DG MARTIN COLUMN: Where the Revolutionary War was won

Published 9:23 am Monday, July 8, 2024

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Last week we celebrated the anniversary of the July 4, 1776, Declaration of Independence.

D.G. Martin

This declaration, important as it was and is, did not deliver the independence it declared. It took eight years of fighting for the American former colonists to gain that recognition.
A new book by Alan Pell Crawford, “This Fierce People: The Untold Story of America’s Revolutionary War,” relates the story of the final three years of the that war.
Crawford is also the author of “Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson,” and he reviews books for the Wall Street Journal.
Crawford believes that the major historians of the American Revolution do not give sufficient attention to the war in the South.
“Even educated Americans think of the War of Independence almost exclusively in terms of stirring stories about its beginnings — Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Washington crossing the Delaware, the cruel winter at Valley Forge — in which ‘embattled farmers’ and ‘citizens in arms’ led by Washington triumph over the greatest military power in the world.”
The problem, Crawford says is “that much of the war took place not in the North but in the South, and that is where the most decisive battles — those that forced the British surrender at Yorktown — were fought. Washington himself remained in New York and New Jersey, primarily for most of the war.
“It was not until late summer of 1781 in route to Yorktown that he crossed the Potomac, more than three years after the last battle in the north, at Monmouth, took place. The events that forced the British to give up the fight are given short shrift, and the surrender at Yorktown, in most histories of the war occurs almost as if by magic.”
Crawford opens his account in March 1780 with the British siege of Charles Town, South Carolina. At the surrender on May 12, 5,500 Continental soldiers became British prisoners. When General Washington learned of the surrender, he said that the only “American army worthy of the name left in the South had been lost.”
In August 1780 British troops under the command of Gen. Charles Cornwallis faced American troops led by Horatio Gates at Camden, South Carolina. The result was that “In little more than an hour, some nine hundred men in Gates’s army had been either killed or wounded.”
Gates himself fled the battlefield.
He was seen fleeing toward Charlotte on the day of the battle itself, covering 60 miles that afternoon and another 120 the next day, astonishing officers in the Carolinas and elsewhere with the speed by which he fled the scene — and also by what they interpreted as his cowardness.
The victory of the Americans in October 1780 at Kings Mountain is familiar to all who took North Carolina history in school. Crawford writes, “something seemingly impossible had occurred: an outnumbered gaggle of utterly untrained volunteers — that ‘swarm of backwoodsmen,’ had whipped a larger force of well-disciplined, well-supplied provincials and militiamen under the command of one of the most experienced and capable of British officers,” meaning Patrick Ferguson.
In December 1780, Gen. Nathanael Greene arrived in the Carolinas to take charge of the meager Southern forces. As Crawford explains, Greene knew that although it might be impossible to beat the British in large battle, the Americans could pester them by attacking them and winning small battles.
The tide had turned. In January 1781, under the leadership of Daniel Morgan at Cowpens, the Americans won an important victory, leading to Greene’s confrontation against Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse.
Cornwallis claimed victory because his troops held the battlefield, but his army was so damaged that it retreated to Wilmington and then to Virginia where it surrendered at Yorktown, in the South, proving Crawford is correct in asserting the region’s importance in the Revolutionary War.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”