Initial British rule in the colonies was predominantly characterized by an unofficial policy of “salutary neglect” (a term coined by British MP Edmund Burke in a speech delivered in May 1775). This policy allowed the colonies a great deal of autonomy and self-rule by leaving the day-to-day administration of the colonies to the royal governors and the colonists’ own representative legislatures. Trade and tax policies were also only leniently enforced. After the British victory in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), however, the British Government began to much more actively enforce trade and tax policies. This generated a great deal of resentment and hostility among the colonists, who felt the British Government was running roughshod over local governments and over popular consent. After their appeals to Parliament and the Crown were ignored, the colonists’ resentment and hostility erupted into outright rebellion.
In the first few years of the war, neither side was able to gain the upper hand militarily. The British captured New York and Philadelphia but they were forced to evacuate Boston, and General Washington achieved an important victory at the Battle of Trenton. In 1777, the British devised a plan to drive from Lake Champlain to New York City, thereby cutting New England off from the rest of the colonies and, they hoped, bringing a rapid end to the conflict. The British offensive was halted by the Americans at the Battles of Saratoga (September 19-October 17, 1777). The American victory at Saratoga was a turning point in the war, giving the seemingly ill-fated rebellion the momentum it needed to succeed by fostering a French alliance. The French had been supplying the Americans with weapons, ammunition, and other supplies, but they entered the war on the side of the Americans after the victory at Saratoga. General Horatio Gates received credit for this victory even though it was due in greater part to Benedict Arnold instead. This slight was a key reason for Arnold's defection to the British and become one of the most notorious traitors in American history.
After the Battles of Saratoga and France's subsequent entry into the war, the British abandoned major military operations in the northern colonies and focused on the southern colonies instead. The British expected the capture of Charleston, South Carolina in 1780 to lead to the hasty submission of the Southern colonies, but the American troops avoided surrender by shunning major battles and concentrating on guerilla warfare.
Battle of Waxhaws, South Carolina, 1780
The Battle of Waxhaws on May 29, 1780 was one of the most infamous engagements in the American Revolution. British Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s loyalist dragoons attacked Colonel Abraham Buford’s Virginian Continental infantry and easily routed them. Buford’s men attempted to surrender but during the chaos of the battle many were slain. Andrew Jackson, then only 13 years old, was present during the aftermath of the battle, as dramatized in this engraving.
Hollow Square at Hanging Rock, South Carolina, 1780
The Battle of Hanging Rock took place on August 6, 1780, over the course of three hours. Although many of the poorly supplied Continental soldiers fainted from extreme thirst, the Americans won the fight – the British lost 192 soldiers; only 12 Americans died.
The Battle of King's Mountain, North Carolina, 1780
The first governor of the state of Tennessee was also a veteran of America’s first war. Sevier served in the North Carolina militia fighting in frontier battles in the southern United States, most famously at King’s Mountain, where the militia met and defeated British troops and loyalists on October 7, 1780. He discusses the specifics of the engagement in these letters to Kentucky’s first governor, Isaac Shelby, who was also a militia officer at King’s Mountain:
...I am no little astonished at their insolence, that they should have the effrontery, to say you were not in the Battle of King’s Mountain or that you were only a Lieutenant or Subaltern. It is well known you were in the heat of that action. I frequently saw you animating your men to victory during the engagement, and in every particular conducting in that gallant, brave manner that was truly characteristic of the Officer and the Soldier. At the surrender, you were the first field officer I spoke to, or that I recollect to have seen near the place where the British Commander, Ferguson, fell. I have no doubt you must recollect, that Col. Campbell was some considerable distance from that place at that time, and that you and myself spoke on that subject the same evening. I perfectly recollect on my seeing you towards the close of the action, that I observed your hair on one side of your head, I believe on the left, was very much burnt off, and that I swore by G_d they had burnt off your hair. In respect to your command, it is well known by some hundreds in the State of Tennessee that you were a Colonel, as I also was myself, and that we were the only persons who set foot on the expedition, and had considerable trouble to get Col. Campbell with his Virginia troops to join us. As to the plan of attacking the enemy, you were the only person who first named the mode to me, and the same was acceded to unanimously. No doubt you recollect we agreed on the manner of attack immediately after Ferguson’s spies were taken, while we were a little in the front of our army, and as we were returning back to see Campbell and the other officers....
"A pitiful poltroon and coward"
John Sevier also became bitter enemies with the man who would turn out to be one of Tennessee’s greatest military figures . . . Andrew Jackson. Tennessee’s constitution limited the governor to three consecutive terms in office, so upon completing his third term as governor, Sevier left office, fully expecting to become Major General of the Tennessee militia (a position elected by the officers of the militia). Jackson, however, also put himself forward for the position. When the vote was tied between the two men, Governor Roane (a personal friend of Jackson) cast the deciding vote in favor his friend. Sevier was incensed at being denied the position, especially since it went to someone who, as yet, had no military experience.
Relations between Sevier and Jackson worsened during the next gubernatorial elections. Sevier ran for governor again and, during the campaign, Jackson accused Sevier of fraud involving land grants. While Jackson’s accusations were most likely true, they could not be proven, and Sevier was elected governor once more.
The enmity between Jackson and Sevier came to a head when the two men met on the courthouse steps in Knoxville on October 1, 1803. After trading barbed comments, Sevier made an allusion to the scandal surrounding Jackson’s marriage to Rachel Donelson (it was unclear if she was, in fact, divorced from her first husband at the time of her marriage to Jackson). Jackson, ever quick to defend Rachel’s honor, invited Sevier to an "interview" (i. e., a duel). The following letter contains Sevier’s reply to Jackson’s challenge:
I am again perplexed with your scurrilous and poltroon language. You now pretend you want an interview in this neighborhood, this evening, or tomorrow morning!! And all this great readiness after you have been so repeatedly informed that I would not attempt a thing of the kind within the State of Tennessee. I have constantly informed you I would cheerfully wait on you in any other Quarter and that you had nothing to do but name the place and you should be accommodated. I am now constrained to tell you, that your conduct, during the whole of your pretended bravery, shows you to be a pitiful poltroon and coward, for your propositions are such as you and every other person of common understanding so well know is out of my power to accede too [sic], especially you a Judge!! Therefore the whole tenor of your pretended readiness is intended for nothing more than a cowardly evasion. Now Sir, if you wish the interview accept the proposal I have made you, and let us prepare for the campaign. I have a friend to attend me. I shall not receive another letter from you, as I deem you a coward.
Thomas Greer at His Father’s Grave
Thomas Greer photographed in clothing reminiscent of that his father, Joseph, wore when he announced the American victory in the 1780 Battle of King’s Mountain to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Joseph Greer was chosen to make the difficult journey to Philadelphia due to his skills in dealing with Native Americans, whose lands he had to cross.
Revolutionary War Land Grants
At the time of the Revolutionary War, areas like Tennessee were largely unsettled by European-Americans, containing only a few outlying forts and outposts. Upon fulfilling their terms of service, Revolutionary War soldiers received grants of land in frontier areas. Many of these veterans had formative roles in the expansion of the United States, including the founding and development of the state of Tennessee.
Land Grant of Anthony Bledsoe, 1779
Anthony Bledsoe participated in the French & Indian War
Putnam was a daring general and folk hero of the American Revolution. Though he never came to Tennessee, his exploits were popular enough that a county was named in his honor in 1842. Putnam’s grandson, Albigence Waldo Putnam, lived in Nashville and helped found the Tennessee Historical Society.
General James Winchester
Winchester fought in some of the earliest battles of the American Revolution and was captured at Staten Island in 1777. Upon his release he served under Nathaniel Greene until the war’s end. Winchester moved to the Tennessee region following the war and held numerous political posts, both for the territory and after statehood. After serving in the War of 1812, he returned to Tennessee and assisted in the planning for the city of Memphis. His home, Cragfont, is a historical landmark in Gallatin, Tennessee.
Letter from George Washington to Return Jonathan Meigs, Sr., 1780.
THS T-100 Collection
Section researched and written by James Castro, Archival Assistant, Will Thomas, Archival Assistant, and Kate Williams, Archival Assistant.