The American Revolution was fought successfully against the greatest military and economic power of the 18th Century and one that had a longer imperial reach than any other. Yet in the end Great Britain gave up its North American colonies after the defeat at Yorktown in 1781 and the collapse of Lord North’s ministry. Over 200,000 men fought in the Continental Army at one time or another and perhaps even more in the local at state militias, an enormous number in a country with a white population of only about two million. In addition to the conventional battles that have been well-covered in the traditional histories, there were a far larger number of skirmishes and ambushes by local militias and irregular forces that made British control impossible outside of large towns and garrison areas. Throughout North America in 1775-81 there was widespread use of “threats, terrorism, and irregular or guerilla warfare, that are at once most difficult to stop and most likely to change docile, obedient subjects into unhappy, suggestible people.”1
In addition, the British continually overestimated the size and strength of the Loyalist population, including in New Jersey in 1776, New York and Pennsylvania in 1777-78, and in the South during the last phase of the war. Heavy-handed treatment of the local population by German mercenaries, Loyalists and regular British troops also alienated neutrals and half-hearted rebels, who found “no advantage in submission to government and came to see flight, destruction, or resistance as the only available alternatives.”2 By 1779-80, Lord North had already concluded that the war was lost, but King George III feared that if Britain lost North America, other colonies would revolt, including Ireland. Therefore, the North ministry “staked its political life on the success of pacification in the South”, and when this failed it fell from power.3
As in the North, the British and the Loyalist allies could not really control the periphery away from the coasts and large towns and garrisons, and from Georgia to the Carolinas “irregular bands made complete physical security unattainable for many pacified areas.”4 The British government badly misjudged the true situation in the South and imagined that the majority of whites were Loyalists eager to “overthrow their tyrannical Whig governments when British military power appeared.”5 Loyalists comprised only about 20% of the white population, and even though the majority may have been neutral or lukewarm, they were not ready to openly support the British cause. British forces could win large-scale conventional battles at Charleston and Camden, and could control towns, crossroads, forts and major garrison areas, but they could not guarantee the loyalty of the population outside of well-guarded safe havens. They required all white males to take public oaths of loyalty to the king, but “open demonstrations of loyalty often depended on the assured presence of regular British troops.”6
As long as Whig guerillas, irregulars and militias were still in the field, led by Francis Marion, James McCall and Elijah Clarke, they kept up continued pressure on neutrals, as well as the British and Loyalists. Lord Cornwallis had only about 6,000 troops under his command, far too few to ever really control this vast territory, and the war weary British government was not prepared to make any more major expenditures in this campaign. Even many of those who took the oath and proclaimed themselves to be Loyalists turned out to be highly unreliable in the end. Whig guerillas and militias also fought “a relentless and savage war against their loyalist neighbors” in which no prisoners were taken, and a war of skirmishes, ambushes and repeated harassing attacks on British forts and garrisons.7 In the end, Britain simply did not have the loyalty of the majority of the white population, and learned this lesson repeatedly from 1776-81, which is why all attempts at pacification failed. As long as the Whig-Patriot forces remained in the field and made British administration impossible in most areas, they were winning the war. They did not require the active and open support of the entire population, but only enough to make life impossible for the British military and civil administration, until finally the government in London gave up on the war.
Rauch, Steven J. "Southern (Dis) Comfort: British Phase IV Operations in South Carolina and Georgia, May-September 1780." in Richard G. Davis (ed) The U.S. Army and Irregular Warfare, 1775-2007. Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 2007, pp. 33-58.
Shy, John. "The Military Conflict Considered as a Revolutionary War” in Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson (eds) Essays on the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973. pp. 121-156.