American Revolution

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Why did the British Southern Strategy fail?

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The "Southern Strategy" was aimed at severing the Southern states (or colonies, as the British still imagined them) from the North. In this way, they would break the essential stalemate that had emerged in the war in the North, one which cost increasing quantities of British lives and treasure without yielding decisive victories. It was premised on the idea, promoted by former British royal governors, that the Southern colonies were full of Loyalists, who would emerge en masse after a British invasion. The British also thought that rebel leaders, especially in South Carolina, would be frightened by the prospect of massive slave uprisings, and would therefore offer little resistance.

The strategy met with initial success after the fall of the city of Charles Town, the largest city in the South, in 1780. But as the British entered the countryside, things became more confused. Many Loyalists did indeed emerge, but most Carolinians seemed reluctant to openly support the British. In fact, one of the aftereffects of the British invasion was a brutal civil war between Loyalists and Whig partisans in the Carolina backcountry that lasted until 1783. The British were constantly harassed by partisan fighters, and their attempts at retribution, which were on several occasions quite brutal, served to galvanize many of their enemies. In any case, the British were not able to put Southern governments into Loyalist hands—there were simply not enough of them to maintain control of South Carolina and North Carolina.

Along with lack of Loyalist support, another reason the so-called Southern Strategy failed was the strategy pursued by the Continental Army under General Nathanael Greene (as well as the ill-advised response to it by British General Cornwallis.) Greene, as Washington had done in the North, refused to commit his forces to an all-out battle, instead drawing Cornwallis deeper into the backcountry and away from his supply lines. A series of tactical defeats caused Cornwallis so many casualties that the British general thought it necessary to end his campaign. This is what led him to Yorktown, where his forces were bottled up by Continental and French forces and denied naval support by the French navy. So, in short, the Southern Strategy failed because of a misunderstanding of the political realities in the Carolinas as well as poor campaigning by British leaders.

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There are three connected reasons why the British failed when they tried to use a “southern strategy” in the Revolutionary War.  This strategy was based on the idea that there were many Loyalists in the South who would be helpful to the British.  This was a miscalculation and the British actions in the South made things even worse.

To begin with, there were not as many Loyalists willing to fight as the British might have thought.  One reason for this was a fear of retaliation.  It could be dangerous to fight for one side or the other in this war as the other side might kill your family.  This meant that more people preferred to stay neutral if they could. 

The second factor was the American strategy in the South.  The Americans did not engage in many pitched battles in this region.  Here, more than in the North, the war was more like a guerrilla war.  The American forces under General Nathanael Greene used hit and run tactics and forced the British to chase them across the countryside.  This was a problem for the British in part because it depleted their supplies and their manpower without really giving them a chance to strike a decisive blow.

Finally, the guerrilla strategy and the British response to it reduced support for the British even further.  As the British chased the Americans through the countryside, they tended to “live off the land.”  This meant that they were taking supplies from farmers.  When they did this, they tended to make new enemies as people who might once have been neutral came to have a better reason to want to work against the British.

In these ways, the British strategy failed because they overestimated the amount of support they would get from Loyalists.

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