In Commemoration of Washington’s Birthday

George Washington’s Impact on the Revolutionary War in the South

One of the jewels of The Charleston Museum’s silver collection, George Washington’s christening cup, presented to 2-month-old George at the time of his Baptism, April 3, 1732.

On his tour of the southern states in 1791, President George Washington stayed at the townhouse of Thomas Heyward, Jr. during his weeklong stay in Charleston.  In the city’s lore, the house ever afterward was known as the Heyward-Washington House.  Even before becoming the first President of the United States, Washington had achieved mythic status in the eyes of Americans of the late eighteenth century, and his visit to Charleston was celebrated with great fanfare.  According to The City Gazette, when President Washington arrived in the city, he was received with ”shouts of joy and satisfaction,” cannons fired a salute, the bells of St. Michael’s chimed and ships in the harbor flew their colors.  Much has changed in 226 years.  If you asked the average American today to relate something about Washington other than that he was the first president, they would probably relate one of the following: he had wooden teeth; he chopped down the cherry tree; his face appears on the dollar bill.  Only one of these is true.  His false teeth were actually comprised of bone, hippopotamus ivory, and human teeth, and the cherry tree story comes to us from Parson Weems, an early Washington biographer, who embellished the story of Washington’s life to say the least.  Weems is also the author who gave us many of the fanciful accounts of Francis Marion.

Although this pitcher was produced twenty five years after Washington’s death to commemorate Lafayette’s visit to America in 1824, it demonstrates the tremendous regard that Charlestonians, like other Americans, had for the first president.

Washington was held in such high regard in his time because he was the symbol of the history-altering victory over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War that gave the United States its independence.  He commanded the Continental Army virtually the entire extent of the war, from June 15, 1775 until his resignation on December 23, 1783. Charlestonians and other southerners had particular reason to be grateful to Washington.  Even though he never led the main army south of the James River in Virginia, his impact on the war in the South was significant.  An unselfish leader, Washington recognized that the shifting theaters of the war against Britain required him to weaken his own army to bolster forces in the South.

Beginning in December 1778 when the British captured Savannah, they began to place greater emphasis on military operations in the South.  Having heard that loyalist sentiment was particularly strong there, they hoped to subdue the rebels with loyalist assistance and reinstate them in power.  With his forces understrength and sensing the coming onslaught, Major General Benjamin Lincoln, the American commander of the Southern Department, sent South Carolina’s Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens to consult with General Washington at his headquarters in New Jersey concerning the dire situation in the South in fall 1779.  Laurens was an excellent choice.  As a former aide-de-camp to Washington, he had been a member of his official military family and was therefore highly trusted by the commander in chief.

After consulting with Laurens, Washington wrote the Continental Congress that South Carolina and Georgia “are in a more defenseless condition than I had ever apprehended.”  The Congress had already requested that the North Carolina Continentals march to Lincoln’s army, but Washington now ordered the Virginia Continentals southward as well.  Receiving word that the British were planning a major attack on Charleston, he dispatched two Maryland brigades the following spring, which included some of the most seasoned soldiers in his army.  Altogether, the soldiers from these three states represented over 30% of Washington’s army.  He was clearly willing to make sacrifices for the common good.  Although most of the North Carolina and Virginia Continentals were captured in the Siege of Charleston, the Maryland troops fought in every major battle in the South, with the exception of Yorktown.

This coin, commemorating Washington’s inauguration as President, was found during an archaeological project at an 18th century James Island plantation.  Such mementoes were important means for citizens to celebrate the greatness of Washington.

Another significant contribution that Washington made to the war in the South was the appointment of Nathanael Greene as the commander of the Southern Department.  After Lincoln was captured at the fall of Charleston, the Continental Congress appointed Major General Horatio Gates to the southern command without consulting Washington.  Many thought Gates should be the commander in chief based on his success at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and the relationship between the two generals was not warm.  As fate would have it, British forces under Lord Cornwallis inflicted a disastrous defeat on Gates at the Battle of Camden in August 1780, causing him to be recalled.  This time, the Continental Congress deferred to Washington in the choice of a commander for the Southern Department.  His choice of Greene, a trusted and likeminded subordinate, changed the outcome of the war.

Washington most likely slept in the master bedroom during his stay in Thomas Heyward’s house.  With four windows, it was the best ventilated bedroom and thus the most comfortable.  The Heyward-Washington House is one of over 300 sites on the eastern seaboard that can claim “Washington slept here.”

Like Washington, Greene understood the success of the Revolution depended on preserving the patriot military forces.  During his campaigns in the South, he deftly countered the British Army under Cornwallis, fighting when he had the advantage and falling back when threatened.  The Maryland and Delaware Continentals dispatched by Washington were key to Greene’s success and comprised the backbone of his army.  Severely bloodying the British Army under Cornwallis at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, Greene retreated from the battle, suffering a tactical defeat but winning a strategic victory.  After chasing Greene across North Carolina and suffering nearly 600 casualties at Guilford, Cornwallis’s army was so tattered that he withdrew to the North Carolina coast.  From there, Cornwallis moved north to Virginia, establishing a position at Yorktown, where Washington’s army and French allies under Rochambeau trapped him and forced his surrender in October 1781.  Ultimately, the American victory caused British leadership to enter into peace terms and recognize American independence.  It was only fitting that the general whom Washington had selected to command in the South, Greene, had driven Cornwallis into this trap.

It should come as no surprise then that Washington was so haled as he traveled through the southern states in 1791.  During the Revolution, he had displayed excellent leadership, had been more than willing to make extreme sacrifices for the common good, and had the ability to recognize and appoint good commanders.  Next time you visit the Heyward-Washington House and walk the same halls that George Washington walked, reflect on this.  Such exceptional leadership and ability only comes around every 225 years or so.

-Carl P. Borick, Director