February 10, 2006

The Dark (Southern) Side of 1776

I have realized before that the story we tell of the American Revolution is not a complete one, but until last week's reading, I had never realized how thoroughly incomplete it is. The Revolutionary War I learned about was one that the vast majority of colonial Americans were solidly behind, while the few loyalists spent the war shaking quietly with impotent rage or departing for more crown-friendly shores. Militarily we won some battles and lost some battles. Things got a bit dicey here and there, but ultimately we won. 'Nuff said. The real battle started when we had to form a stable government and write a constitution.

However, excerpts from The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism directed my attention to the American Revolution as it transpired in the South. The South, it seems, was not a good place to spend the Revolutionary War. While Washington struggled to stay one step ahead of the British in New England, the South dissolved into wild, ungovernable pockets of anarchy and civil war.

Whigs and Tories feuded ruthlessly with each other, and which party a man belonged to could change with the weather. If a group of Whigs raided your crops on Monday, you'd be Tory on Tuesday, but if a group of Tories stole your livestock on Wednesday, you'd be a Whig again by Thursday. Of course, it wasn't long before ordinary people stopped caring about who would win (if they ever had) and simply tried to survive. And amoral types could change sides with ease (or avoid faction labels altogether) in favor of simply taking material advantage of the confusion.

Naturally, the Revolution wrought economic havoc in every state. Some profited off of the war, and many more were completely ruined. With economic stability overturned, the existence of social classes, even in some places in the South, could be seen as being temporarily in flux. Much of the world as it existed before the war started had to be pushed momentarily to the side in order to cope with larger concerns.

Meanwhile the Whig leadership struggled to maintain control over their immediate surroundings (primarily the coastal cities), abandoning the backcountry to govern itself (which it didn't). The militia was entirely beyond anyone's control, even the generals'. One military commander didn't dare to call upon his own troops, knowing that 3 in 4 of them were loyal to the opposite side. In good Scotch-Irish fashion, members of the backcountry militia followed no one's orders but their own. A general had to be persuasive and diplomatic in addition to being a brilliant tactician.

The Tory leadership had an interesting role to play in all this as well. For instance, approximately four score and seven years before Abraham Lincoln set the slaves free with the Emancipation Proclomation, the royal governor of Virginia tried to pull the same stunt on his disaffected state (with less satisfactory results). When news of this reached Maryland, they immediately closed off all contact with their sister-state, desperate to contain that particular phenomenon, lest the contagion spread.

Ultimately, General Nathanael Greene and General Cornwallis both realized the necessity in the South of winning over the hearts and minds of the people. A true military victory would be impossible to achieve, and fighting could go on indefinitely so long as a significant number of the opposing side could attack from the safety of the swamp. Both leaders turned their attention to winning men over to their side rather than killing men on the other side.

Of course, battles still took place. One amusing anecdote involves the afterwath of an encounter between Greene's and Cornwallis' forces. Greene had outnumbered Cornwallis two to one, but had allowed his army to be driven back into the swamp, knowing the British lacked the strength to pursue. Cornwallis, camping in the shadow of a largely pro-Tory settlement, enjoyed the attention of a steady stream of local well-wishers in and out of the camp, visiting to offer verbal support and shake his hand. But none of them would actually pick up arms and join the British.

Ultimately, of course, the British were forced to withdraw thanks to a variety of factors, not the least of which was that trouble brewing across the English Channel trumped trouble across the Atlantic. What the war left behind in the South was the knowledge on the part of the elite upper-class that they could no longer hope to govern as they pleased. The masses must be appeased in order to maintain power and avoid internal violence.

Posted by Jared at February 10, 2006 11:27 AM | TrackBack