumphed. General Benjamin Lincoln, who led the effort for the revolutionaries, had to surrender his entire force, the largest American loss during the entire war. Many of the defeated Americans were placed in jails or in British prison ships anchored in Charleston Harbor. The British established a military government in Charleston under the command of General Sir Henry Clinton. From this base, Clinton ordered General Charles Cornwallis to subdue the rest of South Carolina.

Image (a) shows a 1780 British map of Charleston with details of the locations of Continental forces. A portrait of General Nathanael Greene is shown in image (b).

Figure 1. This 1780 map of Charleston (a), which shows details of the Continental defenses, was probably drawn by British engineers in anticipation of the attack on the city. The Siege of Charleston was one of a series of defeats for the Continental forces in the South, which led the Continental Congress to place General Nathanael Greene (b), shown here in a 1783 portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, in command of American forces in the South in late 1780. Greene led his troops to two crucial victories.

The disaster at Charleston led the Continental Congress to change leadership by placing General Horatio Gates in charge of American forces in the South. However, General Gates fared no better than General Lincoln; at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina in August 1780, Cornwallis forced General Gates to retreat into North Carolina. Camden was one of the worst disasters suffered by American armies during the entire Revolutionary War. Congress again changed military leadership, this time placing General Nathanael Greene in command in December 1780.

A painting depicts American general Benjamin Lincoln holding out his hand to receive the British general’s sword as he formally surrenders. General George Washington is in the background, mounted on horseback. British and American troops are lined up, at attention, on opposite sides of the field; the Americans stand under an American flag, while the British soldiers stand under a white flag.

Figure 2. The 1820 painting above, by John Trumbull, is titled Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, but Cornwallis actually sent his general, Charles O’Hara, to perform the ceremonial surrendering of the sword. The painting depicts General Benjamin Lincoln holding out his hand to receive the sword. General George Washington is in the background on the brown horse, since he refused to accept the sword from anyone but Cornwallis himself.

As the British had hoped, large numbers of Loyalists helped ensure the success of the southern strategy, and thousands of enslaved people seeking freedom arrived to aid Cornwallis’s army. However, the war turned in the Americans’ favor in 1781. General Greene realized that to defeat Cornwallis, he did not have to win a single battle. So long as he remained in the field, he could destroy isolated British forces, gaining a tactical advantage by continually weakening the British Army. Greene therefore made a strategic decision to divide his own troops to wage war—and the strategy worked. American forces under General Daniel Morgan decisively beat the British at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina. General Cornwallis now abandoned his strategy of defeating the backcountry rebels in South Carolina. Determined to destroy Greene’s army, he gave chase as Greene strategically retreated north into North Carolina. At the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, the British prevailed on the battlefield but suffered extensive losses, an outcome that paralleled the Battle of Bunker Hill nearly six years earlier in June 1775.

Advantages and Disadvantages

When the fighting began in 1775, the notion that the militias of the 13 colonies could defeat the British seemed unimaginable. The British population outnumbered the colonists substantially (7.5 million to 2.5 million). The British had the world’s finest army and navy, and maintaining their empire meant their military was experienced. The Americans had neither. Yet, the years of war made clear the relative strengths and weaknesses of both sides.

While the British military was widely considered the world’s best, fighting a war 3,000 miles from home is never easy. Military and political leaders in London issued orders without a clear understanding of the situation on the ground, and those orders took months to arrive. The British military had before it an incredibly difficult task—complete domination of a vast colonial territory, and compromise was not an option. The government in London would settle for nothing more than total victory.

The Americans also had their difficulties. When the war began, there was no army or navy, only poorly organized militia units. Creating an army and navy is no easy task under any circumstances but doing so while fighting a war was even more challenging. Yet, the Americans enjoyed distinct advantages, including exceptional military leadership in George Washington. The Americans had a self-sustaining agricultural base, a crucial advantage in keeping the people and troops fed during the long years of struggle. Colonists’ experience as farmers on the frontier meant they were far better marksmen than their British counterparts, and, perhaps most significantly, colonists believed their cause was just and they were fighting for their homes.[1]

Try It

Link to Learning

If you did not already watch the video about the major battles of the war from a previous page, you can watch this video from the American Battlefield Trust that focuses on just the major battles and strategies pertaining to the Southern Front during the Revolutionary War.


Click through each of the slides in this activity to review some of the major battles and strategies involved in the Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War.


In the summer of 1781, Cornwallis moved his army to Yorktown, Virginia. He expected the Royal Navy to transport his army to New York, where he thought he would join General Sir Henry Clinton. Yorktown was a tobacco port on a peninsula, and Cornwallis believed the British navy would be able to keep the coast clear of rebel ships. Sensing an opportunity, a combined French and American force of sixteen thousand men swarmed the peninsula in September 1781. Washington raced south with his forces, now a disciplined army, as did the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau with their French troops. The French Admiral de Grasse sailed his naval force into Chesapeake Bay, preventing Lord Cornwallis from taking a seaward escape route.

In October 1781, the American forces began the battle for Yorktown, and after a siege that lasted eight days, Lord Cornwallis capitulated on October 19. Tradition says that during the surrender of his troops, the British band played “The World Turned Upside Down,” a song that befitted the Empire’s unexpected reversal of fortune.

Watch It

This video explains the context of the British surrender at Yorktown.

You can view the transcript for “Yorktown Chapter 10 The Surrender” here (opens in new window).

“The World Turned Upside Down”

The World Turned Upside Down,” a traditional English ballad from the seventeenth century, reputedly played during the surrender of the British at Yorktown. It was also the theme of a popular British print that circulated in the 1790s. Even today, the title words are referenced in a song from Hamilton: An American MusicalYorktown (The World Turned Upside Down).

A sixteen-paneled print shows a series of images in which animals and humans switch places; women adopt men’s roles; fish fly through the air; and the sun, moon, and stars appear below the earth.

Figure 1. In many of the images in this popular print, entitled “The World Turned Upside Down or the Folly of Man,” animals and humans have switched places. In one, children take care of their parents, while in another, the sun, moon, and stars appear below the earth.

Why do you think these images were popular in Great Britain in the decade following the Revolutionary War? What would these images imply to Americans?

Visit the Public Domain Review to explore the images in an eighteenth-century British chapbook (a pamphlet for tracts or ballads) titled “The World Turned Upside Down.” The chapbook is illustrated with woodcuts similar to those in the popular print mentioned above.

Try It

Review Question

Describe the British southern strategy and its results.


Battle of Cowpens: site of a 1781 battle in South Carolina that proved to be a decisive victory for the Americans

Yorktown: the Virginia port where British General Cornwallis surrendered to American forces

  1. Greg D. Feldmeth, "American Revolution," U.S. History Resources, http://faculty.polytechnic.org/gfeldmeth/lec.rev.html.