June 30, 2024 at 12:05 a.m.
Guest Columnist

Not Everyone Was A Staunch Patriot

South Carolina Governor Edward Rutledge
South Carolina Governor Edward Rutledge
(Image Source: Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.)

Many Americans think of the Revolutionary War only as a conflict between the American colonists and the British, but the conflict was also a civil war. Colonists could be supporters of British rule, known as Loyalists, or Patriots, opponents of British rule. Loyalists and Patriots fought against one another in all thirteen colonies. Native Americans, both enslaved and free black people in the colonies, and the French also fought with Loyalists or Patriots to help each side during the war. Factions were divided, and alliances and conflicts between these groups helped determine how the war was conducted in its final year.

Every state had its share of Loyalists and Patriots. Some areas of the colonies, such as those in New England, were strong supporters of the Patriot cause and were supportive of independence. But the conflict between Loyalists and Patriots was particularly strong in North Carolina. North Carolinians fought several of the Revolutionary War’s most consequential battles mainly against fellow residents of the state. South Carolina shared many of the same challenges.

On June 28, 1776, Edward Rutledge, one of South Carolina’s representatives to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, expresses his reluctance to declare independence from Britain in a letter to the like-minded John Jay of New York who would later be the first Chief Justice of the United States.

Contrary to the majority of his Congressional colleagues, Rutledge advocated patience with regards to declaring independence. In a letter to Jay, one of New York’s representatives who was similarly disinclined to rush a declaration, Rutledge worried whether moderates like himself and Jay could “effectually oppose” a resolution for independence. Jay had urgent business in New York and therefore was not able to be present for the debates. Thus, Rutledge wrote of his concerns.

Rutledge was born in Charleston, to a physician who had emigrated from Ireland. Edward’s elder brother John studied law at London’s Middle Temple before returning to set up a lucrative practice in Charleston. Edward followed suit and studied first at Oxford University before being admitted to the English bar at the Middle Temple. He too returned to Charleston, where he married and started a family in a house across the street from his brother. As revolutionary politics roiled the colonies, first John, then Edward served as South Carolina’s representative to the Continental Congress. Neither Rutledge brother was eager to sever ties with Great Britain, but it fell to Edward to sign the Declaration of Independence and create the appearance of unanimity to strengthen the Patriots’ stand. At age 26, Edward Rutledge was the youngest American to literally risk his neck by signing the document.

Fortunately, this proven to be a good decision that served him well. Edward Rutledge held a variety of distinguished public offices until 1798. He served in the South Carolina legislature from 1782 to 1798 and voted in favor of ratification of the U.S. Constitution in the South Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1790-1791. During his time in the legislature drew up the act which abolished primogeniture, worked to give equitable distribution of the real estate of intestates, as well as voting against opening the African slave trade. Rutledge declined President George Washington’s offer of a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1794, but ran for office and was elected Governor of South Carolina in December 1798.

Rutledge was not the only member of the Continental Congress who initially opposed the war. In fact, one member of the Constitutional Convention, William Johnson of Connecticut, had been a loyalist.  As I mentioned, every state had patriots and loyalists…

In North Carolina, some Loyalists were former members of the Regulator movement. During the 1760s and early 1770s, Regulators opposed colonial authority. They spent nearly a decade attacking tax collectors and marching against the royal government. But many of the Patriot leaders in North Carolina had been opponents of the Regulators and had defeated them in battle. Backcountry loyalists hated these Patriots nearly as much as they hated colonial authorities.

The Loyalists in the North Carolina backcountry fought Patriots from the early days of the war. In July 1775, royal governor Josiah Martin fled to a ship off the coast of North Carolina. From there, he issued a call for Loyalists to march east and take back the capital New Bern. Martin praised the Loyalists of the backcountry in his August 1775 proclamation that ordered the colony to stop rebelling. He noted “His Majesty's faithful and loyal subjects in the Interior and Western Counties of this Province” and praised them for their “steadfast duty to their King and Country that hath hitherto resisted all the black artifices of falsehood, Sedition, and Treason…”

Many Loyalists, mostly from the Cape Fear River Valley area, answered Martin’s call. They formed an army near present-day Fayetteville, led by men such as Donald MacLeod, Donald MacDonald, and John Campbell, and reached the vicinity of Wilmington. The two armies met at Moore’s Creek Bridge near Wilmington in February 1776. At the following battle, the Patriots routed the Loyalists in February 1776. The entire Loyalist army was captured. Loyalist sentiment decreased for several years following this battle.

The conflict grew substantially after the British captured Charleston, South Carolina, in early 1780. At that time, the British army started to move into the backcountry. British leaders called for Loyalist troops. Large numbers of Loyalists from North and South Carolina answered and formed sizable militia companies. They helped the British win key battles in South Carolina such as the Battles of Waxhaws and Camden.

In most battles, Loyalist militias fought alongside regular British soldiers. But at the Battle of Kings Mountain, they were mostly left to their own. The Battle of Kings Mountain took place near the South Carolina–North Carolina border and was the largest militia-only battle of the war. Patriots led by Benjamin Cleveland, Isaac Shelby, and others surprised and surrounded a Loyalist force. The Patriot militia killed the Loyalists’ leading officer, Patrick Ferguson, and captured more than 600 men.

After Kings Mountain, North Carolina Loyalists were mainly reduced to skirmishes and small conflicts. They supported the successful raids of David Fanning, a successful Loyalist guerrilla who once kidnapped the governor of North Carolina. But their strength never reached the heights of early 1780, and Fanning’s men were eventually defeated. Following the British surrender at Yorktown, many Loyalists lost their property and fled the country, often moving to England or Canada. Some stayed and, despite losing much of their land and often facing legal challenges, contributed to the growth of the new state of North Carolina.


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