The War in the South: Lord Cornwallis’s 1781 Proclamation

Author:   Charles Cornwallis


British policy in the South was based on several miscalculations. Britain had decided to concentrate its military efforts in the South because it believed it could count on significant support from Southern loyalists. The British military, however, failed to provide loyalists with effective protection. In South Carolina, for example, guerrilla bands harassed loyalists who aided British forces.

Britain not only exaggerated the strength of southern loyalism, it also exaggerated the effectiveness of traditional, European-style battle tactics. Despite superior numbers and artillery, the British were extremely vulnerable to guerrilla tactics. The American militia ambushed supply trains, terrorized loyalists, and thwarted British control over the backcountry. When Cornwallis massed his troops for battle, the soldiers offered ready targets for American sharpshooters.

Finally, the British believed that the fact that they had the world’s best navy guaranteed that they would win the war. They confidently assumed that their navy gave them superior mobility, permitting them to move troops rapidly by sea while American soldiers marched overland. But this advantage, too, proved illusory. While the British could seize coastal cities, they faced punishing popular resistance whenever they ventured into the interior.

After becoming convinced that he could not conquer South Carolina, Cornwallis marched his men to the North Carolina coast and found this to be a highly discouraging experience. In a letter to Sir Henry Clinton he wrote: “I have experienced the distresses and dangers of marching some hundreds of miles in a country chiefly hostile, without one active or useful friend; without intelligence, and without communication with any part of the country.”

In February 1781, when Cornwallis invited loyalists in North Carolina to join his forces, few responded. Convinced that he could not win in the lower South, he retreated to Wilmington, on the coast of North Carolina, and then retreated again to Yorktown, Virginia, on Chesapeake Bay.


Whereas it has pleased the Divine Providence to prosper the operations of His Majesty’s Arms, in drawing the Rebel Army out of this Province [North Carolina] and Whereas it is His Majesty’s most gracious Wish to rescue the faithful & loyal subjects from the cruel Tyranny under which they have groaned of several years. I have thought proper to issue this Proclamation to invite all such loyal & faithful subjects to repair without loss of time with their arms & ten days Provisions to the Royal headquarters now erected at Hillsborough, where they will meet with the most friendly reception, and I do hereby assure them that I am ready to concur with them in effectual measures for suppressing the remains of Rebellion in this Province & for the establishment of good order & constitutional government.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute